The City is Ours, if We Take It: Breaking Up With Neo-liberal Politicians

(To preface this article, we reiterate our support for the LIC Coalition’s demands and petition, which can be viewed here: https://www.change.org/p/city-elected-officials-save-the-waterfront-this-land-is-our-land-public-land-for-public-use. However, below, we outline our serious concerns related to the involvement of Jimmy Van Bramer in today’s protest.)

This afternoon (3/3/18) Big Real Estate’s beloved Jimmy Van Bramer will be headlining a rally to protest the giveaway of public land to private developers in Long Island City. His act of doing so will be steeped in the most palpable hypocrisy – on a soapbox, the politician will be enveloped by skyscrapers and development projects that he himself helped conceive of and promote. With luxury condos surrounding Saturday’s “This Land is Our Land” protest, let those present recall that Jimmy Van Bramer was hailed a champion of the LIC BID, received the most donations of any city council candidate (of which over $100,000 from Big Real Estate), was complicit in the destruction of 5-Pointz, is a staunch supporter of the BQX, among many other unforgivable positions.

Many of the developers who own skyscrapers in LIC donated repeatedly to Van Bramer, who, in turn, helped facilitate their development.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

One might wonder why such a stalwart supporter of Big Real Estate has agreed to speak at this protest. The answer simply comes down to opportunism: Van Bramer, a standard middle-of-the-road Democrat, no more “progressive” than De Blasio or Hillary Clinton, and just as neo-liberal, has had his left-wing persona damaged by groups who have fought to bring his record to light. Following his failed City Council Speaker bid and his subsequent announcement that he will be running for Queens Borough President, the politician seeks to reestablish himself as a leader of the “#resistance” and cement support from neighborhood groups going forward. Therefore, after an enormous community effort, he has chosen to support this one cause. But at what price?

Accidentally Selling Out Your Neighbors

In short: The mere presence of Jimmy Van Bramer is an affront to the work so many have done and to all those who are currently getting priced-out and displaced because of his policies.

Politicians, especially ones with Jimmy Van Bramer’s record, do not do things out of the goodness of their heart. Each move is calculated, with contingencies and hidden clauses, all arranged to promote their political career. If Jimmy Van Bramer was true to his word, he would call for a city-wide ban on the giveaway of public land to private developers (he won’t – remember, he voted for the Bedford-Union Armory deal). If Jimmy Van Bramer were really here for his constituents, he would fight for 100% low-income PUBLIC housing, not De Blasio’s public/private partnership through MIH/ZQA. If Jimmy Van Bramer was a champion of “#queensvalues”, as he proclaims to be, he would have adamantly rejected the BQX (aka the Gentrification Express) long ago.

If Jimmy Van Bramer was true to his word, he would call for a city-wide ban on the giveaway of public land to private developers (he won’t – remember, he voted for the Bedford-Union Armory deal). If Jimmy Van Bramer were really here for his constituents, he would fight for 100% low-income PUBLIC housing, not De Blasio’s public/private partnership through MIH/ZQA. If Jimmy Van Bramer was a champion of “#queensvalues”, as he proclaims to be, he would have adamantly rejected the BQX (aka the Gentrification Express) long ago.

The dangers of allowing Jimmy Van Bramer to headline any rally related to land use, displacement or gentrification is two-fold: first, when the time comes, he will call in his debts. Secondly, and more importantly, it comes at the price of potentially accidentally selling out your neighbors. For example, Jimmy Van Bramer has promised that Queens NYCHA developments will not get privatized through Next Generation NYCHA, but what about our friends in the Bronx, Harlem or Brooklyn? As a City Council member, does he not owe it to all NYC residents to push for fair and just housing policy, not just for those who’s votes he conveniently needs? Another example: many have been fighting for Jimmy Van Bramer to reject the BQX, a position he has declined to take. How does allowing Jimmy Van Bramer to headline a rally related to gentrification help other causes that are just as important? Instead of collectively strengthening our position, giving Jimmy Van Bramer a platform does the exact opposite.

Reforms Not Reformism

Queens Anti-Gentrification Project endorses the idea of “reforms without reformism”, meaning that we refuse to work alongside those politicians we see so clearly are our enemies. Instead, we strongly believe that neighborhood groups must come together, independent of politicians, and fight for and demand certain reforms that are so desperately needed – and to do so from a position of strength and solidarity. By remaining independent, politicians can either listen to or reject our demands, which is their alleged job anyway.

History has proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that working alongside neo-liberal Democrats consistently leads down a road that gives them the upper hand. Its time we reject this path and build our own power.

If you are tired of working with politicians like Jimmy Van Bramer and believe in the need for independent grassroots groups and civic engagement, please feel free to get in contact.

If you want to read more about Jimmy Van Bramer’s record, you can check out our other blog posts here.

We demand a city-wide ban on the give away of public land!

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Triple Threat Letter to Jimmy Van Bramer

Dear Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer:

We are writing this letter to give voice to hundreds of neighbors, small businesses, community board members, and other local stakeholders within our district who are deeply concerned about the future of their communities and who signed a petition urging you to oppose a “triple-threat.”

Every year, it is becoming increasingly unaffordable to live in District 26. As West Queens is experiencing a large building boom, rents and home prices have skyrocketed. In Long Island City, which is now the fastest growing neighborhood in the country, an average one-bedroom now costs $3,237. These high rents not only make it hard for LIC residents to stay but also pressure surrounding neighborhoods. As just one example, in Sunnyside, this past summer, a home sold for a record $1.9 million.

