May 26 2020

OPINION: Luxury rezoning would worsen food insecurity, inequities in Flushing

By Seonae Byeon, Sarah Ahn and Elizabeth Oh

A virus may not discriminate, but it is no surprise that poor, Black and Latino New Yorkers have experienced the most devastation from the COVID-19 crisis. This outbreak has laid bare the underlying systems that leave the elderly, immigrants, and those living paycheck to paycheck most vulnerable in this crisis. 

Despite these inequalities, our city and state continue to prioritize testing in the whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods, signaling who our leaders value and consider worth saving.

Queens, in particular, has been hit very hard by COVID-19. Our diverse immigrant communities are excluded from state aid even as many undocumented workers continue to be deemed “essential.”

Today, Downtown Flushing is a food desert. According to public data, Flushing has less than 10 retail food stores per 10,000 residents. Most supermarkets are closed, and long lines wrap around entire blocks at food pantries. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Flushing was losing supermarkets and bodegas to luxury development and gentrification. In 2015, for example, a Met Food supermarket was closed after nearly 30 years of operation in downtown Flushing to make way for developer Yin Chou Hu’s “Epic Tower,” a 14-story mixed-use development with 84 luxury units. 

Flushing’s food inaccessibility is compounded by high rents — in 2017, the real median gross rent in Flushing was $1510. High rents have been spurred by the rapid real estate development of downtown Flushing, which has seen the second highest number of luxury condominiums built in New York City since 2009 and was further accelerated when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plan for Flushing West Rezoning in 2014. With property values speculated to rise, predatory landlords bought up rent-stabilized units in Flushing. Countless Flushing residents were driven out of their homes because they could not afford their increased rents or were subject to tenant harassment. Others met the rising rents by working more hours or doubling up in crowded apartments to afford to stay.

Despite these conditions, New York City’s Department of City Planning continues to work closely with real estate developers like FWC LDC to transform working-class neighborhoods like Flushing into sandboxes for property speculation. Their most recent iteration, the “Special Flushing Waterfront Rezoning,” was approved by Community Board 7 before being rejected by the Interim Queens Borough President Sharon Lee. 

This rejection came after intense pressure and protests from the community. But this conditional disapproval is not nearly enough to protect our community from displacement.

State Sen. Michael Giannaris’s rent suspension bill was proposed on March 23 and it has garnered 22 co-sponsors, but it is still to be seen whether our other elected officials will step up and address the needs of our community. Despite pressures from advocates for a rent suspension for the duration of the crisis, neither de Blasio or Gov. Andrew Cuomo have indicated their support. 

As the government bails out large corporations, small businesses are struggling to survive and families are deciding whether to feed their children or pay rent. 

We know crises are often used to displace low-income people from their homes, and small businesses from the community. Indeed, even during a global pandemic, construction is continuing at luxury developments like Ismael Leviya’s project on 144th Street and Northern Boulevard. Meanwhile, unemployed Flushing residents are harassed over rent that they cannot afford. 

This crisis demands a commitment from our state and municipal officials to rebuild our public infrastructure. Stop giving away our hospitals, schools and affordable housing to luxury developers. COVID-19 should not be a gateway for luxury development. 

Projects like the Special Flushing Waterfront District, which are designed to displace residents and small businesses, must be scrapped so we can focus on meeting the needs and demands of the Flushing community. We are ready to get back on our feet and rebuild the community we love.