The Fight For Local Democracy in New York City
by: Simon Davis-Cohen Posted on: June 13, 2016
Editor’s Note: New York City’s Community Boards possess nothing in the way of real governing authority. When 52 out of the borough’s 59 boards voted to reject Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy by March 2016, nothing happened. The unpopular policy was subsequently approved by City Council. A similar powerlessness is felt by Community Boards across the city, like in Chinatown, where a detailed Plan for Chinatown and the Surrounding Areas has fallen on deaf City ears. On top if this, board members are unelected—appointed by the borough president.
As the City government is unwilling to combat gentrification, local residents turn to the government body closest to the people—Community Boards—to resist undemocratic transformations of their neighborhoods, but to little avail. So rising rents, the steady march of luxury condominiums and the accompanied displacement of local residents has sparked a fight for local democratic decision-making power.
The Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network is mobilizing to make Community Boards elected, and to give them real decision-making authority. They want to “change the [New York] City Charter to make Community Boards elected, not appointed, and to give them veto power.”
Read the Dirt’s Simon Davis-Cohen sat down with the Network’s Alicia Boyd to discuss more.
This piece was originally published on Indypendent.org.
Simon Davis-Cohen: How did this become a primary demand of the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network?
Alicia Boyd: We have 12 demands so this isn’t a “primary” one, it just happens to be one that is currently in the forefront due to the unpopular passage of New York City’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy in March 2016, which showed how powerless the Community Boards are. We wanted to focus on this real concern and get others to think seriously about changing the City Charter.
Second, there is a serious fight going on to stop Community Board 9’s facilitation of large developments in Crown Heights/Flatbush and Prospect Lefferts Gardens. Several lawsuits have been filed against that board—we want to bridge that fight with the citywide issue of democratizing all Community Boards.
SDC: How long have Community Boards been around? Have they always been unelected? Did they once have more power?
AB: The Community Boards were entered into law in the 1970’s because of a push for more local control over land use by a lot of well-to-do communities. Until then, one city agency determined all land use matters. The idea was to help empower communities by allowing them to request services and review changes that were proposed to their community. The Community Boards had three primary functions. 1) To give communities a say over land use; 2) to provide a place where residents can voice their concerns and viewpoints; 3) to be a place where requests for city services can be created and presented to other city agencies.
The Community Boards are governed by the City Charter, the Open Meetings Law and their own individual Bylaws. However, their Bylaws may not override the City Charter or Open Meetings Law. Community Board members have always been appointed by the Borough President, however, half of the members of a board must be recommendations from the neighborhood’s City Councilperson. Community Boards have always been advisory with no real power and other than boards’ District Managers, all members are unpaid.
SDC: Up until now, what has been the role Community Boards have played in the gentrification of Brooklyn?
AB: At this point, the Community Boards are the starting point of rezoning and thus the starting point of major gentrification going on in Brooklyn. For two basic reasons.
One, they can request rezoning studies to increase building heights and luxury development on ‘transit corridors.’ Of course, the City has located many of these corridors with large avenues and transit service in poor communities. Then, boards say, “this is an ideal place to put up large buildings.” They tell us we will get “affordable” housing out of the deal, but in the end, there is no “affordable” housing—not for the existing population. All we get are luxury towers that force the people out.
Second, Community Boards help maintain the appearance of an object Department of City Planning. Though the Department of City Planning doesn’t lawfully need rezoning or study requests from a community board to rezone a neighborhood, because of the drastic impacts on communities that take place, it looks better and shields the City from community backlash and lawsuits when developments are initiated by the local community board. The City likes to remain neutral on paper, with them just responding to requests. In order to maintain this apparent objectivity they need the Community Boards to make requests, preferably broad, open-ended ones that include proposals for higher and higher buildings.
In poor communities this is done quite easily. Residents are told they have to sit at the table in order to get what they want. “Don’t you want affordable housing?” they are asked. “Don’t you want better streets, better services, don’t you want employment for your youth?” Residents are told they will get these things if they sit down to help create a rezoning study. So they make the fatal mistake of sitting down at the table!
