When I came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 2007, the only thing I brought with me was my machine to make pastelitos (puff pastries). I’ve sold pastelitos for as long as I can remember, so when I had the opportunity to put down roots in my new home and start a business, Pastelitos Elvys in Bushwick, I was overjoyed.
My wife Isabelle and I run our business together, gladly accepting help from our six children when they aren’t doing their homework in the back of our store. With our two employees, we have worked hard to build a business that we know our community can rely on.
I believed America was a place where hard work and dedication would mean success. But over the years, as I’ve watched gentrification displace so many in my community, as I’ve seen my customer base wither and my friends and family threatened with unjust evictions, it has become clear to me that there are some who don’t play by the rules, but get ahead anyway. And tax giveaways like the controversial 421-a program, which provides tax breaks to encourage developers to build new apartments, are a big reason why.
While I work 12-hour days to pay my rent, taxes and countless other expenses, big developers are walking away with billions of taxpayer dollars through 421-a. The program was created decades ago as a way to spur new building in a very different, struggling New York. Now, while its supporters claim it is an important incentive for building affordable housing, it is mostly a way for wealthy developers to direct $1 billion in tax dollars every year toward new housing that is usually unaffordable for working New Yorkers.
In the Los Sures neighborhood in Williamsburg, where my wife Isabelle and I pastor a small church, I have already seen the effects of luxury development and the displacement in its wake. In Bushwick, I have seen too many friends and neighbors evicted by unscrupulous landlords who want to charge exorbitant rents, only to have the apartments lay vacant for months on end. After years spent riding my bicycle, selling pastelitos in the barbershops and on street corners, the neighborhood feels increasingly gutted. Countless businesses are gone while landlords let their storefronts remain empty.
My business survives on a customer base I’ve built over the years. As more and more are forced from their homes, my business suffers. Those who can afford to stay are spending so much of their income on rent that they can barely afford groceries—let alone the treats for themselves or their kids that my family sells.
Just a few blocks away from my business, on Dekalb Ave., a new development they call “Colony 1209” will receive $8 million in tax breaks. Colony 1209 boasts that “you’ll find a group of like-minded settlers” among fancy amenities like private courtyards, pool tables, a gym and even a “screening room.” I don’t understand how these developers making millions buying and selling property where they will never live are in need of breaks from the government. I’m a businessman, and part of owning a business is paying my fair share of taxes. If I can do it, I know they can, too.
Our neighborhood is more than an investment opportunity—it’s our home.
Some of these luxury developments supposedly offer affordable housing, but I have seen firsthand how they drive up area rents and push out long-term tenants nonetheless. At Colony 1209, millions in subsidies will not even translate into apartments that an average resident of our neighborhood could afford: As thousands of rent-stabilized apartments are lost, Colony 1209 offers two-bedroom units for more than $3,000 a month.
Even with recent amendments to 421-a that would require a place like Colony 1209 to provide a certain number of “affordable” units, the rents would be too high for most residents in communities like Bushwick, because they would be based on an income level (80 percent of area median income) far higher than what most of them earn.
I’m proud to own my business and to create and sustain jobs in my community. But with rent rising and sales dropping, I don’t know how much longer I can hold on.
We need to get rid of the wasteful 421-a giveaway entirely and focus on real solutions to the housing crisis. Our community needs investments in real affordability, not $1 billion in handouts to big developers for housing that we cannot afford.
Elvys Contreras is the owner of Pastelitos Elvys and a member of Small Businesses United, a project of Make the Road New York.
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