A Different Kind of Gentrification: Why East New York Isn’t the New Bushwick

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It was way back in January that we first started hearing rumblings about how East New York was well on its way to being gentrified. Untapped Cities was the first outlet to pose the question, “Is East New York the Next Bushwick?” ; writer Matt Nestor was inspired to ask the question based on a Daily News article reporting that a house—in what could still accurately (if hyperbolically) be called the “murder capital of New York”—had sold for $600,000. Nestor wondered whether or not East New York was primed for the sort of development that Bushwick—and before that Williamsburg—has experienced, but didn’t reach any sort of definite (or even tenuous) conclusion about East New York’s future other than noting that some area residents shop at Trader Joe’s, that the grocery stores stock soy milk, and there wasn’t much in the way of local nighlife.

And then, later this year, Gothamist asked (literally) the exact same question but used a wealth of data and information about Mayor de Blasio’s proposal to invest billions of dollars into affordable housing to examine whether or not East New York will soon experience the type of rapid development and population displacement that is the hallmark of Brooklyn’s other gentrified neighborhoods. Gothamist’s statistics-driven piece indicated the writing on the wall in a far more conclusive way, noting that the development plans fall under the city’s 80-20 rule, which means that 80% of housing stock won’t be classified in the “affordable unit” category, and that developers can separate affordable and market-rate housing from each other, in effect, ghettoizing affordable housing units even more than they normally are.

And yet the question of whether East New York would be “the next Bushwick” still seems a false one because the factors which conspired to make Bushwick “Bushwick” do not appear to exist in East New York. Bushwick, after all, still has greater proximity and ease of transportation to Manhattan than East New York does. (Seriously, the 3 just crawls through this borough on its way to New Lots.) Plus, Bushwick is close to other increasingly/already developed neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bed-Stuy, whereas East New York is far more isolated in that regard, bordered as it is by the similarly low-income, under-developed neighborhoods of Brownsville and Canarsie. Add to that the fact that the schools and many other public services are in disastrous shape and it doesn’t really seem like East New York is prime to experience the kind of gentrification that north Brooklyn has undergone in recent years.

So, yes, when the question of whether or not East New York is the “next Bushwick” comes up, we tend to get a little annoyed by what we think is a false dichotomy, one in which gentrification only represents an influx of young trust-funders and trendy new bars and restaurants. Asking whether or not East New York is the next Bushwick is like asking whether or not Bushwick is the next Upper East Side: infusions of capital into a specific neighborhood do not mean that it will take on the same characteristics as other wealthy neighborhoods. “Bushwick”-style gentrification is assumed to be something of a one-to-one displacement, i.e. a wealthier person displaces an original resident, until a whole neighborhood has transformed. What’s happening in East New York could potentially include more organic growth, and involve current residents benefiting from some aspects of affordable housing, and people who wouldn’t have otherwise considered East New York as a place to move being attracted by some of the amenities that are included in de Blasio’s plan.

However, this does not mean that low-income East New York residents, the vast majority of whom are black and Latino, are safe from the tidal wave of gentrification or invading developers or rising real estate costs. Yesterday, Gothamist reported on the fact that rents is East New York have increased by 10% a square foot in the past year, and that “land prices there have almost tripled, from $32/square foot to $93.” Almost tripled! Perhaps the most dramatic statistic, though, is the huge disparity in the value of real estate deals that have happened this year as compared to last: in “the first half of 2013, there were $2.7 million in real estate transactions conducted in the neighborhood. In the first sixth months of 2014, that number rose to $42 million.”

So, what does all this mean? Well, as Wiley Novell, a spokesperson from de Blasio’s office, told Gothamist, maybe not that much. As portentous as these numbers seem, Novell explains:

The sample size used in our study area of East New York is only five sales. This is hardly a scientific or exhaustive sample on which to draw conclusions. Moreover, there is a significant difference between land prices and rents that impact a tenant or small business. Someone may in fact purchase a building hoping or expecting that the City will allow for greater height or density. Their decision to pay more for the real estate is a reflection that a three story building could one day be a six story building, making the parcel more valuable. But that does not mean that the price per square foot that a tenant would pay for a one bedroom apartment or a storefront is increasing. Most importantly of all, no one will be able to build in the new zoning envelope without a significant provision of affordable housing. The result of the rezoning will be more affordable housing, not less.

Novell implies that because the actual amount of deals is relatively few, it’s impossible to predict what this means overall. But Novell also admits that it’s highly probable that the existing deals were made speculatively, and that purchasers are hoping to build more units and higher buildings than the areas are currently zoned for. In other words, these investors are clearly looking ahead because they are planning on East New York changing in tandem with the arrival of de Blasio’s affordable housing boom, thus becoming a strong investment whether or not it becomes “the next Bushwick.” The truth is, East New York and similarly far-flung areas probably won’t ever be used as examples of gentrification in the way that Bushwick or Williamsburg are now, but that doesn’t mean that East New York isn’t on the verge of big changes—changes whose affects on long-time residents are far from being pre-determined.

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