It was a provocative, possibly divisive, message from a mainstream mayoral candidate in New York City.
The candidate, Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, spoke of how new arrivals to New York were “hijacking” apartments from longtime residents.
“Go back to Iowa,” Mr. Adams, a Democrat, said on Monday at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters in Harlem, at his annual Martin Luther King’s Birthday event. “You go back to Ohio. New York City belongs to the people that was here and made New York City what it is.”
His comments struck at a broader anxiety across all five boroughs about gentrification and affordability, and whether those forces have homogenized the city for the worse.
In neighborhoods across the city, in places like Harlem, Washington Heights, Long Island City and Bushwick, residential and commercial rents have risen, displacing longtime businesses and residents, and upending the character of those areas.
Yet some leaders in New York suggested that Mr. Adams had gone too far. Indeed, Mr. Adams on Tuesday sought to clarify his comments, signaling that he did not, in fact, want newer residents to start packing their bags.
“I welcome all people of good will to New York City — no matter who they are and where they come from,” Mr. Adams said in a statement.
But Mr. Adams, who declined to be interviewed, reiterated his larger point that newcomers should invest in their neighborhoods. New Yorkers have a right to be angry with anyone who “disrespects the people who have built the neighborhoods they enjoy.”
In his speech, Mr. Adams said his goal was to make people feel uncomfortable in the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His speech focused on his frustration that problems plaguing the black community, from drug addiction to homelessness, are not viewed as a crisis until they start to affect white people.
The fact that Mr. Adams, a former police captain who is black, named Iowa and Ohio, two largely white states, could alienate some voters in a wide-open Democratic primary for mayor, where Mr. Adams is an early front-runner.
“For some of his constituents, it’s maybe a dog whistle to gentrification and the changing composition of the borough,” said Christina M. Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “But for quite a few New Yorkers who are transplants, it’s a pretty divisive message. In a crowded mayoral field, you want to be as inclusive as possible.”
Within hours of Mr. Adams’s initial comments, Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed back against his inflammatory stance, even though Mr. Adams is a friend of the mayor’s.
“It’s not my impression he said it the right way — the fact is it’s a city for everyone,” Mr. de Blasio said in an interview on NY1. “So many New Yorkers have come here recently and are contributing a lot to the city.”
Affordability will likely be a central issue in the race to succeed Mr. de Blasio — a theme that two other candidates emphasized at Mr. Sharpton’s event on Monday, an annual rite of passage for city and state leaders. The candidates, Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, and Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, pledged to focus on creating more affordable housing.
Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat in his second and final term, ran in 2013 on the theme that New York City had become a “tale of two cities” — split between the haves and the have-nots — and he vowed to battle inequality. But many New Yorkers believe he has not done enough to tackle the problem.
“That narrative is more important now than ever because the mayor has not gotten us any closer to a solution,” Professor Greer said.
In Mr. Adams’s statement on Tuesday, he encouraged all New Yorkers to “respect each other and seek to alleviate, and not exacerbate, the problems that we face.”
But where exactly do these new New Yorkers come from? Many are moving here from California and Florida, and not exactly the cornfields of Iowa, according to a 2018 report by StreetEasy, the real estate website. Many others are foreign immigrants.
Each borough tends to have its own migration patterns. Brooklyn, for instance, attracts more people from San Francisco than Los Angeles; Staten Island often attracts people from the suburbs surrounding New York City.
As for when a transplant becomes a true New Yorker — after a decade or two? Once you kick a subway rat or stop toasting your bagels? There is no clear answer.
Longtime residents of East Harlem said Mr. Adams was speaking to real concerns in traditionally black neighborhoods, even if they did not agree with his comments. Blacks are no longer a majority of the population in Harlem, a famed mecca for black America.
Vanessa Robinson said she has lived in the same East Harlem building for 60 years.
“It really has changed,” Ms. Robinson, 65, said of the neighborhood. “Over the last five years, there’s been more of a push. The rents did go up.”
But Ms. Robinson, who is black, said she did not agree with Mr. Adams’s comments. Her late husband was white, and her son is biracial.
“But the anger is boiling over now,” she said. “As far as equality and pushing people out, that’s a big problem. People resent it.”
On Monday, Mr. Adams was not the only mayoral candidate who focused on the downsides that booming economic growth and a surging city population had wrought on certain neighborhoods. The real estate industry has become a target in recent elections as a common enemy of Democratic voters.
Mr. Stringer criticized the city’s recent rezoning plans, which invite an influx of new development, saying they took place in diverse neighborhoods like Inwood and East New York, and not in wealthier neighborhoods like Park Slope and the Upper East Side.
Mr. Johnson said the city was facing an affordability crisis and highlighted his efforts to set aside more units for the homeless in affordable-housing projects.
Juanita Lanzo, 46, a visual artist and curator from Puerto Rico, said she lives in a rent-stabilized apartment in East Harlem and worries about losing her home.
“They need protection for tenants that live in these buildings,” she said, “and that is the key.”
Laura Dimon contributed reporting.
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