Legal Aid Files Lawsuit Challenging East Harlem Rezoning

The Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit today in New York County Supreme Court contesting the East Harlem rezoning, which was recently approved by the New York City Council late last year. The lawsuit challenges the City’s analysis of the rezoning potential to displace rent stabilized residents in the neighborhood.

The East Harlem rezoning is one of the largest recent land use reclassifications impacting 6 million square feet of land and thousands of residents in northern Manhattan

“From Brooklyn now to El Barrio, the City continues to employ a flawed methodology that ignores that realities facing rent-regulated tenants and the consequences of land use decisions on their rents and livelihood,” said Jennifer Levy, Supervising Attorney of the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “The East Harlem community spoke loud and clear against this rezoning during the ULLURP process. Both ends of City Hall ignored their cries but we listened, and we hope to have this joined with our litigation against the Bedford-Union Armory development plan set for arguments later this year.”

As per existing law, all land use decisions in New York City are required to be evaluated for their potential environmental impacts pursuant to state and city law. Environmental impacts include impacts on socioeconomic conditions such as direct and indirect business and residential displacement.

The methodology used to determine displacement is set forth in the City’s Environmental Quality Review Technical Manual (CEQR Technical Manual). The CEQR Technical Manual’s method for estimating potential indirect displacement is flawed because it assumes that only non-regulated tenants are at risk. Real-world experience demonstrates that the introduction of above-market units to a neighborhood puts regulated and unregulated tenants alike at risk of displacement.

The manual also ignores the undertows of gentrification and how this compounds with rezoning to exacerbate housing pressures and accelerate tenant displacement.

Because of the CEQR Technical Manual’s flawed methodology, the City failed to properly assess the potential indirect displacement of tenants in rent regulated apartments which would take place as a result of the rezoning of East Harlem. Further, the Manual used to make this assessment, and the rules contained therein, were not properly promulgated pursuant to City Administrative Procedure Act (CAPA). If this Manual had been subject to notice and comment, as legally required, the public would have had the opportunity to ensure that these important considerations were included or to challenge the rules if they were not.

The Legal Aid Society seeks to join this matter with litigation filed against the Bedford-Union Armory development plan which is set for arguments in March against the City.

"I'm a 25 year resident of East Harlem and was part of the initial neighborhood plan process. As the process developed it became clear that it did take into account the level of displacement we as longtime residents would face," said Agnes Rivera, Member Leader at Community Voices Heard

“We are delighted that this action is being taken to challenge the city's egregious failure to accurately report the detrimental impact rezoning will have on our community. I look forward to seeing local residents have their day in court and their opposition honored once and for all," said Marina Ortiz, President of East Harlem Preservation, Inc.

"It is well-documented that the loopholes in the rent laws governing rent stabilization create both an incentive and a mechanism for landlords to cash in from increased development pressures. Knowing that, the city has an obligation to ensure that their environmental review process accounts for the correlation between rezonings and the resulting harassment and displacement of rent-regulated tenants," said Samantha Kattan, Assistance Director of Organizing and Policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.

“Tenants & Neighbors supports the litigation brought by the Legal Aid Society against the East Harlem Rezoning because of the unmeasured impact on the displacement of rent-regulated tenants. The de Blasio administration continues to promote policies that lead to increased displacement, and the city must study the dire impact that this rezoning will have on low and moderate income tenants in East Harlem,” Katie Goldstein, Executive Director of Tenants & Neighbors.

“Weakened rent laws are leading to massive displacement and homelessness all across New York. The fact that the City ignores this when studying the impact of its “gentrification-harnessing” rezoning plans shows a gross negligence for low-income people who are struggling to stay in their homes,” said Renata Pumarol, Deputy Director of New York Communities for Change. “As long as this is City policy, their housing plan will serve the profit-motive of developers and financiers and look the other way when it comes to the needs of low income New Yorkers.”

“East Harlem has consistently had one of the highest rates of family shelter entry in the borough of Manhattan; every year hundreds of East Harlem families are displaced into the city's shelter system, with little chance of returning to the neighborhood they call home. The city's environmental impact statement severely minimizes the risk of displacement posed by this rezoning and is completely disconnected from the realities of those experiencing displacement and homelessness, hence why this lawsuit is so important,” said Monique "Mo" George, Executive Director Picture The Homeless.