As Crown Heights becoming real estate haven, immigrant community dwindles

In a neighborhood undergoing rapid change, the redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory is a major point of contention between developers, the city, and longtime residents who disagree on how space should be used.

The proposed plan in Crown Heights called for revitalizing the vacant landmark to include over 300 apartments, affordable housing, condos, and a sports complex. After pushback from City Council member Laurie Cumbo, the developers, BFC Partners, and the city agreed to remove the condos from the plan and increase affordable housing.

Despite these changes, local community organizers maintain that the deal is a danger to the community in the midst of gentrification.

“It’s salt in the wounds of what’s been happening,” said Jabari Brisport, a local activist who recently ran for a seat on the City Council in the district. “They replaced the luxury condos with market-rate apartments. Putting something market rate is essentially luxury in Crown Heights.”

Crown Heights is becoming a real estate haven for New Yorkers priced out of wealthier Brooklyn and Manhattan markets. As other surrounding areas start to see demographic shifts and rent increase, the community around the Armory is experiencing similar changes that are known to spur gentrification. In 1990, more than 50 percent of community members were foreign-born. In 2015, that number fell to 34 percent.

The redevelopment will now contain 400 apartments including 250 affordable rental units with rents between $521 and $1166. The project will also keep plans to includes a recreation center offering discounted memberships for qualifying residents.

Brisport, 29, whose family has lived in the neighboring Prospect Heights community for three generations, recognizes these trends as signs that the neighborhood that once was will become a battleground for affordable housing as longtime residents fight to stay.

“Rents have been exacerbated, and there’s been a huge push more recently to get people out,” Brisport said. “I grew up in Prospect Heights. I remember when the wave of gentrification moved through my neighborhood in the early 2000s. It’s kind of intense seeing longtime businesses closing down and new ones popping up.”

One bodega worker knows this change all too well. Obeyah (who requested his last name not be used) lives in the community and has worked at the Bedford Gourmet Deli Corps for over 13 years. Situated two blocks down from the Armory and across the street from Medgar Evers College, Obeyah has seen the community transform over the years but believes there is little one can do to stand up to the real estate giants.

“The developers can do anything, and we can’t do anything,” he said. “They’re trying to push everybody out.”

Crown Heights is one of the most severely rent burdened communities in the city — meaning most residents spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent, according to a study from NYUs Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. The average rent in Crown Heights increased 29.9 percent between 1990 and 2014. Between 2000 and 2014, the median rent in the neighborhood increased from approximately $850 to $1,160.

Though a Black majority has historically inhabited Crown Heights, the Black population in the neighborhood has decreased by 7 percent since 1990, according to the Furman report. Meanwhile, the community surrounding the Armory remains 67 percent Black and 14 percent Latino (including residents of any race).

On trend with other gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City, white populations often increase despite a 10 percent decrease citywide since 1990. Community organizers and anti-gentrification activists worry that although the Armory plans to dedicate half of the apartment units to affordable housing, the development will allow for the rent increase in the community overall.

“When the Barclays was coming, that’s when everyone should’ve been trying to buy property,” one long-time Crown Heights resident said. “People waited to late to buy.”

Nearly 90 percent of housing units in the community are rented. In 1990, 22 percent of homes were owned. That number decreased to 13 percent ownership in 2015.

“There’s pressure to sell,” Brisport said. “Folks have been getting approached by developers.”

“It’s a different pressure from being forced out by a landlord, but it’s still an attempt to get black people out of the community,” he added.

The Legal Aid Society (LAS) filed a lawsuit against the city today challenging the redevelopment project noting that the city used a flawed methodology for evaluating potential displacement. LAS argues that with the current proposal, displacement will worsen and set a dangerous precedent throughout the city. The City Council plans to vote on the Bedford Union Armory land use tomorrow.

“Nobody can afford the rent anymore,” Obeyah said. “Now Franklin Ave is like the new Manhattan.”

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