August 29, 2018
By Abigail Savitch-Lew
A half-block lot, overgrown with human-high weeds, freckled by abandoned vehicles and strollers, sits between Rockaway and Chester Avenues in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Pedestrians passing by pay it no mind: this lot’s been here forever, several say. Asked what they think of the fact that it may soon be redeveloped with affordable housing along with an arts and culture center, everyone brightens at the idea.
But one woman asks what “affordable” means, and balks when this reporter gives an approximate answer. “That’s not affordable for people in this neighborhood,” she says. It’s a concern raised more than once by those hearing about the plan for the first time.
Another pedestrian, who identifies herself as a Black, mixed-race homeowner, says she’s fine with affordable housing as long as it doesn’t add to the number of “Black people who are bringing down the area.”
The redevelopment of the Rockaway-Chester lot is one component of a larger vision for the neighborhood called the Brownsville Plan, completed in June 2017 by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) after a year-long community planning process involving numerous stakeholders.
The Brownsville Plan commits to the subsidizing of over 2,500 units of affordable housing on city- and privately-owned land parcels in the neighborhood over the coming years using more than $1 billion in subsidies. A key component of the plan involves the development of three clusters of city-owned sites with 880 units and mixed-use facilities.
In July, the city selected developers for those sites, each of which will include long-desired community amenities and institutions according to a certain theme. The Rockaway-Chester site will bring art and culture institutions such as a dance and performing-arts school run by the local performing arts organization Purelements and other Brooklyn-based organizations. The Christopher-Glenmore site will include an entrepreneurship hub run by the Central Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation, a locally-owned salon, the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union and other amenities. On Livonia Avenue, new development will feature resources to encourage healthy living, including a supermarket, community gardens, a greenhouse and more.
Under the plan, $150 million will go to a variety of community initiatives and programs in the neighborhood to tackle a range of goals, including fostering safe and lively streets and public spaces, providing resources to promote health, connecting residents to jobs, supporting entrepreneurs and deterring displacement, among others. Another eight mixed-use affordable housing projects encompassing potentially an additional couple thousand units are in various stages of planning and development throughout the neighborhood, according to a recent progress report.
And the Brownsville Plan comes at a time of escalating public investment in the area. Last year, Governor Cuomo launched the $1.4 billion Vital Brooklyn initiative, which targets all of Central Brooklyn for a range of investments and 3,000 units of new affordable housing, with at least one Brownsville site already identified (at Brookdale University Hospital).* Private investors are flocking willingly—from L+M Development Partners, which bought and renovated a local Mitchell-Lama complex and is now working with the city on one of those eight projects, to an investor who purchased the rehabilitated Loew’s Pitkin Theater building for a stunning $53 million last year.
The city’s plan is not a neighborhood-wide rezoning plan like those the City Council has approved in East New York, Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue, and, most recently, Inwood. In those neighborhoods, the city increased the allowable building size on whole blocks of private property while also imposing requirements that new development include a portion of income-targeted units. Such rezonings have faced criticism that they trigger a widespread rise in property values and may facilitate gentrification more than they help to curb it. In Brownsville, while there may be rezonings of individual, city-owned parcels in order to facilitate specific projects, the plan does not offer private property owners a density boost.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some anxiety about the Brownsville Plan, who it will serve, and whether it will be implemented successfully. Given the neighborhood’s difficult past, Brownsville residents are all too familiar with how government planning efforts can go wrong without robust resident oversight.
A history of poor planning, government neglect
Brownsville’s hard fall and gradual revival exemplifies the way multiple levels of government failed urban Black communities in the latter half of the 20th century—and exemplifies the powerful resilience displayed by residents in the face of systemic violence.
Once a majority Jewish slum, Brownsville began to change mid-century as upwardly mobile Jewish residents fled to middle-class suburbs. Concurrently, city-led urban renewal efforts in Manhattan displaced thousands of tenants, many of whom settled in Brownsville because there were few other neighborhoods open to Black and Latino residents. In addition, numerous public housing developments were sited in the neighborhood, which, along with changes to rules about who could live in public housing, over time contributed to a high concentration of extremely low-income residents without corresponding amenities and services.
