Mixed Views of Gentrification's Threat in East New York

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Homes on created by the Nehemiah Program along Snediker Avenue in East New York. Nehemiah and other efforts aimed at and often led by low- and moderate-income residents helped stabilize the area. Now some wonder if gentrification will price those residents out.

Photo by: Rgb2000

Homes on created by the Nehemiah Program along Snediker Avenue in East New York. Nehemiah and other efforts aimed at and often led by low- and moderate-income residents helped stabilize the area. Now some wonder if gentrification will price those residents out.

Perhaps it was because of the Presidents’ Day holiday or the freezing temperature that the northern streets of East New York were almost deserted one Monday, last month. Whatever the reason, the words of Travis Williams carried for much of the block, having spotted a white reporter talking to a neighbor.

“Are you lost?” he hollered. “You don’t look like you’re from around here.”

Satisfied I wasn’t looking for directions, Williams paused for a few questions, describing a neighborhood that over the decades has seen some dramatic twists and turns. He purchased his home for $150,000 in 1996, at a time when the area had a reputation for violent crime and disinvestment in the wake of the white flight of the 1960s. Though a stranger like me might still not be entirely safe this early in the afternoon, serious crime—especially drug-related—declined years ago, he says. Schools are better, he adds, and better still is the price of his home. With a nod to the Department of Transportation, he says improvements to the street surface along the block push its value even higher. A spokesperson for the DOT told City Limits of agency plans to resurface over 25 lane miles within Community Board 5 this spring.

More than new asphalt awaits East New York. A federally-funded rezoning proposal called “Sustainable Communities: East New York” is laying the groundwork for a new-look neighborhood. While still years away from implementation, the initiative lays out a vision of more jobs, affordable housing and higher density, mixed-income developments. A DOT proposal tacked on to that initiative for a system of extensive bike lanes in the vicinity of Williams’ home might soon be another item on the list of improvements Williams cites.

But for the many low-income households in East New York who rent, in a neighborhood where half live on some form of public assistance, the current and coming improvements might not be cause for unrestrained joy. They fear they won’t be around to benefit.

Media reports and rumors that the district is facing what was unthinkable five years ago—gentrification—spur deep concern among some residents, who see an influx of wealthier residents that could price them out and throw them into a tough citywide real-estate market. At 3.2 percent, the New York has the lowest vacancy rate among the nation’s five largest cities. For low-income renters in the city, the vacancy rate is even lower – 1.1 percent among units renting for under $800 a month.

Though anecdotal, there is evidence that displacement is happening in East New York, and may threaten the fabric of a community that lacks the financial means to channel gentrifying forces so that they deliver their undeniable benefits without emptying East New York of the people who stabilized it.

Real estate rising

With a population of 182,000, East New York is a neighborhood that James Wilkinson, a broker with Fillmore Real Estate, describes as “going through a major renovation.” While the brownstones have been bought up in nearby Bed-Stuy and may fetch more than a million dollars today, East New York is “an ideal place” if you are looking for cheaper rent and nice brick and frame. Its proximity to the city makes it even more sensitive to market demand. The A/C line can get you to Midtown in around 30 minutes. The J or Z line to City Hall takes a little longer.

Wilkinson is hearing a lot about rehabbing, a sign of a rising real-estate market, and staff at nearby Fulton Lumber Supply are seeing some of the faces behind it. Workers there praise the changes and the rise in business from a demographic they describe as racially diverse and middle class. So far everything is positive, the workers say, particularly the dramatic drop in crime in less than two years. The new people “are very nice,” one staff member says.

In 2009, says real estate broker, Shameer Fazal, of Keller Williams Realty, “it was next to impossible to get something sold” in the area. In 2010, a home might go for $350,000. Today, depending on the location, that figure is as much as $100,000 higher, he says. His clients are mostly middle-aged and first-time buyers.

Fazal sees rents rising even faster than home values. Five years ago you might be lucky to get a one bedroom unit for $800 per month; today, it’s closer to $1,300, Wilkinson says, in a neighborhood where the median household income is around $30,000. Thirty-nine percent of households live on less than $19,000, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, while “more than one in three families are poor and nearly 40 percent of children live in poverty” in East New York, say researchers with the Partnership for the Homeless.

East New York is also, according to the Furman Center, a neighborhood where the rent burden is very high for low-income renters—close to 40 percent of household income, making such residents more vulnerable to eviction if prices continue to rise.

Doubts about displacement

In the words of Columbia University professor of public health Peter Muennig, gentrification is a “mixed bag.” It can benefit the homeowner and bring in more restaurants paying local workers considerably more than bodegas do. But the displacement of low-income residents can be “deadly,” he says, potentially shortening one’s life span by disrupting employment and family networks and placing “low-income households in a position in which they have little in the way of economic or social resources to deal with it.” He adds that despite the fanfare, affordable housing initiatives may offer little help as even these units are often outside the price-range of poor households.

Muennig sees displacement as a “de facto feature” of gentrification—a view that’s been in force since sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term in 1964 to describe the changing character of working-class London neighborhoods, where incumbent residents were priced out and “shabby, modest mews and cottages” became “elegant, expensive residences” when their leases expired.

But another Columbia professor, Lance Freeman, challenges that notion. In one study, Freeman found that “residential turnover in gentrifying neighborhoods is not any greater than non-gentrifying ones.” In fact, “gentrifying neighborhoods may gain income and racial diversity.”

