Is Bushwick Moving East? Challenges and Opportunities for a Changing Community

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As the soul of old Bushwick shifts east, community leaders and activists, as well as elected officials, are pondering what can be done to preserve the best of the past while embracing the future.

current co34 resized

A current map of Brooklyn’s City Council District 34, which includes parts of Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn, and part of Ridgewood, Queens (New York City Board of Elections)

Ermel Alvarado, 48, has owned Golazo Sport since 1989. He sells soccer uniforms to leagues and teams in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. While he’s optimistic about the chances that his business will stay at the 1042 Flushing Avenue Bushwick location he’s rented since that time, he’s also a pragmatist. “Rents have increased a lot since I moved to Bushwick in 1985,” he said.

He has already moved his family. Alvarado moved with his wife, four children in their teens and twenties, and a sister-in-law from Bushwick to Ridgewood, Queens, on Bushwick’s northeastern border, last year. They now live in a one-family home he purchased. “A lot of Ecuadorian families have moved to Ridgewood in the past ten years,” he said.

Alvarado is part of a more than decade-long trend—a trend that has seen the recent loss of 10,000 Hispanic families in Bushwick to Ridgewood and other neighboring areas, according to Kevin Worthington, a community organizer for Bushwick and Williamsburg in the office of City Council Member Antonio Reynoso. Reynoso represents District 34, which includes parts of Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Ridgewood.

Indeed, “The district is moving east,” Worthington said. In 2003, following the 2000 Census, the District’s borders were redrawn to include a part of Ridgewood that was also largely Hispanic. Some 20,000 residents, many of whom were recently transplants to District 30, were reincorporated into District 34, according to The New York Times.

The redistricting was controversial and, some claimed, politically motivated. But it helped to maintain the population and demographic mix of District 34. Redistricting is mandated by the New York City Charter, which states that following each U.S. Census, an independent commission be established to redraw district lines to reflect current population and demographics and prevent the “dilution” of minority votes, following principles outlined in the federal Voting Rights Act.

Map of Brooklyn's City Council District 34 in 2001

Brooklyn’s City Council District 34 in 2001 (Gotham Gazette)

The changing political map signifies the deep shift within Bushwick itself. The exodus of the Hispanic residents of Bushwick is indicative of long-term changes in the community. Bushwick has witnessed the long decline of its local industrial and manufacturing economy, and with that, the loss of thousands of jobs and middle class wages. It lacks affordable housing options and has areas zoned for manufacturing that prevent conversions to residential spaces.  These conditions—fewer jobs and a tight housing market—have helped to force lower-wage families and individuals out. The scarcity of available housing, coupled with gentrification spilling over from Williamsburg and Greenpoint, has also driven local rents up.

As the soul of old Bushwick shifts east, community leaders and activists, as well as elected officials, are pondering what can be done to preserve the best of the past while embracing the future.

The Forces of Change
With gentrification spreading eastward along the L and M train lines, deeper into Bushwick, many residents argue that now is the time for residents to take an active voice in shaping the future of Bushwick and to create conditions that will help residents to stay in the community. Figuring out how, exactly, to do that is the next step.

As Anne Guiney, 42, who serves on Community Board 4 in Bushwick, said, “It’s time to watch what’s happening more carefully.” A Bushwick resident since 1998, she has served on the Community Board since 2012, and is on the Housing and Land Use Committee, as well as the Transportation Committee and the Public Safety Committee. While Guiney said there are a variety of opinions represented on the Community Board, all sides agree that change is coming. She and others feel that if they do not participate in defining Bushwick’s future, change will be dictated by market forces, and by people who are not part of the community.

Over the past year to eighteen months, the Community Board has been engaging with government agencies, such as the Brooklyn office of the Department of City Planning, and nongovernmental organizations, to learn more about the issues and about the rezoning process, which will likely be a key factor. Following that learning phase, Martha Brown, Chair of Community Board 4’s Housing and Land Use Committee, and also First Vice Chairperson of the Community Board, wrote to the Department of City Planning on behalf of the Community Board to request a rezoning for Bushwick.