However, once a lawful request is submitted (not all requests are lawful), the Department of City Planning will come in and do a “study,” which is where all the deals—with developers—are done. This is when the types of zonings that will become law are decided; developers get a forecast of how much a property will be worth once the rezoning goes through.
This is when you start to see gentrification begin, during the study phase. Developers start buying up property, Whites start moving into the community to stake out apartments and small properties, landlords stop renting to Blacks and actually start pushing them out, and stores are vacated to deliver empty buildings to prospective developers.
Once the study is done and presented to the community, the community realizes they had been set-up—that is was all a scam! But by then it is too late. The community board has no power to change the “study”! No veto power. The study eventually becomes law. Out of the last 143 studies City Planning has done, 143 studies became law!!! This is why the whole process is just for show.
SDC: How are you fighting to amend the city charter? What are your tactics?
AB: The first fight is to bring awareness to this issue, through education and demonstration. To get more neighborhoods involved and interested, so that a movement can be had. The second is to find a councilperson, who’s district supports this idea to start pushing for a bill to amend the charter. But this is going to take residents across the City waking up to the façade of local democratic control they have been sold via Community Boards. It’s going to take New Yorkers demanding that Community Boards be democratically elected and empowered to make the big decisions that define life in New York.
Right now, only about a quarter of Community Boards are really affected by rezonings and experiencing the lack of power, but as more and more of these boards feel the fire and burn of the real estate industry’s power over land use, we believe more will join and organize around this issue.
SDC: What other organizations or movements in Brooklyn do you see as natural allies in this fight for local democratic control in the city?
AB: At this point not many, because so many people are focusing on just trying to stay in their homes, and really don’t see the larger picture of land use and how it affects their personal lives. This movement is going to have to come from the Community Boards themselves, but because so many of the members of the boards are politically connected and appointed and so many are swayed by local politicians who support the real estate industry, it is really going to take tremendous pressure from the community residents themselves to push for serious changes.
SDC: How can people get involved?
AB: The first thing is find out more about Community Boards, what they do. Attend meetings. Get on or attend your community board’s land use committee—so you know what is being planned for your community. Place an application to be on the Community Board, there normally isn’t a lot of people who want to be on Community Boards, except in highly contested neighborhoods where the Borough President is more deeply involved, like in Community Board 9, where everyone is placing requests to be members, because of the struggle to give the community to developers and all the promises of wealth and power.
Start telling your local city councilperson to change the City Charter so Boards are elected and have veto power.
SDC: Would you consider a citywide ballot initiative to amend the charter?
AB: That is how it is done, but again this is a process. The signatures of 5% of registered voters have to be gathered. We can do it, but we’ll need a lot of help. However, there really has to be a lot of talk and discussion and a really well thought-out plan in order for this type of change to happen. We have to make sure that the power is given to the community residents not another political entity, which can still be heavily influenced by big real estate money.
In other words, there is a lot more work that needs to be done before we can even talk about amending the City Charter and I hope we start soon!!
SDC: New York City residents have few powers. For example, the City government itself does not have the power to raise the minimum wage or to pass rent laws. And below the City, Community Boards have no control over real estate development. Do you see these phenomena as connected, how?
AB: This is never about democracy but it is always about power. The more powerful a Community Board—like those in well-to-do neighborhoods—the less sway big real estate enjoys. The Powers That Be like Community Boards just as they are: dysfunctional and powerless. The system allows governmental agencies and politicians to do as they want, without consequences.
For example, the City’s law department is suppose to advise and oversee Community Boards. But many Community Boards are in open violation of the law: meetings are held in secret, residents are not being allowed to speak, etc. And a lot of board members will actually say the City’s lawyers advised them to do these things. This keeps the power in the hands of a few, so all governmental agencies or politicians have to do is go to those few people to work out the deals.
When you go to the courts for justice, you have to file court papers and motions, which can cost thousands of dollars and then you have to wait up to a year for decisions, which are normally in the favor of the political establishment, who appointed the judges!
For example, a local resident had to file court papers just to get the Bylaws of Community Board 9. He spent over $500 on this very simple lawsuit. Now, despite the fact that he was right and he won the case—the District Manager gave him the Bylaws—the Judge refused to reimburse him. It cost him $500 to get a legal document that the law says should be readily available to the public! And there were no repercussions for Community Board 9, despite their not abiding by the law!
