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Manhattan's last affordable neighbourhood under siege

Inwood, with its distinct Dominican atmosphere, is up for rezoning, which residents say will change its character

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An intersection in Inwood, a neighbourhood near the northern tip of New York City's Manhattan borough. The neighbourhood's median income of almost US$42,000 lags behind the US$73,000 approximate median income in Manhattan, and the US$53,000 median income in the city.

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Protesters against the rezoning hanging banners in the neighbourhood last week. Affordable housing is a key goal for the city, but the rezoning of 59 blocks in Inwood has many worried that the influx of new residents and businesses will change its look and feel - and rents - forever.

New York

THERE is a way of life in Inwood, a sense of place, order and community that is more than its surroundings suggest.

There are the lush parks and riverfront views. The streets are filled with low-rise, walk-up tenements. And there is the diversity: Nearly half the residents here are foreign born.

But there is something else. To Kate Fray, an immigrant from England who has lived in New York for 10 years and in Inwood for the last four, it is "the way we speak to each other, the way we look out for each other, the way we look after each other".

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Others speak of the Dominican culture evident in the shops and restaurants; three-quarters of Inwood's almost 43,000 residents are Latino, and Inwood contains the highest concentration of Dominicans in the city.

It is not as if Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to damage or alter the neighbourhood's character in any way. Yet, as part of his plan to rezone up to 15 neighbourhoods across the city to facilitate the construction and preservation of 300,000 units of affordable housing by 2026, Inwood - and some residents fear, its way of life - stands in the way.

The rezoning of 59 blocks in Inwood, often referred to as the last affordable neighbourhood in Manhattan, has been in the planning stages for almost three years. The City Council zoning sub-committee and the Land Use Committee approved the rezoning last week.

The new zoning would dramatically reshape the now largely industrial area east of 10th Avenue and allow for buildings between 18 and 30 storeys tall that would include a mix of market-rate and affordable housing. The city says the proposal would create and preserve 4,100 units of affordable housing, including the creation of 925 affordable units on city-owned land.

Another 675 units would be created in the market-rate buildings because mandatory inclusionary housing rules require developers to build affordable housing into new projects made possible by rezoning. Over the next five years, the city is also pledging to preserve 2,500 units of existing affordable housing in Inwood.

City officials say the rezoning will combat the gentrification that is already occurring there. While many of Inwood's units are rent-regulated, rents in Community District 12, which includes Inwood, Washington Heights and Marble Hill, are increasing faster than in the city as a whole.

The median rent in the district rose 38 per cent between 2002 and 2014, vs 24 per cent city-wide. But some Inwood residents have made it clear they will continue to fight because they believe the neighbourhood's soul and character is at stake.

Jeanne Ruskin, 71, an actor and teacher who first came to Inwood when she was 10 to visit relatives from Europe and has lived in the area for 37 years, said: "The people who have been displaced from all these other neighbourhoods end up here because we still have affordable housing available.

"You talk to people on the street that you meet, and they've moved up here two, three years ago from Williamsburg, from Long Island City, from Harlem. Where will we go? This is the last bastion."

Several protests have been held in the neighbourhood as the City Council vote approaches, including a sleep-in last week at the district office of City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who supports the plan.

Nova Lucero, an organiser with Met Council for Housing and the lead organiser of the Northern Manhattan is Not For Sale Coalition, said: "It's not over until it's over."

Rezoning has been approved in four other low-income and mostly minority neighbourhoods but has proved to be equally controversial. Residents in neighbourhoods such as East Harlem and East New York say they already faced displacement because of rising housing costs, and argue that the changes would bring in more market-rate apartments and hasten the process of gentrification.

Opponents of the plan say the rezoning is not contextual and does not line up with the character of the neighbourhood. Most of the units in those buildings will be market-rate and bring in residents no longer interested in patronising the beauty salons, Dominican barbershops and specialty food shops that cater to immigrants, they say.

Josmar Rojas, 39, a personal trainer who moved to the US from the Dominican Republic and has lived in Inwood since 1992, said: "You really lose the culture of the neighbourhood, the character of the neighbourhood. It's not going to be the same individuals living here."

Because fewer than 200 new units of housing have been built in Inwood over the last 20 years versus the 67,000 built in Manhattan, the pressure on affordability will only increase, said James Patchett, president of the Economic Development Corp.

Mayor de Blasio said in a recent radio interview: "I think the gentrification has been happening already. When the government steps in and creates some rules, and some boundaries and some guarantees of affordability, it actually rebalances the equation in favour of the people."

The neighbourhood has also faced decades of economic disinvestment. A quarter of Inwood residents live below the poverty line, compared with 18 per cent in Manhattan and 21 per cent in New York City. The neighbourhood's median income of almost US$42,000 also lags behind the US$73,000 approximate median income in Manhattan and the US$53,000 median income in the city.

Mr Lucero said: "We are trying to create responsible development without driving speculation and preserving the culture of the neighbourhood. This plan is going to create a shift."

For Mr Rojas, that shift is already underway. He and his fiancée, Anamiledys Rosario, 33, a clinical social worker who moved to New York from the Dominican Republic in 1990, were recently displaced from their rent-stabilised Inwood apartment.

The couple were going to pay nearly US$1,800 for a one-bedroom apartment on Dyckman Street, but have instead moved in with Mr Rojas' parents in Inwood to save up money for a home.

Ms Rosario, referring to the Dominican Republic by its initials, said: "We wanted to stay here, raise our kids here. We know everyone here. It feels like we're in D.R. If you want to make the neighbourhood better, really, it's about preserving it." NYTIMES