Still, Freeman told the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in 2008 that gentrification poses significant problems for the poor, who either may be forced to pay 60 percent of their income to remain in gentrifying neighborhoods – or leave.

One long-time East New York resident, Nellie, says her rent for a one-bedroom unit has risen steadily since 2009, from $800 to $1,100 per month. In the last year, she has learned of local residents priced out of their apartments, including a single mother and her children “who ended up in the shelter system” she says. “After that I don’t know what happened to them.”

As Nellie’s anecdote suggests, what happens to the displaced is often anyone’s guess. Accurate data on gentrification-driven displacement is difficult to get. East New York’s many illegal basement dwellers make an accurate head count even less likely.

The most recent data on movers into and in New York City— from the HPD’s Housing Vacancy Survey (HVS) for 2011—indicates that people who moved to the city from elsewhere in the United States were more likely to have a college degree, and a higher median income, than the rest of the city. They are also much more likely to be white.

Of movers within the city, however, most were from minority backgrounds and cited housing (42 percent) or neighborhood-related issues (12 percent), as the reason for their relocation, according to the HVS. Close to 90 percent of black or Hispanic movers in recent years moved within the city. Less than half of movers within the city had a college degree.

But beyond the Housing and Vacancy Survey’s limited view, indicators of how many are being displaced and where they go are scant. A report published in 2005 by urban planning scholars Kathe Newman and Elvin Wyly noted that in the city, “Displaced renters literally disappear from the housing survey if they leave.”

Impressions and doubts

While statistical research is limited, other evidence of rising displacement in East New York exists, though it is mostly word of mouth.

Tynesha McHarris, a community organizer working in East New York with the Brooklyn Community Foundation, is hearing it from fretful residents’ but adds “I haven’t seen much.” No doubt though there is “a perception of the inevitability of gentrification,” she says.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services, East New York’s Community Board 5 is a “hotspot for homeless entry” and delivered close to 600 single-parent families to the shelter system in fiscal year 2013, the highest number for the borough. The chief cause: eviction.

It’s been “crazy in 2014,” says Muhammad Ahmed, who runs the Fulton Deli in Cypress Hills, a sub-section of East New York within walking distance of Williams’ home. This year, his landlord bumped his rent up $400 a month to $2,200. In 10 years, he’s been told it will be somewhere around $2,800.

Middle-easterners and whites priced out of other areas are coming, Ahmed says. He counts about 100 whites having arrived in recent months to an area just blocks from the J train. “You only see then in the morning or at night,” he says, going to or returning from work.

Despite the rumors, Community Board 5 district manager Walter Campbell and board parliamentarian Manuel Burgos doubt a gentrifying trend is gripping the area. “Doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Burgos says, “I just haven’t heard anything.” In 2012, Community Board 5 had the highest vacancy rate in the city, at 7.8 percent.

Recently-elected Councilman Rafael Espinal, whose district covers part of northern East New York, also has his doubts. “Gentrification remains in Bushwick,” he told City Limits. He attributes rising rents to increasing pressures on landlords who face increasingly onerous costs as property taxes and utilities continue to rise.

Will policy help?

While still in draft form, the Sustainable Communities initiative for the northern tier of East New York proposes to take advantage of what program literature describes as its “transit-rich” character and many “underutilized” parcels of land. The initiative forms part of the federally funded New York-Connecticut Sustainable Communities project, promoting sustainable development around transit hubs in the northeast region. A similar plan by the Department of City Planning seeks to “capitalize on the Bronx Metro North Corridor, connecting Bronx residents to job centers in the region.” One of the goals is to link East New York with other cities in the region, thus making the region more competitive globally.

Former planning commissioner Amanda Burden argued that the initiative would advance Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030, which called for more eco-friendly and transit-oriented development. Part of the plan will preserve low-density housing for blocks on either side of Atlantic Avenue, the center of the project. A new-look strip there will feature taller buildings with a glassier and bulkier design, replacing storage space, a car-repair garage and a gas station. Other commercial corridors, including the one encompassing Ahmed’s deli on Fulton Street, also face higher-density development, and are poised if the plan goes ahead to attract more retail and restaurants. The Long Island Railroad substation, long neglected, is also due a facelift.

Implementation of the proposal is at least two years away and any rezoning plan would have to go through the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP).

While some in the neighborhood hail the plan as offering new opportunities for affordable housing and economic growth, others are suspicious. Community board member James Tillman told City Limits in 2013 that the focus on the district’s north concerns him. He pointed out to reporter Abigail Savitch-Lew that Cypress Hills is the next stop off the J and L line after gentrifying Bushwick and that, “It just reeks of gentrification.”
According to a recent report by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, the downside to gentrification – displacement – can be mitigated by affordable housing programs and preserving remaining rent-regulation units. This year Community Board 5 listed affordable housing as the district’s greatest need.

The Sustainable Communities proposal lays out a framework for inclusionary housing, which would preserve 20 percent of floor area for affordable units. But what may be needed to stem the displacement of residents in East New York in coming years is, according to Adrienne Terry, program director for the Brooklyn Community Services’ Transitional Living Center, a “subsidy program that can compete with market-rate housing,” she says while pointing out that recent funding cuts to low-income households, like Section 8 or Advantage, are only making matters worse.

“In a wonderful world I would love that to happen,” she says. “But right now we’re talking about a program that doesn’t exist.”