The Bronx has an iconic identity often associated with urban decay. As ever, such stereo-types are ahistorical and unbalanced. New York’s northern-most borough was once considered a desirable suburb, a heritage reflected in some of its grand architecture and layout. It’s also too big and populous for generalisations. 1.4 million people live there – twice as many as live in Washington DC. – but it does have some of the poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods in the country.
Part of the Bronx is currently in familiar crosshairs of the forces of urban change. ‘Cromwell-Jerome’ is a two-mile corridor, home to 7,000 households and 200 businesses, predominantly car workshops, that is being considered for ‘re-zoning’ i.e. a change of planning policy to enable a shift from industrial to residential use. This is part of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build 200,000 ‘affordable’ homes over ten years, an issue that is dominating community-level concerns in the city.
The parenial question is ‘What do they mean by affordable?’ The official definition here is 30% of income, but this seemingly simple equation is fraught with difficulties. I went to an excellent meeting last Thursday that discussed Cromwell-Jerome from the perspective of local residents’ daily lives, rather than the bureaucratic formulae of city planners.
The ‘affordable’ definition doesn’t work for lots of Bronx residents because they can’t find housing where the rent is only 30% of their income, which is significantly below the ‘area median income’ (another part of the affordability calculation). So, around Cromwell-Jerome, there is already an over-supply of housing at rents they can’t afford, thus driving them further into poverty, a pattern that is replicated in low-income neighbourhoods throughout the city.
The problem with this discussion is that it can very quickly descend into statistical complexity and theoretical abstraction (something that policy makers thrive on), but the attendance at Thursday’s meeting confirms that Bronx residents recognise an existential threat when they see one. There were over 100 people there, including about half who were union members concerned not just that redevelopment should provide decent housing that existing residents can afford, but also decent jobs. Local campaign groups are combining with unions to demand that re-zoning does not become the tool of gentrification and displacement seen elsewhere. One of the tactics they’re using in this ‘Parallel People’s Planning Process’ (the 4P’s – I’ve just coined that and hereby reserve the copyright!) is carrying out surveys of their neighbours. Some of the preliminary findings graphically illustrate what’s at stake:
- 90% of respondents fear re-zoning will lead to rent increases.
- 30% describe their current housing conditions as ‘terrible’, 0% as ‘good’.
- 33% have been taken to court by their landlord.
As one of the participants said:
‘I build some of these buildings, but I can’t afford to live in them.’
The main point of the book I’m going to write after this trip is that US and UK housing policy are converging around a neoliberal consensus that is forcing working class people either deeper into poverty, or out of the city. It was very heartening to be at a meeting where people were saying ‘NO!’
I leave New York with a heavy heart. Despite all the problems, it’s still the ultimate city. But I’m off to Chicago.