Brownsville residents also suffered from a number of other policies: declining city investment in neighborhood services, the federal government’s redlining of Black and Brown neighborhoods that caused property values to tank, city policies that lead private absentee landlords to neglect and subsequently abandon their properties, and the deindustrialization of the city’s economy, to name only a few.
As detailed in Wendell Pritchett’s Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto, activists of color fought for resources to address the growing poverty. They provided job training, held civil disobedience actions against bad landlords, launched their own credit union and newspaper, and fought vigorously for control of the schools—yet their efforts were stymied by a lack of commitment from the city and reduced federal funding under the Nixon administration.
By the late 1960s, city planners were already blaming past administrations for oversaturating the neighborhood with low-income housing without a corresponding investment in community resources. Several city-sponsored planning efforts of that era, however, were only partially successful. Efforts to construct new apartment buildings, rehabilitate existing housing, and build new community facilities were complicated by declining federal support, bureaucratic inefficiency and alleged corruption and mismanagement. While some new apartments were built during the 1970s, it did not make up for the loss of thousands of units abandoned by landlords and demolished by the city.
Many credit the neighborhood’s turn for the better to the hard work of community organizations, including East Brooklyn Congregations, a coalition of church congregations that in the 1980s demanded the city give the coalition land to build 5,000 single-family affordable homes. By 1999, EBC had built 2,200 homes in East Brooklyn under the Nehemiah Plan, providing many families with a step to the middle-class and making Brownsville a safer place to live.
Even in recent years, however, Brownsville residents have had to contend with the impact of disinvestment, top-down planning and dislocation—particularly those living on Prospect Street in Ocean Hill. In the 1970s, the city knocked down neighborhood shops and tenements to build a new NYCHA complex, Prospect Plaza. In 2000, the complex’s 1,500 residents were relocated so the towers could be renovated, and in 2009 NYCHA announced that the entire development would be demolished—one of the few NYCHA developments to be torn down—and rebuilt as affordable housing by private developers. While the Bloomberg administration touted its community visioning process and noted that a fourth of the replacement units would be public housing with a preference for former Prospect Plaza residents, others said the drawn-out process destroyed a community.
It’s with this past that Brownsville’s residents come to the table—seeking to improve the neighborhood without losing the families who have withstood the worst times.
A plan for Brownsville’s rejuvenation
While there has been improvement in the last decade, Brownsville still ranks near the bottom on a host of indexes when compared to other neighborhoods. In 2016, the poverty rate was fifth highest in the city, at 33.2 percent. In 2017, Brownsville 4th graders had the lowest proficiency levels in the five boroughs on state tests in English and second lowest in math, and the neighborhood had the sixth highest serious crime rate. And as City Limits has previously reported, Brownsville residents live the shortest lives.
Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel says that about a decade ago, she and other young professionals native to the neighborhood, disappointed in the way Brownsville seemed stagnant as well as dismayed by the Prospect Street debacle, began discussing how to “restore Brownsville back to what it used to be its glory days.” The Ocean-Hill Brownsville Coalition of Young Professionals, founded in 2010, along with the assistance of organizations like the nonprofit Community Solutions, convened conversations with NYCHA and Marcus Garvey Village residents, and came up with a vision. Ampry-Samuel says they imagined livelier corridors with amenities like cafes, restaurants, and wifi stations.
In 2014, the incoming de Blasio administration launched the 100 Days to Progress Initiative in Brownsville, a multi-agency effort that Ampry-Samuel says built on Ocean-Hill Brownsville Coalition of Young Professionals’ work and resulted in a number of short-term projects for the neighborhood. At that time, there were also conversations about what to do with all of Brownsville’s vacant land, with residents hoping to catalyze such spaces with cultural institutions and other community resources, while the administration saw the potential for affordable housing. Agreeing to do both, the administration launched the Brownsville Planning effort in 2016.