This was done to completely discourage and disempowered poorer communities who don’t have the resources to fight back. This keeps the power in a few corrupt district managers and board members and allows the City to completely ignore community residents.
Thus all these issues are connected, keeping the power out of the hands of the people who are most affected.
Photo: Simon Davis-Cohen
Leave a Reply
Articles On PRESS
PRESS: Republished press from our community wires.
- Jun 13 The Fight For Local Democracy in New York City
- May 25 Crown Heights Tenant Union: Building Power One Building at a Time in NYC
- May 25 Activists Occupy Shipping Container to Halt AIM Pipeline Construction in Upstate NY
- May 25 Barrington, NH votes 795 to 759 to Adopt Community Bill of Rights to Protect Waterways
- May 25 Revoking The Consent to be Governed
- Apr 25 Announcement of Nationally Coordinated Prisoner Workstoppage for Sept 9, 2016
- Apr 19 The Spirit of Occupy Lives on in France’s Emerging Direct Democracy Movement
- Apr 19 How Sanders Could Lay the Foundation for a Third US Political Party
- Apr 10 Some Possible Ideas for Going Forward
- Apr 7 Reclaiming Black Land in Grafton, New York
- Apr 7 Meet the Lead Organizer Behind the Upcoming Mass Sit-Ins to get Money out of Politics
- Mar 28 Dismantling Corporate Control Isn’t a Spectator Sport: An Interview With Thomas Linzey
- Mar 16 Preempting Trump: Barnstead, NH Adopts First-In-Nation Law Protecting Against Religious Persecution
- Mar 4 This New Era Of Unrest
- Mar 1 Washington State Supreme Court Guts Local Ballot Initiative Process
- Feb 9 Debating A ‘New’ Pan-European Anti-Austerity Movement
- Feb 9 How New York Stopped A Liquefied Natural Gas Project In Its Tracks
- Jan 28 Food, Land, and Freedom
- Jan 27 One Oregon Tribe’s Fight for Federal Recognition
- Jan 20 Worker, Civil and Environmental Rights as Legal Ends: Defying Commerce’s Logic
- Jan 20 Fast-Food Workers Plan Wave Of Strikes For 2016 Primaries
- Jan 18 Greece’s Varoufakis to Launch Pan-European Progressive Movement
- Jan 6 California’s Largest Tribe Passes First-In-Nation Enforceable Ban On GM-Salmon and GMOs
- Dec 29 The Leap Manifesto
- Dec 29 “People’s Injunction” Launched to Block Canadian Pipelines
- Dec 29 How Black Lives Matter Came Back Stronger After White Supremacist Attacks
- Dec 29 Can Local Law Enforcement Be Democratized By A People’s Movement?
- Dec 9 Preempting Democracy: What’s Not Being Voted on This November Is Sinister
- Dec 9 A Bill of Rights That Puts Workers Above Corporations
- Dec 9 Government and Gas Industry Team Up Against Local Fracking Ban Initiatives in Ohio
- Dec 9 Fighting Fossils, Letting Go of Regulatory Law
- Aug 26 In Colorado, A Revolutionary New Coalition Stands for Community Rights
- Aug 26 Climate Crisis Pits Local Governments Against 19th-Century Legal Doctrine
- Aug 26 Hundreds of Communities Are Building Legal Blockades to Fight Big Carbon
- Jul 21 Will Labor Go Local?
- Jul 20 Challenging Bedrock Law: “Dillon’s Rule” in Detroit and Beyond
- Jul 19 Defining a Federalist Approach to Immigration Reform
- Jul 18 Why Are Fracking Hopefuls Suing a County in New Mexico?