Beyond soaring property values, the overdevelopment of our neighborhoods has also paid a heavy toll on our infrastructure and environment: our subway lines are highly congested (with the 7 train being one of the worst offenders in the city) our schools are some of the most overcrowded city wide; our neighborhoods have some of the highest shortages of park space in the city; and our waterfront is endangered by overdevelopment.

This development did not happen by accident, or by the so-called “free-market;” the destruction of our neighborhoods is the direct result of irresponsible planning and public policies that favor luxury real estate developers and those with capital over everyone else. Specifically, these include the 421-a tax abatement that gives tax breaks to the largest luxury developers in LIC like Tishman Speyer and Rockrose, and rezonings for higher density which significantly enriched these same developers by allowing them to build super-tall residential towers that rival Manhattan. This not only includes neighborhood rezonings like the ones we have seen in LIC, but also spot rezonings, like the one you approved to allow the Wolkoff brothers to tear down Five Pointz and replace it with a luxury residential development.

As if this weren’t enough, we have learned that the Mayor has plans to encourage even more development in our communities—development that we know will not be affordable for low-income, or even middle-income New Yorkers. Specifically, he has planned a triple-threat, which if collectively passed would drastically change the future of West Queens. These include:

The BQX Trolley is a private trolley that would run along the waterfront in  Astoria, Queens and run through Long Island City all the way to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, displacing low-income residents and businesses along its entire stretch. This proposal may be in the “planning” phase, but we know enough about the plan to know that we do not need a luxury trolley in our neighborhoods. The plan’s financing is based on a value capture model—which is a euphemism for raising property values all along the waterfront, to be recaptured and help pay for the operations. Furthermore, as explained by Hunter Professor Sam Stein in the recent documentary, The Gentrification Express: Breaking Down the BQX, and a leaked confidential memo from the Mayor Bill de Blasio’s BQX advisory team to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, we have learned that even the $2.5 billion will not be enough to cover the costs, which are likely to far exceed this amount and come out of our tax dollars. This money could be much better used to address our existing 7 train issues, adding new bus routes to transit desserts, and improving “Access-A-Ride” car services that have dismally failed our most vulnerable seniors and neighbors with disabilities.

The Sunnyside Yards, where the city plans to build a new neighborhood that would comprise mostly of luxury housing. Earlier this year, the city released a feasibility study with various development scenarios. In every scenario, market-rate housing far outweighed any affordable housing or community use. At this early stage, the study predicts that this development could cost as much as $19 billion—that is $19 billion that could be put to much better use, such as covering the severe capital gap in NYCHA public housing, and investing in true low-income housing.

The Long Island City Core rezoning is the city’s plan to encourage more mixed-use, commercial development in LIC. While additional commercial space for existing, Queens-based small businesses and affordable studios would be desirable, given the already high density of LIC, we know that these new spaces will not be affordable. The city also claims that the rezoning would require developers to build additional “affordable units” through the Mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) plan. These additional units would be minimal as developers already have significant incentives through programs like ‘Affordable Housing New York’ which provides a 35-year tax break in exchange for building some “affordable units” in neighborhoods like LIC. We also know that units built through MIH are truly not affordable, as they are for households making an average of 60% of the area median income (approx. $50,000 for a household of three), and can also be for households making well over $100,000.

Furthermore, we are deeply concerned with the planning process itself, which to date has minimized resident participation, with minimal notice given to community residents and discussion formats that limit participation. In fact, during a recent planning meeting, residents were only able to present their thoughts after they demanded a town-hall format and seized the microphone from city planners.

During that town-hall, residents agreed: the only rezoning that should be considered in LIC is a downzoning to correct the mistakes of the past.

We are directing this these concerns to you, because while these proposals may come from the Mayor’s office, all three of these developments will eventually come to you for a vote. We also know that in cases where multiple Council Members are involved (such as the BQX proposal), you wield influence as the majority leader. The real estate industry has much to gain from your votes, and so we were not surprised to see that you raised nearly half a million dollars in campaign contributions–even while running unopposed. That is also why we were not surprised to find through our research (which was confirmed by an independent investigation by City Limits) that you are a top recipient of real estate money, accepting the most real estate dollars, second only to Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito.

 

We have heard you say that you are “concerned” about the triple-threat, and that these campaign contributions you have received from Luxury Real Estate Developers do not influence your decisions. If that is the case, we want you to put those words into action, specifically by challenging the Mayor and openly opposing these developments that will further destroy our communities.

We have also heard you say that these plans are too early in the planning stages, that action will come later, but we know that this is false. Once any of these plans make it to the city’s formal review process, Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), it will be extremely difficult for residents to influence the final outcomes, which are ultimately decided by the city, and voted on by you, our councilman. That is why Sunset Park residents (successfully) demanded that Council Member Menchaca withdraw his support from the BQX (he now admits that “the BQX is predicated on having a successfully gentrified neighborhood”) and that is why we are calling on you to stop the triple-threat now.

We are also collectively calling on you to fight for full funding of NYCHA public housing, which suffers from a $17 billion capital deficit as well as a city-wide rent freeze. We learned that you have called for a “city-wide rent freeze” in your re-election campaign platform, but we have yet to hear anything from you about how you plan to implement one across all residential and commercial units. Now that you have used this platform to win, we demand to know what is your plan to make this a reality for Queens residents who are in desperate need of housing protections.

To date, over 800 neighbors have joined us in signing a petition, calling on you to oppose these developments. These signatures have been collected collaboratively by Queens neighbors and grassroots groups including: Democratic Socialists of America – Queens Branch; Peoples Power Assemblies; Queens Anti Gentrification Project; Queens Is Not For Sale; and SPARC (Serve the People – Awaken Revolutionary Consciousness). Please find the paper signatures attached to the email, along with these additional online signatures.