HPD says is outreach efforts reached thousands of residents and included creating a special website, posting signs throughout the neighborhood that encouraged residents to text ideas directly to HPD, holding five public workshops, tabling at many neighborhood events, and reaching out to every NYCHA tenant association. Some stakeholders said they were impressed by HPD’s efforts to involve the community, as well as felt positively about the committed, coordinated involvement of local leaders.
“People were planning around us, not with us [in the past]. I thank God for [Community Board Chair] Genese Morgan because we are now at the table,” says Cleopatra Brown, a community board member, while Harvey Lawrence, CEO of the Brownsville Multiservice Family Health Center, says that HPD made a “gallant effort to attempt to get everyone to the table.”
Even so, many Brownsville residents still don’t know about the plan. Shelevya Pearson, a resident at Seth Low Houses and co-chair of the youth and civic engagement committee for Brooklyn NYCHA developments, says HPD’s meetings included a lot of nonprofit staff, elected representatives, and agency staff, and not enough residents from the neighborhood and from public housing—especially given that the development sites are clustered close to the neighborhood’s NYCHA developments.
“We the people didn’t say, ‘Come build on our land,'” she says. “You created a crowd that looked like us, but wasn’t.”
Housing for whom?
One of Pearson’s top concerns—and shared by others who spoke to City Limits—is that the new affordable housing won’t actually be affordable to neighborhood residents.
While in 2009, Time magazine called Brownsville a neighborhood that “remained untouched by the gentrification seen in so many other parts of Brooklyn,” that reality has already begun—if subtly—to change. Between 2010 and 2016, the neighborhood’s white population increased from .7 percent to 3.5 percent of residents. While there haven’t been significant increases in median household income—at $30,798 in 2016—the median asking rent rose from $1,650 to $2,150 from 2016 to 2017.
Those who can’t make it in Brownsville have few other options in the city: Brownsville ranked among the top neighborhoods sending the most families into the shelter system in 2015. Homeowners are also at risk of displacement: In the face of rising property taxes and growing repair and utility costs, many have become vulnerable to predatory lending or to speculative investors who buy homes cheap. Many residents are aware of these changes and already concerned.
The Brownsville Plan states that there will be no “market rate” apartments built on the three city-owned sites: all units will be subsidized by the city and targeted to various income levels. They will be given away by lottery, and, as long as the city’s community preference policy still stands, residents of the neighborhood will receive priority for 50 percent of the units.
At the site on Christopher and Glenmore, for instance, 10 percent of the units will be for formerly homeless families, 10 percent for households making up to about $28,000 (for a family of three), and the remaining 80 percent will serve various income brackets up to $85,000 for a family of three, though the exact percentages are still subject to negotiation.
Other projects in various stages of development in the neighborhood each target a different mix of incomes, from homeless families to extremely low-, to low-, to moderate-income households.
Such levels are generally the standard for affordable developments in low-income neighborhoods subsidized by the de Blasio administration, though many housing activists throughout the city have said the city needs to subsidize a greater percentage of units for families making the lowest incomes.
“Affordable housing should be [targeting] anywhere from $21,000 per year…to like maybe $38,000,” says Pearson, pointing to the low incomes of Brownsville residents: 46 percent of households make less than $25,000 a year. “There’s no way in the world that you believe that their household is making $80,000.”
Pearson says she also sees a triple gentrification threat comprised of the Brownsville Plan, the recent rezoning of next door East New York, and the city’s redevelopment plan for nearby Broadway Junction.
Ultimately, it will be up to the City Council to approve the administration’s proposed affordable-housing projects. Each of the three sites falls in a different City Council district, which means Councilmembers Ampry-Samuel, Inez Barron, and Rafael Espinal will be working together to negotiate the details of the project with the de Blasio administration.
“There is a need for a variety of tiers,” says Ampry-Samuel, arguing that the neighborhood needs housing for families making extremely low incomes, as well as a segment for moderate income households, such as city workers and young professionals making around $75,000 for a family of three. She says she still expects to “have a conversation” with the city about the exact rent levels.
