Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Atlantic Yards and Housing Displacement

By Paul Moses

I spent some time not long ago speaking to elderly people who were swept from their apartments in the wave of housing displacement that followed re-zonings in Greenpoint-Williamsburg and Fourth Avenue in Park Slope. Now, the Atlantic Yards project poses the possibility of further displacement in Brooklyn.

The draft environmental impact statement for it certainly doesn’t ease concerns that more elderly Brooklyn residents and others will be forced from their apartments by rising rents. The DEIS essentially treats the people living in the most vulnerable areas, such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, as invisible. The basic argument is that they’re on their way out anyway because of gentrification, so it can’t be said that the Forest City Ratner Companies’ project will displace them. Or, as the report puts it: “By 2010 and 2016, based on the existing trend and even absent the proposed project, it is likely that many of the households living in unregulated units in the tracts identified above would not actually be at risk of indirect housing displacement.” They won’t be at risk because they’ll be gone, the analysis assumes.

That conveniently excludes the possibility that the announcement of the Atlantic Yards plan has driven up property values and rents, thus helping to push out tenants in smaller buildings not protected by rent laws. This analysis sidesteps an issue that should be a serious part of the debate over a project that clearly has both benefits and drawbacks.

We’ve taken a particular interest in the issue of housing displacement in our work at the Center for the Study of Brooklyn; a transcript of a forum with some experts is available on our Web site.

There certainly were differing points of view at the gathering we held on June 9, 2006 at Brooklyn College. But there was no disputing that gentrification can put a neighborhood’s residents at risk.

Lance Freeman, a Columbia professor whose studies of gentrification have gotten a great deal of attention, made that clear. He has found that residents in gentrifying areas in New York City don’t move at a greater rate than people who live in neighborhoods that are not gentrifying. That conclusion tends to be applauded by those who don’t think gentrification is something to worry about. But Prof. Freeman also found that poor households living in gentrifying neighborhoods “had an average rent burden of 62 percent,” which he described as “astronomical.” He added: “The people who were staying were paying exorbitant amounts of their income toward rent.”

And Brad Lander, director for the Pratt Center for Community Development, noted that crowding in apartments was up sharply.

So the poor living within three-quarters of a mile of the Atlantic Yards project may not vanish as quickly as the environmental report suggests. In any case, the stories of those residents should not be lost in a mass of data.

The Rev. Jim O’Shea, director of Churches United for Fair Housing, made a similar point in his remarks at our forum:

“A couple weeks ago a man called the office and said that his pastor had recommended that he call me. He said, `I’m 78 years old. I’ve lived in Greenpoint my whole life. I’m a widower, I have no one else, and I was paying $500 a month for rent. It’s a small house, I’ve lived in this building my whole life.’ He said that someone had just bought the building, and they want $1,750, and the landlord told him he needed it next month, and he said, `I don’t know what to do.’ As he was telling me this, he was telling me his story. He talked about his wife, Greenpoint, the church, and all the things that happened, the history, the community, and all these things – nice stories about who he was. But at the end of all those nice stories he got back to the question. `Can you help me, Father? What can I do?’ And I said, `I don’t know what you can do. You can put your name on a list and put in an application for senior housing.’ But ultimately there was nothing he could do. He didn’t know where to go. And I think that’s what displacement is about in Greenpoint-Williamsburg. It’s the reality that all of a sudden this man’s apartment is very valuable. But his life, his story, was not that valuable, so he has to move on.”

This is a story being told many times over in Brooklyn these days. It should not be invisible.

Paul Moses is director of the Center for the Study of Brooklyn and a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY.