Development Without Gentrification?

The Rockaway Peninsula is one of New York City’s (NYC) last undeveloped frontiers. The acquisition of formerly citizen-owned property and the rezoning laws passed in 2017 laid the foundation for the eminent economic growth of NYC’s farthest urban area. With the introduction of hundreds of new affordable housing units and the promise of thousands on the way as well as viable commercial businesses, low-income Rockaway neighborhoods are on the cusp of crawling out of fiscal abandonment. While this development is marketed as advantageous for Rockaway, many lower-income residents fear the possibility of gentrification—a phenomenon which has plagued many of NYC neighborhoods, such as East Harlem.

What is Gentrification?

Gentrification is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.” In practical terms, gentrification has manifested itself as the economically-driven forced removal of the working class and poor (generally Black, Brown, and Asian) for the benefit of the middle and upper classes who are often overwhelmingly White. In places such as East Harlem, a historically LatinX neighborhood, affluent citizens slowly expanded outward from their own wealthy sections of town and began renting in the poorer areas of Harlem. This happened in tandem with the opening of new commercial businesses in the area such as Whole Foods and Trader Joes. Once this began, the market rate rent prices of Harlem increased, so when previously established residents (the LatinX community) tried to renew their leases, they found that the new rent prices were unaffordable. The economic development of East Harlem led to a story of gentrification that can be seen over and over again throughout NYC and the whole country. East Harlem today can be described as an up and coming bustling economy with a variety of food and retail consumer options. However, this urban revitalization came at the cost of residents who had lived in the area for decades and are now displaced. As Rockaway looks to a new future focused on development, those who have lived in the area for their entire lives are right to question if this path is beneficial for their future. However, development does not have to necessarily result in gentrification and luckily, community leaders and citizens of Rockaway are adamant about not allowing their neighborhood to be the next East Harlem, and the city government, thus far, has obliged.

Steps for Development Without Gentrification

1. Active Resident Involvement:

This step is the most important and is a necessary prerequisite for all steps that follow. Gentrification always plays out in racist and classist ways under the guise of community revitalization. The reality is that people with more social, political, and economic capital (usually wealthy White people) are the ones who control how a neighborhood is zoned and what types of residential areas and commercial industries are built. However, areas that are most susceptible to gentrification, like Far Rockaway and Edgemere, are composed primarily of people of color and low/middle income families. There is power in numbers and we must use our majority to secure a seat at the table. It is necessary for us to demand to be involved in all conversations around new development and for residents to show up to all meetings open to the community.

2. Demand Local Hires:

Every new development that enters a community is a great opportunity for both short and long-term job creation. However, this only happens when the community demands that locals are hired for jobs rather than people from other parts of NYC. Further, we must ask for access to more than just entry-level or minimum wage positions. Positions in management or executive branches should be open to all competitive applicants within Rockaway’s most disadvantaged communities rather than simply filled with outsiders from affluent neighborhoods.

3. Local Business Property Ownership:

A common concern when encountering development is that an influx of affluent residents will push out local businesses. The introduction of new larger businesses and the subsequent competition they produce in terms of property ownership causes market prices for property and rent to skyrocket. As a result, when the local store fronts try to renew their leases they find that they can no longer afford to pay the market price. One way to combat the erasure of local businesses while also continuing to stimulate Rockaway’s economy is to encourage local businesses to own rather than rent their properties. This insulates them from the volatility of NYC’s renters market.

4. Affordable Housing:

When developers come into a community, gentrification is almost inevitable if the community does not involve itself in the development process. Similar to the way local businesses can be pushed out when outside companies come in and cause market rates to rise, residents of Rockaway can see their rents rise when affluent people move into their community and can afford higher rents. Residents of Rockaway must leverage their voting and tax paying power to demand adequate and long lasting affordable housing so that members of the community cannot be pushed out by fluctuating market prices.

5. Community Land Trust:

This has proven to be one of the best ways to preserve affordable housing, fight gentrification, and build community wealth. A community land trust (CLT) is a nonprofit, community based organization that allows the community to own and control a piece of property. The CLT can be used for anything the community desires, such as affordable housing. Because this property is owned by the CLT, the rent prices are never affected by market rates and can stay affordable for the community as long as the property is owned by the CLT. This preserves affordable housing and moreover, the CLT eventually allows the community to gain wealth off of the affordable rent that is charged.

6. Use Your Vote: While seemingly unrelated, voting is an important step for preventing displacement. First, city, state, and government officials are the deciding factor when it comes to choosing what projects get funding. Therefore, it is important to elect officials who not only agree with, but also will act on principles that are important to residents

The Good News for Rockaway

The upcoming affordable housing projects in Rockaway show a promising future for development throughout the peninsula. The direction that these initiatives have taken thus far is one of revitalizations without local resident displacement. Community leaders have insisted that building an economy will come as a benefit not as a cost to the people of color and low income individuals who have been in this community longer than any developer has even thought about it. In fact, District 31 Councilman Donovan Richards asserted “[W]e’re not going to gentrify my community.” Councilman Richards has done a substantial amount of work on community land trusts in the past. Further, Rockway’s citizen leaders and nonprofits have made sure to involve themselves in the conversation around the upcoming developments and done their best to represent the myriad of community perspectives and concerns. The upcoming Edgemere project appears to be on the right track as a great resource for the community, and if we stay united, we will be able to materialize development without being displaced by the forces of gentrification.