Asked if city investments in the neighborhood could exacerbate gentrification, she says readily that this is one of her biggest concerns. But change, she says, “is going to happen, so the issue is, is it going to happen with us as a community, or, is it going to happen just to us?” She adds that she will do “whatever I can do to make sure that the community benefits from every piece of this process as we move forward.”
The Brownsville Plan includes seven strategies aimed at addressing displacement pressures, such as promoting city financing programs to landlords that help them make repairs in exchange for preserving the affordability for existing tenants, and supporting homeowners who are facing foreclosure.
Barron, who represents the southern part of the area, said she will analyze the proposed rent levels; she adds: “If I’m bringing any sizable percentage that does not match the residents that live here, I’m doing a disservice to the residents that are here.” She also intends to make sure the proposed unit sizes reflect the composition sizes of Brownsville families.
In some ways, Brownsville is still grappling with the same questions it has for decades: Is it more important to encourage economic diversity in city-sponsored development, or to focus on addressing the housing needs of the extremely poor and disadvantaged, even though doing so would be more expensive?
HPD argues that creating housing for extremely low-income families is especially pricey because the rents those families pay are not enough to cover building costs and require an additional operating subsidy. Having a mix of incomes within a building, the agency argues, allows a development to be more financially stable over the long term. That said, the de Blasio administration has created more units for families in the lowest income brackets than prior administrations: Of all the units created by the de Blasio administration’s housing plan so far, 16 percent have served households making no more than $28,170 (for a family of three) and another 23 percent have served households making no more than $46,950 (for a family of three).
The agency further says that half of Brownsville’s existing apartments are either NYCHA or income-restricted under another program, so not all the households making below $25,000 in Brownsville are actually in need of affordable housing.
Yet extremely low-income residents in Brownsville and in the city as a whole still desperately need affordable housing. According to Census data, about 66 percent of Brownsville residents making below $20,000 are severely rent-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent. Many of those families might already be getting subsidized housing, but it is still likely that lower-income Brownsville residents have higher rates of extreme rent-burdening than their moderate income neighbors.
Not enough, or too much housing
Housing development in Brownsville had already begun to escalate prior to the plan. From 2010 to 2017, the number of new certificates of occupancy issued grew up from 310 to 542, moving Brownsville from the 29th to the 15th neighborhood with the greatest gain in certificates of occupancy. Local elected officials are of different minds on whether a rezoning might be necessary at some point.
Meanwhile, East Brooklyn Congregations—the coalition responsible for the development of the Nehemiah Homes in the 1980s and 1990s—has its own vision: 15,000 units of senior housing on spare NYCHA-owned land throughout the city, including, in Brownsville, at Howard Houses, Kingsborough Houses, and a city lot near Van Dyke. While its leaders are glad that de Blasio has agreed to add another 15,000 units of senior housing to his 12-year affordable housing plan, it’s not yet clear where all those units will be sited. The three Brownsville sites will include 148 senior units, but EBC sees room for more.
“The land is there now, so we’re ready to more immediately address the issues of the housing crisis in Brownsville, far from the larger scale Brownsville Plan. I guess both things have to happen,” says Father Ed Mason, a member of EBC.
On August 26, Governor Cuomo, flanked by EBC members, announced the state will fund 1,000 units of affordable senior housing on NYCHA properties throughout Central Brooklyn, with NYCHA to select which sites.
Others, however, have concerns about oversaturating the neighborhood, including the NYCHA campuses, with too much housing.
“I understand there is a homeless crisis, but when you start building, you start taking away from the community,” says Brown, the community board member, explaining that the existing population already needs more community facilities, such as more recreation facilities for kids, and open space.
As detailed in a recent assessment by New Yorkers for Parks, Brownsville is already well below the city’s per-person open space goal, with only .6 acres of open space for every 1,000 people (as opposed to the city’s goal of 2.5 acres per 1,000 people). The report also notes that the Brownsville Plan commits major investments to renovations at Betsy Head Park, the Brownsville Recreation Center, and other neighborhood open spaces and streets, but that renovations will result in temporarily losses of open space.
