A group of esteemed sociologists, professors, elected officials, writers and community activists gathered Wednesday evening at BRIC Media Arts House for a town hall discussion on a topic that is on everybody’d lips these days: gentrification.
The event, entitled, “Brooklyn for Sale: The Price of Gentrification,” was the third town hall BRIC has hosted– the first two were on race, policing and civil rights. It was a live broadcast, and the house was packed!
Brooklyn Independent Media Host Brian Vines moderated the panel of esteemed guest which included Jherelle Benn of the Flatbush Tenant Association, Neil deMause, author of The Brooklyn Wars: The Stories Behind the Remaking of New York’s Most Populous Borough, City Councilmember Robert Cornegy, Urban Planner and Pratt Professor Ron Shiffman, Juan Ramos, director Affordable Housing Preservation and Sharon Zukin, sociology professor at Brooklyn College.
NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer made a brief appearance to open the town hall discussion, pointing to the various studies his office has conducted and published over the past year about New York City’s shifting demographic and rapidly changing skyline.
“The 400,000 units of affordable housing lost over the last 12 years tells us we have a housing crisis that must be dealt with,” said Stringer. “Change must begin with community-based planning. Let’s start organizing and stop agonizing.”
So, what is gentrification? Is the definition flexible depending upon who’s affected? If it means different things to different people, how should it be addressed? Should it now be considered a civil rights issue? On June 15, the current rent laws protecting affordable housing are set to expire, what should we do next?
Those questions and more were raised as Vines volleyed questions and solicited responses from the panelists.
What is Gentrification? What are the Causes?
Answers varied and overlapped in motive and accountability, starting with either race, money, power or politics:
Race– when white people come into a neighborhood with no regard for the existing residents (predominantly people of color) and take over the neighborhood; Money– when those interested in making money collude with others who have more money to make way for more people to make more money; Politics– a failure of laws that regulate unwieldy outside speculators (including international investors) and housing developers; Power– deliberate patterns of neighborhood disinvestment and reinvestment as a means of land grabbing.
“The system is the enemy, not the people,” said Benn. “Because systems allow it to happen.”
Ramos went further by tying “systems” to the failure of the city’s elected officials to act: “At the end of the day, it is elected officials who we elect and are supposed to fight for our rights who then come back and smile in our face saying ‘We tried our best.'”
But Zukin said much of the blame can be found at the feet of residents: “People are reconstructing the culture of a neighborhood. So the enemy is us, although ‘us’ may be five college students who are paying together rent that others may not be able to afford.”
DeMause agreed that landlord preferences were indeed leaning towards a more younger, student population and away from families. He pointed to a young woman he recently spoke to who had lived in Bushwick for 20 years. She was ready to move out of her current apartment but wanted to move to another part of the neighborhood. She said, although she and her husband could still afford the rising cost of housing in the area, she said no one would rent to her because she had children.
However, despite the divergent opinions amongst the panelists of gentrification’s greatest causes and worst effects, most agreed that at the end of the day, it all came down to money and who had the most of it.
“If anybody should be in trial, it should be the capitalist system,” said Cornegy. “We’re unfortunately in a reactionary position where it doesn’t serve the city very well.”
Is Gentrification now a Civil Rights Issue?
“Yes,” answered Benn, “because tenant rights as human beings are being infringed upon; their children are being affected because landlords are doing whatever it takes to get people out who’ve live there for decades.”
How do You Fight Gentrification?
“The first thing you have to do is protect the affordable housing,” said Cornegy, who serves on the Committee for Housing and Buildings. He pointed out that he represents and is a resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood undergoing an aggressive spate of gentrification. And he pointed to legislation that he has helped write that will incentivize landlords to keep their units affordable.
“What we’ve seen is an influx of capital to influence campaign turnouts. We must look at who are the major players in shaping development,” Cornegy added.
“We need a new form of rent protection,” said Shiffman. “In the 60s and 70s, people organized to make sure banks disclosed where they are lending. We need to review the Federal Fair Housing Act and begin getting regulators to look at those banks who are feeding the speculators. We’ve got to start thinking a little more creatively and more dramatically.”
“There needs to be more transparency,” said Ramos. “Bad rezoning leads to developers building segregated neighborhoods. We need to be more vigilant with some of our city agencies, such as HBCD.”
But Shiffman added, city officials and municipal agencies can only do so much: “A state legislature needs to be more accountable; it’s not the city so much. We need to figure out ways of breaking down the federal and state governments to address our issues on a city level. Otherwise, we’re just talking.”
Is there a such thing as ‘Ethical Gentrification?’
“Taxing Airbnb and foreign investments; they need regulation,” said Shiffman.
“Get developers to give back to the community,’ said Ramos. “There needs to be more transparency.”
“I think most people don’t want to be in a battle for a rent-controlled apartment,” said Cornegy. “Most people just want their salary to match their expenses, something that allows them to be productive people and pay their way– a means for communities to become stabilized and grow.”
Audience members were given the second half of the two-hour discussion to ask questions of the panel. Overall the conversation dug deep. And if gentrification were a large tree with many branches, the town hall certainly uncovered a lot of its roots.
The conversation on gentrification will continue at BRIC through public affairs and arts programming. You can view photos from the event on their Facebook page, read our Storify highlights from the night and watch the live broadcast in its entirety here.
BRIC will be hosting more town halls in the future and wants to know which issues matter to you. Please let share your desired topics for upcoming town halls here.
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