‘We want housing first’: Protesters rally against proposed soccer stadium in Willets Point, call for more affordable housing

Photo by Ethan Marshall

Several community group members gathered outside the empty lot next to Citi Field on Sunday, July 31, to rally against a proposal to construct a soccer stadium for NYCFC in the area. Among those protesting were members of the Black Institute and Nos Quedamos Queens.

The protesters called upon Mayor Eric Adams and Councilman Francisco Moya to instead devote the land for more affordable housing. To back up this argument, they cited a 2008 plan passed by the City Council that called for the construction of 5,500 affordable housing units in Willets Point. That plan still hasn’t come to fruition, in large part due to the Bloomberg administration instead backing a proposal to build a mega mall in the empty lot across from Citi Field in 2012 before a group of activists successfully sued to stop this from occurring, with the ruling being handed down in 2017.

“We wanted all of the people displaced here to be made whole [in 2008],” Black Institute founder and president Bertha Lewis said. “We want housing first and we want a real community benefit agreement and we want it now. All those people that were moved and hurt, we want them to be brought back and made whole.”

According to Lewis, the district already has 11 shelters. Creating more affordable housing units would help decrease the number of occupants in those shelters. Additionally, the fact that the district’s population has grown considerably since the original agreement was reached in 2008 has led to many of the activists to ask not only that the units be built on the lot, but that the number be increased from 5,500 to 10,000, Lewis said.

In addition to demanding at least 5,500 affordable housing units at the protest, Lewis also called for all displaced auto shop owners in the area to be relocated and made whole and for all promises made to placate the residents of Willets Point to be codified in a legally binding
Community Benefits Agreement.

“We are here today demanding that Mayor Adams addresses the current housing crisis and urgent need for more affordable housing,” Lewis said. “We are tired of the inaction by government officials who continue to make empty promises to Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) in the development process of sport stadiums in New York City. The residents of Willets Point will be the most burdened by the construction of this stadium and they deserve more than just the promise of affordable housing! They deserve a legally binding, protective Community Benefits Agreement!”

Former Councilman and current District Leader Hiram Monserrate (Photo by Ethan Marshall)

Former Councilman and current District Leader Hiram Monserrate cited Mayor Adams’ admission that New York City has an affordable housing crisis. He noted that the city purchased approximately 23 acres of land in the area with the intention of building affordable housing back in 2008.

“We have many acres of city-owned land to build housing for the people,” Monserrate said. “But somehow our local council member and others have concocted a scheme to build a fourth stadium in this neighborhood [with] 25,000 more seats when people don’t have a place to live in.”

Resident Talea Wufka called upon Mayor Adams to recognize that what she and the fellow protesters are calling for would greatly benefit the community. Wufka believes the area would greatly benefit from more affordable housing than more developments.

“People are suffering, people are homeless and we have a drug crisis,” Wufka said. “We need people to have a shelter, home and food. This is the most diverse city on Earth. [Mayor Adams,] get with the program and stand for us, because that’s what we elected you for.”

Resident Zoila Alonzo expressed disappointment in the elected officials who were in favor of building the new stadium in the neighborhood. Like many of the other speakers at the protest, she said creating affordable housing units on the empty lot would be a significant boon to the Corona-Willets Point area.

According to Lewis and the Black Leadership Action Coalition, the political action arm of the Black Institute, the promise of affordable housing has constantly been used as a tool to pacify lower-income communities when stadiums such as the one proposed are built in their backyards. In addition to most of the promises going unfulfilled, community members become burdened by lengthy construction, traffic and noise pollution.

Known as the Iron Triangle, the area had previously been occupied by several auto businesses before being demolished for a now dead redevelopment plan. In 2021, a new deal was announced for the first phase of redevelopment. Under this phase, a 450-seat elementary school and approximately 1,100 affordable units would be built on six of the 23 acres.

A task force was formed to determine what to do with the remaining 17 acres of the Phase 1 land.

On July 26, it was reported that a New York City Council Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) would start building a 25,000-seat soccer stadium. Community activists quickly spoke up to reject this plan, hoping to get elected officials to reverse course on this plan and instead look to develop more affordable housing units on the land to help diminish the number of homeless people occupying the 11 shelters in the area.

QNS reached out to the the New York City Economic Development Corporation and is waiting for a response.