Housing, NIMBYism, and Political Power
The state of political power in the East Bronx, and what led to the district's first Republican Council Member in forty years.
“They could be child molesters.” – Kristy Marmorato, New York City Council Member-elect
Last summer, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development announced “Just Home,” a plan to convert a vacant staff residence on the Jacobi Hospital campus into seventy units of supportive housing for homeless New Yorkers.
Despite the supportive housing site at 1900 Seminole Avenue being confined to the Jacobi campus, separated by “brick wall and fence” from the historically Italian, Republican-leaning homeowning community of Morris Park to the west, the project – an intersection of “the most fraught issues in the city: homelessness, mental health, development, and the risk of crime, whether real or perceived” – was met with a shrill outcry, enough to make the conventional “Bronx Cheer” appear tame.
Said community opposition, embodied by the “raucous” atmosphere at the Morris Park Community Association meeting – where outraged residents debated whether to refer to the potential newcomers as “criminals” or “animals” – was enough vitriol to pacify most local politicians. Without fail – incumbent Democrats and Republican challengers, past and present alike – lined up, one by one, to oppose the project – with the lone voice of dissent against this “Not In My Backyard” chorus coming from the neighborhood’s congresswoman, a democratic socialist from Parkchester.
Nevertheless, the newly-elected Democratic City Council Member, a progressive reformer turned cautious insider, anxious about how the project’s optics may affect her re-election prospects the following year, stood before an indignant crowd in the ballroom of Maestro’s Caterers on Bronxdale Avenue, and told the tense audience she would stand against “Just Home”.
“This is not the location for this. This is not about politics, but the community we live in.”
In one corner of New York City, bi-partisan consensus had been achieved.
Knowing that Morris Park would be a critical bellwether in next November’s General Election, the Democrat remained wary of the area’s conservative voters, and the retribution they could exact at the ballot box if she bucked their wishes. Despite the neighborhood’s affinity for the Republican Party, the incumbent had held her own the previous year, even outperforming the Democrat at the top-of-the-ticket, ultimately achieving a double-digit victory. To win once more, amidst a more difficult cycle, she could not afford to bleed votes from Morris Park.
Undoubtedly, her Republican opposition would still try to link her with the unpopular project – but the people of Morris Park, who demanded that she oppose “Just Home,” would surely remember that she had stood beside them.
After all, Marjorie Velázquez had supported their interests – the interests of those who held just enough power, as a result of their collective votes, to pose a considerable threat to her source of power, a seat on the New York City Council – all at the expense of the formerly incarcerated and low-income.
It made no difference.
Certainly, it made no difference to Kristy Marmorato, who credited the Community Association’s mobilization against the supportive housing site for motivating her to run for City Council – despite the fact that on the issue of “Just Home”, the very issue which “inspired” Marmorato’s campaign, there was little daylight between the insurgent Republican and the incumbent Democrat.
When the voters of Morris Park cast their ballots the following November, Velázquez was not rewarded for her loyalty. Rather, she was soundly rejected. In every election district in the neighborhood, Velázquez regressed compared to her previous performance – with precincts that supported Democratic candidates just one year prior swinging towards the GOP by double-digit margins.
However, the story of the campaign can be told by a handful of city blocks in the neighborhood’s northeastern corner, where, tucked in between Pelham Parkway South and Stillwell Avenue, rests an oft-forgotten sliver of Morris Park. While technically a part of the neighborhood writ large, these blocks, cleaved from the mainland by the Jacobi Hospital campus, take on a markedly different character than the rest of Morris Park.
While the single family homes, assembled from carefully chiseled brick long before the second World War, can still be found – they are fewer and farther between – often resting on smaller plots of land than their neighbors to the west, with price points that bear a closer resemblance to that of middle-class Pelham Bay. Here, multi-story apartments, forbidden throughout much of area due to strict zoning laws, remain integral to housing the area’s working and middle-class families, fixed-income retirees, and students at nearby Albert Einstein College of Medicine – culminating in racial integration unmatched throughout the rest of Morris Park, given these couple blocks having the highest percentages of Blacks, Latinos and Asians in all of neighborhood. On the west side of the hospital, over half the residents own their homes, while to the east side, over three-quarters remain renters – the result of household incomes thirty-percent lower than the more affluent side of the neighborhood.