This petition is only the beginning. For as long as these developments threaten our communities, we will continue to do the work of informing our neighbors and organizing with them to hold you, and all those in power accountable to do the right thing for the future of our families, neighbors and beloved communities.

Sincerely,

Queens Neighbors

Queens Anti Gentrification Project
Queens Is Not For Sale
SPARC
Democratic Socialists of America – Queens
Peoples Power Assemblies

Long Island City does not Need a Vertical ‘Country-Club’ on Public Land

Originally published on CityLimits.org: https://citylimits.org/2017/10/12/cityviews-long-island-city-does-not-need-a-vertical-country-club-on-public-land/

There’s something different about the newest luxury towers planned for Long Island City’s waterfront. The private developer, TF Cornerstone, has already developed 6 waterfront LIC properties, but this time, it plans to build on public, city-owned land—one of the few remaining parcels in Long Island City.

Earlier this year, the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC) announced its selection of TF Cornerstone to redevelop the public site. Considering that Mayor de Blasio has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from private developers, including TF Cornerstone, the “carrots” offered in this deal for Queens residents should be considered with a generous grain of salt:

  • 250 units of affordable housing: The so-called “affordable” units will be out of reach for truly low-income residents—and even these units will make up only 25 percent of the total 1,000 residential units that will be primarily luxury housing. The inclusion of affordable housing is not a gift; but rather, the bare minimum requirement for TF Cornerstone to qualify for 35-year tax breaks.
  • Approx. one-acre park with canoe and kayak launch point: This park will not relieve the shortage of green space as it would primarily serve as a backyard for the new luxury towers which alone will house 1,000 new households.
  • Public school: Again, this project will not relieve the overcrowding of LIC schools as it will simultaneously bring in 1,000 new households. More households means more children who need schools.
  • Thousands of new jobs: The lead selling point for this project is that it would create 4,000 jobs; however, more than half of the jobs (2,500) will be temporary construction jobs.
  • New industrial space: Finally, the crowning jewel of the project is industrial space managed by a nonprofit organization. However, this “affordable” industrial component actually makes up less than 10 percent of the massive 515,000 square feet of industrial, commercial, and retail space that TF Cornerstone plans to build—and profit from.

What would another TF Cornerstone development look like?

TF Cornerstone has already developed numerous towers including the 4540 Center Boulevard building right next to the proposed redevelopment site. These developments include tennis courts, sand volleyball courts, billiards, theater, gyms and more —an intentional design to ensure residents circulate disposable income and time within their building, rather than walking the actual neighborhood where they might support existing local businesses.

Our residents can indulge in a country-club-like atmosphere without leaving their own street,” bragged Sofia Estevez, TF Cornerstone’s executive vice president, in a recent statement.

As City Limits has previously reported, over 95 percent of all recent Long Island City developments have been market rate housing (read: unaffordable), so it is hard to imagine that the neighborhood truly needs another country club—let alone one that is built with public support.

Yes, Queens residents need new jobs, parks and affordable housing – but we can in fact achieve these goals without luxury housing. There are dozens of nonprofit developers across NYC that would readily seize the opportunity to develop true community space and affordable housing, if they weren’t always overlooked by the city for private developers like TF Cornerstone, Jonathan Rose Companies and L&M Developer Partners.

Can this project be stopped? – YES!

The public site is zoned for manufacturing use and therefore a luxury residential tower cannot be built as-of-right. To change the zoning, the project will have to go through the formal community review process, the Uniform Land Review Process (ULURP). Once in ULURP, the project will require an advisory vote from the community board’s land use committee and full board. And most importantly, it will require a vote from City Council, which almost always defers to the local City Council Member.

In other words, if Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer opposes this project, it is dead.

Only a few months ago, Crown Heights residents succeeded in convincing their local Council Woman and Borough President to oppose a similar project in Brooklyn where the same agency, EDC, sought to privatize another public site, the Brooklyn-Union Armory. In that project, at least 50 percent of the rentals and 20 percent of the condos would be affordable, but Crown Heights residents wouldn’t be sold short. They mobilized and organized, and successfully pressured their local elected officials who are now calling for nothing short of a 100 percent affordable project. We can do the same in Queens.

Hundreds of residents have already signed onto an LIC Coalition petition against the TF Cornerstone project, and as more residents learn about this public land give-away to a “country-club” developer, this movement will only grow.

Response to Mitch Waxman

This is a reponse to Mitch Waxman’s critique of our recent op-ed at City Limits: We Have to Talk About Gentrification in Long Island City.  Mitch’s response is located below the original article.

Queens Anti-Gentrification Project is well aware of the infrastructure issues plaguing our neighborhoods. We are concerned with infrastructure. However, the op-ed we wrote for City Limits does not mention infrastructure. What the op-ed deals with, very specifically, is the financial influence of the real estate industry on city politics, income inequality, and most importantly – the displacement of human beings from their homes and livelihoods.

Why, then, is Mitch Waxman’s response attempting to reframe the discussion in terms of infrastructure? Why does the response ignore our main points and accuse us of “painting” Jimmy Van Bramer as a villain?  We quoted Jimmy Van Bramer verbatim from a real estate conference appearance, and we invite all readers to watch the video themselves.  We aren’t “painting” anything.  We’re merely stating facts:

Jimmy Van Bramer took over $100k in campaign donations from real estate, he frequently speaks at real estate conferences, he has consistently spoken publicly in favor of luxury development in his district, and he refuses to take concrete action to prevent mass displacement. None of these facts are being contested, so if these are the attributes of a villain, then perhaps Mitch Waxman is asking the wrong question.

