Grove Street Tower

Jacob Silberberg

A towering luxury building on Grove Street signaled to many 11237 residents that gentrification was no longer a distant threat.

This is the fifth chapter of City Limits’ 2009 magazine issue on Bushwick, a community at the center of New York City’s map and the epicenter of 21st Century change.

Almost any discussion of housing in Bushwick tends to begin with July 13, 1977. That night, the blackout that hit New York City sparked widespread looting along Broadway, the southern boundary separating Bushwick from Bedford-Stuyvesant, with 45 stores set ablaze beneath the elevated train tracks. Two weeks later, what became known as the All-Hands Fire—so called because it required 55 units of firefighters from Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn to bring it under control, the city’s largest 20th century fire before 9/11—started in an abandoned factory and took out 23 more buildings in the heart of 11237.

The flames that were consuming Bushwick, however, had begun years earlier. Spurred by an early version of a subprime-mortgage scandal—in which real estate operators fraudulently obtained federally backed FHA loans for low-income buyers, which protected their own profits even as the buyers ended up defaulting en masse—and abetted by the closure of the breweries that had provided the bulk of local jobs, hundreds of buildings ended up abandoned in the early 1970s. This was followed by the city fiscal crisis of 1975, which slashed fire and police budgets citywide, but particularly in the “planned shrinkage” districts established by then city development chief Roger Starr. There, city services were cut back to neighborhoods like Bushwick and the South Bronx that he felt were “virtually dead.”

Then the blackout hit. After the lights went out at 9:30 p.m., a huge throng gathered on the already struggling Broadway commercial strip at Bushwick’s southern edge and began breaking into stores and carrying out everything portable; then, some began to set fires. One hundred and thirty stores on Broadway were looted, and 45 were damaged by fire, with many burned to the ground. (Knickerbocker Avenue, where more merchants lived locally and were able to rush down and defend their stores, often with shotguns, was relatively undamaged.) Hundreds of people were arrested, many held for more than a week in tiny holding cells as the city struggled to process those charged with looting.

Yet Community Board 4 district manager Nadine Whitted, who grew up just across Broadway in Bedford-Stuyvesant, recalls the looting and arson of the blackout night as merely the final nail in the coffin of a commercial strip already on the edge. “It was an opportunity for a lot of people who didn’t want to be here anymore to use that as an excuse to leave,” she says.

The fires of the 1970s and the city-sponsored demolitions that followed left blocks and blocks of empty lots in their wake, mostly along Broadway and Bushwick and Central avenues in the southern part of Bushwick. While the All-Hands Fire devastated the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Bleecker Street, the 11237 ZIP code covering northern Bushwick remained largely intact, with most of the row houses and four-story apartment buildings surviving the days of fire—though many were abandoned as residents fled the neighborhood. By 1980, Bushwick’s population was 92,497, a 32.9 percent drop from just 10 years earlier.

The blackout, though, had a silver lining as well. Press coverage of the looting and the arrests that followed brought citywide attention to Bushwick’s condition. In 1978, newly elected Mayor Koch, who had made the resurrection of Bushwick a key campaign promise, launched the Bushwick Action Plan, developed in collaboration with Community Board 4, to guide the neighborhood’s recovery. This ultimately led in the 1980s to the Bushwick II Urban Renewal Plan, which included the construction of Hope Gardens, a low-rise New York City Housing Authority development on the southern edge of 11237, which today is widely regarded as one of the city’s most successful public housing projects. According to local historian John Dereszewski, in total, NYCHA built 1,076 low-income and 243 senior-citizen housing units in Bushwick during first few years of the 1980s.

Bushwick also became an early Petri dish for nonprofit housing development. Walk the streets of 11237 today and you can see buildings bearing signs of their rehabilitation that date back to the 1980s, when the New York City Housing Partnership, a nonprofit initiative that began under Koch, provided discounted loans and tax abatements to developers of low- and middle-income two-family homes.

In recent years, much of the subsidized housing has been created—either through new construction or the renovation of older structures—by the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, the powerful nonprofit launched in 1973 by Vito Lopez and still run by his close allies. (Ridgewood Bushwick’s longtime housing director, Angela Battaglia, who since 1996 has also served on the city planning commission, is Lopez’s girlfriend.) Today, RBSCC’s 217 Wyckoff Avenue address is a common sight on signage adorning many of the infill construction sites that dot the neighborhood.

According to RBSCC special-projects director Emily Kurtz, the organization decided early on that “the best way to secure affordability” was to provide affordable housing rather than simply engage in tenant advocacy. RBSCC availed itself of both federal and city funds to do so and took particular advantage of the city’s Neighborhood Redevelopment Program, which since 1986 has sold city-owned properties to nonprofits and provided low-cost financing to rehabilitate them as affordable units. Kurtz says preferences have been given in lotteries to existing residents of Community Board 4 when possible. (HUD-funded programs, however, don’t allow for geographic preferences.) In all, she estimates that the agency has developed or sponsored about 1,200 units of affordable housing over the past decade.