Guiney and her fellow Committee for Housing and Land Use members participated in a kick-off meeting this past Thursday, August 21st. Participants represented diverse points of view. Guiney said that, among others, representatives from the Department of City Planning; City Council Members Antonio Reynoso (District 24) and Rafael Espinal (District 37), who represent Bushwick’s two Districts; members of the New York City Council’s Land Use Committee; as well as local Bushwick activists and faculty and students from Pratt, who may assist the Community Board in the process, were also in attendance.

Worthington said Reynoso wants to be a partner in the effort, but that his boss’s goal is to have “the community to identify what it wants” for its future. The Community Board will serve in an advisory capacity, with the City Planning Commission and the City Council having final say over any plan.

For Guiney, affordability and displacement of residents, particularly seniors, are her main concerns.

Her concerns are real. A July 2014 Brooklyn Rental Market Report issued by MNS, a real estate advisory firm, shows dramatic increases in Bushwick’s rental market. While rents have increased by 4.14% in Brooklyn overall since July 2013, Bushwick’s increases have far outpaced that rate, at more than 11 percent in the past year. Crown Heights had the highest rent increases in the City, at more than 17 percent. This, coupled with the lack of affordable and subsidized housing in Bushwick, could lead to further displacement. The shortage of housing in general also drives rent prices up.

According to the Furman Center at NYU, which studies land use, real estate, and housing and urban affairs, from 2000 to 2012 Bushwick’s white population tripled while the black population decreased, from just below 25% of the population to some 15%. The Hispanic population has held steady at just over 70 percent.

Worthington noted that the lack of housing in Bushwick has led certain landlords to use illegal tactics to drive rent-stabilized tenants out so they can raise rents to market rates. His office has been involved in helping to initiate proceedings against at least one such landlord.

But he also said other landlords, some of whom live in the buildings they’ve purchased and have good relationships with their tenants, need help in accessing information about the tax abatements and credits available to them. He added that the banking industry is reticent to refinance mortgages on properties with rent-stabilized units, placing some landlords in precarious situations.

While some members of the community are against rezoning efforts that would allow larger-scale housing developments that would be out of scale with most buildings in the neighborhood, Guiney sees the same vulnerabilities that Worthington does and feels that development can be a positive force.

“Density is good,” Guiney said, when it comes to creating affordable housing opportunities. She believes that affordable housing is not financially viable without increasing density. “The methods available to developers require density,” she said. Guiney is referring to the “80/20 projects,” which mandate developers to offer 20 percent of new units at affordable rates in exchange for tax-exempt financing. Mayor de Blasio wants to increase the ratio to 70/30.

Guiney believes smaller developments have a harder time making projects financially viable without scale on their side. It is also more difficult to attract smaller developers because land acquisition costs are so high in New York City. Smaller developments also don’t bring the scale that is needed to a neighborhood. And nonprofit housing corporations that often build affordable housing are financially limited.

Guiney points to a major development that is moving forward on the former site of the Rheingold Brewery, at 95 Evergreen Avenue. Although just a few blocks from her apartment, she doesn’t think her quality of life will suffer with the planned 977-unit and retail development. She believes “livelier” streets will be good for the community. In addition, she feels the agreed-upon development of senior housing within the Rheingold site, and at an off-site location, as a concession by the developer, is a real victory for Bushwick as a whole. The developer also agreed to a 70/30 market rate-to-affordable ratio, above the 80/20 mandate.

The City Council and Community Board 4 approved the rezoning required for the Rheingold development despite strong opposition by many local groups and residents. The developer, Read Property Group, pledged $250,000 to an anti-displacement fund, the first of such funds in Bushwick, according to a DNA Info article.

