*Interview by Nikkia Rivera of EastNewYork.com*
Council Member Rafael Espinal, a Cypress Hills native, knew at a young age that his neighborhood was not like others. “Growing up there, I was always dissatisfied with the conditions of the community as a whole, and pretty much of the lack of resources that were provided to the residences in the neighborhood when it comes to our schools and even to our local infrastructure like our parks and roads,” said Espinal, who has been representing District 37 since 2013. Sitting at a table in his Manhattan Legislative Office, he continued “I remember always wanting to leave the neighborhood for those reasons, and wanting my family to move into a better area.” Espinal grew up as one of six kids to two Dominican immigrant parents. With the intention of becoming a high school teacher, Espinal graduated college with a degree in English, accepted a job as a daily correspondence assistant for a local Council Member and was prepared to return to school to pursue a higher degree.
“I didn’t think I’d be involved in politics, but there were a couple of times I was able to help constituents outside of the schools,” Espinal explained. He recounted a time when a man reached out to the Council Member’s Office regarding his daughter, who was being bullied to the point where she was afraid to attend school. The principal of her school refused to grant her permission to transfer out. “I was able to call the principal and say, “Hey listen, this is a constituent of ours, he’s looking to move his daughter, he’s having issues in the schools, there shouldn’t be a reason why you can’t grant the transfer.’ And a few weeks later he calls me and he says, “Hey, Rafael, my daughter’s back in school, she’s been going to school every single day, I’m so happy, I’m so glad you made this possible.’ And that really inspired me to look at how I can be effective from the outside of the education system and also have a greater impact on people’s lives. And, from then on is when I started really growing an interest in being more involved in local government and local politics. Four years later, after working up through the ranks of the councilmen’s office, a local assemblyman resigned and the opportunity came up for me to run for office. And I gave it great thought and that’s when I decided that my true passion would to be to serve the community on a political scale.”
Presently, Espinal’s biggest accomplishment to date is the passing and funding of the East New York Neighborhood Plan, a multifaceted, quarter of a billion dollar project that will create more affordable housing in East New York, as well as the updating and rebuilding of schools, roads, community centers, parks, and other resources along with the rezoning of the entire area. Council Member Espinal sat down with us to explain the initiative, process, and ultimate goal of the East New York Neighborhood Plan.
Can you explain in detail the initiative of the ENY Neighborhood Plan?
Espinal: The initiative of the plan was to create affordable housing. We’re undergoing a huge affordable housing crisis here in the City. I think if we look next door to neighborhoods like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, rents are well above $2,000, and the reality is that working class and middle class families can’t afford those rents. That story of being able to move into East New York and buy a home or rent a place at an affordable price is hitting an end. My parents came to this country 40 years ago and were able to buy a house and raise six children in that house. An immigrant cannot come into this country now and buy a house in East New York and raise six children because it’s just not feasible at all. So, the plan was to create more affordable housing. And I used it as an opportunity to not only create affordable housing, but to better the lives of our students, those who are unemployed, our current homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages, and increasing overall quality of life in East New York, so we can not only create a neighborhood only for newcomers coming in, but also give the tools to my constituents that they need to stay in their communities.
What do you see as the largest issues facing East New York?
Espinal: East New Yorkers have to see the writing on the wall. And that is that our neighborhoods are going to become gentrified like every other neighborhood in Brooklyn. Bushwick has seen many of the negative effects of gentrification because the government never came in and stepped in and implemented a plan to help retain as many Bushwick residents as possible. East New York, that’s what we’re trying to do. While we might not see it today, in the next few years we’re going to see a lot of the new residents moving into our areas, buying the homes that are there, moving into the apartments ,and if we sit back and did nothing, then we would fall into the same fate of the people who lived in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg. This was a plan to increase housing stock, and give tools to our residents, so that they have a better opportunity the people in other neighborhoods have.
What is your response to critics who believe the rezoning of East New York will further aid gentrification?
