The first step in the Fifth Avenue Committee’s reconstruction of 572 Pacific Street took place everywhere on the block except 572 Pacific Street. Before turning the vacant city-owned building into 10 units of housing, volunteers and staff knocked on every door in the immediate neighborhood. “We initially decided to do this project sometime before the summer, and then we decided that if we were going to be successful we had to do a summer’s worth of engaging the community,” says Julian Brown, assistant director of the group’s Developing Justice in South Brooklyn project.
FAC staff and volunteers were dispatched to each household on Pacific and Dean streets between Fourth and Flatbush avenues wielding a “Door-Knocking Manual” that included talking points and a list of suggestions for being a pleasant interlocutor. Activists were advised to “Listen to their comments without interrupting,” “Invite them to tour other FAC buildings” and, at the top of the list, “Be polite.”
These painstaking measures were essential because the Fifth Avenue Committee isn’t just refurbishing an apartment building. Its new residents will be recently released prisoners who formerly lived in the area. Their living situation will come with job training, case management and an enforced clean-and-sober rule. To its supporters, the project has the dual virtues of easing ex-prisoners through the traumas of reintegration and preventing the community from absorbing the consequences of rockier reentries.
But to its opponents, the endeavor is something much less virtuous. Pauline Blake, chair of Community Board 6’s housing subcommittee, argues that putting former prisoners on a block of Pacific Street where new higher-income residents have been buying properties and settling in “is like taking a criminal and putting him in a bank vault.” And an unsigned letter posted around the neighborhood urged residents to oppose the project, declaring: “Historically, this block has been over saturated [sic] with all negative elements in society. We have already paid our social dues to society. We have paid for it physically, socially, economically and are still paying for it.”
Time and again, plans for housing people with special needs have collided with the objections of nearby residents. Wary neighbors fear concrete threats, like increased crime or declining property values. Or they insist–perhaps correctly–that their neighborhood has been targeted as a dumping ground for social service outlets.
That’s what happened in February, when a group of Harlem residents convinced a judge to temporarily block state funding for a Housing Works residence for people with HIV and mental illness. State Senator David Paterson, Assemblymember Keith Wright and Councilmember Bill Perkins all support the residents’ campaign to stop the facility. Though Housing Works’ offered to convene a local advisory board and put residents on the project’s governing board, it wasn’t enough to counter the conviction that this was an unjust imposition on the neighborhood.
The Fifth Avenue Committee knows all about the perils of neighborhood opposition. A previous project, 67 units of housing for formerly homeless and other low-income adults at 551 Warren Street, came dangerously close to being blocked in the winter of 1997 by a small cadre of critics who were active in Community Board 2. Community boards have the power to recommend denying the approval needed to transfer city-owned property to an organization’s possession.
Members of the Boerum Hill Association, who persistently complained that their neighborhood was oversaturated with social services, were a sizeable presence on the board’s Health and Human Services Committee; that committee rejected the plan by a vote of 4 to 3. At that point, the project’s future seemed dim. “Obviously, it’s very difficult to get a community board to vote against a committee of that board,” says Fifth Avenue Committee executive director Brad Lander. Intensive last-minute lobbying–including a petition signed by more than 100 neighbors of the site–helped convince the full board to vote yes.
So when it embarked on a project that promised to be even more controversial, the Fifth Avenue Committee made sure it got its message out early. To continue gauging neighborhood sentiment following the door-knocking campaign, the organization arranged a series of focus groups, where residents were asked to voice their concerns and suggest ways to address them. Next came community meetings in July and September. FAC’s message: Properly run supportive housing causes no social disarray, and it actually decreases crime by preventing vulnerable residents from slipping into homelessness and desperation.
Most neighbors first heard about the proposal during those conversations, and some found the idea hard to swallow. “Initially, I think there was a lot of skepticism,” Brown recalls. “People said everything from ‘People deserve another chance’ to ‘Not on my block.’”
Lander recognizes that some stalwart opposition is inevitable. “I know there’s a set of people on this block who, the only input they want to have is, ‘Don’t do this project,’” he says. But there’s more to his approach than just triumphing over opposition. Fostering close community participation also serves the program’s own goal of smoothly integrating the ex-prisoners back into their neighborhood.
