Even in the last five years, when the peninsula has made advances in bridging these contrasts, the progress has been mixed. Thousands of new housing units are being built, most through the efforts of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). HPD’s units have sold before construction has even started, at prices unheard of in the area, bringing new life and money to the peninsula. But most of the privately developed units, built in nearby neighborhoods with permissive zoning regulations that allowed large units to be built on small lots, have not sold nearly as well. The developers overbuilt in neighborhoods with fragile or nonexistent markets that have since crumbled.
Because they consider their investment already lost, many speculative developers have struck deals with the city to house the formerly homeless in order to recoup at least some money. Some of these developers-turned-landlords have neglected basic maintenance responsibilities. Concentrations of absentee landlords plus high-needs people with minimal access to basic services and amenities means entire neighborhoods have been left neglected. “They said the Rockaways would be the new Hamptons,” said Anthony Green, a lifelong Far Rockaway resident in his mid-40s. “This isn’t the new Hamptons. More like the new ghetto.”
Even though the city has initiated a rezoning to curb out-of-context development, the experience nonetheless perpetuates many residents’ sour view of city government. Some residents blame city agencies for taking advantage of the area’s housing plight by what they see as an intentional concentration of formerly homeless people, though in many cases it’s unclear what else city agencies could have done.
“The city and the state have been destroying the Rockaways for 40 years,” said Jon Gaska, district manager for the peninsula's Community Board 14, expressing a feeling commonly heard in the area. “Over the last 10 years we’ve done a good job of keeping them from doing that. But with the overdevelopment and vacancies, they’re back at it again. It’s like they give it to you with one hand, and take it away with the other.”
A long-awaited moment of hope
The history of the Rockaways has been indelibly shaped by real estate speculation built on shaky foundations. The Arverne neighborhood takes its name from Remington Vernam, a speculator who acquired and resold disputed land titles for massive profits in the 1850s. (The name comes from his signature, R. Vernam.) It's the center of the area's development, located just east of the center of the peninsula.
City government had a hand in the real estate trends that damaged large portions of the peninsula. From 1947 to 1952, mass suburbanization and modernization of travel diverted the Rockaways’ traditional summer tourist population. No longer able to rent to vacationers, property owners winterized their summer bungalows. The city, desperate for housing for the poor, sent subsidized renters to the converted bungalows.
Though these homes were mostly “built without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living,” according to a 1958 article in the "Rockaway Review," the city neglected to enforce standards or hold landlords accountable. Compounding these trends, federal government redlined the Rockaways – scoring areas with large poor black populations at the lowest investment potential, effectively denying home loans for minority families – which further discouraged investment and ownership.
The eastern part of the peninsula’s transition into an underserved and forgotten borderland was cemented when the city razed the worst neighborhoods and built dozens of public housing buildings to house the displaced poor in the 1950s and 60s. With 300 acres – what became known as the Arverne Urban Renewal Area – abandoned for nearly 40 years, the eastern part of the peninsula had the unique distinction of being both one of the least dense but also one of the poorest areas in the city. By 1975 the Rockaways contained 57 percent of all low-income housing in Queens, though the area housed only five percent of its population. In 1990, one-third of the peninsula was on public assistance and nearly one-quarter of households had incomes below $10,000. As in nearby Coney Island, when the tourists left they took the jobs, stores and tax income with them.
To revive the local economy, community and city officials tried for decades to lure private developers to the Arverne Urban Renewal Area, which was under the authority of HPD. Two major proposals were forwarded in the 1980s and 90s: first a Forest City Ratner project to build 10,000 condo units on the beach collapsed under its own scale; then a Toronto-based developer planned a massive sports and entertainment complex, Destination Technodome, that would have created thousands of jobs but was scuttled because of poor transit options. Both plans came in an era of stagnant real estate development across the city, when developers seemed to abandon lots more frequently than develop on them.
Officials were exasperated. “For the longest time, everyone thought Rockaway wasn’t an attractive place to invest,” says former Queens Borough President Claire Schulman, who served from 1986 through the end of 2001. “But it is an attractive place to invest. It could be every bit as beautiful as the Hamptons.”