Voter turnout in New York City is notoriously low in federal and state elections, and local races are likewise often given short shift. In 2013, only about 25 percent of registered voters cast ballots for City Council candidates in district 40 (Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Flatbush, Kensington, Midwood, Prospect Park and Prospect Lefferts Gardens).
But things may be different this time around: “All the political clubs in the area have experienced growth in membership and attendance at meetings,” says Benjamin Solotaire, president of Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats (CBID), which focuses on the borough’s 44th and 52nd state assembly districts. Before the general election in November, regular attendance at the CBID meetings was about 40; now it’s 125.
Furthermore, “a crowded field [of primary candidates] indicates interest from voters,” Solotaire says. And the field is indeed crowded: Jennifer Berkley, Brian Cunningham, and Pia Raymond are all vying for the nomination; another competitor recently dropped out.
This increased enthusiasm may spell trouble for the incumbent, Dr. Mathieu Eugene, who won his seat in a 2007 special election and is seeking a third full term. While Eugene won the primary handily in 2009, by 2013, his share of the vote had dwindled. “I think it’s there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with constituent services,” Solotaire says. (CBID has endorsed Cunningham, a member of Community Board 14 and former chief of staff to City Council member Laurie Cumbo.) “From what I’ve heard, Eugene’s fighting against developers has not been as strong as his constituents would like, and his constituents don’t see him as actively engaged.”
Still, Eugene has a significant advantage: funds. He’s raised $85,135, compared to Berkley’s $6,917, Cunningham’s $31,835, and Raymond’s $18,791.
The Real Battle: Affordable Housing
Solotaire’s comment about developers is telling: Affordable housing is a major issue in district 40. (Affordable housing is usually defined as housing that costs no more than 30 of the household’s income.) In neighborhoods like Flatbush/Midwood, Crown Heights/Prospect Heights, South Crown Heights/Lefferts Gardens, and East Flatbush—the community districts with which Council district 40 overlaps—about a third of households are severely rent burdened, according to NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
In district 40, which had 55,545 housing units in 2010, there are currently just over 3,900 units of rent-regulated subsidized affordable housing, and 16 NYCHA units. The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness estimates that more than 1,700 of these affordable units could be lost by 2022. (There are also rent-stabilized units in non-subsidized developments; an analysis by the Community Service Society estimated that there were a total of more than 32,000 rent-regulated units in district 40 in 2011.)
Affordable housing is lost when a building’s owner opts out of an affordable housing program after a certain number of years, forgoing subsidies and making apartments available at market rates. In addition, affordable apartments disappear when tenants in rent-regulated apartments move out (vacancy deregulation), or the rent reaches the Deregulation Rent Threshold (currently $2,700 in New York City) through permitted increases.
Part of the problem is that so-called affordable housing in district 40 may not be within reach for many local residents. In subsidized affordable developments, rents are based on the Area Median Income, which is determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The AMI for the New York City region is currently $95,400 for a family of four. So developers of low-, moderate, or middle-income apartments might offer units for households earning 40 percent ($38,160)-165 percent ($157,410) of the AMI. A development in district 40 is currently offering one-person studios for $1,729 a month to applicants earning between $60,618 and $104,755 a year. But in 2015, median rent in the neighborhood was $1,270, while median household income was just $45,690.
The Incumbent: Dr. Mathieu Eugene
“The city has been dealing with the housing crisis for a while,” Eugene says. “We can do better.”
Between 2008 (shortly after Eugene was first elected) and 2015, just over 900 units of subsidized housing were built in district 40, according to CoreData.nyc. The Flatbush Caton Market development, approved in April, will provide an additional 250 housing units—all of which will be available to low-, moderate-, and middle-income residents.
Eugene notes, “At the very beginning I didn’t support the project because it was not affordable for the people in my district. Most of the time, when developers say [they’re building] affordable [housing], we’ve got to say, affordable for whom? I challenged the developer to put more affordability in the program.” But now, “Even people who are make $20,000 a year will qualify.” (Flatbush Caton Market’s “affordable units would consist of a mix of low-, middle- and moderate-income tiers based on HPD’s Mixed Middle Income Program,” according to the City Planning Commission. Some studios would be available for people earning 27-30 percent of AMI. And 30 percent of the current AMI for a one-person household is $20,040.)
Experience has taught Eugene that “There’s no magic bullet or one program” to ensure that local housing is affordable. “To do better, it will take all of us together. Not only the city, but the private sector, and state government.”
While housing is a major concern, Eugene is also focused on other issues, including providing funds for programs and equipment at NYC Health + Hospitals/Kings County and SUNY Downstate Medical Center’s Biotechnology Incubator, as well as creating jobs for local young people.
“I’m doing exactly what I love: serving the community,” Eugene says.
Challenger: Brian Cunningham
“The lion’s share of people in our district are facing housing security issues,” Cunningham says. To fight the problem, “I would like to see city-owned land developed by non-profits.” Non-profits don’t have to worry about return on investment for shareholders, and if only costs need to be recouped, “This would sharply decrease rents.”
Next, “I will work with state legislators to strengthen how 421-a is currently incentivized.” He’s referring to a program that provides tax breaks to developers who make some of their units available at lower rates. “Currently the law allows a developer to allocate only 20 percent of units to people seeking affordable housing. I would like to see us move to a system of 20 percent [of affordable units reserved] for low income New Yorkers,” such as those earning 30-60 percent of the AMI, “30 percent for people who make the AMI, and the remaining 50 percent for market rate units. This model would help in addressing the need for housing for all residents of New York City.”
