By Michelle de la Uz
As the city grapples with the impact of COVID-19, the systemic inequalities that have existed in our city for generations have become particularly acute. This has become even more evident in Sunset Park, with its significant immigrant population.
These inequalities are particularly apparent in our city’s housing market. While the current COVID-19 crisis has played out in neighborhoods across the city at all income levels, it is painfully visible in working-class and immigrant enclaves like Sunset Park.
Fears of gentrification and displacement aren’t new for Sunset Park, but they have become more pronounced in light of the proposed Industry City rezoning and ongoing growth. And while the Industry City proposal has been pulled, we need to be clear about one thing: Sunset Park has faced a severe housing crisis for years.
For decades, little to no investment in new housing development, much less affordable housing at the scale needed, occurred in Sunset Park, even while the population continued to grow and welcome new immigrants, particularly from Latinx and Chinese communities.
This has contributed to severe overcrowding in the neighborhood, placing Sunset Park in the top 10% citywide. While we may not know the lasting effects of the pandemic, there is already evidence that overcrowded conditions and the inability to self-isolate — rather than density — played a role in spreading the virus.
While the 2009 rezoning of much of Fourth Avenue provided enough density incentives for developers to invest in multi-family housing construction along this critical thoroughfare, mandates for affordable housing construction were not included. As a result, the housing supply that has been increased in the community does not serve the low- to moderate-income families that need it the most.
According to the New York City Department of City Planning and recent census numbers, the population of Community Board 7, which encompasses Sunset Park, has grown considerably between 2010 and 2018, from 126,230 to 143,847 residents. However, there has been a net loss of units of housing and most of the housing units that exist were constructed before 1939 and are in poor condition. Further compounding the issue, only 1,000 new housing units have been created since 2014, and only 80 of those units are affordable through the City’s voluntary inclusionary housing program.
Nearly 32% of households in Sunset Park are severely rent burdened, spending more than 50% of their income on rent. More troubling still, nearly 50% of low-income families in the community are spending more than 50% of their income on rent.
This case is clear: The neighborhood simply does not have enough apartments – especially those affordable to local families – to support the influx of new residents and recent immigrants and to alleviate overcrowding. New solutions are required to address the current housing pressures and combat the threat of displacement.
In order to increase access to affordable housing in Sunset Park, we need to start by preserving the current housing stock already in the community. This means that the government must improve and create more financing programs to facilitate nonprofits acquiring multifamily properties to preserve their affordability for future generations and improve housing conditions.
To ensure housing accessibility for all Sunset Park residents, we must go beyond the 134 units of affordable housing that Fifth Avenue Committee currently has in construction and create a pipeline of 100% permanently affordable housing projects on underutilized land, such as remediated brownfield and publicly-owned parcels that can be rebuilt to accommodate greater density.
Of course, Sunset Park residents can’t wait. They need new affordable housing options right now. We need to be open to limited rezoning actions that include truly affordable housing and address other community needs. Especially given the outlook on government resources over the next few years due to COVID, we need to be open to targeted land use actions that result in the expedient creation of affordable housing units through the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, which does not require additional taxpayer subsidies and can provide permanently affordable housing immediately.
Finally, in order to prevent tenant harassment and displacement, we need to enhance and ensure tenant protections. Specifically, this includes expanding the Tenant Right to Counsel and Certification of No Harassment Pilot Program to Sunset Park immediately and passing Good Cause Eviction legislation in New York state.
The time to address this challenge is now – before the area’s growth and changes cause even more displacement. Industry City will grow and change even without their proposed rezoning. The campus will continue to attract more jobs and more residents. We cannot pretend these changes aren’t occurring. Sunset Park must vigorously preserve the affordable units it has, better protect tenants and begin to support development without displacement that creates truly and permanently affordable housing.
Michelle de la Uz, Executive Director of Fifth Avenue Committee & Neighbors Helping Neighbors; 2020 Sunset Park Housing Conditions: Recommendations for Development without Displacement.