Unlike the quiet side-streets of the Morris Park mainland – lined with tudor-style homes, grass front lawns, and shady trees – the people of the neighborhood’s northeastern corner cannot count on such amenities. Here, the telephone wires and power lines droop low overhead, while front yards double-up as driveways or garages. But the biggest difference is the noise. Here, resident’s commercial neighbors are not the mom and pop shops bearing the names of Enzo, Addeo, Patricia, and Luciano – but rather a slew of bus depots, auto body shops, rental car services, tow truck companies, and ambulance battalions – an amalgamation of necessary boroughwide services, nonetheless concentrated into one corner of one community, ensuring a round-the-clock ensemble of automotive roar.
Despite the Blood Red of the Morris Park mainland, Democrats had won these middle-class blocks – at the city, state, and federal levels, every November – for nearly fifteen years. Just last fall – Kathy Hochul and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took at least sixty-four percent of the vote in this precinct, each winning the election district by well over one-hundred votes.
However, similar success would escape Marjorie Velázquez. For, not only did the incumbent fail to match the strong numbers posted by Democrats the year prior, she lost the precinct outright. Yet, not only did she lose the precinct outright – she lost it by over twenty points – a fifty-nine point swing compared to Chuck Schumer’s total.
In an off-year election with no contest at the top of the ticket, voter turnout in Council District 13 decreased by 31% compared to Velázquez’s first race two years prior. In the district, voter turnout in 2023 was only 40% of 2022’s competitive general election, while representing a paltry 23% of 2020’s Presidential race.
In spite of those factors, on these blocks – traditionally a middle-class, racially-mixed Democratic outpost – Kristy Marmorato won more raw votes (177) than any Republican had this century.
Marmorato’s raw numbers were greater than that of Donald Trump in 2020 or 2016, exceeding those of Lee Zeldin in 2022, while far surpassing the likes of Curtis Sliwa and Nicole Malliotakis. She even bested Michael Bloomberg, the last Republican to win this precinct – despite the latter benefiting from a lesser degree of racial and class integration on said blocks at the time.
Among these voters – overwhelmingly registered Democrats, with more Independents than Republicans to boot – did it matter one bit that Marjorie Velázquez, like Kristy Marmorato, had also opposed the “Just Home” project?
The answer, delivered alongside the incumbent’s defeat, was “No.”
“Just Home” marked another case-study in the politics of the East Bronx, in what has become a series of lessons on the political power of NIMBYism – the phenomenon in which residents oppose a new development in their neighborhood based on the assumed characteristics of the population that will be living there, triggering fears of rising crime, diminished quality of life, and decreased property values.
Here, development was not a partisan issue – and local politicians were not only expected to comply with the stringent demands of homeowners associations and anti-development locals, but actively lead the charge alongside them against projects like “Just Home” and the Bruckner Boulevard Rezoning. New York Council District 13 – which had only produced a paltry 58 units of affordable housing in the past decade, and overlapped with (the notoriously NIMBY) Bronx Community Board 11, one of three districts in the city without a single homeless shelter – was the epicenter of this current.
Before Velázquez, the district was represented by her political rival, Mark Gjonaj, an Albanian ex-Assembly Member who was ultimately sidelined for questionable fundraising practices. Yet, perhaps no elected official embodied this ethos better than Gjonaj, who infamously spent over $17,000 of campaign funds to sue the city in opposition to homeless shelters and mental health facilities. His predecessor, fellow-Democratic Jimmy Vacca, worked closely with the Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg to downzone Morris Park, Pelham Bay, Throggs Neck, and Country Club – ensuring that single-family zoning would be preserved throughout wide swaths of the district. These maneuvers reinforced economic barriers to entry for many working-class families looking to settle in these neighborhoods, many of whom could afford to rent apartment houses, but lacked the capital to make a five-figure downpayment on a home.
While the Throgs Neck Expressway served as barrier that preserved the racial and class character of the district’s more exclusive waterfront communities to the easts, the middle and working-class Latino population, two-thirds Puerto Rican, had been steadily growing for two decades – many of whom settled in Throggs Neck, Schuylerville, and Pelham Bay.
