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Op-Ed: Innovation Shouldn’t Mean Gentrification

Rally at City Hall regarding Innovation QNS project (Photo by: Marc Safman)

Nov 15, 2022 Op-Ed

What does it mean when 91% of the new housing in your community is unaffordable to lower income communities that live there and throughout our City?

What does it mean when billionaire developers neglect to do meaningful outreach to immigrant groups, the disabled, and working class people that will be most impacted by a massive rezoning they have planned?

What does it mean when those very same developers and their supporters call your community decrepit, dangerous, and a bunch of parking lots?

It means erasure. It means displacement. It means Innovation QNS.

But there is nothing innovative about Innovation QNS, a $2 billion 5-block mostly luxury development being proposed in Astoria by Silverstein Properties, Kaufman (really Square One Capital and Heckman Capital), and BedRock Real Estate Partners. Glitzy PR and paid ads can’t hide the widespread community opposition to this project, resulting in 565 people testifying against vs. 83 people in support at the City Council’s Zoning Subcommittee.

Here’s why:

When you build a majority luxury, instead of a majority of deeply affordable housing in a mostly BIPOC, low income area, you are drastically changing the demographics for who gets to live in Astoria in one fell swoop.

Nearly half of the residents in Community Board One are rent burdened and over 47% of residents are low to very low income. In that part of Astoria, the poverty rate is even higher. The City’s own Equitable Development Data Explorer identifies this area as having an intermediate to high risk of displacement due to its vulnerable population and what is their solution? Encouraging billionaire developers to drastically alter the demographics of the community with some “affordable” housing thrown in to make it seem palatable.

A market-rate two bedroom in Innovation QNS would go for $5,000/mo or more, affordable only to families making nearly 3x the median income for the area or over $200,000/yr. A studio? Over $2,430.

Whether it’s 75% luxury currently certified by City Planning (or 60% luxury if they get public subsidies to build more “affordable” units), the imbalance accelerates gentrification and the displacement. In this case, it’s the Latinx community, over 6,000 Bengalis, and working class, disabled, and lower income people who have shown up in the hundreds to testify against Innovation QNS.

A 55% minimum of truly affordable units as demanded by Council Member Julie Won would help mitigate the damage from this proposal but the proliferation of new high-end housing across Western Queens necessitates even deeper levels of affordability.

Instead of taxing billionaires, BILLIONAIRES WANT TO TAX US. The developers are required by law to provide 25% MIH affordable, and a “deal” would give them subsidies to add another 15%.

We FULLY support our taxpayer dollars going to build social and deeply affordable housing, but gifting billionaire developers who aren’t even paying their fair share of taxes? Who cry poverty when asked to add more affordable units without subsidies and won’t build ONE additional unit without taxpayers footing the bill?

Silverstein Properties alone owns and operates a portfolio worth over $10 BILLION. It’s not only insulting, it’s indicative of the power, influence, and greed of big real estate.

This project would be taking critical subsidies away from other affordable projects since there was no increase in housing funding and that money would have to go towards this private project. If the developers were to get subsidies to build an additional 15%, what is the dollar amount? Where is it coming from?

Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul means taking critical funds for nonprofits, community land trusts, and mutual housing organizations that build supportive and social housing to pay billionaires so that they can keep their obscene profit margins.

This is just the start of more predatory rezonings that will destabilize the diversity of Astoria. The zoning the developers are requesting – which currently doesn’t exist in Astoria – is R9. By rezoning to R9 residential, not only will the value of their land skyrocket, it will set a precedent for subsequent rezonings, speculation, and displacement. Rent stabilized housing in the area is NOT safe and can be demolished with an application to build significantly higher than the rent stabilized that exists with astronomical rents.

Redeveloping this area doesn’t boil down to Innovation QNS or nothing. That binary is propaganda to push this development through and so is saying we are “anti-housing”. We’ve been on the ground dealing first hand with the housing crisis.

Astoria has increased its housing supply even as its population has declined but rents have not gone down. Even worse, there have been 17 rezonings since Mandatory Inclusionary housing law was passed in 2016 and not one of those units have been completed. Properties sit undeveloped for years. Many properties have been or soon will be flipped for enormous profit.

Our system is broken and people are hanging on for their lives. It’s time for comprehensive, community-led planning that centers the needs of the most vulnerable and ends speculation which exacerbates displacement. Innovation QNS is a rezoning on harmful steroids. We stand united in demanding more for our community.

Signed,

CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities

Astoria Not for Sale

Astoria Welfare Society

Hope Justice

Justice for All Coalition

NY Muslim Organizing Collective

Malikah

Woodside on the Move

Western Queens Community Land Trust

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