An Uncertain Future
José Feliz is a recent arrival in Bushwick, but he’s not a hipster. A 42-year-old from the Dominican Republic who arrived in the United States four years ago, he lives with his mother, two brothers, a nephew and his 15-year-old daughter Brachy in a three-bedroom apartment on Knickerbocker Avenue and Halsey Street. He works two part-time jobs cleaning offices in Manhattan.

Feliz said rents have increased significantly every year and if things get much more expensive, even though his family members all pool resources, they’ll have to move somewhere. He’s not sure where. Maybe Queens, maybe the Bronx. “Maybe I’ll have to go back to my home country,” he said in Spanish. “There are very few apartments available in the area.”

Furman Center research indicates that in 2012, median monthly rents in Bushwick were $1,194 for all renters, and $1,434 for newcomers.

One issue that concerns Guiney is that the residential rent to be charged in new developments, even when “affordable,” may be beyond the reach of people like Feliz and his family. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) establishes a local-area median income (AMI), and affordable rents are based on a percentage of that AMI.

The calculations for the New York City AMI include the five boroughs and affluent Nassau, Putnam, Rockland, Suffolk, and Westchester counties, skewing the total number higher. The AMI for New York City in 2013, according to the New York City Housing Corporation, is $85,900 for a family of four. Bushwick, which the Furman Center’s 2013 report indicates is the sixth poorest neighborhood in NYC, has a median household income of about $35,000, far below the AMI used City-wide. Thus, larger families such as Feliz’s may not be able to afford units of the size they need in new buildings.

In 2013, the Gothamist reported that in about half of the City’s districts, new units are too expensive for residents earning the median income of their neighborhood.

And sometimes the affordable rent is time-limited, depending on negotiations between the developer and New York State Housing Finance Agency. These are all concerns to be addressed.

The current administration has its eye on the same issues. Mayor de Blasio has just issued a new report, Housing New York: A Five-Borough, Ten-Year Plan, outlining plans to “build or preserve” 200,000 units of affordable housing throughout the City to address the needs of 500,000 New Yorkers. The plan includes a number of tools, including increasing density in certain areas, better enforcement against dishonest landlords, and requiring developers to provide more units at lower AMI percentages than are currently required, to accommodate needs of the lowest-income brackets. At the same time, the plan calls for deeper subsidies for developments serving the lowest income brackets to help make up for lower operating revenues. This will be costly but “critical” to the City’s future, according to the report. The report also includes petitioning for further flexibility of state and federal programs that help to govern or finance affordable housing.

Ermel Alvarado, owner of Golazo Sport on Flushing Avenue in Bushwick (Donzie Barroso, The Brooklyn Ink)

Ermel Alvarado, owner of Golazo Sport in Bushwick (Donzie Barroso/The Brooklyn Ink)

Commercial rents are also rising, and there is no rent regulation on those spaces, according to Worthington. Peter Weisman, who has lived and owned a house in Bushwick since 2006 and is managing director at the Lansco Corporation, a commercial and retail real estate firm, says that mid-block commercial spaces in Bushwick typically rent for about $45 per square foot, a rate that has not changed much, he believes, in the past few years. Developers of new spaces, however, are asking for as high as $85-100 per square foot, depending on the location. A number of proposed developments include retail space and could command the higher rates.

While Guiney is clear about her own priorities for the neighborhood, she is unsure of Bushwick’s future, even if its leaders have the best of intentions. “I don’t know how it will shake out in the long run. Will new development lead to more development? Will it create more insecurity?” she wondered.

What she is sure of is her desire to protect the community from a holistic point of view. “Let’s keep an eye on a number of issues at once” when considering change in Bushwick, she said. “Let’s talk about schools and transportation at the same time we consider housing affordability, job retention, and equity.”

For Ermel Alvarado, who no longer lives in Bushwick and whose soccer uniform business does not rely on foot traffic, such concerns may no longer be an issue. But for other businesses and residents such as Feliz and his family, this balancing act between the old Bushwick and the new will mean the difference between staying put or watching the district continue to shift.

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