As for the mentality that more luxury development is inevitable – the result of a “population explosion” – this is precisely the type of myth we were trying to debunk in the first place.  It is not inevitable, it’s a result of public policy and city planning, and we will do everything we can to stop it.

URGENT UPDATE: Solidarity With Louis Flores!

 

Background Info On Louis’ Case

 

Louis’s Landlord is Rosalind Spodek, the widow of Leonard “Dracula Landlord” Spodek. Louis’s Landlord still does business with Herbert Donner, Dracula Landlord’s former business partner. Together, they run ADI Management, which has been the target of an unrelated Federal civil rights complaint, and they manage apartment buildings that have been in the news over allegations of violations that have caused at least one death.All across New York City, Housing Court is exploited as a tool that Landlords use to cause displacement of long-term tenants. Join us, as we stand together against unscrupulous Landlords

Louis’s Landlord began the nonpayment case after the Landlord refused to cash one month’s rent check and before Louis paid the next month’s rent. Refusing to cash rent checks as a pretense to sue tenants is against the law, but no regulator holds unscrupulous Landlords accountable for such violating tenants’ civil rights. The Landlord now wants to collect legal fees from Louis after the Landlord was responsible for prolonging the Court case by denying Louis key documents he needed, included a copy of his renewal Lease. At this court hearing, the judge will decide whether Louis will be made to pay legal fees to the Landlord’s attorney, even though they played a role in dragging out this Housing Court case. The Landlord is demanding over $5,000 in legal fees. This is so unfair.

Because the Landlord commenced the rent collection petition based on a false pretense, for other legal misconduct (like never serving the Rent Demand as required by law), and for never having made repairs that were revealed in Court filings, the Landlord should not collect any legal fees.

The judge, who will hear the motion on Tuesday, is Queens Housing Court Supervising Judge John Lansden. Judge Lansden has been described as “pro-Landlord.” By joining us on Tuesday, you can bear witness to way that Judge Lansden runs his courtroom. We need to make sure that Judge Lansden does not get another term as a Housing Court judge. Louis has blogged about his Housing Court case, and you can read more about how Judge Lansden has acted to benefit the Landlord : https://beforeitsgone.co/stories/PYHRYz.

We have to build up a network to support all Queens residents, who get dragged into Queens Housing Court by unscrupulous Landlords.

Time to Put the Brakes on De Blasio’s BQX Trolley Plan

According to newly released documentary, Gentrification Express, it’s time to put the brakes once and for all on the BQX trolley plan.

In 2016, Mayor de Blasio announced a proposal for an above-ground streetcar that would link Brooklyn and Queens, following the trend to use trolleys to promote tourism and real estate development from Portland to Washington D.C.  The Brooklyn Queens Connector (known as the BQX) would link 10 neighborhoods along a 15 mile route stretching from Astoria, Queens to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. De Blasio and private real estate developers, represented by the “Friends of the BQX,” extoll the trolley as a model public-private partnership that would create jobs and bridge two boroughs as they are experiencing a development boom along the waterfront.

Local elected officials, including City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer have lined up behind the Mayor: “Mayor de Blasio’s forward thinking proposal promises to provide more Queens and Brooklyn residents with a new reliable transit option,” said Jimmy Van Bramer in 2016 press release. The Mayor has also recruited NYCHA tenant leaders, and most recently, the Transit Workers Union to support the plan (read our open letter to the TWC here).

But not everyone is enamored with the Mayor’s shiny new project. Still in its planning phase, the BQX is facing significant opposition from planning and transit experts, as well as grassroots organizations and residents who fear that the BQX will cause more harm than good in communities that are already facing significant displacement pressures. The Gentrification Express documentary captures these concerns through interviews and analysis, highlighting three key reasons New Yorkers shouldn’t be so quick to jump aboard the BQX:

1. The BQX is too damn expensive.

Though privately operated, the BQX would not come free to the city. The Friends of the BQX project that the trolley will cost about $2.5 billion in tax payer dollars to build. This in itself is no small sum, but according to Hunter Professor Samuel Stein, the actual construction price could be even higher. He explains that a common strategy for developers is to low-ball project costs because once construction is underway with tax-payer dollars, no one will oppose putting in the extra dollars to see it through the finish line.

The costs don’t end with construction. The Friends of the BQX claim that the project will pay for itself through a strategy called “value-capture.” This financing strategy relies on the assumption that development will spur property tax increases along the route, and that these increases can be redirected into the operations costs. However, even a leaked city memo to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen points out that value capture won’t come close to covering the high costs. In other words, tax payers would end up covering most of the operations costs—and it will be expensive, particularly since the BQX route passes through FEMA-designated flood zones. “If a disaster like [Hurricane Sandy] happens again and the BQX flops the city is going to pay for that… and that’s coming out of our tax money,” said Sunset Park resident Antoinette Martinez.

2. The BQX’s primary purpose is to spur luxury real estate development.

MTA-Underserved Neighborhoods.jpg
The MTA has identified 9 neighborhoods most underserved by public transportation and none of them are along the BQX route. Taken from: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/intro_to_brt_phase2.pdf

In a recent report, the MTA identified 9 densely populated neighborhoods that are one half mile or further from public transportation. Strangely, the BQX doesn’t run through any of these neighborhoods. According to Sam Stein, that’s because the BQX’s main purpose isn’t to fix transit deserts—it is part of a larger strategy to catalyze luxury real estate development along the waterfront. According to the documentary, there are at least 10 developers with heavy real estate interests along the route. The NY Post has found that BQX-backing developers have contributed significantly to the de Blasio campaign.

