Homelessness and housing justice in gentrifying Brooklyn

A homeless man in New York. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been interested
in East New York as a mass transit hub—but at what cost to the rest of the neighborhood?
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Assistant professor of cultural studies, George Mason University

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal publicized new efforts by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to curb rising rates of homelessness. Citing a city study that found 32% of families arrived in shelters from evictions, the mayor will increase funding for public attorneys to represent tenants facing eviction in Housing Court. As the Wall Street Journal reported, while the city currently funds that program at $34 million, it would be up to $60 million annually by 2017.

City support for eviction defense is hard to argue against. But at best, the program is a stopgap that will slow the flow of people from homes to shelters. Eviction defense does nothing to address the root causes of housing insecurity that produce vulnerability to eviction among New York’s poor and working classes, predominantly populations of color.

But the de Blasio Housing Court plan is not only shortsighted; it is doomed by the Mayor’s other plans. Back in February of this year, the Mayor’s office unveiled its $41 billion Zoning for Quality and Affordability program. While touted as a means to preserve and expand affordable housing, the plan would lift height restrictions for developers, allowing for more luxury apartment buildings. Furthermore, rezoning efforts—which would convert commercial districts to residential corridors for these new high-rise developments—target neighborhoods that are currently low-income and predominantly Black, such as the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. City subsidies would require new construction projects to allocate twenty percent of units as affordable. Housing activists have raised concerns regarding the lack of clarity about how rents and income requirements would be determined. In especially economically disenfranchised neighborhoods like East New York, the incomes of current residents can fall below the Area Median Incomes often used to determine rent ranges. So while new units might be below market, they might be above what families already in neighborhoods like East New York can afford.

The introduction of thousands of new units of exorbitant “market price” apartments will deeply and irrevocably change these neighborhoods. De Blasio has been clear that he is interested in East New York as a mass transit hub that could draw higher-income residents into what has been thought of, by gentrifiers and developers alike, as the far reaches of Brooklyn. It would be absurd to imagine that this new housing stock and new residents will leave the rest of the neighborhood untouched. Traditional models of gentrification imagine a slow, piecemeal process in which a new class of renters with limited means is slowly recruited into neighborhoods; Neil Smith referred to them as the “foot soldiers of gentrification.” De Blasio’s development-driven model brings much more rapid displacement as, almost overnight, hundreds if not thousands of new, mostly white, higher-income renters arrive in a neighborhood. This development-driven model has been aggressively pursued in Washington, D.C., which saw many predominantly Black neighborhoods go from white populations of less than ten percent to fifty percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

The Zoning for Quality and Affordability plan will in fact increase housing insecurity and vulnerability in the neighborhoods it targets. And it will do so under the guise and rhetoric of “doing good.” In my book, I describe this as being “rescued into abandonment.” And thus, with one hand the mayor pours money into the housing court system, claiming to protect tenants facing eviction, and with the other pours money into the development and construction industries, ramping up and fortifying the forces producing eviction in the first place. The Wall Street Journal article notes that 84% of families in the New York City shelter system already receive obviously inadequate cash benefits from the city. What good is a lawyer who may help postpone an eviction if New Yorkers lack the means to pay rent in a city that is actively investing in furthering gentrification?

There is of course a long tradition of diverting poor people to court-based solutions; as Anders Corr showed in his book, No Trespassing, the United States imposed a housing court system in Puerto Rico not to protect renters, but to diffuse a growing tenant movement by absorbing its energies into bureaucratized legal battles. In Brooklyn, housing activists see the need for grassroots mobilizing outside the court systems. Residents of Prospect Lefferts Gardens formed the Movement to Protect the People to fight rezoning and redevelopment plans there. At a September 2014 Community Board meeting, that group successfully shut down representatives of City Planning, preventing them from presenting their plans and powerfully demonstrating that any conversation about rezoning was a no-go. Neighboring Equality for Flatbush is doing related work, while building a broad base of support across Brooklyn. Rallying under the call, “Before It’s Gone/Take it Back,” Equality for Flatbush recognizes “redevelopment” as a cover story for real estate speculation and increasing displacement, and that the promise to “do good” through legal programs and rezoning plans is no good at all.


Craig Willse is author of The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States. He is assistant professor of cultural studies at George Mason University and coeditor of Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death.

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