Espinal: I think that, again, that they have to look at the current trend. The trend is that New York City is becoming one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Brooklyn was named as being the most expensive place to live in the country compared to San Francisco and other big cities. So, our neighborhoods are being looked at by not only people living in this country, but people living around the world. So, when you have that much pressure in our borough, that means that pressure’s going to squeeze out all those who can’t afford to live here. And, if we sat back and did nothing, then we’ll be at greater risk of losing more of our current New Yorkers than if we put a plan in place to help protect them and give them the tools they need to stay in their neighborhoods. Look at it like a vaccine, you inject the vaccine and there’s some bad in it, but at the end of the day, that bad helps create the greater good to help protect the people, to help protect you from all the negative forces that are coming into the community. All these investments are to invest into the people who are currently living there, to give them the tools they need. I think there is a lot of fear about past rezonings. Williamsburg was rezoned, the waterfront was rezoned about ten years ago, and as we saw, has brought a lot of over-development and a lot of displacement. But, when Bloomberg pushed that rezoning it was to create more economic development. I don’t believe that the intention of that rezoning was to create affordable housing. In East New York, the intention of this rezoning is to create more affordable housing in an area that is market-unit-rich. We don’t have that permanent affordable housing that we see in other neighborhoods. Rent-stabilized apartments hardly exist in Cypress Hills and East New York. We mostly have those one- or two-family homes where homeowners can either sell their homes or jack the rent up as high as they want in their buildings. So, if we don’t have that permanent affordable housing, then we’ll have nowhere for our residents to go when those market pressures begin to squeeze people out of the communities.
When will most of these projects be completed and open for public use?
Espinal: A lot of the funding has already been allocated in last year’s budget and all the appropriate agencies have received the funding and are beginning to make those investments. Our principles and our schools are already working with the DOE (Department of Education) to get all of their computers upgraded, to get their classrooms upgraded. There is already construction going on for the community center, which will open up by the end of the year. The Department of Transportation is looking to break ground on Atlantic Avenue this Spring, and create a safer and more accessible Atlantic Avenue to help bridge northern East New York and southern East New York. The homeowner help desk, which is there to help homeowners, has already launched and homeowners already have access to that program. So, all of the important investments that we need in order to prevent displacement are in place already, and all of the investments to enhance the community are already coming down the pipeline.
Something that’s not being spoken about is that early on, before the plan passed, I was working with the Mayor to get a tenant protection unit out into the community, and they’re going door to door, apartment to apartment, looking for tenants who are being harassed by their current homeowners or who are facing eviction, to get free legal help, so they can stay in their apartments. I also want the community to know that if you are facing eviction or are being harassed, there is free legal help available to help keep you in your apartment. All you have to do is reach out to my office or call 311 and you’ll get that help which is something we’ve never seen in other communities when this plan was put in place.
Can you talk about your other current project, the Food Portal?
Espinal: I introduced a bill recently that will push the City to create a food portal or food website where private businesses can post all of the extra unused food that they have, so that food banks could access that food and get it to hungry New Yorkers. I think it’s a common sight in East New York and in Bushwick and other neighborhoods where you see lines out the door in churches or other community centers and people are lining up to have access to food. So, food banks are constantly coming to the City Council and to the Mayor’s Office looking for more funding because there is a great need for the food. But, what we’re looking to do here is to create that access, so that instead of us spending more money every year on increasing the supply, we can increase supply by getting food that’s going to end up in our landfills and get them to New Yorkers. Now, I imagine it to be like a Craigslist for foodbanks. The statistics have shown that forty percent of food that’s produced goes uneaten and into our trash. And why not create an easy way to link that food to people who are in need of it? I think that East New York will be one of the neighborhoods that will benefit greatly from this because we do have a lot of supermarkets that have testified that they are guilty of tossing food out because they have nowhere to send it to, but, if this food portal’s available to them, then they’ll be able to send that food to the local pantries in the neighborhood.
Where do you see East New York in the future?
Espinal: I feel that East New York will be the most unique neighborhood in the entire borough. I think a lot of our neighborhoods have been homogenized because of the lack of city investment protections to protect the soul and the character of our communities. Not to say that other neighborhoods don’t have these special things about them. Of course, they do. But, not to the degree that existed ten years ago. East New York, with all of the investments we were able to bring in, will have the opportunity to save that character while also making room for new residents. So, I believe East New York will be the most diverse and the most inclusive neighborhood in all of Brooklyn. It’ll be a home for the working class, it will be a home for our immigrants, for our middle class, for our artists, for new transplants. Everyone will have the opportunity to live in the neighborhood and we will be able to retain the soul of East New York.
Contact: CM Espinal’s office at 718-642-8664 or 212-788-7284 or 311
Workforce1 Career Center: Aids New Yorkers in preparing for and finding jobs.
Address: 2619 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11207
Telephone: (646) 606-0301
Hours: Monday – Friday: 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM
Homeowner Help Desk: Services for homeowners, including advice and assistance with issues such as foreclosure prevention, scam addressing, home repair, loans, etc.
Contact: CM Rafael Espinal’s office OR
Lisa Maldonado at Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation: (718) 647-8100
District Office: (718) 642-8664 786Knickerbocker Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11207
Legislative Office: (212) 788-7284 250Broadway Suite 1880
New York, NY 10007