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
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