975 Liberty Ave

Adi Talwar

Liberty Avenue in Brooklyn.

An affordable housing shortage continues to fuel health disparities and financial problems in Central Brooklyn’s predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, and a team of student researchers are helping to amplify community solutions. 

In a new report published this month, local high school and college researchers from the organization Brooklyn Communities Collaborative (BCC) describe the impact of unsafe living conditions, high rents and discriminatory policies on residents of Central Brooklyn. The report,  “People-Focused Research: Health & Housing in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville & East New York,” relies on responses and ideas from neighborhood residents to make recommendations for addressing those needs—including the expansion of existing Community Land Trusts (CLTs) and the creation of infrastructure to reduce extreme heat. 

“Decades of disinvestment, redlining, predatory real estate practices, and flawed affordable housing plans from numerous NYC mayoral administrations have left Black and brown residents in Central and East Brooklyn with lower access to safe and affordable housing, as well as limited their ability to build wealth,” the report’s authors write. 

The project team sought to propose solutions to those issues through Participatory Action Research (PAR), a process that involves individuals affected by an issue in each phase of planning and recommendation-making. The researchers furthered the work of four previous studies conducted by BCC and their student teams, which have informed policies like the state’s Vital Brooklyn community development plan for improving health and housing in the region.

Many of the students involved in the PAR projects have grown up in the study neighborhoods, a connection that East New York native Crystal Gilbert said motivated her work, which she described as a community service.

“Part of it is a little sad. I’m looking at all these statistics—the rates of rent-burdened residents, the poor housing conditions. When you see it in print, it makes it stand out and you see the severity of the situation,” said Gilbert, a student at Brooklyn College.

“But we’re engaging with the residents and trying to do the work to make communities safer,” she added. “I see the community in a different way now. I see progress.”

More than a third of East New York residents are severely rent-burdened, meaning they spend over 50 percent of their income on rent, the report found. The neighborhood also reported the highest rate of “severe crowding,” or having more than 1.5 people per room. More than 5 percent of households were severely crowded, compared to 3.9 percent in Bedford-Stuyvesant and 1.7 percent in Brownsville.

Severe crowding is related to poverty and linked to a greater risk of COVID-19, as New Yorkers—typically people of color and immigrants—pack shared spaces, with tenants sleeping on kitchen floors, living room couches and crammed into bedrooms. The report calls on the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to close gaps in its code enforcement and highlights the work of nonprofit organizations for holding landlords and the city accountable for correcting dangerous living situations.

Gilbert said the conditions demonstrate the need for affordable housing, particularly units set aside for families and individuals experiencing homelessness. CLTs, like a project underway in East New York, would provide that sort of vital housing, she said. Nevertheless, few people seemed to know about the concept of CLTs—organizations that own and oversee land for permanently affordable housing rather than seek profits through property sales and speculation.

She and a colleague, Medgar Evers College student Jeffannie O’Garro, created a presentation to educate community members about CLTs. “That is something I think we’re all we’re all pushing for: permanent affordability, values of the community and awareness about it,” Gilbert said.

The BCC students also looked at the disproportionate impact of climate crisis-fueled heat waves on Central and East Brooklyn.

All three study neighborhoods rank at the highest level (5 out of 5) on the Heat Vulnerability Index (HVI), a stressor that can worsen pre-existing health conditions and further exacerbate the harmful consequences of COVID-19, the report found. In New York City and in urban areas across the country, lower income neighborhoods tend to record the hottest temperatures—the result of limited park space, crowded housing and a lack of green infrastructure.

To decrease the temperature and provide relief for residents, the report authors recommend installing more shade structures, potentially through citywide design competitions or public art installations. The authors also suggest working with developers and landlords to install “green roofs” and “green walls” to reduce heat inside buildings and nearby locations.

BCC has conducted Brooklyn PAR projects since 2016, in conjunction with Maimonides Medical Center, Community Care of Brooklyn, The East Brooklyn Call to Action and the Brooklyn Workers Council.

BCC Deputy Director Gretchen Susi said her organization’s staff and student researchers will continue working with residents and community groups to further fair housing goals in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville and East New York.

“Health and housing were consistent concerns across every neighborhood,” Susi said.

Medical student Mila Mirzakandova worked on a previous initiative during her time as an undergrad at Brooklyn College and said the collaborative work has helped her better understand the social determinants of health.

“It’s so important to know not just how to treat patients, but why they are getting sick in the first place [and] so many things come from your environment,” Mirzakandova said. “You can’t give the same treatment plans to everyone.”

The three Brooklyn neighborhoods featured in the report have been plagued for decades by misguided, discriminatory and failed housing policies. It’s crucial, Mirzakandova said, to “have the direct voice of the community, as unfiltered as possible, to get resources to the community with as few strings as possible.”