Much of RBSCC’s success can be attributed to its patron, Lopez, who has consistently been a major Albany backer of affordable-housing grants to nonprofits, many of which have flowed to Ridgewood Bushwick.

Lopez’s office was also instrumental in the 2005 launch of the Bushwick Initiative, a two-year city program that targeted a 23-block area around Maria Hernandez Park for increased police patrols, extra building inspections, offers of technical assistance for landlords to fix violations and extra attention from the health department, including 1,000 rat-proof garbage cans. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s final report claims that 86 percent of the inspected buildings determined to be in poor condition had been fixed up by the end of the project, while drug dealing in the target area was reduced 97 percent (although locals say the area is still a prime drug location).

Most recently, the Bloomberg administration’s public-private New Housing Marketplace Plan, which provides tax-exempt loans and other government aid to developers who pledge to create affordable units, has built or preserved 2,182 additional units in Community Board 4 (roughly coterminous with 11237) since 2004, according to HPD figures.

Today, vacant lots are rare in much of Bushwick, especially among the blocks to the north that were less devastated in the 1970s. The reclamation of those once empty spaces is something that district manager Whitted says has helped to rebind the neighborhood, not just physically but in spirit. She points to the George Street Estates, a block of low-slung two-family homes built in the late 1980s by the Housing Partnership on a block just off Flushing Avenue once occupied by factories. “The people who moved in that area had an oasis in the middle of World War III,” says Whitted, who rented on the block in the ’90s. “Those people bought those houses thinking that they had arrived. And they did wonderful things for the neighborhood. And that began an anchor-like effect that showed that land in and around there could be something.”

* * * * *

Yet even as the recovery of Bushwick’s housing has helped bring the neighborhood together, it now threatens to tear it apart. Despite all the improvement in housing stock over the decades—much of it specifically targeted as affordable housing—ask most local residents and community leaders their main concern and the answer is the lack of quality affordable housing.

One problem is that for many of the longtime Bushwick residents, even subsidized rents are beyond their means. “I don’t use the word affordable,” says Whitted, noting that even the subsidized rents offered by public-private developments are unattainable for large swaths of the neighborhood. (Bushwick’s median household income was just $31,151 in 2007, 64 percent of the citywide median.) And even for those who can afford them, the number of available units comes nowhere near meeting the need, especially as rents soar. “You get a 30-unit building that goes up, you got 3,000 people applying,” Whitted says, describing recent lotteries for affordable apartments. “That’s crazy.”

“If you’re talking about people who are making $80,000, which is not exorbitant in the city of New York, then it’s affordable housing,” says Sister Kathy Maire, one of the lead organizers of the Bushwick Housing Independence Project, a non-Lopez initiative founded in 2004 by Father John Powis, the now retired pastor of St. Barbara’s Church on Central Avenue. “And certainly, it’s affordable to anybody that’s been living in Manhattan and has gotten priced out. The real problem is that the people around here don’t make $80,000, even if they have two incomes.” Aside from public housing, she says, “The only real affordable housing is in rent-stabilized housing. And that’s the vanishing entity at this point, because as buildings get sold, either through foreclosure or because somebody can no longer keep up the mortgage payments, then the first issue of the new owner is to get the building vacant so that they can renovate and jack up the price.”

For their part, landlords blame poor conditions on high costs and low regulated rents. “The rents the owners were getting, they couldn’t afford to repair the damage from the crime and drug dealing,” says Edward Kormin, who a property owner. Even today, he says, he’s unable to charge as much for units in some of his rent-stabilized buildings as the law allows: “I have more preferential rents than I prefer to have.”

However, tales of undermaintained buildings and outright harassment are rampant in 11237. Bushwick has consistently ranked No. 1 in the city in serious housing-code violations, with 193 per 1,000 rental units as of 2007, according to NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Many of the complaints are of bedbugs, roaches, mice or mold—helping spark an asthma rate that is more than double the city average—while others are for what tenant advocates describe as even more direct attempts to drive out tenants, especially in rent-regulated buildings.

“You see all kinds of irregularities,” says John Whitlow, a housing organizer with Make the Road New York, which has its offices on Grove Street in central Bushwick. “It’s really, really common to find buildings in which landlords have jacked up the rent willy-nilly and not in accordance with the percentage guidelines. The rent histories are all over the place.” Stories are also common of landlords knocking on tenants’ doors every night at midnight in an attempt to drive them out, announcing phantom rent hikes to scare people into leaving or refusing to do basic repairs without raising the rent.

