the brooklynite

No Shelter
How the revitalization of East New York is leaving some longtime residents out in the cold.
By David Biello

BY 1983 EAST NEW YORK already had suffered from decades of decline. Located at Brooklyn’s far southeastern corner, it was a neighborhood plagued by poverty, abandoned buildings, arson, graffiti, and declining schools. Drug dens infested the empty buildings, and crimes such as armed robbery, rape, and murder were out of control. It was also the year when Maria*, then age 15, moved with her family to the neighborhood from Bushwick in search of cheaper rents.

Twenty years later, crime has plummeted. The neighborhood is attracting a growing population of working- and middle-class homeowners. Once-empty lots are rapidly giving way to tidy new row houses. Even a recent New York Times article proclaimed: “Perhaps no neighborhood demonstrates the city’s reversal of fortune more palpably than East New York.”

“It has gotten a lot better than what it was,” said Maria, now working as a doctor’s assistant and living in a two-bedroom apartment that she has shared for the past decade with her two daughters, ages 10 and 20. The only problem is that Maria and her daughters may not be able to stay in East New York much longer.

In 2001, Maria’s landlord, taking advantage of the neighborhood’s soaring real estate prices, sold her building. Her new landlord has some new ideas. “He wants to charge me $50 for late fees, he doesn’t want to fix any problems, he gives no heat,” Maria said. In addition, she said, he wants to raise her monthly rent from the current $687 to $850. But according to Maria, her new landlord really wants something more: He wants her out. “He doesn’t want to give me a lease,” she said.

Stories like Maria’s are increasingly common in a neighborhood where rents are on the rise and a two-bedroom apartment can fetch $1,200 a month.

Until recently, East New York languished. For many New Yorkers the neighborhood was synonymous with urban crime, chaos, and decay. These conditions kept many residents living in fear. But they also insulated the neighborhood from market pressures, keeping rents very low.

Today East New York is on the rise and, as a result, New York’s harsh real estate realities have descended upon the neighborhood in full force. Many longtime residents are now feeling the pressure.

“East New Yorkers that really stayed over here and endured the years when East New York was disenfranchised, they’re not really getting a piece of the pie,” said Dennis Taylor of the Sabaoth Group, a social service provider that counsels area tenants. “People from the outside are coming and benefiting.”

All across East New York, landlords are pushing out old tenants or raising rents to the point where they can no longer afford to stay. Community leaders report an exodus of low-income tenants from sections of the neighborhood.

In the last five years, evictions of neighborhood residents have roughly doubled to several hundred a year, said Lyndrew Naismith, director of district operations for City Councilman Charles Barron. And that does not include the countless other tenants who have been forced out by rising rents or landlord harassment without being formally evicted.

“They levy rents knowing that renters cannot pay them to get them out,” Naismith said. “If they get the tenant out, they can go up as much as they want, charge as much as four times what they’re currently getting.”

And it’s not as if there are many other, more affordable neighborhoods in Brooklyn to which these displaced tenants can move. “This is still one of the cheapest neighborhoods to live in,” said East New York native John Whitehead. “A lot of places like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, they’re impossible to afford. A lot of people are being pushed out—starting in downtown Brooklyn—and working on out to here.”

“For Brooklyn, it’s the cheapest place around,” he added. “But all that’s going to end.”

JOHN SINDAB MOVED to East New York from Bushwick in August of 1990 and into one of the first Nehemiah homes on Elton Street. East Brooklyn Congregations—a consortium of more than 30 Catholic and Protestant churches throughout Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and East New York—had built single-family brick homes on the vacant lots that dotted the neighborhood. The homes were part of EBC’s “Nehemiah Plan”—an ambitious effort to revive some of the borough’s most distressed neighborhoods by building up a critical mass of residents with an ownership stake in their communities.

EBC took inspiration from a passage in the book of Nehemiah: “Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the walls of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer disgrace.’”

Conditions were little better in East New York in 1987, when EBC began building homes, than they had been in the burnt-out waste of conquered Jerusalem more than two millennia ago. “There was a tremendous amount of vacant lots and abandoned cars and it was rat-infested,” Sindab recalled. “My wife and I went to East New York and we saw what was out there. I thought: ‘I don’t think they’re going to build those homes, this place is a disaster.’”

But EBC did build the homes and, at a price of roughly $65,000 apiece, the homes were affordable for working-class buyers like Sindab, an MTA road car inspector. Of course, certain qualifications had to be met, such as households could not earn more than $50,000 a year or have more than $1,000 in debt. And prospective buyers had to be first-time owners.

The Nehemiah homes were a great success. Buyers from all over New York City signed up for the lottery to receive the opportunity to buy a home in what was still a dangerous, drug-infested wasteland. Low-slung brick houses with driveways in front and thick metal gates sprouted on several blocks. People moved in and began to beautify their homes, decorating brick pillars with lions or other statuettes. And the homes increased in value as they increased in number, with nearly 1,800 in East New York alone.