“A lot of developers see the Brooklyn Queens waterfront as the gold coast, and it is for them. They come out and say it. The Jamestown Properties owners say, ‘We want another Williamsburg waterfront in Sunset Park… they’re not hiding what they want,” said Jenny Dubnau, a Long Island City-based artist.

bqx-trolley-developers.jpg
Documentary screenshot shows 10 major developers with significant real estate interests along the BQX Route (top to bottom): Durst Organization, Alma Realty, Tishman Speyer, Park Tower Group, Brookfield Properties, Two Trees, Steiner Studios, RAL Development, Toll Brothers and Jamestown Properties.

3. The BQX will lead to displacement of renters and manufacturing businesses.

The greatest concern expressed by advocates in the documentary is the fear that the BQX will push up property taxes, which in turn, will raise rents and displace low income New Yorkers.

“We are really being pushed out of this community… And that’s not fair. Why should we have to move out of the community we was raised in to go to someplace new when we’ve been here all our lives?” said Sylvia White, a NYCHA resident and leader of the Justice for All Coalition which opposes the BQX.

Renters are not the only ones concerned. According to Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE, the BQX also threatens the displacement of manufacturing jobs in communities like Sunset Park that is one of the largest live-work communities in NYC. Once the BQX is built, it will become much more lucrative for developers to choose residential over manufacturing developments.

What is an alternative to the BQX?

There’s one thing that BQX advocates and its opponents agree on: Queens and Brooklyn can benefit from improved transportation options. But according to Sam Stein, you don’t need a streetcar to have a fast moving mode of public transportation. The solution is an improved bus system that extends bus routes, and gives buses priority on streets so that they aren’t gridlocked in car traffic. While not as sexy as a new streetcar, express buses would provide the same commuting benefits, for only a fraction of the price—and no gentrification would be caused.

Watch the full documentary, Gentrification Express, for free here. This documentary is produced by NYC-based filmmakers Samantha Farinella and Amanda Katz.

Take Action:

  • Sign this petition and demand that Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer say no to the luxury trolley that would run through his district
  • Contact your local City Council Member to share your concerns and demand their opposition to the BQX Trolley. View this map to see if your district is along the BQX route.
  • Organize against the BQX. If Queens-based, contact us at queensantigentrification@gmail.com to find out how to get involved. If you are based in Brooklyn, connect with a local organization such as UPROSE (click here to view their transportation justice page).

Learn more:

Jimmy Van Bramer’s Big Real Estate Problem

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer claims to be part of the “resistance.”  After the last presidential election, he led a march across the Queensboro bridge to protest Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.  He then held a “resistance” town hallJimmy Van Bramer’s track record, however, makes these activities and claims hard to take seriously. A recent analysis of campaign contributions conducted by Queens Anti-Gentrification Project reveals that the Council Member received at least $106,834 from sources related to real estate for the 2017 campaign cycle.  We also found that Van Bramer has appeared as keynote speaker at multiple real estate conferences in Long Island City.

“his campaign received at least $106,834 from sources related to real estate, with 16 donors who sit on the boards of the Long Island City Business Improvement District and Long Island City Partnership”

Donations
Queens Anti-Gentrification Project completed an analysis of donations received by Van Bramer’s re-election campaign as of June 8th, 2017. We found that his campaign received at least $106,834 from sources related to real estate, with 11 donors who sit on the boards of the Long Island City Business Improvement District and Long Island City Partnership, the organizations leading the charge of luxury development in Long Island City. In total, Van Bramer is reporting that he has raised almost half a million dollars – more than almost every other Queens candidate – and is still continuing to fundraise. The full list of donations can be found here.

The $106,834 figure is an estimate based on research of available data; however, the actual number may be higher.  It is impossible to identify many contributors due to increasingly lax campaign finance laws regarding the collection of donor information.  Our research methodology included: a line by line analysis of every donor (as of June 8th, 2017), then summing up donations from developers, brokers, land use lawyers, architects, and family members of these individuals and entities. If it was unclear whether a donation was made by someone connected to real estate interests, research on that individual’s name was carried out. If a matching name was discovered that clearly had links to the real estate industry, they were then included in this analysis along with a link to the website which implicates them.  In several instances, we discovered that names or employer names had misspellings.  We believe this may have been done intentionally. For example, the spelling of David Wolkoff’s name (misspelled Walkoff), or the spelling of the law firm Davis Polk and Wardwell (misspelled David Polk & Wordwell).

Below are a few highlights of real estate related campaign contributions:

  1. The Wolkoff family: $6,500 from David & Gerald Wolkoff, owners of the former 5Pointz graffiti mecca which was destroyed despite community opposition and recently replaced with a pair of high rise towers.  Stephanie Wolkoff also chipped in $2750.  In previous election cycles Van Bramer received close to an additional $8,000 from this same family. (Some of this money was returned)  Read more here.
  2. Modern Spaces Real Estate: Modern Spaces employees donated on 7 separate occasions, totaling $3,700.  Modern Spaces is a major brokerage firm founded in LIC that specializes in luxury real estate.  Real estate mogul Jonathan Kushner has a stake in Modern Spaces.
  3. LIC Partnership Board and/or LIC BID: $11,300 in donations were received from 11 board members of the LIC Partnership and/or LIC Business Improvement District.
  4. Criterion Group: $16,250 in donations were received from individuals related to Criterion Group, including three members of the Manglick family, also connected to Sak Structures LLC, the officer manager at Sak Structure LLC, and Caaminee Pandit, the director of acquisitions and real estate development for Criterion Group, LLC.
  5. Rockrose Developers: $4,500 in donations received from Rockrose Developers(Henry Elghanayan and his son Justin) who, in spite of community opposition, plan to destroy a vital LIC green space in order to build an 18 story building. Read more here.
  6. Plaxall Developers: Leonard Quigley and Paula Kirby(also connected to the LIC Partnership), donated a total of $4,125.