Housing advocates can help tenants navigate the long road through housing court, but even when the city cites a landlord for violations, that’s no guarantee that repairs will follow: A 2007 Village Voice article reported 74 open violations at 1430 Putnam Avenue, a six-unit building in eastern Bushwick; two years later, the building still has 72 open violations and a long list of 311 complaints that tenants went without heat throughout last winter.

At a meeting of tenant volunteers for the Bushwick Housing Independence Project, the stories pour out, in both English and Spanish. All the volunteers are themselves tenants in Bushwick’s many rent-regulated apartments, mostly in the century-old six- or eight-family row houses that remain the neighborhood’s signature housing stock. All described similar tales of landlord harassment with the goal of getting them out in order to flip the units to market-rent status.

“I have no cooking gas and no hot water,” says Luz Varela, a board member and volunteer tenant advocate. “He’s doing everything in his power to get me to up and move. But I’m not gonna budge.” Finally, after she took her landlord to court, his lawyer claimed that the shutoff of services was a mistake stemming from a renumbering of apartments in her building.

Another BHIP volunteer, Hector Vazquez, says his landlord renovated his bathroom but made it too small to be usable. “You can’t go inside. You have to go outside and go back in, like you’re walking backward,” he says. “You can’t even put your clothes on in there.”

Verela says one woman she counseled lives in an apartment on Troutman Street where all the other tenants have been bought out. “There’s nothing around every other apartment. There’s just beams,” she reports. “On top of that, [the landlord] leaves the door wide open. People can come in and do anything.”

All agree that their housing troubles have accelerated even as neighborhood services have improved and crime has fallen, making Bushwick more attractive to New Yorkers who can pay higher rents. “I see a lot of change for the better,” says Varela, noting that years ago, her son had his neck slashed by drug gangs. “That’s been pretty much cleaned up. But a lot of the way it’s changing is they’re trying to attack the people who’ve lived here.”

“But it’s all good,” she sighs. “God don’t like ugly.”

* * * * *

The notion of full-on gentrification of Bushwick seemed laughable only a decade ago. As Bushwick’s housing stock and services rebounded through the 1980s and ’90s, the African-Americans, who’d begun moving into the neighborhood in the ’60s, and the Puerto Ricans, who followed in the ’70s, were joined by newer immigrants, mostly from Mexico, seeking affordable rents and a safe community.

Soon enough, though, these same neighborhood traits began to draw attention from elsewhere in the city. By the end of Bloomberg’s first term, Williamsburg had begun its transformation from a mix of Latinos, Italians and artists to young professionals looking for hip clubs and an easy commute to Manhattan. Accordingly, real estate agents began setting their sights farther east. Listings began to pop up for properties along the western edge of Bushwick, advertised as East Williamsburg (or even Far East Williamsburg) and touting its proximity to Manhattan. Artists priced out of Williamsburg began settling in what were once Bushwick’s factories and breweries, now converted to lofts, and others followed along where the transit lines extending east from Manhattan, especially the L train, led them. As one recent Bushwick arrival explains how she ended up in the neighborhood, “My boyfriend and I decided we would ride the L train out, and as soon as the rents started getting cheap, we’d rent something.”

The arrival of the “hipsters,” as they’re widely known, is a divisive subject in Bushwick. Whitted says she was put off by the newcomers at first, skeptical that their arrival might be credited for the area’s rebirth, rather than vice versa. “I saw a change before I realized that the artists were here. The city had invested some money in our community, the state and the government,” she says. “You had the homeowners who decided to stay after the blackout and were starting to feel more secure.” Now, though, she says she enjoys the enthusiasm and fresh blood they’ve brought, especially to the community board.

What seems undeniable is that the arrival of newcomers with cash has had a profound effect on rents. The average rent in Bushwick—including rent-regulated units, which make up about half of the neighborhood’s rental housing—jumped from $498 to $795 from 1999 to 2007, according to NYU’s Furman Center.

The influx of young professionals, artists and real estate investment triggered loft conversions and the construction of condos—phenomena never before seen in the area. The scale of the change was brought home when 358 Grove Street—a 13-story tower moated by parking lots and advertised via a YouTube music video featuring a blond woman in sunglasses looking out over Bushwick and reminiscing about “the memory of us / sitting in Washington Square”—went up on a tenement block festooned with Puerto Rican flags.

Aides to Lopez say the Grove Street building is what inspired the assemblyman to seek a change in the city’s 421a subsidy program, so that developers in now hot outer-borough neighborhoods would have to include affordable housing to get that tax break. After a wrestling match with Bloomberg, Lopez won some expansion of the affordability requirements—although not as much as he wanted.

