“CASA” stands for Community Action for Safe Apartments, with a very appropriate double meaning in Spanish. It’s an organisation I’ve known for several years and where I hope to spend lots of time while I’m here. They’re based in the Mount Eden neighbourhood of the Bronx, one of the most impoverished in the US, with a large Latino community.
CASA are part of a bigger, umbrella organisation, New Settlement, which emerged from the ashes of the Bronx in the 1970s, when hundreds of buildings were set on fire, mostly by private landlords who wanted to cash-in on insurance payments at a time when the South Bronx, in particular, was widely perceived as the epitome of urban decay. As politicians appeared to abandon the area to its fate, local people got organised. Empty buildings were occupied and made habitable, albeit with the constant threat of needing to escape from another act of commercial arson. In this process, scores of buildings were requisitioned and appropriated from irresponsible private ownership, many of them converted into cooperatives and other forms of non-market housing. New Settlement acquired 14 buildings that have since helped sustain the organisation’s many community activities, including CASA.
I was attracted to CASA by their uncompromising support for tenant’s rights. I first became aware of this in 2016 when they were fighting the re-zoning of Jerome Avenue, which runs through the western side of the Bronx, from Yankee Stadium in the south, to the border with Westchester County in the north.
Re-zoning, adopted in 2018, was an initiative of the City of New York, ostensibly to allow the building of more homes, in areas where other uses had predominated. Jerome Avenue has many small car workshops, an important source of employment for the local community. The loss of these businesses, to make way for new apartment blocks, was one of CASA’s concerns. But more generally, they were worried that re-zoning would lead to changing the character of the area in a way that displaced the working class community, as had happened in other areas of NYC after similar projects. As the urban planner, Peter Marcuse, says in “Zoned Out!” (Angotti and Morse, 2017) “zoning looms large among the tools of planning that is at the centre of conflicts involving inequality in housing, and specifically, inequality in spatial benefits”.
Walking along Jerome Avenue today, the signs of incipient gentrification are clear. There are several blocks of apartments nearing completion and a hotel is at its early stages, all located close to number 4 subway line stations that would allow a quick commute to Manhattan. But…
Nobody knows what the post-pandemic city is going to look like. I spoke to someone from the real estate industry recently, who says current occupancy of high-end offices in New York City is below 20%. There are still huge developments on-site that may be being built for a market that no longer exists. If fancy buildings aren’t selling in Manhattan, it seems unlikely they’ll sell in the Bronx.
For CASA, the re-zoning is no longer the major concern. Their community was hit “first and worst” by COVID and the priorities now are recovery and keeping people in their homes as the nation appears to sleepwalk towards a housing catastrophe when the pandemic eviction moratoriums are lifted.
I went to a meeting of CASA members last Thursday. There was a general feeling of anxiety about what lies ahead. As one woman put it: “The pandemic may be over for rich people. It’s not over for us”.