A detailed analysis by Queens Anti-Gentrification Project can be found here.

Van Bramer’s donors directly benefit from the frantic pace of development in Long Island City and have a vested interested in securing the passage of the triple threat – the BQX, Long Island City Core Rezoning, and development of Sunnyside Yards – which Van Bramer is pushing for both publicly and behind the scenes.

Appearances at Real Estate Conferences
These campaign contributions are not surprising considering that Van Bramer has been very vocal in his support for real estate development in Long Island City. The Council Member, by appearing as keynote speaker at real estate conferences, holding numerous meetings with developers, and, generally pushing for policies that benefit developers, has shown very clearly where his interests lie.

On September 23, 2014, Jimmy Van Bramer was the keynote speaker a real estate conference, “Future of Long Island City”, consisting almost entirely of representatives from the real estate industry. One ad touted the conference for “bringing together the top real estate figures in one of NYC’s hottest submarkets. With its booming residential and commercial sector, and its ease of access to Manhattan, there is a huge future to look forward to in Long Island City.” The invitation also promised “plentiful schmooze time,” insinuating opportunities for attendees to network with others in the industry, and speak off-the-record with the influential Council Member.

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The following year, in 2015, Van Bramer was yet again the keynote speaker at an LIC real estate summit hosted by the Long Island City Partnership, in which he was introduced as a “Great Champion of the LIC Partnership.”

During his remarks (Click here for the video), Van Bramer said “I feel the envy from other Council Members all over the city of New York when they talk about Long Island City. They see it from Manhattan, or they drive through it, or they come to an event here, and they say that’s incredible what’s happening there: all those buildings going up, all those cultural institutions, that waterfront park, yes, that 30 million dollar library that is now rising on the waterfront – these are incredible victories that signal an amazing future for this place.” Van Bramer added, “Where Long Island City goes, New York City goes.”

“All those buildings going up, all those cultural institutions, that waterfront park, yes, that 30 million dollar library that is now rising on the waterfront – these are incredible victories that signal an amazing future for this place.” – Jimmy Van Bramer

But who is benefiting from these supposed victories? For those in and around Van Bramer’s district who are threatened by displacement, concerned with the environment, or struggling with the rising cost of living – these buildings do not symbolize “victories,” but tall concrete specters of what’s coming to their neighborhood – unless, of course, they are stopped.

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Again, in 2016, Van Bramer was the keynote speaker at a real estate conference hosted by the same LIC Partnership. This time, the conference was interrupted by a grassroots group, Queens is Not for Sale: “We are here today because we represent the people of Queens that the Mayor’s affordable housing plan has left out.  We are domestic workers, fast food workers, taxi drivers, day laborers, seniors, among others.  Queens is being billed as the ‘new frontier.’ This ‘new frontier’ has been our home for many years. This is about displacement.”

This June, Van Bramer headlined the LIC Summit.  Other speakers included Modern Spaces, Rockrose, and Plaxall.  At the conference, discussions took place regarding LIC’s future as a tech and science hub.

Conclusion
As addressed previously, Trump’s base of power and influence is the real estate industry.  While Trump spews anti-immigrant rhetoric in the news, the diverse, working class immigrant communities along the 7 train are faced with the imminent threat of displacement – driven by luxury real estate developers and their lust for profits.

As shown above, it isn’t the xenophobic president, Donald Trump, however, who is defending these interests in Queens.  It is none other than the self-anointed “resistance” fighter, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, local stalwart of luxury real estate, who refuses to acknowledge the displacement crisis and refuses to oppose the three looming luxury development proposals in his district (BQX, LIC Core Rezoning, & development of Sunnyside Yards) that would lead to the displacement of thousands of working class people along the 7 line.

Despite their difference in public rhetoric, both Trump and Van Bramer are firmly aligned with a real estate industry that shows no regard for the working class. The difference is that Van Bramer, instead of scapegoating immigrants, uses them as human shields by holding symbolic protests while at the same time taking huge amounts of cash from the same real estate industry that is displacing them.

No matter how many protests Van Bramer conducts, his position is clear when it comes to the people of Queens. Van Bramer’s “resistance” protests are meant to create a progressive public image. We will not let this carefully constructed persona fool us.

Clarifying the nature of Van Bramer’s “resistance” is just one part of a larger fight for basic housing justice in Queens and beyond. Behind Van Bramer’s rhetoric is the assumption that there are only two options, luxury development and luxury development with a small amount of “affordable” housing.  However, the frequently ignored demands for full funding and expansion of public housing, and the creation of low-income housing without displacement are realistic and attainable. As the stock of rent-regulated housing dwindles, thousands are forced to sleep on the street, and thousands more languish on public housing waiting lists, the necessity for such demands becomes more important than ever.

Letter to Transit Workers Union

Mr. Samuelson,

We were surprised and troubled upon hearing the news that Transit Workers Union Local 100 had endorsed the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX). As neighbors working to keep Queens affordable for the working class, the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project (QAGP) unequivocally opposes the BQX for a number of reasons.

