Opinion: Luxury Rezoning Will Displace Flushing Residents, and Our Politicians Know It
AUTHOR: Fiona Zhao and Joseph J. Jung
DATE: September 9, 2020
‘Just as the pandemic has laid bare long-standing societal issues, not created them from thin air, the Special Flushing Waterfront Project is tied to a long legacy of corporate real-estate pushing for development that will displace us.’
In March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo closed housing courts throughout the state, concerned that rising unemployment would cause mass evictions during a global pandemic. But what was a legislative opportunity to secure housing for all has been effectively wasted, and as many as 50,000 New Yorkers are estimated to face eviction when housing courts reopen. With the termination of added federal unemployment benefits, the situation will only worsen.
It is especially cruel that city and state politicians would prioritize corporate real-estate interests during their constituents’ moment of acute vulnerability. Instead of directly aiding renters and working-class New Yorkers, our state leaders fast-tracked Senator Brian Kavanagh’s rent vouchers — a landlord-centered program that the real estate lobby has pushed for since the start of the pandemic.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio squandered an opportunity to pursue meaningful housing solutions and has now resumed the Uniform Land Use Reform Process (ULURP), the process by which developers seek approval to waive restrictions on luxury building projects.
For Flushing residents, this has restarted the clock on the Special Flushing Waterfront Project (SFWP), a 13-tower, mixed-use complex of luxury condos, hotels, offices and retail space along 29 acres of Flushing Creek. FWRA LLC, a joint partnership of F&T Group, United Construction & Development Group, and Young Nian Group LLC, is behind the project.
If their ULURP proposal is approved, FWRA LLC plans to create 1,725 luxury condos and only 61 “below market-rate” units — the minimum that they are required by law to build if the land is successfully rezoned. Richard Siu, chief investment officer at F&T Group, says that if the rezoning doesn’t pass, they won’t have to build any affordable units at all.
While the developers claim that the project is a boon to the economy, it will sooner cause gentrification. SFWP’s luxury condos and retail space are designed for wealthy families and commercial businesses. The project is not for existing small businesses, which are already struggling with high rents and declining sales during the pandemic. Thanks to inadequate tenant protection laws, nearby landlords can and will cash in on the opportunity to raise rent.
Let us be clear: SFWP will not help Flushing residents.
Instead, SFWP is being pursued against a backdrop of growing poverty and housing insecurity in Flushing, even before the pandemic. After the 2008 financial crisis, Flushing residents were rent-burdened, spending 34 percent of their income on rent. The average tenant had less than $500 after paying rent, a meager allowance that barely covers food, education, healthcare, and transportation.
Now, in 2020, the average Flushing resident spends over 60 percent of their income on rent. Rent prices continue to climb to all-time highs, forcing families into severe rent burden. An unexpected drop in income can easily lead to eviction.
Just as the pandemic has laid bare long-standing societal issues, not created them from thin air, SFWP is also tied to a long legacy of corporate real-estate pushing for development that will displace us.
Last year, the late Queens Borough President Claire Shulman came out in support of FWRA LLC, which has spent $1 million in lobbying bills seeking city approval to rezone the waterfront. In 2012, Shulman admitted that her organization, Flushing Willets Point Corona LDC, illegally lobbied City Council for a development project in Willets Point — the predecessor and cousin to SFWP. Like SFWP, the Willets Point project planned to displace existing small businesses and low-income immigrant families to make way for commercial development.
Despite the developers’ open disregard for the Flushing community, our City Councilmember, Peter Koo, has not rebuked the plan. He condemned a similar rezoning plan in 2016 but has yet to do the same today, despite community criticism.
Why is Koo mum? Campaign finance records show that the councilmember has accepted over $18,000 from developers directly behind SFWP, and and thousands more from other developers since his first race in 2009. His campaign PAC, Peter Koo for New York, is located in an F&T Group building, One Fulton Square.
The City Council casts the final vote on rezoning applications and will vote with its local member. Although Koo has not officially stated his position on SFWP, accepting campaign contributions from the developers who will profit from the rezoning creates a clear conflict of interest.
It isn’t enough for Koo and other legislators to simply return the donations. The whole development and rezoning process has been corrupted by outside interests and failed to properly address community needs. Acting Borough President, Sharon Lee, has already publicly opposed the project, citing concerns about the “displacement of long-time residents and families.”
Koo must vote “no” on the rezoning and force the developers to properly evaluate the devastating impact that their project will have on the Flushing community.
Fiona Zhao and Joseph J. Jung are volunteers with the Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance. FADA is a volunteer group of workers who have roots in Flushing and oppose the Special Flushing Waterfront District Rezoning. To find out more, follow them on Twitter @Flushing_ADA or visit their website fight4flushing.com