Enter the Bruckner Boulevard Rezoning – a City Hall-backed plan to create 339 housing units across four buildings (the tallest of which would be eight stories high), 100 of which would be deemed “affordable” in the Throggs Neck section of the district. From the onset, the rezoning became a dog-whistle for class integration, enraging single- and two-family homeowners in proximity to the proposal, who felt as though their way of life was under siege. Velázquez sensed the political toxicity of the plan, and vowed to fight against it – earning praise inside the district, while drawing rebuke from many outsiders dismayed by the episode’s near-perfect illustration of why New York City fails to build enough housing.
Historically, opposition from Velázquez, the local Council Member, would have been enough to kill the project – owed to the City Council’s informal practice of “member deference”, which gave local members de-facto veto power over land use decisions in their own districts. However, amidst the injection of New York’s housing shortage into the local political zeitgeist, there was considerable impetus – on behalf of the Mayor, City Council Speaker, and the body writ large – to see the Bruckner Boulevard Rezoning passed, regardless of what Velázquez said. If necessary, she would be overruled.
Cornered, Marjorie Velázquez changed her position. Trading the allyship of anti-development locals and estate associations – interests that could endanger her re-election bid but held little power outside the confines of the 13th district – for the support of organized labor and City Hall– which would bring her more cachet in the halls of power, but could not guarantee her safety in the upcoming campaign.
Velázquez’s pivot earned her the support of Labor Strong, a coalition of New York City’s prominent labor unions – 32BJ, DC37, New York State Nurses Association, Hotel Trades Council and Communication Workers of America District 1. Kevin Elkins, the political director New York City District Council of Carpenters, said, “Jesus Christ could have come in for an interview and we’d still pick Marjorie.” With few competitive general elections throughout New York City, observers posited that labor would have the time and available resources to go all-in on Velázquez, given that organized labor is historically best at mobilizing voters in low-turnout elections, particularly in working-middle class neighborhoods.
The rezoning underscored the schism between Velázquez and her predecessors – and the political calculus of Democratic politicians in the East Bronx. Jimmy Vacca, one of the district’s former council members who presided over that dearth of housing construction during his twelve years in City Hall, refused to back Velázquez due to her support of the rezoning – “People in the district cross party lines when they think they should.” Vacca’s public break with Velázquez was notable, given the former had backed the latter as his successor in a contentious five-way Democratic primary in 2017. Back then, Velázquez was endorsed by The New York Times Editorial Board as a liberal alternative to the conservative Gjonaj, in addition to the Working Families Party – with the latter serving as a marquee supporter on Velázquez’s victorious effort four years later. However, this cycle, neither endorsement would be forthcoming.
The New York Times Editorial Board – while undoubtedly more influential with affluents sequestered behind the doormen of Riverside Drive than amongst immigrant families living in the modest, two-family homes along Pelham Parkway – had little to say with respect to Velázquez, beyond Mara Gay’s column over one year prior to the election, which portrayed the incumbent’s then-opposition to the Bruckner Boulevard rezoning as a symptom of the NIMBY-ism that is fueling the city’s housing crisis.
Amidst a year of transitioned leadership, the Working Families Party remained sidelined in many of New York City’s pre-eminent electoral battles – absent from the general election campaigns of both Velázquez and Justin Brannan, reflective of the mutual decision from the purple-district Democrats to distance themselves from the city’s progressive standard bearer. Concerned with optics, Velázquez shed her progressive bona fides – irking the liberal-left by departing from the City Council’s Progressive Caucus in objection to the group’s new statement of principles – which mandated the caucus "do everything we can to reduce the size and scope of the NYPD and the Department of Correction.” Yet, Brannan, who also left the caucus and refused to take the WFP ballot line – nonetheless managed to energize liberal, reform Democrats (in turn, attracting considerable attention from the press) throughout Brooklyn who viewed Brannan as their ally in the ongoing proxy war against Kings County Democratic Chair, Rodneyse Bichotte. While Brannan and Velázquez had comparable support from organized labor, only the former maximized the potential for liberal, grassroots volunteers – further juicing voter turnout and, in turn, increasing one’s odds of victory.