This stable, home-owning population has helped resurrect East New York. The growth of this new group of homeowners coincided with a dramatic decline in crime citywide, particularly in rough-and-tumble areas such as East New York. The neighborhood’s murder rate dropped by about 75 percent over the last decade—from 126 killings in 1993 to 29 in 2004. Assault, robbery, and rape have declined significantly as well. The neighborhood, in short, became much safer.

The success of the Nehemiah Plan spawned imitators. The New York City Housing Partnership and other organizations began to build homes as well. As property values continued to increase, and the neighborhood continued to improve, private developers swarmed. “Any place where there was vacant lots, as you drive through the neighborhood, you see something coming up,” Sindab said.

But private developers are not necessarily in the business of providing affordable housing. Two-family and even three-family homes became the building norm so that owners could rent out a floor or two to help meet rising mortgage costs. The median price of a home has climbed past $300,000, and $400,000 homes are not uncommon.

Families that have been pushed out by higher home prices in other parts of Brooklyn, such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, where two-family homes now sell for more than $500,000, are buying in East New York.

“Many of these homeowners did not come from East New York, they came from all over,” said Walter Campbell, who has served as district manager of Community Board 5 for the past 25 years. “The white families are not buying here, not yet; it’s Caribbean folks, Bangladeshi folks, black folks from other neighborhoods.”

“Circumstances have changed so that families with higher incomes are being attracted to the community,” explained Mary Brennan, a senior vice president at the Community Preservation Corporation, a private mortgage lender specializing in low- and moderate-income housing.

Private developer Millennium Homes has built 32 two- and three-family homes, which have sold for between $435,000 and $560,000. According to the company, a three-bedroom apartment in one of their 32 new houses can rent for as much as $1,500 a month. A two-bedroom can go for $1,300 a month. “Our target is to help East New York to build up the area,” said Shariar Uddin, Millennium’s director of sales. “That way new people will move in and this area will shine.”

“In five years, this area will be totally changed,” he promised.

“There was no market in this area 15 years ago,” said Mike Gecan, senior organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, which helped develop the Nehemiah Plan. “There were low rents, but there was no equity and no value in many of the properties. And now everyone who owned a home has an incredible increase in equity.”

But, he added, for some there is also a down side. “Everyone who lives in a truly stabilized apartment is now paying moderate rent in a safer, better neighborhood,” he said. “But if you’re renting and you’re not stabilized, you are really feeling it.”

MOST OF EAST NEW YORK’S 117,000 residents are renters. According to the 2000 census, there were 31,900 renter-occupied housing units compared to just 7,600 owner-occupied units.

Some East New Yorkers live in the neighborhood’s vast public housing projects run by the New York City Housing Authority. Thousands more live in the 153-acre federally subsidized Spring Creek Towers apartment complex at the neighborhood’s southwestern corner, known as Starrett City when it was built in the 1970s. Many other residents, however, remain acutely vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the marketplace.

“Most of the housing stock is unregulated. The properties are small homes,” explained Rene Arlain, housing department director for Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation. “There are maybe between 500 and 600 rent-stabilized units in the whole neighborhood.”

“Because those properties are not regulated by any laws, the owners can charge rents as they choose,” he continued. And they have begun to raise rents as the neighborhood improved. Whereas five years ago a two-bedroom apartment might be rented for $750, now a tenant would be lucky to pay $900 a month, he said.

“What has happened is a lot of new housing has gone up—thanks be to God because it was a disaster land here with all that empty land. But now they put up rents,” said Monsignor John Peycon, pastor at St. Rita’s Roman Catholic Church on Shepherd Avenue. Peycon has seen the impact of the rising rents firsthand.

“We have a large turnover in our area as a result of this,” he said, explaining that almost a third of his 1,500-person congregation has changed in the past year, far higher than at any point in his 40-year tenure in the neighborhood.

“There’s always been a turnover in the area for people looking to upgrade themselves,” he continued. “Now, it’s not a natural mobility, it’s because of what’s happening here. The housing is just not there.”

Around Christmas alone, eight families moved out of the parish and its school. “We never have that many,” Peycon said. “You might have it towards the end of the year, but mid-year? Never.”

Monsignor John Powis, who helped direct the Nehemiah Plan for the EBC and has worked on housing issues for 46 years, said he has seen an active campaign by landlords to get low-income tenants out. “The onslaught is just unbelievable at this point,” he said. “One [landlord] came in and broke out all the walls in a place, saying he was going to renovate, and then just walked away. So the tenants have to stay there with all the walls broken or move.”

Local social service providers say they have seen clients move to Connecticut, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida. “I don’t remember this happening five or six years ago, or even ten years ago,” Arlain said.
he median household income in East New York is just under $24,000 a year.

The median gross rent (including utilities) is $541. But you would be hard pressed to find a vacant rental anywhere near that rate in the neighborhood, or in all of Brooklyn.

