In Gentrified Brooklyn, Where Will Ordinary People Live?

Gentrification may bring Starbucks to a formerly underserved community, but it also brings devastation for people who are displaced when rents skyrocket and they can no longer afford to live in old neighborhoods. There are now ten Starbucks in Brooklyn and counting.
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Gentrification may bring Starbucks to a formerly underserved community, but it also brings devastation for people who are displaced when rents skyrocket and they can no longer afford to live in old neighborhoods. There are now ten Starbucks in Brooklyn and counting.

Sometimes gentrification comes with new luxury housing construction. But it often it comes with people being chased out of existing apartments. Recently the New York Times reported on a building in Bushwick, one of the up and coming Brooklyn neighborhoods waiting for its first Starbucks, where tenants were told by phony building inspectors working for a landlord that they had 72 hours to evacuate. The landlord had stopped making repairs to the building, wanted to drive tenants out of low rent apartments, do some quick renovations, pull the apartments out of city rent regulation requirements, and re-rent, or sell co-ops at new much higher "market rates."

This looks like a good deal for the landlord, and maybe for the new, young, White hipsters moving into Bushwick. But what happens to the largely working-class and poor Latino families who live there now? In the age of gentrification, no one with money or authority seems to care. This is why the people of East New York, Brooklyn and other areas targeted by the de Blasio administration for development are worried.

So far East New Yorkers are being closed out of discussion on the future of their community. Many fear two equally bad possibilities.

A. The developers attract more affluent tenants and buyers, community is gentrified, and current residents are pushed out and forced into double and triple-ups with family members in high crime over-crowded city housing projects.

B. The developers can't attract big spenders and the large apartment towers become another high-density multiple problem under-served out-of-the-way warehouse where the city sends its poor to forget about them.

While it has some reservations about political practically, the New York Times basically is enthusiastic about Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposal to add 200,000 units of "affordable" housing to New York City's housing stock through renovation and construction over the next decade. De Blasio's initial proposal for "Billification" would cost the city an estimated $8 billion in direct spending and tax breaks to developers. It also relies of billions of dollars in state and federal contributions and as much as $30 billion in private investment, none of which may ever come through.

However, according to the Times, "Cynicism is easy. Idealism is hard when you're a politician who is making a huge promise, is expected to deliver and could lose his job if he fails. For the salvation of New York as a diverse, mixed-income city that is there for everybody, it's essential that Mr. de Blasio gets this right. He needs to get hammering, starting now."

But cynicism is not the only problem facing de Blasio and the people of New York City. Even if the Mayor gets his way, and this is uncertain because of conflicts with Governor Andrew Cuomo, what kind of city will "Billification" create? What kind of housing will be built? Who will benefit? Who will lose? According to the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, more than 25% of rental households in the state are "severely rent burdened," which means that tenants spend at least half of their income on rent.

Based on past history, the affluent and Whites benefit at the expense of everyone else. Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park in Brooklyn, part of the Forest City-Ratner-Barclays Arena project, was supposed to provide 2,250 units of affordable housing by 2025. None have opened so far and nearly two-thirds of the 600 affordable units in the two buildings finally under construction are set aside for families of four making over $100,000 a year with rent that starts at around $2,600. An additional 300 affordable units will be for families whose income is about $130,000 a year. This supposedly "affordable" housing is not intended for the people displaced in Bushwick or for the people who could lose apartments in East New York.

A big issue in East New York and in similar communities is the definition of affordable housing. In general, affordable housing targets people whose income is below the middle point or median income in the range of incomes for families in a region. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in New York City in 2010-2012 was $50,711 and the medium household income in Brooklyn was $43,567. But the median Household income in East New York was only $31,986, and that figure includes higher earning families in the southernmost end of the community. In other words, if rent is based on the median income for New York City or for Brooklyn as a whole, the current residents of East New York will be ineligible for apartments in the new developments, or if they are eligible, will be unable to afford to live there.

In response to the "Billification" plan to put between 5,000 and 7,000 new housing units in East New York, community residents and local organizations formed the Coalition for Community Advancement: Progress for East New York and Cypress Hills. The coalition is willing to work with city officials, but insists that plans are responsive to community needs.

The group's People's Platform demands:
1. Creation of affordable housing based on the average income brackets in the neighborhood.
2. Guaranteed policies to prevent displacement and preserve affordability of small homes.
3. Assurance that living wage jobs will result from the rezoning.
4. Commitments to new schools, early childhood centers, higher education facilities and a community center.
5. Improvement of transportation, infrastructure and safety in our community.
6. Creation of public green and open spaces.
7. Guaranteed full participation and input from the community in the planning process.

The Coalition is circulating an online petition to press their demands.

Note: The New York Times editors and Mayor de Blasio probably missed a recent Saturday Night Live skit mocking gentrification in Bushwick, Brooklyn and similar New York City communities. In the skit, three stereotypical inner-city Black young men are busy discussing their new dog-walking business, an artisanal mayonnaise store that opened in the neighborhood, and the guy one of them "stopped to shoot while walking his dogs to the mayonnaise store."

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