Yet, the fundamentals of Justin Brannan’s district – the political and ethnic polyglot of left-of-center Bay Ridge, a thin-Red line threading the Gowanus Expressway to Gravesend, coupled with the Eastern half of the Coney Island Peninsula – also proved easier to negotiate for a Democratic candidate for municipal office. Here, Brannan relied heavily on his base of ideologically-diverse, upper-middle class whites in Bay Ridge, in addition to public housing residents in Gravesend and Coney Island. Dyker Heights and Bath Beach, GOP strongholds of white ethnic and Chinese homeowners that nearly fueled a Brannan upset two years ago, were neutered in redistricting, with the majority shifting to democratic socialist Alexa Avilés, leaving only a handful of blocks for Ari Kagan, who ultimately lost by seventeen-points.
In contrast, Velázquez’s path to victory rested with working and middle-class non-white voters, particularly Latinos – the majority of whom, in the East Bronx, are Puerto Rican – throughout Van Nest, Bronxdale, Pelham Bay (north of Middletown Road), the westernmost blocks of Throggs Neck, and along Allerton Avenue. While Joe Biden won the district by over thirty-points, in municipal elections the margin was far tighter – the result of decreased voter turnout, most pronounced in the district’s working class neighborhoods, countered by a consistent, but not overwhelming, base of white ethnic (largely Italian), Republican homeowners in Morris Park, Throggs Neck, and Country Club.
However, under a perfect storm of circumstances, if irked, this cohort could overwhelm an incumbent Democrat, and swing a close, low-turnout election. Two controversial developments in separate quarters of the district that left these voters not only bothered, but incensed and motivated – certainly fit the bill.
Other districts in the East Bronx are gerrymandered to include Democratic fortresses like Parkchester, Westchester Square, or Co-Op City for this exact reason – to offset the vote-rich Republican precincts East of the Throgs Neck Expressway.
Marjorie Velázquez had no such luck.
On Election Day, a stream of concern was emanating from the Velázquez campaign. Polling sites at Locust Point Civic Hall, Edgewater Volunteer Fire House, and the Morris Park Community Association (our story comes full-circle) were bustling, abnormally busy for a municipal election with no top-of-the-ticket. At PS 14 on Bruckner Boulevard – fittingly named after John Calandra, an Italian Republican from the East Bronx – voter turnout was high, with much of the chatter revolving around the rezoning1. Unions were phone-banking their in-district members to get them to the polls – and being rebuffed outright. A perfect storm indeed.
Early Voting totals came in right on time at 9:03 P.M. – as Marmorato led Velázquez by over two hundred votes, an early premonition of what was to come, given Democrats traditionally overperform with respect to the early vote. The Republican’s margin, which fluctuated between 6-8% as the remainder of ballots trickled in, held consistently throughout the evening – culminating in the incumbent’s defeat.
Overall, Kristy Marmorato defeated Marjorie Velázquez by a margin of 6,571 votes (52.46%) to 5,863 votes (46.81%), becoming the first Republican elected to City Council in the Bronx in forty years.
Marmorato’s base – the GOP strongholds of Country Club, Spencer Estates, Edgewater Park, Locust Point and Silver Beach – typically accounts for one-sixth of the vote in Council District 13, an above-average ratio for ten precincts, but by no means an outlier of civic-engagement. However, this November, that ratio increased by 25% – meaning that the aforementioned ten election districts accounted for over 21% of the district’s total turnout. Furthermore, while Democrats have always struggled here in non-Presidential cycles, Velázquez underperformed (20.31%) across the board, a double-digit GOP swing when compared to that of Chuck Schumer (34.15%), Kathy Hochul (29.69%), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (28.18%).
Pelham Bay, once safely Republican in the eras of Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Guliani, had traded political hands between Democrats and Republicans over the past decade. Case and point, Bill de Blasio handily defeated Joe Lhota here in 2013, before being trounced by Nicole Malliotakis in the same precincts four years later. Here, Democratic prowess among with the apartment houses near the terminus of the 6 train, like Hazel Towers and Middletown Plaza, is countered by Republican dominance south of Middletown Road, uncoincidentally where apartments give way to single-family homes. While Velázquez held her own, eking out a narrow majority here, voter turnout in Pelham Bay, as a percentage of the entire district’s electorate, decreased by 20%.
The further south that one ventures, the closer one comes to Bruckner Boulevard. And the closer one comes to Bruckner Boulevard, the more pronounced the dropoff – from one year to the next – in Democratic vote share.