Still, even conspicuous attention to local concerns may not be quite so effective for organizations that aren’t already part of the neighborhood. Steve Coe recalls the beating his organization, Community Access, received when it tried to expand its presence a few blocks north, from the Lower East Side to tonier Gramercy Park. Despite the organization’s experience providing services for people with psychiatric problems, its attempt in 1994 to open a 25-unit building on 18th Street aroused vitriolic opposition from some segments of the neighborhood.
Residents feared that the project would boost crime and were irked that Community Access hadn’t consulted them before moving to buy the site. Some formed a group that pledged to prevent the residence from opening. When Community Access filed a discrimination suit against them, they in turn lambasted Coe’s group as an enemy of free speech.
Eventually the state’s Office of Mental Health, which was slated to fund the project, backed out, expressing concern that Community Access couldn’t operate within its proposed budget. Community Access took OMH to court, too, claiming the agency’s decision represented a surrender to political pressure. “We had a one-day hearing, and the judge was very sympathetic, but there wasn’t a smoking gun,” Coe says. “The judge agreed it looked fishy, and he sort of scolded the state for their action.” But the court denied the group’s petition, putting an end to its plans.
The Gramercy Park incident taught Coe an important lesson: Neighborhoods react poorly to groups they deem “outsiders,” regardless of its credentials or a project’s promise. Now when Community Access embarks on opening new facilities, it teams up with organizations already established in the community–including the Fifth Avenue Committee, with which it formed a partnership to provide the social services for the Warren Street building.
But the most effective community relations require more than the ability to showcase past successes. When supportive housing operators disperse their positive impact across a community, not just within an edifice, the ripple effects make an impression of their own.
“Rather than be isolated on a project, what works is when a project can be part of a neighborhood,” argues Maureen Friar of the Supportive Housing Network, a coalition of organizations operating joint housing and social services. “In many cases supportive housing has become an anchor for a whole block.” Programs that invite neighbors inside by providing civic services–things like voting booths and mentoring programs–demonstrate that supportive housing strengthens communities.
Broadway Housing Communities, which runs five buildings in Washington Heights and Harlem, aligns the interests of its residents with those of their neighbors. For example, the group’s Rio Building on Ft. Washington Avenue hosts an art project for neighborhood kids. The idea is to promote contact between residents of the building and the rest of the neighborhood, and to spread its resources throughout the community. That type of interaction bolsters neighborhood credibility, but it’s more than p.r.; it becomes an end in itself. “It’s consistent with our mission to support a caring community,” says Ellen Baxter, the group’s executive director.
When prospective neighbors object to a project, supportive housing providers need not single-mindedly aim to subdue opposition at all costs. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which runs housing for the elderly and the mentally ill, has had to overcome unfair opposition, but Executive Director William Rapfogel has also reconsidered projects when a community makes a good case. In the course of planning a facility in the Rockaways in 1996, Rapfogel was receptive to residents’ argument that their neighborhood had already been saturated with social services, many of them poorly run. “This was a community that, even though they weren’t substantively right about the effects of this project on their community, they were right that they had been dumped on in the past,” says Rapfogel. So, without pursuing a battle, he decided not to move forward with the plan.
The Fifth Avenue Committee is now giving local residents another way to have a say: It’s offering them a chance to help run the ex-offender project. A screening committee, charged with approving or nixing each applicant for space in the building, will include three residents from the immediate vicinity. FAC will also form a 12-member Community Advisory Board; after a year, that board will be empowered to shut the project down if three-fourths of its members deem it necessary.
In October, Community Board 6 voted 21 to 13 to approve the ex-offender housing; further progress now depends on funding from the city and state. The Fifth Avenue Committee managed to earn approval not by sneaking it through, but by shining light on its efforts. In the end, that may be the most important strategy. “I think it is a challenge, but it’s a manageable challenge,” says Lisa Kaplan, chair of Community Board 3 on the Lower East Side. “I think the key to it is open disclosure and advanced warning, and the community feeling that they have been treated with respect and that no one has tried to pull the wool over their eyes.”
Larry Schwartztol is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.