The citywide vacancy rate for apartments under $500 a month was just over 1.5 percent in 2002, according to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or 6,243 apartments in all of New York. That means a lack of truly affordable housing for those who work full time but earn less than $15 an hour.

“We’re going back to the 1930s or so,” Peycon said. “We have families living in a room, sometimes two or three children and a mother and father. A bathroom used by two or three families and a common kitchen facility. That’s how they are able to afford some of the rents.”

For instance, Dorothy*, 35, pays $250 for an 8-by-10-foot room that she shares with her 11-year-old daughter. She shares a kitchen and a bathroom with two other families, and she must walk up and down two flights of stairs to get between them and her apartment. A recent immigrant from Jamaica, she has lived there for just four years and earns just enough at her job as a home care nurse—$9.07 an hour over a 34-hour workweek—to cover her family’s expenses.

But now, she said, her landlord wants her out. The second floor of the building, where her room is located, could be rented for much more if he just knocked down her wall and made it one big apartment. “At 10 p.m. at night, he come and knock at my door,” she said, her West Indian lilt infused with sadness. “Next time, I was taking a shower downstairs. I don’t know what his next move is going to be. He’s threatened to knock out the gas, the electric, the light downstairs. He doesn’t have no heart.”

Dorothy doesn’t want to leave the neighborhood. After all she knows it, feels she’s relatively safe, and has access to a variety of public transportation. “I don’t want to get too far from where I’m used to,” she said. “I’m near the subway and buses. I don’t have to be afraid coming in and out. I’m living in a private house.”

But she just can’t find anything to rent in her price range. “I’m still looking, but I can’t even find a price of $800 or $900 for a studio, and they want two months security and all those things,” she said. “The landlords are taking advantage of us.”

Dorothy doesn’t know where to turn for help. “I’m a single mother trying to raise my daughter alone,” she said. “I don’t believe in joining the welfare line. I want to find a way out for myself and my daughter.”

THE ISSUES NOW CONFRONTING East New Yorkers are, of course, part of a larger citywide phenomenon. The current real estate boom has brought hardship to many low- and moderate-income renters and contributed to what is almost universally acknowledged to be a crisis in affordable housing availability. As of September, 137,000 families were on the New York City Housing Authority’s waiting list for public housing. And 123,000 families were on its waiting list for Section 8 rent subsidies—a program city officials warn may be scaled back locally because of new federal spending constraints.

As a result of the housing crisis, New York is experiencing record family homelessness. Nearly 37,000 homeless people sleep in shelters every night, one of the highest numbers in the city’s history. That number includes 15,500 children. Over the past six years, the number of homeless families staying in shelters has increased by 102 percent, from 4,429 at the beginning of 1998 to 8,931 in October of 2004.

According to Mayor Bloomberg’s “Action Plan” on homelessness, more than 1,000 East New York families are currently homeless, one of the highest rates in Brooklyn. East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Brownsville account for 21 percent of all homeless families in the whole city.

“Homelessness for some 80 percent of homeless families is fundamentally a housing affordability issue,” said Joe Weisbord, staff director at Housing First!, an alliance of businesses, financial institutions, advocacy groups, landlords, and others focused on housing policy reform. “For renter households in New York City, between 1975 and 1999 inflation-adjusted income went up 3 percent. During the same period, inflation adjusted housing rents went up 33 percent. Clearly, there’s just tremendous pressure on people’s income.”

Winchester Key, president and CEO of the East New York Urban Youth Corporation, a community development organization that runs nine apartment buildings, says it has never been tougher to find affordable housing. “I got a whole list of folks looking for housing, it goes up every year,” he said. “It seems like every week it goes up.”

Rising rents have been difficult even for those whose incomes make them ineligible for many subsidy programs. In early 2001, his organization received 1,500 applications for its subsidized apartments; only 952 qualified. “You see, your check never increases so how do you pay [increased rent]?” he asked. “Then, when you come to low-income housing, it depends on what you make and you can’t get in over here because you’re over income. So you’re in a Catch-22.”

Even if one does qualify, the wait can take years. Of those 952, only 50 have been placed in subsidized apartments. “The two- and three-bedroom apartments are very difficult to find,” he said. “There’s nowhere for families to go.”

Meanwhile, in East New York, amid the great hopes created by the neighborhood’s revitalization, there is also, for some, mounting desperation. “The market is a double-edged sword here,” Weisbord said. “We’ve had so much success revitalizing places like East New York, but it has driven up housing costs and made affordability a real challenge.”

That’s a reality that struggling tenants like Maria and Dorothy know all too well. And it’s something that East New Yorkers increasingly are discovering, as their neighborhood becomes a more desirable—and expensive—place to live.

“I just get the strong sense that the poor are going to be totally at a disadvantage here. There’s not going to be a place for them, they’re going to be priced out,” Key said. “In another five years, I guess the poor are going to go out to Long Island or back down South. They’re not going to be here.”

David Biello is a frequent contributor to Environmental Finance and The Hollywood Reporter.