Of the precincts adjacent to Bruckner Boulevard, the site of the proposed rezoning that roiled the district, Marjorie Velázquez – the incumbent Council Member who, amidst great controversy, changed her position on the matter to one of support – saw her vote share decrease, on average, by 15% compared to that of Kathy Hochul and 20% compared to Chuck Schumer, a staggering, yet not unpredictable development, that shifted these precincts between thirty and forty points towards the GOP.
Sometimes, the simplest explanation is also the best – here, Marjorie Velázquez’s support for the Bruckner Boulevard rezoning doomed her.
Proof of concept rests across Eastchester Bay with the bungalows of City Island. An outpost of crab shacks and marinas with a genuinely purple political character, this waterfront enclave gave a majority of their votes to Joe Biden, Curtis Sliwa, Lee Zeldin, Michael Benedetto, and Marjorie Velázquez. Physically removed from the specter of upzoning or supportive housing coming to their neighborhood, a phenomena that had consumed the voters in Throggs Neck, Morris Park and Pelham Bay – City Island delivered their votes to Velázquez once more – remaining a political outlier in the process, as the only white-majority part of the district where the incumbent’s vote share did not precipitously decrease.
Yet, for the voters in proximity to the Bruckner Boulevard Rezoning, class had superseded race, for it did not make a difference whether one lived on either side of East Tremont Avenue – be it the majority-Latino west side or the Italian east side.
Apartment houses could bring more working people and further integrate the neighborhood, but it could also bring crime and lower property values – maybe the latter talking point was just a trojan-horse to mask the former. As Errol Louis stated in his post election column, Velázquez did the right thing - and lost her job as a result.
However, the author hopes to add further context to that point.
Marjorie Velázquez only came to support the Bruckner rezoning after prominent figures and interests in New York City – namely, Mayor Eric Adams, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, the state’s labor movement writ large, and The New York Times Editorial Board – leaned on her to do so, while pressing the notion that they would willingly deploy their own power to accomplish this aim without her, if necessary. Furthermore, when Velázquez accepted this reality, she was blessed with tangible support that aided her re-election effort – particularly from organized labor, who happily wielded their power (through mailers, canvasses etc.) to help Velázquez retain her source of power. Velázquez’s defeat does not change the fact that many influential figures came to bat for her as a result of her decision to support the rezoning. Nonetheless, those powerful supporters, who traditionally enjoy deference–even reverence–in political spaces, fell on deaf ears with the East Bronx electorate.
Contrast this arrangement with the “Just Home” project – which pitted the homeless and formerly-incarcerated against Morris Park’s homeowners. Organized labor boosted Velázquez with respect to the Bruckner Boulevard Rezoning because development meant more jobs and contracts for their union members. Eric Adams backed Velázquez because the rezoning would represent a tangible accomplishment for his administration. Had Velázquez supported “Just Home,” there would have been no powerful constituency to rally around her – because aiding those on society’s margins rarely intersects with the incentives of those in power. There are few political benefits for standing up for those too often shut out from the discourse of power and politics – and this is where one needs the drive to do the right thing – be it building an apartment house or a supportive housing site in a community that shows little desire to do either.
There will not always be political incentives to do the right thing, at least right away.
The people of Morris Park and Throggs Neck, if rebuffed by their elected officials, still have their day at the ballot box to make their voices heard – a different form of political power than the one described above, but nonetheless potent — one leveraged to great effect this November.
However, this power, derived from a strain of reactionary NIMBYism – will fall short in the City Council chamber when subjected to the will of the Democratic supermajority. Protests outside of Jacobi Hospital or the Foodtown on Bruckner Boulevard can embolden an electorate in a low turnout general election, but it will do little to move City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who now presides over a body increasingly inclined to put the the collective needs of the city over the will of an individual district.
If Marjorie Velázquez – backed by the Democratic Party in New York’s bluest county, in addition to many of the state’s most influential labor unions – learned a hard lesson on the electoral conditions of the East Bronx, Kristy Marmorato and her voters – ever opposed to the specter of development, and the class integration that comes along with it – will come to learn that backlash in Indian Village does not necessarily translate to real power in City Hall.
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An embellishment for narrative purposes