Today, 358 Grove remains mostly empty, like many other Brooklyn condo towers that were built during the tail end of the housing bubble. It’s one potential candidate for a pilot initiative launched by Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who have launched a $20 million pilot project to subsidize developers to convert unsold condos to affordable rentals; Quinn’s office says it projects the cost of conversion at $50,000 per unit, significantly lower than the city’s average for acquisition of private units for conversion. And while the notice of funding availability was only issued in late July, and decisions on funding won’t be decided for months, Quinn spokesman Andrew Doba says, “Bushwick is obviously up there.”

Make the Road and Capital B, a local arts group dedicated to maintaining a “livable Bushwick,” are among the groups working on mapping the neighborhood’s unsold condo units for potential conversion to subsidized housing. Even so, says Make the Road organizer Jose Lopez, “$20 million is nothing. The conversion of 400 units from luxury condos to affordable housing doesn’t meet the need.” Also, he notes, “The way these condos are built [isn’t] structured for families that live in Bushwick. A lot are recently arrived immigrants that come with three, four, sometimes five, kids and need space. These condos are offering two bedrooms, max. They’re being developed and geared toward younger professionals and artists moving into the community.”

As for Sister Kathy Maire, she pronounces herself “very skeptical” that many developers will jump at the chance to convert vacant units in what remains a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. “They’ll hold out as long as possible [hoping] that the economy will turn around,” she says. And in any case, she wonders, “Who would be able to move in? I doubt very much that it would be the people who are now living here.”

In the meantime, Bushwick’s many low-income households are extremely vulnerable to rising rents. Last year’s decision by the Rent Guidelines Board to hike rents by up to $85 for tenants paying less than $1,000 a month may have seemed popular in a city where $1,000 rents are unimaginably cheap in many areas, but Maire says it was a tough blow to many low-income tenants. “At the same time, the job market has shrunk, so people are losing their jobs or having their hours cut back,” she says. “So I think these last two years, we’ve seen a real intensification of problems.”

As rents have soared, many families have doubled up. Whitlow says it’s not uncommon to see “an apartment designed for four or five, and you have 10 utilizing it.” Another frequent scenario is tenants allowing debt to build up—in the meantime saving rent money for several months—so when they get an eviction notice, they have some backup money that they can use to find a new place. Others seek Section 8 housing vouchers, joining the city’s 128,000-person-strong waiting list—and then, if they’re successful, attempt to find a landlord who will accept it, a diminishing possibility as the neighborhood rebounds and unsubsidized tenants become easier to find.

In response, some are leaving the city. “There are people who come in and tell me they are going to move to Pennsylvania,” says Maire. Others, she says, “move in with a relative, creating a problem for the relative, who’s then threatened by their landlord [because] they’re overcrowded. It’s a vicious cycle.”

The next step in that cycle is sometimes the streets, or shelters. While the Department of Homeless Services says it doesn’t track homelessness by neighborhood, in 2004, DHS made Bushwick one of six communities targeted for its pilot HomeBase program (since expanded citywide) to fund nonprofits to provide reach out to at-risk families and prevent homelessness. RBSCC landed the Bushwick contract.

Organizers say the Tenant Protection Act, a Quinn-backed law passed in 2008 that for the first time allows tenants to take their landlords to housing court for harassment, has helped local tenants—at least those savvy enough to navigate the legal process. But they believe more stringent measures are necessary: in particular, eliminating vacancy bonuses, the provision that allows landlords to hike rents 20 percent or more as soon as a tenant moves out, and vacancy decontrol, the provision under which rent-stabilized apartments leave the program as soon as their rent is pushed over $2,000 a month. Removing those quirks in the law, they say, would take away the incentive for landlords to evict current tenants.

In the end, though, making housing affordable to those in 11237 with extremely low incomes will require not just lower rents but increased aid. Bloomberg’s affordable-housing initiative is a bookend to Koch’s similar program of 20 years ago. The difference is that the problem in the 1980s was disinvestment; nowadays, it’s that real estate development might price people out of their neighborhoods. The 2,180 affordable units the city has offered in Bushwick since the mayor’s plan began in fiscal year 2004 includes both new building and the preservation of existing affordable units; most housing produced under Bloomberg’s program to date has been via preservation rather than new construction.

“I want to be honest: The mayor has done a lot for affordability,” says Vito Lopez. “I believe the mayor’s commitment to affordable housing is an outstanding one. If I had one criticism of it, it is that it could be more balanced and target lower-income and poor individuals.”

Whatever the means, the mayor’s housing initiative is not large enough to offset broader changes in the real estate market that risk displacing thousands of families through rising rents. Meanwhile, Bloomberg has remained largely silent on the potent issue of vacancy decontrol, and his Rent Guidelines Board instituted the recent surcharge on rents below $1,000.

Unless those policies change, Maire expects, many of Bushwick’s residents will continue to live one rent hike away from disaster. “You cannot expect people to earn minimum wage and have them expect to live a normal, frugal life,” she says. “The government has to come through with something, because people can’t make it.”

Read the next chapter, or return to the series page.

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