Carmen Vega-Rivera is bracing for change, as her neighborhood may look a little different in the next few years.
She’s lived in the Bronx for 36 years, a block away from Jerome Avenue, where it’s poised to undergo major rezoning to make room for more affordable housing. As soon she heard about the city’s plan three years ago, she joined forces with the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision to defend the residents in the community who have been there for as long as she has.
The Department of City Planning (DCP), the agency that will enforce the new residential zoning designations, began studying the Jerome Avenue corridor in 2014. The plan covers a two-mile stretch along its commercial and major transit corridors in community districts 4, 5 and 7, off the Cross Bronx Expressway and parallel to the Major Deegan Expressway. The city said it’s expected to spur the creation of more than 3,000 affordable units of housing in the 92-block area between 184th Street and 167th Street that covers the neighborhoods of Fordham South, University Heights, Morris Heights, Mt. Eden, and Highbridge.
But local groups like the Coalition said they’re worried the new development would displace small businesses and existing residents who will no longer be able to afford rent. Vega-Rivera said local residents and advocacy groups were left out of early meetings about the rezoning. She had to hear about it through a friend.
DCP’s Bronx Director Carol Samol met with local community boards 4 and 5, and the Coalition to talk about some of their concerns at an open house in mid-September.
“We’ve got a full sweep of changes and improvements that will be better for the community overall,” she said. “Everything from parks and streets, to businesses, retail corridors, access to jobs, helping people plan for careers, and bettering the health of the community.”
Vega-Rivera made sure she was in attendance at the open house.
“Today, there’s nothing on the table about real affordable housing for those that need it,” she said. “What’s here is about new parks and transportation improvements---all wonderful ideas, but if you don’t have a roof over your head, you’re not gonna be able to stay here, and you’re not gonna be able to utilize the wonderful parks and facilities that are here.”
In the neighborhoods where zoning is expected, median incomes run $28,556, but most of the affordable housing proposed is set to accommodate those who make between $52,000 to $70,000 a year under some of the current options of the plan. Only 13.6 percent of the existing population can qualify.
According to DCP’s website, the affordable housing units in the rezoning plan would be permanently affordable. Samol said the city also plans to work with tenant groups that are experiencing difficulties.
“We want to make sure they stay affordable, and make sure that those buildings get improvements, and in exchange for capital and other kinds of support, that the buildings remain affordable for the foreseeable future,” she said.
But some residents are especially concerned about the fate of the auto repair shops and other commercial businesses along Jerome Avenue.
There are 200 auto body shops along the affected area of Jerome Avenue that stand underneath the bustling 4 train and major roadways. Many of them are owned and operated by Dominican immigrants. Pedro Estevez is one of them. He founded the group United Auto Merchants Association (UAMA), and represents the auto body shops in the area. He’s consistently spoken with the city about this development project for more than two years, trying to find a solution for these workers and owners. He said that under the city’s plan, he thinks they will be displaced.
“Seventy-two percent of these businesses have no lease, or maybe one year of lease. The rest of them have a lease that is day by day, and is being raised double or triple the amount of normal rent,” said Estevez. “Let’s say you have a shop that’s paying $3,000 for rent, and now landlords raise it to $9,000 when they hear of the rezoning. The guys doing the same jobs will now have to pay three times more.”
Samol made it clear that the auto body shops can stay. “Any pre-existing use can remain as a part of the rezoning,” she said.
DCP acknowledged in the written plan that the auto body shops will face competition, but they’ve also developed a plan to try and address their needs. It includes connecting auto workers to jobs, training opportunities, and language and immigration services.
The existing zoning that allows for auto body shops has been in place since 1961. East 167th Street, East 170th Street, Mount Eden Avenue, Edward L. Grant Highway, Tremont Avenue, and Burnside Avenue are vibrant local retail corridors in the area. More than 80 percent of the housing in the surrounding area was constructed before 1950.