Study sparks debate about Lower East Sides future
By David H. Ellis
As several foursomes of teenagers tried to finish their handball matches before sunset on the courts at Seward Park on a recent evening, Herbert Rothstein relaxed on a nearby park bench outside his Seward Park co-op building on Grand St. With a toothpick jutting from the corner of his mouth, he debated with a fellow tenant about where the neighborhood is heading.
Theres no doubt that the neighborhood has changed, said Rothstein, a longtime resident who believes the popularity of the area has only benefited the community. Its definitely an improvement.
Rothstein believes the gentrification of the area has been a boon to the community. And his view on the neighborhoods transformation isnt unfounded. According to a study published in June by the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, there has been a noticeable demographic shift in this easternmost corridor of Downtown Manhattan. While the study, titled A Divided Community, highlights a displacement of lower-income residents and a shift in the racial composition in the Lower East Side and surrounding neighborhoods, it highlights a rift in the community over whether creating more affordable housing would help or derail the progress towards revitalizing the once-troubled area.
Victor Papa, director and president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, a neighborhood organization that works to assist low- and moderate-income families on housing issues, said the six-month study was done to bring attention to the current housing climate in the Lower East Side and surrounding areas.
The idea to put the study together came as a result of the dynamic that was created after 9/11 and the impact that has had on the Lower East Side and the more visible evidence of gentrification on streets where it was normally unthinkable, said Papa.
The report, which studied the neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, Two Bridges, Alphabet City, the East Village and part of Chinatown, was based on census figures from 1990 and 2000. The highlights of the report included a loss of more than 8,000 affordable housing units for household incomes less than $35,000, an increased poverty rate in most neighborhoods, a decrease in the number of Hispanic residents and a simultaneous jump in the Asian and over-65-year-old population and a rise in the number of owner-occupied apartments since 1990.
Even though the report indicates that signs of gentrification were present before 2001, according to the report, 9/11 only worsened the stability of the housing market on the Lower East Side. Papa said that since these communities received a smaller amount of Lower Manhattan Development Corp. residential incentive Grants compared with the neighborhoods closest to the World Trade Center such as Battery Park City, it created an opportunity for real estate speculators.
It accelerated the gentrification process, said Papa, pointing to the post-9/11 real estate environment. The benefactors of this largess of money should have also included those that needed it the most the lower-income families of the Lower East Side and Chinatown.
The Two Bridges report comes seven months after the citys Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the citys Economic Development Corporation presented their plan to partially redevelop some of the five Seward Park urban renewal sites with low- and middle-income housing, as well as commercial property. Under the plan, part of the renewal area, some current parking lots, would be developed with 300 low-income and 100 middle-income apartments. During a public hearing last November, the plan sharply divided members of the community, with some believing the new plan would maintain diversity, preserve the areas tradition as a home to immigrants, while providing affordable and moderate-income housing. Others were fearful any new low-income developments might disrupt a long-awaited neighborhood revitalization in progress.
Jacob Goldman, president of LoHo Realty, believed that the burden of creating more affordable housing in Manhattan should not be the responsibility of the Lower East Side. Goldman is a broker for market-rate apartments in the Grand St. co-ops.
The Lower East Side should always remain a home for people of all economic groups, but does it make sense to only put them in one area in entire Manhattan? said Goldman. Its not a good idea to pour more poor people into one area in Manhattan.
According to Two Bridges, one immediate remedy to the affordable-housing problem would be the use of the Seward Park urban renewal sites.
Its a grand opportunity to build affordable housing and yet it remains in with desires of developers, said Papa. To me its a scandal that any elected official who represents the Lower East Side and two elected representatives of the Senate would not view that piece of property to relieve burdens of low-income residents.
Although the plan proposed by H.P.D. and E.D.C. has not been approved by Community Board 3 members, the report also recommended an extension of the rent-stabilizing Mitchell-Lama housing program, a continuation of the Section 8 voucher program and that in the future housing built under the 421-a program be subsidized at a 60/40 ratio (60 percent market-rate apartments and 40 percent affordable apartments) instead of the traditional 80/20 ratio.
With a portion of the dingy storefronts of the Lower East Side converted into some of the hippest restaurants and bars in the city and the neighborhoods popularity on the rise, neighborhood leaders admit that they have seen the side effects of limited affordable housing in their own communities.
Christopher Kui, the executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, which works with Chinatown residents on housing issues, said he has witnessed the pressure of gentrification spill over into the Chinatown neighborhood.
We have seen a lot of cases in the last three years where theres been an intense effort by building owners and landlords trying to evict tenants using tactics to empty the apartment to renovate, upgrade and lease it out to high-income folks, said Kui in a telephone interview. They see Chinatown as an upcoming neighborhood to live.
City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who represents the Lower East Side as well as Alphabet City, indicated that the report spoke to a much broader problem in the city.
We have a crisis of major proportions with not just the people in my area that report applies to all of Manhattan said Lopez, who has heard of instances of individuals doubling and tripling up in apartments to minimize rent. That cannot continue or there will come a point when all of Manhattan is under siege.