Our foremost concern is that the developer-backed project threatens further displacement of Queens and Brooklyn waterfront communities. But we also view the BQX in a context that sees politicians first cozying to organized labor for support, then caving to developer coercion against employment of union workers.

We explicitly oppose luxury development in all its manifestations — and in this particular case believe the developer sponsors of the BQX are simply using your union to garner support among working people as a means to further displace working people.

Dubbed the “gentrification express” by city hall staffers, the public-private project relies on the anticipated increased property values along its route for funding. The majority of the neighborhoods from Astoria to Sunset Park have already undergone swift deindustrialization, a fact which has left New York’s working class — once concentrated in these neighborhoods — underpaid and undervalued. Promises that the BQX will bring manufacturing back to our city are specious at best, considering the once industrial waterfront is actively being converted into an urban playground for the wealthy with projects like Sunset Park’s Industry City.

At a time when the protections and collective bargaining power of unionized workers are diminishing, we see working people penned into low-paying, harshly anti-union service sector industries and independently contracted jobs, which by nature deny workers any tangible benefits. It is our belief that there is an undeniable correlation between this shift and rising hostility towards workers city and nation-wide.

We’ve been down this road before. As you well know, before the existence of the TWU, New York’s subway lines were independently and privately owned. Until the 1935 Squeegee Strike — the TWU’s first organized strike — successive strike attempts by New York’s transit workers were broken. We remind you of this simply because TWU members carry on a rich legacy of collective power and we feel the endorsement of the BQX will ultimately undermine this legacy.

To endorse what amounts to an essentially private transit system, opens the transportation workers of New York City to the same type of harassment and anti-union sentiment that accompany all private companies on the road to profit.

We understand that you want to put your union to work. But as a representative of some 42,000 workers, the right of those workers — those New Yorkers — to affordable housing is ultimately jeopardized as luxury projects like the BQX come to our city.

The city and TWU’s interests would be better served by putting pressure on the governor to invest in our crumbling subway, an intricate and world-renowned transit system that serves some 6 million people daily and is in desperate need of a full-scale redevelopment — as the TWU knows better than anyone.

Additionally, the city could reach communities underserved by public transit with express bus lanes and material expansion of subways. Any of these alternatives would put TWU to work for a long time.

The Transit Workers of New York have long been the vanguard of what it is to be a New Yorker, serving not the wealthy 1%, but our neighbors and families.

We write to you as residents of Queens who see luxury redevelopment such as the BQX as the death knell in our borough’s reputation as a haven for working people the world over. We strongly ask you to reconsider the TWU’s endorsement of the BQX.

If you have any questions or concerns about how we might move forward with unity, please do reach out to us at your earliest convenience.

In solidarity,
Queens Anti-Gentrification Project

E: queensantigentrification@gmail.com

Queens All-Out for East Harlem

Queens All Out for East Harlem

El Barrio, also known as East Harlem or Spanish Harlem (just don’t call it “SpaHa”), is alive with history and culture–Puerto Rican, African American, Mexican, Italian, Dominican and Asian—making it one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. It’s not uncommon to find men playing congas on the street, as youth ride tricked-out bicycles to the tune of Hector Lavoe blasting from the radio. People stop in the street to chat up their neighbors and regulars congregate at Thomas Jefferson Park and local community gardens.

But with an imminent rezoning in the works, this strong sense of community and culture may soon come to an end. What happens in East Harlem—for better or for worse–will not just impact locals, but will have a ripple effect throughout the entire city.

What is the East Harlem Rezoning?

In 2015, Mayor De Blasio named East Harlem as one of 15 neighborhoods slated to be rezoned so that developers would get to build higher than ever before, allowing them to reap huge profits and incentivizing landlords to push out rent-stabilized tenants as property values rise. In the East Harlem Rezoning Plan, developers would be permitted to build three times higher than the current allowable height. Developers would be required to set aside a small percentage of these units that are “affordable” to households earnings up to $138,000. In other words, this new housing would not be affordable to the majority of East Harlem residents who make closer to $32,500.

How will the East Harlem Rezoning impact all New Yorkers?

Thanks to widespread community opposition across the city, to date, the De Blasio administration has only succeeded in rezoning one of the 15 neighborhoods in its plan – East New York in Brooklyn. With elections around the corner, the administration and City Council will be under increased pressure to revisit this strategy. A halt to the East Harlem Rezoning will not only benefit local residents, but all low-income residents in neighborhoods slated for rezoning including Long island City, Queens, the South Bronx, and Gowanus, Brooklyn, by setting a precedent for community resistance.

What can you do to support East Harlem Residents?

The East Harlem Rezoning is not inevitable. New Yorkers have successfully fought rezonings from Inwood to Flushing, and we can stop this one as well by joining together in solidarity to send a united message that we oppose all rezonings that benefit luxury developers at the expense of low-income and working class communities of color.

Join members of the Queens Anti Gentrification Project, El Barrio Unite, other activists, neighbors, and New Yorkers for a critical CB11 public hearing on the rezoning:

  • Location: Goldwurm Auditorium
  • Address: 1468 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10029
  • Date and Time: June 20th, Tuesday, 6:30-8:30pm
  • RSVP to the Facebook event

Sign and circulate this petition among your constituents.