According to HPD, the Rockaway-Chester development will include a public plaza of 8,000 square feet, the Livonia sites will have an outdoor public space to host a farmer’s market, and additional outdoor space will be accessible to building tenants. But while such additions will help keep apace with a growing population, they don’t do much to fix the Brownsville public’s open space deficit.
“Adding more open space in a dense city like New York is very difficult to do, so we focus our park renovations on making spaces more accessible to the entire community so that they can be used more efficiently,” said Maeri Ferguson, a spokesperson for the Parks Department in an e-mail to City Limits. She added that the agency solicits community input for each renovation and is taking every step possible to ensure continued access to recreation opportunities in the neighborhood during renovations, including by staggering phases of the renovations and working with the community to find alternative locations for programming.
On another note, there’s also the question of which firms, and which workers, will get to benefit from the development plan. HPD chose some large, national firms to spearhead the development, but also one minority and women-owned business chaired by a Brownsville native. All three projects include a non-profit partner and one project includes plans to be part of a community land trust. HPD notes its Request for Proposals (RFP) included a new preference for entities with community development experience and also encouraged them to partner with local organizations and to fulfill the vision of the Brownsville Plan.
The city is requiring that developers implement an outreach plan for targeted employment and participate in HireNYC, which requires a good faith effort to hire local residents, as well as to spend at least a quarter of costs on Minority and Women Owned Business (MBWE) contractors. The plan also includes a variety of other strategies aimed at addressing unemployment. Still, Barron says she’d like to see more investments to reduce unemployment and ensure development leads to career-track opportunities in the unions.
The nuts and bolts of implementation
The task ahead is not just refining the details of the plan, but ensuring it is implemented successfully.
Earlier this month, Brownsville Multiservice Family Health Center’s Renee Muir, on her way through the center to ask a group of participants in the Healthy Village class what they know about the Brownsville Plan, pointed to a collection of finger-paintings on the wall. The Art is Healing Class would also be a great opportunity to inform residents about the plan and how they can prepare, she said. Or could the Department of Education talk with parents during the first week of school? Or maybe the new Health Action Center on Bristol street could be used as a hub for this information? What should we be telling high school students? Is there a way to make sure formerly-displaced residents attain the information?
“My priority is just making sure that folks in the neighborhood are not left out of the opportunities simply because we did not do a good job of getting ready. And timelines are important,” she says.
Lawrence, the center’s CEO, says he’s generally pleased by the plan and its focus not just on the “brick and mortar” of housing but also on improving quality of life. His concern is accountability. Will the arts and culture programming at the Rockaway and Chester site actually align with what current residents want? Will the developments be synergistic with the neighborhood? Will the community continue to provide oversight and be able to make corrections if the developments stray from the original vision?
HPD has worked with Community Board 16 to form a group of community partners to serve as an advisory group that convenes twice a year to monitor the implementation of the plan. The administration has committed to presenting updates at those meetings, welcoming stakeholders’ feedback, and issuing regular progress reports, as HPD did last December and in July of this year. Ampry-Samuel says informing residents about the affordable housing application process is already happening and must involve an “intentional and concentrated effort.”
In the years ahead, Brownsville will be an important test of whether a liberal administration is able to successfully harness the forces of the market to meet the needs of a low-income community without a rezoning, and without causing displacement. And it will be an important test for Brownsville: Now that the community has the attention of government bureaucracy and private investors, will it be able to control the outcomes, and reconcile some of the differing visions among its members about how all this is to be done?
“We have to be able to be at the table but at the same time understand that we can walk away from the table,” advises Paul Chandler, a longtime activist on the board of the center, who remembers the days of fighting slum landlords and saving people from freezing buildings—and who these days is more worried about gentrification in Brownsville. “If you don’t go with that position, you are going to wind up getting crumbs for the community.”