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NYS Comptroller Releases Economic Snapshot of Rockaway

Communities in the Rockaways were some of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, more than two years after the pandemic first struck, an economic report released on Monday by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli finds positive signs of business and employment growth that offer reason to believe the Rockaways is on the road to recovery. The comptroller visited the RISE Center on Monday to discuss his findings with the community and local elected officials.

“After the devastation of Superstorm Sandy and massive efforts to rebuild, The Rockaways was battered by the pandemic. Now there’s good reason to be optimistic about the Rockaways’ recovery from the COVID-19 setback,” DiNapoli said. “Jobs have returned, and new businesses are opening, adding strength to the local economy. Despite these positive steps, many Rockaways residents remain unemployed and there are stark income disparities between communities on the peninsula. It’s critical that social and economic inequities that existed prior to the pandemic are addressed as part of the recovery.”

Rockaway saw steady business growth since 2000, with the number of businesses increasing by nearly 60% (459 firms) to reach a peak of 1,281 firms in 2021. This was substantially greater than the borough of Queens (43.8%) and citywide (28.5%) business growth. Almost 82% of the businesses on the peninsula were microbusinesses, defined as having fewer than 10 employees. As of 2021, retail trade accounted for the largest number of firms, followed by health care, leisure and hospitality and professional and business services.

Rockaway also experienced strong employment growth following a decline in 2013 caused by Superstorm Sandy, with the number of workers employed on the peninsula growing by almost 40% by 2019, just prior to the start of the pandemic. As with businesses, this expansion in jobs outpaced borough and citywide employment growth. With the onset of the pandemic in 2020, employment on the peninsula declined, although by a slower percentage than in Queens or citywide. Job losses were reversed by 2021, however, with employment growing in all sectors except transportation and warehousing.

Population on the peninsula increased by 8% between 2010 and 2020. This was slightly higher than population growth in Queens (7.8%) and citywide (7.7%), and was accompanied by a shift in composition, as the share of residents who identified as either Hispanic or Asian increased significantly.

Despite Rockaway’s improving economic trajectory, the COVID-19 pandemic underscored and exacerbated longstanding inequities in the area, where rates of unemployment, food insecurity and poverty vary widely between communities.

The 54.5% share of Rockaways residents aged 16 and over that were employed in the 2016-2020 period was higher than the share of those who were working in the 2006-2010 period, but still lower than the borough and citywide shares. However, employment growth rates over the decade varied drastically from community-to-community, ranging from 73.6% in Arverne to less than 2% in Edgemere and Rockaway Park, signaling uneven economic growth across the peninsula.

Rockaway also had the highest share of households living below the federal poverty threshold (18.3%) among the 14 Census-defined neighborhoods in Queens in 2016-2020. Household poverty rates were lowest in Belle Harbor (1.3%) and highest in Far Rockaway (22%) and Edgemere (28.6%).

Housing affordability was a pressing issue for Rockaway residents during this period, as 51% of renters were considered rent burdened, with at least 30% of their income going towards rent, and 25% were considered severely rent burdened, with at least 50% of their income put towards rent. Notably, the rent burden level for the area was not as acute as it was for Queens (53%) or citywide (28%).

Food insecurity has also been an issue for Rockaways residents, particularly in Edgemere and Hammels, where more than one-half and one-quarter of households, respectively, relied on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program between 2016 and 2020.

Compounding economic challenges that existed prior to the pandemic, Rockaway residents were particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted the city’s Taskforce on Racial Inclusion & Equity (TRIE) to designate an area comprised of four out of five ZIP code areas in the Rockaways as one of the city’s 33 hardest hit areas by the pandemic. This area also had some of the lowest vaccination rates across the city. As of July 11, 2022, one of these four ZIP code areas, 11691, which includes Far Rockaway, had the highest number of COVID-19 deaths and cumulative death rates across the peninsula, as well as the second-highest death rate in Queens and the fifth-highest death rate of all 177 ZIP code areas in the city.

In addition to being severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Rockaway was ravaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and experienced extensive damage to essential infrastructure and private property. The TRIE designation and impacts of these public health and storm emergencies reflect the vulnerability of the area. The U.S. Census Bureau’s Community Resilience Estimates 2019 data showed that more than one-half of Arverne and Far Rockaway residents were at medium risk of experiencing disaster in an emergency event with more than two-fifths of Edgemere residents categorized as high risk.

“Comptroller DiNapoli’s report shows some encouraging signs of economic growth in the Rockaways as the peninsula emerges from the devastation wrought by COVID-19,” said Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr. “Still, much more needs to be done to address the economic and social inequalities that have been long felt in the Rockaways and were exacerbated by the pandemic,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said.

“Though geographically isolated from transportation hubs, Eastern Rockaway communities remain economically resilient, increasing by nearly 60% since 2000, with a burgeoning small business community,” said NYC Council Majority Whip Selvena N. Brook-Powers, Chair to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “Steady employment and population indicators show Eastern Rockaway continues to progress; however, more must be done. We must look towards strengthening our health and physical infrastructure to accommodate our growing community.”

Additional Economic Snapshot Findings

  • From 2010-2020, the Rockaways’ Asian population increased nearly 40% (by 1,004 residents) while the Hispanic population increased by nearly 19% percent (by 4,483 residents).
  • During the analysis period, the average commute time (49.7 minutes) for residents was the longest of all the city’s 55 Census-defined neighborhoods.
  • School enrollment increased slowly but steadily in the years prior to the pandemic, then fell by 2.8% in 2020-21 and 3.5% the following year; enrollment in charter schools has continued to rise despite the pandemic.
  • Major crimes (seven major violent and property crimes) in the Rockaways declined in both years since the start of the pandemic in 2020, in contrast to citywide figures. This trend continued for violent crimes as of July 2022.

At the press conference at RISE, Comptroller DiNapoli also presented St. John’s Episcopal Hospital with a check for nearly $27K from unclaimed funds.

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