Displaced, Dispersed, Disappeared: What Happens to Families Forced Out of Bushwick?

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After being evicted with her husband and three young children from a Brooklyn apartment, Diana Zarumeno struggled to find a new home because landlords refused to rent to someone with children.

Adi Talwar

After being evicted with her husband and three young children from a Brooklyn apartment, Diana Zarumeno struggled to find a new home because landlords refused to rent to someone with children.

Bushwick has been in the national spotlight of late, the latest neighborhood to be emblematic of the New Brooklyn of hipster beards and trendy clubs. There’s now an artisanal Bushwick-scented candle you can buy for $81 (“scent highlights include terpentic notes of drying oil paint on canvases”), and Saturday Night Live officially ushered Bushwick stereotypes into the comedic mainstream with a sketch—actually filmed in upper Manhattan — parodying neighborhood black youth talking trash about their gelato purchases.

The new Bushwick is very real: Census data show that the white population, while still a minority, has soared, and young white faces are now common sights far out onto the J and L train lines. It’s a transition that has sent rents soaring, and prompted media attention to the often illegal means that landlords have used to clear out existing residents to make way for deeper-pocketed replacements.

What has drawn less attention is what’s happening to the old Bushwick as it gets displaced. In the decades after the fires and post-blackout looting of the 1970s made the neighborhood a symbol of New York’s decline (and earned it a starring role in the 1977 mayoral race that put Ed Koch in Gracie Mansion), the neighborhood rebounded with new low-rise city-subsidized housing and new residents, largely from Mexico and Central America. The drug trade that once plagued the area — Maria Hernandez Park, the neighborhood’s central open space, was renamed in the 1990s for a local community activist who was shot and killed through her bedroom window for her organizing against local crack dealers — was dispersed, and the old neighborhood of brewery workers became a draw for largely Spanish-speaking families seeking reasonably priced housing and decent schools.

Now, those residents are rapidly moving out — between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the number of Hispanic residents in the 11237 zip code dropped by more than 9 percent, even as the overall population increased — and no one at any level of government can say where they’re going. (SNL notwithstanding, the dominant ethnicities in Bushwick are Mexican and Puerto Rican more than black.) No government agency — not the U.S. Census Bureau, not City Hall, not the local community board, not even the Department of Education — keeps statistics on relocation within specific neighborhoods, leaving only rumors of people departed to eastern Brooklyn, to Queens, even to New Jersey or Pennsylvania.

“I don’t know where people are going, is the bottom line,” admits Mirtha Duran, who runs the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council’s HomeBase shelter diversion program. “Certainly, some of them are entering shelter. The rest are moving to cheaper neighborhoods.”

“When I hear from families, a lot of them are moving to Rockaway and East New York and Elmhurst,” adds Jenny Akchin, a volunteer with the Bushwick Housing Independence Project, which represents local tenants fighting eviction. Yet “no one is particularly tracking it, and I find that kind of concerning.”

Bushwick’s demographic shift, all agree, took off in the years after the rezoning of the Williamsburg waterfront in 2006 drew new, wealthier residents to that neighborhood, forcing young people, most of them white, to seek more affordable housing — affordable, that is, by Williamsburg standards — further east along the L subway line. Some were lured by new construction — the Colony 1209 condo drew particular attention for its over-the-top frontier rhetoric, announcing it would be marketing itself to “like-minded settlers” — but most of the newcomers have benefited from the conversion of existing rental units from single families to groups of young people, with an attendant soaring of rents.

According to Census data interpreted by the city Department of City Planning, Bushwick saw a net in-migration of 9,155 non-Hispanic whites from 2000 to 2010, more the tripling the previous figures for the neighborhood. Meanwhile, after accounting for births and deaths, a net of 17,440 blacks and Hispanics moved out, nearly 16 percent of that population that lived in Bushwick in 2000. And the 2010 Census data, by all accounts, leaves out the biggest wave of displacement, which has accelerated since both the rezoning and the recovery from the Great Recession.

BHIP housing advocate Yolanda Coca says the pace of evictions took a large jump around 2011, the year after the Times dubbed Bushwick “the coolest place on the planet” for those seeking a bohemian lifestyle. She says some longtime residents are leaving the city entirely, while others are doubling up, or taking on roommates: “It’s a very tough situation. I see people getting crazy looking for another place to move out when the landlord is pushing them out.” When she called one recent client to invite her to a meeting, she says, she was told that she was now living in Philadelphia.

Exactly where people are moving from Bushwick is impossible to say. The Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey asks residents where they moved from since the previous year — but only tracks that to the county level, meaning it’s impossible to separate out those who relocate from Bushwick from those who migrate from Park Slope or Coney Island. The Internal Revenue Service likewise keeps records of who moves where, but only releases it aggregated by county.

On the city level, meanwhile, only the Department of City Planning has attempted to investigate migration from gentrifying neighborhoods, and so far only by crunching the existing Census data, meaning detailed migration information isn’t available. The Department of Education, which could examine school registration records, doesn’t release data on movement of school-age children between districts.

That leaves anecdotal accounts from Bushwick residents and tenant advocates. They paint a picture of former neighbors being scattered to the four winds, mostly ending up wherever they can find lodging, even if it’s in unfamiliar communities far afield.

