The city’s announcement that the burgeoning and long-contested development project at Willets Point would not be proceeding as originally outlined and the lack of sufficient affordable housing for the middle- and lower-income families living in the borough led about 100 distraught residents to pack a Queens Housing Coalition meeting on Nov. 20 in Jackson Heights.
The Willets Point Redevelopment Plan was approved by the City Council in 2008 and included the construction of 5,500 mixed-income residential units, 2,000 of which were to be affordable housing.
This past June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the affordable housing plan would be delayed until 2025.
“We just want the mayor to remember the promise he made about affordable housing at Willets Point,” said QHC’s coordinator Ivan Contreras. “We feel betrayed.”
The group informed attendees of the revised plans for the area, including neighboring Flushing Meadows Corona Park, which include a 25,000-seat Major League Soccer stadium, additions to the U.S. Tennis Association Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the construction of the largest shopping mall in the borough. The MLS and USTA projects are separate from the Willets Point plan, but the shopping center is part of it.
When Contreras turned to the crowd and asked, “Do we need another mall?” he was greeted with a resounding “No.”
“We need housing,” he said. “We need the mayor to construct low-cost housing. Affordable housing is not a luxury. It’s a priority. We need it and we need it now,” he said.
He cited statistics compiled by Catholic Migration Services, one of seven QHC member organizations, based on a recent survey of 50 individuals living in Corona, the closest neighborhood to Willets Point.
“Forty out of 50 people have trouble paying their rent,” he said. “This is not a game. We have to mobilize the community.
“How will building a stadium help us?” he asked. “If we continue this way, we’ll have to move out of Queens to the country and come here to work.
“Soon we will be electing a new mayor. We have the power to do something,” he said.
Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), who took office after the original plan had been approved, said, “It is very frustrating for me to find out what the plans are. I’ve learned we’re not always going to get what we deserve. This is the time to negotiate.”
A native of Corona herself, Ferreras said, “I understand when entire families are living in a room. No one deserves that. This is a priority.
“I’m not against development. We need economic development, we need jobs in our community, but we need it done responsibly.
“I will fight for affordable housing, but I need you behind me,” she said.
Ferreras promised to keep the coalition abreast of any further change in plans and to ask the city-selected developers, The Related Companies and Sterling Equities, to attend a future meeting of the QHC to discuss the situation directly with members of the community.
“We have to put pressure on the mayor to comply with his promise,” Eduardo Barahona, executive director of Centro Hispano “Cuzcatlan,” another QHC member organization, said before the meeting. “We must fix the root of the problem. There is no strong legislation that makes it mandatory to give affordable housing where they do the rezoning.
“The Inclusionary Housing Program, which allows developers to build higher buildings if they agree to develop 20 percent of those buildings for affordable housing, should be mandatory for all developers and for the government.”
Barahona also believes it should be mandatory for the government to include affordable housing in projects as well as strengthened rent regulations when using their own government land.
“They are more on behalf of landlords, not tenants,” he said. “There is so much abuse from landlords who harass and overcharge.”
He was also critical of the Rent Guidelines Board, which determines annual rent increases. “That board is selected by the mayor,” he said. “If the mayor is not doing the right thing, how can the board do a good job? There should be a better way to decide the rent increases.”