Banana Kelly pushes for a land trust ahead of Southern Boulevard rezoning

A nonprofit in Longwood is rallying residents to fight displacement amid the city’s impending rezoning.

About 30 people discussed the rezoning of a 130-block area from Longwood north to Crotona Park, on either side of Southern Boulevard, at the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association on Prospect Avenue on Tuesday, Sept. 18. To stave off potential displacement, Banana Kelly proposed building a community land trust — a citywide movement which allows nonprofits or community groups to take control of underutilized land and work with the community to redevelop it, or in some cases, keep it exactly the same.

City Planning revealed in June that it was studying the neighborhoods near Southern Boulevard for rezoning, proposing flipping manufacturing zones into commercial and residential zones. To opponents who protested the study, rezoning meant inviting development to the neighborhood, which could hike up rent prices and push residents out.

“The rezoning is not for us,” said Jadine Ortega, 30, of Longwood. “It’s not really for our improvement.”

Banana Kelly has an idea that might at least delay the displacement residents are concerned about: a community land trust.

“If we own the land, we get to decide what will go there,” said Nick Shatan, a coordinator with the Bronx Cooperative Development initiative who spoke at the event.

Banana Kelly is just the most recent group to propose a community land trust in response to residents’ fear of displacement as developers eye the South Bronx as one of the last areas in the city with open land. Several land trusts have been established in the city in the last year, including one in Port Morris and Mott Haven organized by community group South Bronx Unite.

To some opposition, urban developer Majora Carter also began a Hunts Point and Longwood community land trust. Instead of taking ownership of land through community groups though, Carter encouraged residents to accrue more individual private ownership, convincing homeowners to buy up other parts of their building or to even construct another floor.

Banana Kelly actually petitioned for a land trust with the city long before Carter and South Bronx Unite began debating over the phrase, according to president Harry DeRienzo.

DeRienzo said the city rejected Banana Kelly’s initial bid for a land trust in Longwood due to a lack of funds a few years ago, before Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration began funding trusts around the city. But already in possession of 50 affordable housing buildings, Banana Kelly has developed a plan that doesn’t need to rely on city funding, DeRienzo said.

He said the first step to building a land trust would be to form an independent housing board run by residents.

Then Banana Kelly would ideally pick up more land, DeRienzo said, and work with the community to decide what it should be used for: manufacturing that will create high paying jobs, affordable housing, cultural hubs. Then, the nonprofit would draw up a land lease for the city to approve. If they can submit this before rezoning takes place, the new zoning could work in their favor, he said.

But amid competition from other developers willing to pay millions, residents have to mobilize and move quickly, he added.

“If people here could vote in blocs, we’d have the political power to do it.”

Residents can meet again to discuss the land trust on Oct. 16 at 6 p.m.

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