Another problem is that the city passes along the cost of the lost tax revenue to local homeowners. “You’ve got elderly homeowners who can pay their mortgage, but can’t pay these higher property taxes,” Cunningham says. “These homeowners are encouraged to sell their homes, which then become condos, coops, and high rises. We have to provide help for seniors on fixed incomes feeling the pinch on taxes.” He’s also critical of the use of the AMI to set eligibility requirements for affordable housing: “The AMI should really be taken from the communities in which the projects are being developed, not this wide net from the five boroughs, Long Island, and Westchester.” (The AMI for the New York metro region is based on income data from New York City and surrounding counties.) Creating housing stock won’t solve the problem if constituents can’t meet the AMI threshold, Cunningham explains. (The city uses AMI largely because federal housing tools like low income housing tax credits, which are crucial to financing affordable housing, are based on AMI).
Finally, “If we don’t receive support from the state legislature [on 421-a], I will use the power of zoning to downzone,” or reduce or limit development or the number of buildings permitted in zones in danger of overdevelopment.
Challenger: Jennifer Berkley
Affordable housing is so important to former Brooklyn Democratic Party County Committee member Jennifer Berkley that she took a leave of absence from her job as a housing advocate and tenant organizer at the non-profit advocacy organization Tenants and Neighbors to enter the race in May.
She wants to “put more resources towards eviction prevention programs, tenant organizing, and informing tenants of their rights,” and champions the creation of a database of local landlords with “exceptionally high volumes of no fault, no cause, or holdover evictions” (cases that are generally not about rent) on their records in housing court.
Like Cunningham, Berkley thinks the 421-a program is flawed. For existing and some new developments, Berkley says the Article 11 tax incentive (under which Housing Development Fund Corporations develop or rehabilitate affordable housing) could be an effective mechanism to preserve the affordability of our rental housing stock.*
But to really make housing more affordable, Berkley says, “It requires someone at the negotiating table [who is] thinking about working class people …. A lot of the work can be done with City Council members taking a harder line with developers.”
She adds, “We have to take advantage of vacant lots. But I fear that under the current council member, we’re just going to see more luxury housing.”
Challenger: Pia Raymond
The chairperson of Community Board 9’s Economic Development Committee, as well as the Vice President of the Nostrand Avenue Merchants Association and the Lefferts Manor Association, Pia Raymond favors “holding landlords accountable for unsafe conditions, and implementing and reinforcing fines, and even jail time” for delinquent landlords. She’s pleased about the City Council’s vote on Introduction 214-b, which Eugene supported and offers tenants threatened with eviction with access to legal help. But she wants to make sure that renters are informed of local organizations that will help them negotiate leases and deal with landlords.
With regard to affordable housing developments, Raymond, like Cunningham, thinks the AMI is problematic: “Those salaries do not reflect our district. I look forward to advocating for a community median income, and working with developers, especially non-profit developers, to work for the needs of our community.”
She also points out that many residents pay reasonable rents on units that aren’t part of affordable housing programs, and “I think offering tax abatements to landlords who already offer and are committed to sustaining low-to-moderate income rents would be really helpful in this community.”
But for Raymond, affordable housing is inextricably linked to another issue. “Some people do pay very low rents, but they work three jobs to afford these apartments. We have to address the wages and jobs in order to look at the housing issue.”
“There’s a huge technological divide in this neighborhood,” Raymond continues. “Many people I meet don’t have email addresses, or don’t know how to use them—these are people with smart phones. I’m interested in looking into educational tools to address the skills gap and the technological divide.”
She’d like to see schools, small businesses, and unions develop educational and mentoring programs to help local residents, especially young people. “People need to gain these skills, so they can get better jobs, create a much more viable workforce and stable community, and afford to rent and own in the community.”
The Trouble with Eugene?
Berkley, Cunningham, and Raymond all expressed concern about what they see as Council member Eugene’s lack of engagement with constituents, particularly in the wake of recent shootings in the district. “The councilmember is not talking about gun violence,” Raymond says.
Cunningham thinks the shootings could be addressed with the cure violence model, which emphasizes violence interruption, risk reduction, and changing community norms. Several local organizations participate in the city’s program, and “The 67th precinct is crying out for a cure violence program,” he says.
This is one example of an issue all the challengers voiced: New York City offers resources that aren’t being taken advantage of in the district. For instance, for small business owners, many of whom are struggling due to rent hikes, “There are a lot of services offered at the city level,” Berkley says. “We need to bring specialists here,” to help locals access these services.
“Our school principals and administrators are doing their best to serve students, but our classes are overcrowded,” Raymond notes. She would like to implement “after school and out-of-school-time programming that provides a safe and enriching environment for community children. … The role of City Council member is to provide a bridge between community organizations and city agencies. The council member is not doing that.”
The incumbent defends his record. But he acknowledges there is work ahead.
“I’ve been fighting for the hard-working people of this district since before I was first elected in 2007,” Eugene declares. But “I’m not satisfied. I have to do more, and I’m going to next term.”
*Correction: Originally misdescribed Berkeley’s idea by referring to HDFC cooperatives and suggesting Article XI should be used to build new affordable units.