Opinion: How to create real affordability and good retail jobs in East New York

The de Blasio administration has made the fight against income inequality a top priority. One of the mayor’s primary methods for tackling this urgent issue is through neighborhood rezoning to bring denser development and affordable housing into low-income communities.

As the first neighborhood to be rezoned, East New York, Brooklyn, will be a litmus test for City Hall’s bold plan to level the economic playing field.

But there is a crucial aspect to the reshaping of this neighborhood that must be considered more closely: Residents of East New York won’t be able to afford their rent, no matter how affordable, if they don’t have quality employment.

New developments in East New York, the South Bronx and other rezoned neighborhoods will include large ground-floor commercial spaces for retail. City government has both an opportunity and an obligation to ensure that the thousands of new retail jobs coming to East New York help keep the neighborhood affordable for longtime residents and families. 

Retail is one of the fastest-growing sectors of our city’s economy, but too often these jobs pay poverty wages and drag communities down instead of lifting them up. Many retailers have followed the harmful example of Wal-Mart. While the organizing of city residents has successfully kept the superstore out of the five boroughs, Wal-Mart’s business model of low pay, part-time hours and erratic schedules has been adopted by other nonunion retailers.

When it comes to the selection of tenants for new developments, the city should prioritize high-road retail employers with a proven track record of providing workers with living-wage jobs, stable full-time schedules, career advancement opportunities and the freedom to join a union if they choose.

Fortunately, the de Blasio administration has a variety of policy tools it can use to attract the best caliber of retailers as tenants in East New York.

But words matter here along with action. While Mayor de Blasio has spoken out about fighting income inequality, we have yet to hear what his administration plans to do on the question of jobs – and the clock is ticking. 

A strong pronouncement sooner rather than later from City Hall about the importance of high-road retail would show employers what is expected from companies looking to do business in rezoned areas, and allay the concerns of neighborhood residents looking for gainful employment.

That kind of statement could also help spur healthy competition among retailers to aim higher when making their pitches for how they will benefit residents. 

East New York is still struggling with high unemployment rates and poverty. To keep up with increases in the cost of living, residents will need jobs that are much better than what Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart-inspired retailers can offer.

At a recent town hall meeting in East New York, the community emphatically embraced this high-road retail agenda and urged the de Blasio administration to implement it.

As a city, we must avoid the mistakes of previous rezoning efforts that accelerated gentrification and displacement: Too much luxury housing was created and not enough real affordability and good jobs to enable residents to stay in the communities they called home.

Here’s how to get it right this time: Set job standards that incentivize the entry of employers ready to pay well and provide top-notch employment opportunities that will enable residents to afford to stay where they are. These job standards can be attached to a whole range of economic development and zoning incentives for projects in targeted areas, starting with East New York.  

Every neighborhood slated for rezoning can strike the right balance among different options for high-road retailers. And the city can leverage its negotiating power to push companies to create quality jobs in exchange for access to the largest urban retail market in the country.

With public review of East New York’s rezoning already underway, now is the moment to focus on setting a new precedent for real affordability and good retail jobs.


Audrey Sasson is director of Walmart-Free NYC. Rachel Laforest is director of the Retail Action Project, an initiative of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).