Nonprofits Seek to Keep Communities Intact Amid Gentrification
The hipster takeover of Brooklyn continues to run its course. Williamsburg and Bushwick, once lower- and middle-class neighborhoods, are now home to posh boutiques and exclusive lofts. Even the storied “creative class” is said to have had enough of the rising costs and changing atmosphere: Reports of L-train exoduses to Los Angeles and Detroit abound.
And amid the unchecked gentrification, long-established ethnic enclaves are struggling to keep their communities intact, their housing affordable and employment opportunities readily accessible.
It is on these critical and contentious fronts that Brooklyn nonprofit, advocacy and community organizing groups have focused their attention, raising concerns on behalf of immigrant constituencies.
Jose Lopez, a lead organizer for Make The Road New York, a Latino community organizing nonprofit that is particularly active in Bushwick and Williamsburg, says many advocates view these issues as personal battles.
“My family has been in Brooklyn since 1959, and in Bushwick since 1991,” Lopez said. “It’s our families’ blood, sweat and tears that built these communities.”
Despite that long tradition, advocates say tenants are facing an alarming rise in housing issues, including aggressive harassment from landlords, as affordable units become increasingly scarce and market rates continue to skyrocket.
Lopez described the April indictment of two Bushwick landlords, Joel and Aaron Israel, who were accused of intentionally destroying tenants’ apartments and depriving them of basic services in acts of intimidation, as just the tip of the iceberg.
“In terms of harassment, it is getting real in Bushwick,” Lopez said. “Community members are coming to us regularly with stories of landlords banging on doors early in the morning, turning off utilities and offering outrageous buyouts.”
Lopez says some of the most important work Make The Road New York does is in the parts of Brooklyn that are just now experiencing the first waves of gentrification.
“We have to be on the ground in these neighborhoods to make sure that tenants are part of the conversation as these neighborhoods are rezoned,” Lopez said. “Bringing community members to the table with landlords is the only way to ensure that the process is equitable.”
Without such community engagement, advocates say, the conflicts among community members, landlords and the city government will only escalate further.
Sarita Daftary-Steel, program director for El Puente’s Green Light District Project, a South Williamsburg organization that seeks to preserve communities through education, advocacy and cultural events, cites the ongoing Broadway Triangle rezoning struggle as an example of dramatic community action taken on behalf of Brooklyn minority groups.
The conflict centers on a 1,851-unit development that straddles a highly segregated border between Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant, which has been accused of catering to predominantly white residents and “functionally excluding” minorities.
Housing advocates organizing on behalf of the area’s black and Latino residents say the development is neglecting to serve minorities in neighboring Community Board 3 by giving preference to the residents of Community Board 1, which is predominantly white and has a sizable Orthodox Jewish community. These advocates also say the proposal’s disproportionate number of multi-bedroom apartments create another burden for minority populations.
“This is a coalition of over 40 nonprofit organizations coming together in defense of the Fair Housing Act,” Daftary-Steel said, highlighting the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition’s recent campaign to urge the de Blasio administration to extend an injunction that prohibited the development.
Some of those involved with the Broadway Triangle proposal, however, dispute the coalition’s claims that the project unfairly excludes minority residents.
“It all depends on which foot the shoe is on,” said Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, whose organization worked with the city on the development proposal. “Other groups are trying to dilute the chances of Jewish families getting access to affordable apartments by trying to include another large community board in the development.”
“All communities in CB1 and CB3 are suffering from gentrification equally,” Niederman added.
But advocates say that any local affordable housing must be overtly and intentionally accessible to minorities, and the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition has legal support from the New York Civil Liberties Union and Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A. The coalition has also held a number of rallies in an attempt to mobilize local support.
“The Broadway Triangle Urban Renewal Area is the largest plot of vacant land available for affordable housing in Brooklyn,” the coalition said in a statement. “Fixing this discriminatory rezoning, the subject of a preliminary injunction and years of fair housing litigation, presents an extraordinary opportunity for the de Blasio administration to put into action its ambitious and much-touted affordable housing plan.”
But advocates say that impassioned local housing battles—and citywide fights over maintaining affordable units—are only a part of the work that needs to be done in order to preserve immigrant communities.
Leah Hebert, chief program officer of Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, which enrolls over 800 people each year in adult education and literacy programs and serves over 4,500 youth and adults in Sunset Park, Bushwick and East Williamsburg, stresses the importance of education services in protecting against the effects of gentrification.
“Gentrification has pushed out jobs that many immigrants and lower-income community members would have had access to,” Hebert said. “As a result, one of the biggest shifts that we’ve seen is the demand for high school equivalency. So many employers have shifted the skills and education that they require for an entry-level position.”
Hebert says this effort is no small task, citing census data showing that 41 percent of Mexican-Americans between ages 16 and 19 in New York City have dropped out of school. Hebert says this systemic lack of formal education, paired with a recent $2.8 million in cuts to the New York City Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—which funds high school equivalency and English classes like those offered by Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow—has hit minority communities hard in places like Bushwick and Sunset Park, where there are the dense clusters of Mexican-Americans.
“Many people who want to gain access to job opportunities do not have the money or time to travel across the city for a class,” Herbert said. “People are often working multiple jobs on top of their commitments to their families. We need to make sure that these classes are provided within their own communities.”
Hebert also explains that education services can be vital for immigrants as they navigate Brooklyn’s evolving housing environment.
“We find that some landlords will illegally target immigrants who do not speak English, exploiting their lack of education to force them out of housing or commit unlawful activity,” Hebert said.
As a result, Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow has partnered with organizations such as Churches United for Fair Housing to combine literacy classes with informational sessions in English and Spanish, making sure that immigrants—both legal and illegal—know their rights and how to apply for affordable housing.
Dafarty-Steel agrees education is crucial to help immigrants find and remain in affordable housing. Green Light District’s outreach efforts include an initiative to share information about subsidies offered by the state Energy Research and Development Authority that incentivize tenants to carry out energy-efficiency renovations.
“Access to these sorts of subsidies can help a low-income family reduce their energy costs and remain in their home,” Daftary-Steel said.
However, Daftary-Steel concedes that work on behalf of these communities continues to be an uphill battle.
“Gentrification is a strong wave, and despite the strength of our organizations, a lot of people will continue to be displaced,” she said.