Mission Affordable: Survey a Start for Better Grocery Shopping Options
BY DENNIS LYNCH | Activists, advocates, and frustrated consumers are seeking to establish a task force that would address the lack of affordable supermarkets in the area, which, they say, has negatively affected the rapidly changing neighborhood’s low-income residents — particularly those in public housing, seniors, and rent-regulated tenants.
Chelsea resident and Hudson Guild volunteer Italo Medelius is leading the charge. He’s a member of the Guild’s Neighborhood Advisory Committee and its subcommittee, the Community Access Committee (visit hudsonguild.org for details). Medelius said he was inspired to address the situation after locals came to Hudson Guild and said they were having trouble finding affordable grub in Chelsea.
“They thought they were the only ones having these thoughts. We just want to give these people the ability to organize together and voice these issues,” Medelius said. “It’s definitely at the top of the list [of concerns], along with affordable housing, education, economic development — it’s all tied together.”
Medelius and the task force has created a survey residents can take about supermarket shopping in the area and will review the data later this month. You can take it by visiting goo.gl/vCd6YR. To contact them by email, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Neighborhood Advisory Committee will vote on whether to greenlight the task force on Mon., March 13.
After they’ve crunched the numbers from their survey, the task force, if established, will organize a town hall, hopefully by May. They want to bring local elected officials into the conversation and Medelius hopes it will lead to a rally at a neighborhood supermarket. Eventually, they hope to start up a free Sunday bus service to bring locals over to New Jersey to do their shopping at more affordable markets.
The issue became that much more real for Westsiders last summer, when a $32,000 to $100,000 per month rent hike forced the affordable Associated Supermarket to close after 27 years at its W. 14th St. and Eighth Ave. location. Elected officials representing Chelsea, including Councilmember Corey Johnson, appealed to the landlord to renegotiate a lease, but the city has no commercial rent restrictions and the landlord refused to budge.
Now, the only truly inexpensive option in Chelsea is Western Beef on W. 16th St. (btw. Ninth & 10th Aves.), which is luckily close for the residents of Fulton Houses. But only having one affordable market isn’t ideal, and Fulton Houses Tenants’ Association President Miguel Acevedo said that the neighborhood is slowly losing its other options — bodegas.
“If we didn’t have Western Beef, I don’t think there would be any affordable options for anyone in the neighborhood,” Acevedo said of the supermarket. “What used to be bodegas are now high-end bars or restaurants; we don’t have anything like that now.”
Commercial rent regulation and a binding rent arbitration process are part of the long-proposed-but-never-voted-on Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). Many proponents say the SBJSA is the only way to truly ensure that vital local businesses are able to hold out in changing neighborhoods. The Council has never been able to get it to a floor vote since a version of it was first proposed in the 1980s — both those for and against the legislation have claimed that legal issues with the bill have prevented the vote. The City Council has enough sponsors, including Johnson and representatives for neighboring Council districts, on the latest iteration of the bill to pass it.
Instead, lawmakers have approached the issue with other bills. Johnson and some colleagues introduced bills last month to establish a definition for “affordable” supermarkets and exempt them from the 3.9 percent rent tax the city levies on businesses that pay more than $250,000 in rent. The bill is currently in the Council’s Committee on Finance.
Medelius himself struggles to find reasonable deals on groceries in the area, so he usually makes the trek over to Trader Joe’s (on Sixth Ave., at W. 21 St.). Seniors, especially those living in far West Chelsea, don’t always have that option though, he said. Transportation is “terrible” there, he said, so seniors remain in the neighborhood, no matter what’s in their budget or on their shopping list.
David Moss, Councilmember Johnson’s director of communication, said that Johnson and his staff share those concerns about seniors and mobility.
“We’ve seen this problem a lot, where older residents can’t carry around heavy bags for a half a mile to their homes,” Moss said. “The grocery stores don’t really tailor products to them either; one elderly person doesn’t need a dozen eggs.”
Johnson’s office is working with supermarkets to offer items in smaller portions so folks can carry them back home on foot or by public transit. They were among several parties involved in facilitating such a deal with the D’Agostino West Village location (at Greenwich & Bethune Sts.) — though that does not cut to the root of the problem.
“Of course, we don’t want people traveling longer distances. There should be an affordable market in everyone’s backyard,” Moss said.