The following is the transcript of a recent interview I had with Álvaro Franco, a member of the People’s Power Movement which is working with residents of Kingsbridge Heights in the Bronx to battle against gentrification and rent hikes.
1. How did the situation in Kingsbridge start? What was the context for the gentrification and increase in rent? What is the make-up of the Kingsbridge community?
The City and a nonprofit called NWBCC created a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that would redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory into the world's biggest ice skating center; in return, the majority of the workforce for this new center would come from Kingsbridge. Since then, many property owners hoping to capitalize on the redevelopment have started raising rent for merchants and tenants.
I forgot to mention KARA: the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. KARA is/was a coalition of 27 community groups and business owners that, for 15+ years, heard proposals from various developers about the future of the Armory. I'm not too sure about the exact year, but I would say about 3-4 years ago the majority of KARA voted on a CBA that allowed an ice skating center w/ 8 rinks inside, as long as Kingsbridge residents constitute the majority of the workforce. However, after that CBA was made, the KARA meetings became private, and the community groups that had voted against the Ice Center were shut out of the conversation.
Working-class Dominican and black residents make up the majority of Kingsbridge; it is a primarily low-income neighborhood, and a great many of the business owners live there instead of elsewhere.
2. What was the tipping point(s) for many in the community? When did you all start to get together and organize?
For the tenants, the tipping point was when the landlord applied for an MCI rent increase on the basis of external repairs, when the cost of repairs should come out of his pocket; for the merchants, it was when the new landlord neglected to renew their leases and instead doubled their rent.
3. What activities are people in Kingsbridge engaging in to resist gentrification and rent increases?
The tenants in one particular building on University Ave created their first tenants' association in 10 years, and together they are organizing to block the rent hikes. The members of the Merchants Association on Kingsbridge Road are meeting separately w/ the landlord to negotiate terms for staying a little longer; others are willing to fight harder and raise more public awareness about the economic injustice.
4. In what manner are the tenants organized?
The Tenants' Association of 2800 University Ave elected a President, Vice President, and Secretary during their first meeting in July; no backlash from the landlord so far. The body of leadership is primarily working-class women of color, and they are deciding whether to elect captains for each side of the building: North, South, and Center.
Right now PPM is revising its list of demands for the tenants, so we can't really publish that information right now, but the goal is for the list to match one of the immediate demands from our group: "Institute a massive program of quality, affordable public housing for all, under tenant management. Roll back rents. End gentrification. The New York City Rent Control Board to be popularly elected."
5. Are you all looking at the situation from a perspective of reform or something more? Is the situation being examined as a short-term goal or are you going for the long haul?
We are looking at it from the perspective of fundamental social change, in for the long haul. We are currently working on our list of demands for tenants.
6. How much and what kind of support have the movement achieved?
Part of the support the tenants received was news coverage by the Riverdale Press and Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN); the merchants' story was covered on News 12, the Bronx.
7. Are there future plans to link up with other communities that are facing the same problems?
For now, future plans involve reaching out to other buildings within University Ave and Kingsbridge Road to see if they also received an MCI rent increase; when our capacity increases, then we can link up with other neighborhoods in the Bronx, or even Crown Heights in Brooklyn.
8. How can people get in touch with and support the movement?
They can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/2011PeoplePower
On Tumblr at peoplepowermovement.tumblr.com
On Twitter at twitter.com/PPM_MPP