Housing group Open New York ‘unlikely’ to endorse Velázquez again over Bruckner rezoning stance

Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez sits in front of a crowd of residents
New York City Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez sits in front of a crowded April 19 meeting where local residents largely spoke against the proposed Bruckner Boulevard rezoning. As confirmed with the Bronx Times, Velázquez plans to run for reelection next year.
Photo Aliya Schneider

City Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez may be risking an endorsement from housing advocacy group Open New York in the 2023 election for her stance against the proposed Bruckner Boulevard rezoning.

Members of the pro-housing group have shown up at public hearings and rallies in support of the four-site rezoning plan, which would bring 349 apartment units, 168 of which would be affordable, along with 22 units for veterans who would not have to pay rent. Some of those advocates campaigned for Velázquez, who they branded as a “housing champion” during her 2021 campaign. The group’s December 2020 endorsement of Velázquez was welcomed by the pol, yet the group has found the city lawmaker to be at odds with its objectives as she maintains a position against the proposal, in line with vocal area residents.

Logan Phares, political director for Open New York, said in an interview with the Bronx Times that members of the group have been “disappointed” by Velázquez’s statements against the project. According to Phares, if the representative votes against the project, another endorsement would be “very unlikely.”

“Moving forward we will obviously have to reassess if we will, you know, give the same support to the council member given that fact that so far her record has not been a pro-housing one,” Phares said.

But faced with the prospect of losing an endorsement as she prepares to run for reelection in 2023, Velázquez seemed unfazed.

“Open New York wasn’t the only group that endorsed me, so did 32BJ and Local Laborers,” she said in an interview with the Bronx Times, citing two unions that also support the project. “… It is the reality … I’m the council member and I’m making sure that my community first and foremost is heard, period.”

Monika McDermott, a political science professor at Fordham University who studies voting behavior, political psychology and public opinion, told the Bronx Times that Open New York’s endorsement, or lack thereof, is unlikely to matter for Velázquez’s reelection odds.

“She is clearly following the wishes of her constituents, and they’re going to be glad that she’s doing that regardless of what she might have promised to Open New York prior to this development coming along, and that’s what’s most important in terms of her satisfying her constituents and her getting them to vote for her again,” she said. “They will remember this, and of course if it gets passed by the City Council anyway, there will be some backlash against her. But as long as she makes it clear that she has been against it and she goes against it in the City Council I think she can minimize any damage that would come from external forces.”

The Throggs Neck pol was one of eight Democratic New York City Council members Open New York endorsed for the 2021 elections, in what the group said was their first City Council endorsement. The group also declared support for Bronx Progressive councilmembers Pierina Sanchez, of Fordham, and Althea Stevens, of Concourse. While Velázquez tweeted in February 2021 that she would bring “the progressive vision” to the council, and is part of the City Council Progressive Caucus, her team has identified her simply as a Democrat.

While Open New York cannot directly make campaign contributions as a nonprofit, the group’s endorsements come with a “very enthusiastic member base” that volunteers for endorsee’s campaigns, according to Phares, who donated $50 to Velázquez’s campaign in August 2020 and $20 in January 2021, according to campaign filings.

For example, an April 26, 2021 Tweet from the group’s account advertised a phone bank with Velázquez, calling her a “housing hero.” She replied to the tweet, encouraging people to sign up.

According to Open New York, candidates sought out the group’s endorsement through a questionnaire, and those who garnered the group’s support said they agree with the following: “New York needs a new citywide approach to housing development, including more housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods, an end to ‘member deference’ in the Council, and commonsense reforms like legalizing and encouraging the development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs).”

Council deference, an unofficial practice where members of the City Council typically vote in line with the local member, allows one person to block hundreds or thousands of units of housing, in Open New York’s view. Velázquez did not comment on what her views are on ADUs or whether member deference should end when her team was reached by the Bronx Times.

The group said in their endorsement of Velázquez and again in a December 2020 Tweet that she “has the integrity and creativity to bring housing affordability” to District 13 in the east Bronx.

Aden Munassar speaks into a microphone
At a Sept. 7 City Council hearing, Open New York’s political director Logan Phares, left, sits alongside member Aden Munassar who said she grew up in Throggs Neck but couldn’t afford to stay in the neighborhood. Photo Aliya Schneider

The councilmember shared the endorsement on Twitter, saying the “right to housing begins by providing working class communities like mine the opportunity to safe, affordable, resilient homes” and that she is looking forward to housing equity.

“She was interested in building more housing, building affordable housing, and so that’s what we’re interested in,” Phares said. “That’s what we want to see from a candidate. So obviously we would expect that candidate, if elected, to uphold what they promised in our endorsement questionnaire.”

But when asked whether she supports building new housing, Velázquez focused on her district residents, many of which have been outspoken about maintaining the community’s low density zoning.

“Building new housing for our community’s need for — and I’m very specific here — need for and by our community with our community having a say throughout the whole process,” Velázquez said.

Housing was not listed as one of the councilmember’s main issues on her now-defunct campaign website, according to archived versions of the webpage. She did, however, mention housing without getting into policy specifics, such as saying it should be invested in.

The council member has questioned the rezoning applicant Throggs Neck LLC about providing homeownership opportunities, a prospect that was looked into but didn’t work out, according to testimony from Jaclyn Scarinci of Akerman LLP, an attorney for the applicant, at a recent City Council hearing.

an advertisement saying the east Bronx wants affordable housing
Open New York has been buying digital and print ads to advocate for the Bruckner Boulevard rezoning. Photo courtesy Alyssa Cass

Velázquez in July told a crowd of constituents that the district needs senior housing when speaking against Jacobi Hospital’s Just Home proposal, which would house formerly incarcerated people with complex medical needs in Morris Park — a project that has also garnered support from Open New York. In the same appearance, Velázquez declared that she is “not bought out by the real estate industry.”

“I am not here to fuel the families and friends who felt like they could donate to my campaign and then get a development out of it,” she added. “I’m not that person. I wasn’t elected by those people, I was elected by these people here.”

But members of Open New York are still holding out hope and want to give Velázquez the chance to vote yes on the Bruckner proposal. The advocacy group has bought digital ads targeting district residents as well as ads in the Bronx Times in Spanish and English in an effort to get Velázquez on board with the proposal.

Velázquez may also be forced to contend with the looming influence of Mayor Eric Adams, an advocate of the project who plans to work closely with the City Council to get it passed, according to Charles Kretchmer, the mayor’s deputy press secretary.

Following Adams’ public show of support for the proposed rezoning, his senior land use advisor Annemarie Gray announced her departure from her role to become the new executive director of Open New York, a post she will begin on Oct. 11.

“We’re also seeing a lot of council members who are kind of coming forward as wanting to be champions on these issues and that is obviously something that we will be taking into consideration in our next endorsement,” Phares said. “The next council races are right around the corner.”

Reach Aliya Schneider at aschneider@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes