YONKERS, NY — December 13, 2018 — Yonkers, the city’s poorest section, is experiencing a boom in luxury, high-rise residential buildings. On the face of it, such news is often greeted with great fanfare, as it is seen as a marker of economic development and revitalization. But a closer examination reveals some troubling facts.
According to Groundwork Hudson Valley, which is part of a larger national network that helps underserved communities become healthier places to live, work, and play, residents of Southwest Yonkers remain plagued by poverty, unemployment and underemployment, drugs, and a general lack of educational and economic opportunities.
Over the past few decades, Southwest Yonkers has gone through a rapid socioeconomic decline. It has one of the highest crime rates in Yonkers and recent statistics reflect a community with significant economic and educational challenges. Unemployment is high at 11%, and fully 50% of the working-age population is unemployed. The median household income for the area is $30,883. 46% of all households have incomes under $25,000, and 29% of the population live below the poverty level. Educational levels, an indicator of job opportunities and earning power, are very low. For instance, 37% of young people between the ages of 18-24 do not have high school diplomas.
It is not uncommon for the housing stock in the area to be substandard and poorly managed, with landlords failing to provide heat and hot water during winter months and the City of Yonkers unable or unwilling to address such problems. When associated issues such as drugs, guns, and gangs are factored into the mix, the result is a self-perpetuating cocktail of violence, criminality, poor educational attainment, and inadequate job prospects – urban decay.
If you build it, they will come.
Cash-strapped Yonkers and the Spano administration have come up with a solution; through – luxury housing. Despite a $30,883 median household income for the area, Mayor Spano has allowed cookie-cutter high rise apartment buildings to proliferate, with rents that are as eye-watering as the impressive views of the majestic Hudson River just beyond the luxury rooftop terraces.
Writing in Gannett’s Journal News recently, Yonkers reporter Ernie Garcia outlines rents in five new luxury buildings in the area – the highest of which will cost its occupants approximately $5,250 each month for a three bedroom apartment ($63,000/year), or more than double the area’s annual median household income. With such towering prices to match the buildings’ towering facades, the message to local low-income residents is clear: these buildings and their amenities are not for you.
Garcia’s “article” reads more like advertising than reporting, which illustrates an additional problem that continues to haunt Yonkers, namely the failure of local journalism to report the news objectively and comprehensively. In fact, it reads less like an article and more like material that he simply copy-and-pasted from the marketing brochures of the respective luxury buildings:
The River Club at Hudson Park and Sawyer Place boast amenities primarily aimed at two types of households: young adults who commute to jobs in New York City and empty-nesters downsizing from homes in Westchester County.
The River Club’s most spectacular features include a lounge and indoor swimming pool overlooking the Hudson River and a roof bar with floor-to-ceiling windows.
Sawyer Place is a two-tower complex whose other half is still under construction. When completed, the development will have a landscaped terrace with an outdoor movie projection screen, a Fitness Factory Health Club and a billiards room, among other perks.
“We want the region’s moneyed and well-heeled,” these building owners are saying. Notice that Yonkers and its residents aren’t even mentioned. Only the region’s high-income individuals need apply: “two types of households: young adults who commute to jobs in New York City and empty-nesters downsizing from homes in Westchester County.”
The very names of these buildings themselves are the names of gentrification: The River Club, Sawyer Place, River Tides, Soyo Lofts, Modera. Words like “Club” connote privilege and exclusivity, while the generic “River” omits all associations with the “Hudson” and thereby with Yonkers. “Sawyer Place” sounds close enough to “Sutton Place” in Manhattan, considered to be the most affluent street in New York City. After all, money attracts money.
Now you see them. Now you don’t.
All of this begs a number of questions. Why has Mayor Spano allowed these exclusive luxury developments to mushroom in the poorest part of Yonkers? And at what cost to the city, its taxpayers, and local residents, many of whom are from communities of color? Let us remember that Yonkers is projected to have a budgetary shortfall of tens of millions of dollars in 2019. Can it afford to give away tax breaks and tax incentives to developers? And what exactly are the specifics of those tax breaks and incentives?
Rather than something unique to him, Mayor Spano’s expensive tastes in housing are indicative of recent real estate trends across America, with reports suggesting that “Three out of every four new apartment buildings are luxury designs targeted at high-end renters.” What follows is a wave of gentrification that results in the displacement of low-income residents, many of whom are either African-American or from immigrant communities. Luxury rentals and the wealthy individuals that inhabit such rarefied buildings begin to attract pricey businesses that cater to their expensive tastes. Inevitably, local property prices and rents go up, forcing out mom-and-pop businesses as well as residents who have lived in the community for decades or even generations.
Cities rezone to accommodate developers of luxury buildings, but do little to improve the lives of its residents, in an effort to woo wealthy individuals and their tax dollars. While luxury developments offer a range of amenities such as rooftop bars, pools, and manicured terraces (or as River Tides advertises: “luxury apartments for rent with resort-like amenities in Westchester”), local Yonkers residents are consigned to walk treeless streets strewn with garbage or have their children play in untended parks with cracks and weeds. Unable to afford their rents, low-income residents are forced to pick up and move on, although not necessarily to greener pastures. The process itself amounts to social engineering in which city governments, failing to address systemic issues of poverty and joblessness, simply shift their problems to other cities and towns. The wealthy can move in (and are baited with promises of pools and outdoor projection movie screens), while the poor must move out (often at great cost).
If the luxury buildings and developments are any indication, the future of Yonkers is a future marked by luxury ghettos. Wealthy residents will self-segregate themselves behind walls of exclusivity, venturing beyond their indoor garages and heated pools only when they need to access New York City “in only 32 minutes” by train. With bars, pools, terraces, gyms, movie theaters, and day care facilities at their disposal within their buildings, they will interact only with other wealthy people, and doormen, couriers, and security personnel will stand guard, ever vigilant not to let the outside world into the bastions of wealth and privilege.
“Better today, and greater tomorrow” in the words of Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano. But only if you’re wealthy, it seems. To everyone else: you’re on your own.