For Elia Colon, who first settled on Greene Avenue in Bushwick in the 1980s, the first sign of trouble came after she’d spent several months waiting for her landlord to fix the leaky ceiling in the Greene Avenue row house where she’d lived for more than two decades. Instead she received a phone message from an unfamiliar voice, saying he was the building’s new owner.

“He said, ‘Oh, Ms. Colon, I’m calling you because this is urgent – you have to move because the city department is threatening to shut off the water and the lights,’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘This man is crazy, what does he think I’m stupid or something?’ I called him back and was furious, I said, “What are you talking about, I’m not stupid! I pay my lights, and what do I have to do with the water?’ ‘Ah, no, but you have to move.’ I said, ‘Who are you?’”

(This is a common practice among Bushwick landlords, says Akchin: “Many of our cases are families where their buildings came under new management, and they didn’t have a lease, and there’s nothing they can do except bargain for additional time to move.”)

Colon stayed put at first, but ended up in a months-long battle with her new landlord. “This thing went on and on. Every time he called me: ‘Oh, you have your apartment? When are you moving?’ I said, ‘Stop harassing me!’”

Eventually, after years of legal battles and [treatment for stress], Colon was able to buy a co-op in Woodhaven. But she still misses her old home. “Since 1973 I used to go to that church,” she says. “I’m far but I still go over there, because it’s like my second home.”

Ricardo Maesa was lucky, in a manner of speaking: After his landlord cleared out all the tenants from his building on Irving Avenue, his family was able to find a new rent-regulated apartment around the corner on Stanhope Street — albeit for an extra $400 a month, and with worse conditions. (“In the other apartment, there weren’t any rats.”) He now has no money left over from his job at the nearby Home Depot for living expenses beyond rent, something that many of his neighbors have fled rather than face: “I think people are going to Jamaica.”

Joel and Maria Najera, who 10 years ago moved to a rent-stabilized apartment on DeKalb Avenue in search of better schools for their kids than they could find in their old neighborhood of East New York, say they’ve watched as their landlord has, through a combination of offering cash for tenants to move and constant harassment, cleared out four of the apartments in their six-unit building. “People came and said the landlord said, ‘You need to get out this week’ — three times, different people,” says Joel. One of them, recalls Maria, told them they had to leave, “because he was going to burn the building.”

One of their neighbors, the Najeras say, agreed to move to another apartment nearby, but “after four years the rent rose too high and they couldn’t pay it.” Priced out a second time, she says, that neighbor ended up moving to Jamaica, Queens; the others, who took buyouts of up to $15,000, she has long since lost track of. They’ve been replaced, she says, with groups of new tenants willing to pay as much as $3,000 to share a two-bedroom apartment that previously rented for less than half that amount. (The Najeras are currently fighting their own eviction in housing court, with the help of Make the Road New York.)

One reason they’re forced to leave the neighborhood, say numerous residents, is that Bushwick landlords won’t rent to families with children — something that is a common practice despite being illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act. “When you call the number and ask do you have an apartment for rent, the first question he asks is if you have children,” says Diana Zarumeno, who along with her husband and three pre-school-age kids was evicted from her Bushwick apartment and ended up having to move across the Queens border to a more expensive apartment in Ridgewood. Kids, say landlords, are noisy and can cause damage to apartments. When she called realtors to ask about available apartments, says Zarumeno, the answer was always, “‘If you have children, then no, the apartment is already rented.'”

Maesa says he was told the same: “He said with kids you can’t find any [apartments].” On top of that, he says, he received another warning from one landlord: “I’m Ecuadorian, you know, and I don’t know why he said it, but he said, ‘You know, you can’t rent these areas to Ecuadorians.’”

Maria Najera says that with two teenage kids, looking for a new space apartment in Bushwick has been absolutely impossible. Her landlord, she says, told her “he would rather rent to a white man with a dog than to me with my kids.”

Both residents and advocates say there are, for now, still a handful of neighborhoods where low rents are available. But relocating comes with costs — in addition to a rent hike, Maesa and his family had to cobble together three months’ rent to give to their new landlord and broker — and means switching schools, and often giving up the safety and community that they moved to Bushwick to find. Without her apartment, says Najera. “I would have to move to a place where there are gangs, pandillas, where my kids won’t be safe.”

And with their friends and neighbors scattering, displaced Bushwick residents lose something else as well: the community ties that have slowly re-knit the neighborhood after the devastation of the 1970s. “Your church, it’s a very important piece of your life,” says Coca. “My church is my second home — half of my life is here. And people been losing all of that.”

Coca says she wonders what will be left of the old Bushwick in another 10 years. Meanwhile, the few remaining affordable neighborhoods are already in developers’ sights, leaving New York’s nearly four million poor and near-poor residents squeezed into less and less space.

HomeBase director Duran says her agency has relocated Bushwick residents to more affordable Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brownsville, East New York, and Canarsie, or even to the Bronx, but wonders how long those options will still be available. “We joke around and say, ‘Where are we going to put poor people, in the Atlantic Ocean?'” she says. “Is this going to continue in Brooklyn? Is Bushwick the frontier, or is there more beyond Bushwick?”

Neil deMause’s book The Brooklyn Wars will be published in 2015.

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This story first appeared on City & State, with which City Limits is partnering to cover crucial housing policy stories in 2015.

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