As the summer heat descends upon New York City, transit news often slows down. It’s an annual tradition, one exacerbated this year by the looming Second Ave. Subway opening and a fall budget proposal that will reinforce another looming MTA fare hike, set to arrive in 2017. But in certain corners of the city, a debate over a transit proposal and its effects on neighborhoods has emerged. In a way, it’s a debate over the future of the city, and it’s a proxy for anti-development forces. But at the same time, it raises some uncomfortable questions regarding transit, gentrification and displacement.
This issue has arisen in the so-called visioning sessions New York City has held on the mayor’s Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar proposal. During multiple sessions, attendees have expressed concerns that the streetcar will speed up gentrification and displace long-time residents. Thus, the plan, these opponents say, should be discarded in the name of affordability.
Both Gothamist and amNY have explored these arguments, and for the sake of fairness, I have to note that those at these sessions have raised more compelling arguments against the streetcar, including the lack of subway connections, its location in a flood-prone area, and the overall concern with the viability of the route. It may not do what a transit line should do — that is, connect people with where they are with where they want to go — and concerns that the streetcar is a giveaway for developers and waterfront tourists rings true.
But I wanted to look at the idea that transit improvements should be opposed because they lead to gentrification. The underlying philosophy here is that areas are home to lower income residents because they are inaccessible. Accessibility increases demand, and an increase an demand means an increase in rent. Thus, to maintain a neighborhood’s “character” and avoid the forces of gentrification, areas must be kept relatively inaccessible (or, at least, accessible only by bus, which exists with the perception that the bus is for poor people only).
This doesn’t work for me. On a citywide basis, one of the challenges to affordability is transit, and it’s been one of my concerns with the mayor’s affordable housing plan. This plan simply does not have a transit component. The mayor can talk about prettying up some subway stations in East New York, but that doesn’t do a thing to decrease travel times and increase mobility. (Whether the BQX itself does that is up for debate, but on a general level, that’s what transit improvements should do.)
But opposing transit upgrades because they may lead to displacement seems to suggest that we cannot solve accessibility and affordability as improving accessibility decreases affordability. Over the years, studies have shown that transit access will be a factor in increased rents and gentrification, but transit access isn’t the only factor. It is, then, possible and necessary to implement zoning and housing policies that can tamp down on the upward pressures transit access exerts on the affordability of a neighborhood and stave off displacement. And that’s what we need to see here. If the city is going to push a streetcar funded by real estate developers who are keen on realizing property value increases, the plan must come with some anti-displacement policies that will keep neighborhoods in tact.
I don’t know where the Brooklyn-Queens Connector plan will go from here. Mayor de Blasio has had other issues on his plate in recent months, and the EDC has been forging ahead quietly. It’s not a route that many transit planners embrace even as certain advocacy groups have lined up behind it. But oppose it on its merits and not on a trumped-up charge that transit upgrades can’t occur in un-gentrified areas because of displacement. The end result of that argument leads to a dead end for increased transit usage, improved mobility and better opportunities for everyone.