- Dec 8 Finally, The Court Case We’ve All Been Waiting For
- Nov 8 Ohio and Colorado Voters Adopt Community Bills of Rights
- Nov 8 Community Rights Organizer Sets Sights on Fracking in Southern Illinois
- Nov 8 Critical Issues Deserve a Higher Standard
- Nov 7 Indigenous Peoples Experience Of Climate Change And Efforts To Adapt (Video)
- Oct 8 Naomi Klein Addresses New ‘Mega Union’
- Oct 8 Disco may be the only way to stop Monsanto (Video)
- Oct 8 (Ohio) Frack-Backers Launch Preemptive Strikes against Democracy Attempt to Block Community Bills of Rights from Voters
- Oct 8 The California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Speaks to the Need for Wise Immigration Reform
- Oct 8 Support Local Food Rights Will Not Be Deterred by Legislature’s Blow to Democracy
- Oct 8 Economic Sovereignty At Stake
- Oct 8 Sangerville, Maine Adopts Community Bill Of Rights Ordinance to Reject Transportation and Distribution Corridors
- Oct 8 Sacred Headwaters
- Oct 8 Oregon Communities Launch Statewide Network for Community Rights
- Sep 8 Bowling Green, OH Group Submits Bill of Rights Petition
- Sep 8 Judgment Day
- Sep 8 Judge Blocks Envision, SMAC Initiatives from Appearing on Ballot
- Sep 8 Why a Rights Based Ordinance In Nottingham, NH?
- Aug 8 What is the Local Food System Ordinance of Lane County?
- Aug 8 Lane County Initiative to Protect Local Farming Encounters Hurdle; Campaign Still Targeting May 2014 Election
- Aug 8 Benin: Local Knowledge And Adaptation To Climate Change In Ouémé Valley, Benin
- Aug 8 Local Food System Ordinance of Lane County, Oregon
- Jul 8 Envision Spokane Statement to Legal Action to Block the Community Bill of Rights from the Ballot
- Jul 8 Why does the Spokane City Council continue to ignore and distort the substance of the Spokane Community Bill of Rights?
- Jul 8 History of Efforts to Keep the Spokane Community Bill of Rights Initiative off the Ballot
- Jul 8 East Boulder County United Launches Campaign for the Lafayette Community Rights Act to Prohibit New Oil and Gas Extraction
- Jul 8 Benton County Community Group Files Petition for the Right to a Local, Sustainable Food System
- Jul 8 Rivers and Natural Ecosystems as Rights Bearing Subjects
- Jun 8 Caring for Home through Nature’s Rights
- Jun 8 From Field to Table: Rights for Workers in the Food Supply Chain
- Jun 8 Will Ohio Be Fracking’s Radioactive Dumping Ground?
- May 7 First County in U.S. Bans Fracking and all Hydrocarbon Extraction – Mora County, NM
- May 7 Self-Replication at Stake in Monsanto Patented Seed Case
- May 7 Guatemala: Mayan K’iché Environmental Sustainability As A Way Of Life
- May 7 Small Farms Fight Back: Food And Community Self-Governance
- May 7 State College Borough Gov Denies Pipeline Permit: Fight Isn’t Over
- May 7 Muzzling Scientists is an Assault on Democracy
- Apr 8 An Addition to the Climate Movement-Civil Disobedience Toolkit
- Apr 2 Thornton, New Hampshire Rejects Community Bill of Rights To Ban Land Acquisition for Unsustainable Energy Systems
- Apr 2 Grafton, New Hampshire Adopts Community Bill of Rights That Bans Land Acquisition for Unsustainable Energy Systems
- Apr 2 Highland Township Adopts Community Bill of Rights That Bans Toxic Injection Wells
- Apr 2 PSU Pipeline Violates Community Bill of Rights
- Jun 26 The United States Conference of Mayors Resolves that Corporations are not Natural Persons etc.
- Apr 30 Information and Documents concerning Oregon LNG
- Mar 9 1st Annual Read the Dirt Writing Competition!
- Feb 24 Oil Sands Pipelines, here?
- Feb 23 PRESS: Genetically Engineered Animals?
- Feb 23 PRESS: The 9th Annual Skagit Human Rights Festival March 2012
- Jan 27 Bellingham Rights-Based Ordinance Proposed to Stop Coal Trains
- Jan 26 PRESS: Occupy Seattle Joins in Solidarity with United Farm Workers
- Jan 20 Planning For a Future (Original)
- Jan 8 PRESS: Associated Students of Western Washington University Adopt Resolution Opposing Cherry Point Coal Terminal