For more information about the East Harlem rezoning, please read this article written by Comrade Roger Hernandez Junior, a lifelong 3rd generation resident of the neighborhood, and coordinator for the El Barrio Unite opposition to rezoning in East Harlem

For more information why we must reject all of the de-Blasio rezonings across the city, please read this City Limits editorial by Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association executive director Harry DeRienzo

 

Anthony Bourdain and the “Inevitably” Changing City

Earlier this month, Anthony Bourdain of the award-winning CNN travel series Parts Unknown took his viewers on a journey through Queens. Over steaming bowls of thenthuk (Tibetan hand-pulled noodle soup), tamales, and Korean food that is “more authentic than food in K-town,” Bourdain engaged locals in conversations about the future of Queens. For some of his interviewees, Queens is still a place where immigrants can “make it,” rising from rags to riches to live the American dream; but for others, the future is far less certain.

In true Bourdain fashion, he starts his conversations with street vendors. The street vendors of Queens provide their communities with meals which create a sense of “home away from home.” They also operate as extra eyes on the street, keeping their neighborhoods safe, and serve as unorthodox community spaces where locals can share updates from their lives and discuss current events. If all goes well, these street vendors will save enough to open up storefronts, providing a more financially secure future for the next generation. But Parts Unknown highlights that the path to ownership and financial stability for immigrants is often fraught with perils.

After losing her job in the world trade center after 9/11, Evelyn Coyotzi became a tamale vendor to support her family. Despite the popularity of her lovingly hand crafted tamales, the business struggled. She was arrested 15 times because, like thousands of other vendors, she could not get a license.

There are 20,000 street vendors in NYC, but only one in five vendors actually have a license because of an outdated NYC law from the 1980s which caps the number of street vendor licenses to 4,200. Vendors who can’t get a license face a tough choice: face hefty fines and arrests or enter the black market where vendors pay above-market prices to “rent” the rare city-issued licenses. According to the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a permit that costs just $200 annually from the city may go for $25,000 on the black market.

Parts Unknown elevates one policy solution in an interview with Sean Basinski of the Street Vendor Project. The Street Vendor Modernization Act would double the number of street permits across NYC over a seven year-period starting on March 1, 2018. This is an important step, but does not fully address the issues that street vendors and other immigrants face as they seek to maintain their foothold in Queens.

As neighborhood demographics have been changing in Queens, there has been a push to get street vendors—even those with licenses—off the street. “If you get higher rents, nicer buildings, they’re not going to want a street cart out front,” said Bourdain. Working class people are also finding it harder to afford rents which have soared—so much that the average Queens resident spent over half their income on rent in 2016.

One of Bourdain’s interviewees brushes off these changes as the “story of New York”, implying that demographic shifts and displacement are inevitable. He misses the point.  Gentrification is never an accident. Gentrification happens when policy makers and developers deliberately collude to advance policies which benefit those with capital over poor and working class communities. In Queens, we see this through:

Collectively, these gentrification schemes will raise property values, while pushing out the street vendors and immigrants who Bourdain rhapsodizes in Parts Unknown. To truly protect Queens as a diverse and vibrant borough where working class people can thrive, we must fight for much more than just the Street Vendor Modernization Act; we must push for a comprehensive set of policies which put a break on the run-away luxury developments in Queens, while protecting those who are most vulnerable to getting pushed out of their homes and businesses by unscrupulous measure.

Here are a few ideas to stop gentrification in Queens:

  1. Pressure your local Council Member to stop land-use changes that favor corporate and luxury developer interests over poor and working class people. In NYC, most major land-use change requires a community-review process in order to move forward. While local community boards can weigh in on these decisions, their opinions are advisory-only. City Council on the other hand has the power to stop a land use change, and City Council almost always defers to the local Council Members. That is why we are demanding that our local Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer oppose three major developments which we know will hurt our community: Long Island City Core Rezoning, Sunnyside Yards, and BQX trolley(Read more on the community-review process here). Pressure your local Council Member through direct calls, participation in protests, signing petitions(like this one), and gaining allies to join you in your cause. This strategy is particularly effective during election season, when Council Members are afraid of losing votes.
  2. Push for policies that prevent displacement of renters and businesses. Some neighborhood changes do not have to go through the community-review process. For example, a developer could build a luxury condo “as-of-right” on privately owned land which meets the height restrictions of the existing zoning code. But this could still have a major impact on the community. Once neighboring property owners recognize that the “neighborhood is changing” they may also raise rents in their buildings to take advantage of the market. Even property owners in rent stabilized buildings can use strategies such as intimidation to vacate apartments and “major capital investments” to push rents higher than the percentage set by the rent guidelines board. Proposed anti-displacement policies such as the Citywide Certificate of No Harassment and Small Business Jobs Survival Act could go a long way to protect the most vulnerable renters and small businesses in a speculative market.
  3. Demand genuine community-based planning. For the long-term survival of our communities, we must go beyond the whack-a-mole strategy of fighting each gentrification scheme which crops up; communities must be able to put forward their own, alternative plans which are enforceable by the city. Technically a community-based planning process exists, but too many roadblocks mean that these plans usually only come to fruition in whiter, wealthier communities. According to section 197-a of the 1989 New York City Charter, community boards have the right to put forward their own community-based plans. Yet out of more than 100 community plans that have been put forward in the last half century, only 13 have officially been approved as “197-a plans.” As Hunter Professor Tom Angotti explains in Zoned Out! Race, Displacement and City Planning in New York City we must radically rethink the way community planning works in New York City. That starts with vesting more decision-making authority in community boards; guaranteeing that every community board have a full-time trained planner who is knowledgeable about community-based planning; and holding community boards accountable to principles of social justice as too many boards openly discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity and fail to engage all corners of their neighborhood.

To learn more about how to get involved in building a movement, reach out to us at QueensAntiGentrification@gmail.com.