Photo: Bric, Facebook
Photo: BRIC on Facebook

Who is the villain?

The question kept coming up at Brooklyn for Sale: The Price of Gentrification, a town hall meeting hosted at Bric by Brooklyn Independent Media, January 28.

But the villain was not in the room of mixed-race organizers, activists, teachers, council members, artists, who are renters and old-time owners, and all of whom agree that gentrification (or is it rather the organized displacement mainly of poor people of color to somewhere else) has to end.

Photo: BRIC on Facebook

The villain is an idea, an ethos, to which any and all of us might pledge our allegiance: that money is the measure of all things and whoever has it is a success. And if money can be made by throwing people out of their homes, that’s just fine. The idea drives the street hustler and the Wall Street hustlers, alike. Yet, some of those who have invaded Central Brooklyn’s turf were driven across the bridge as Brian Vines, the evening’s moderator, pointed out, “by the tragedy of 9/11,” looking for personal safety farther away from the seats of financial and real estate power, and, in the process discovering beautiful, places to live.

Therefore, there was some soul searching: Were the artists who started arriving in ethnic and black neighborhoods in the 70s (of which I am one) the original gentrifiers? What about the long-time black owners who are selling and moving down South? Or the flippers, like the people who just sold a narrow row house in Clinton Hill they had owned for eight years for 2.4 million, a neat profit of half a million, and have moved on to Bed-Stuy to buy and flip again?Then, there are the absentee landlords and ladies (one owns the house from which I was recently evicted) who rented for years at just market rate, doing absolutely no or bare minimum upkeep and are evicting long-time tenants in order to rent at high prices or sell for astronomical profits?

These are the neighborhoods, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bed-Sty, Crown Heights, etc., that were red lined by the banks, deemed unworthy of investment, left to flounder and to pull themselves together, fix the neighborhood schools, form block organizations, patronize the local business, and send the children to college. Robert Cornegy, the Councilmember for the 36th District, Bed-Stuy, returning home with a master’s degree has been accused of being a gentrifier, though he is actually a native son.

He worries that his own children will never be able to afford Bed-Sty when they grow up. Neil deMause, journalist, also on the panel voiced the same fear, where are his children going to live? Who will see to him as he ages? It has already happened to me, my daughter raised in Brooklyn and her new husband from Long Island, have had to move to San Antonio, Texas, where they think they might afford a house. Gentrification, or shall we call it displacement, rips families as well as neighborhoods apart.

(l to r): Host Brian Vines, Jherelle Benn and Neil deMause

Jherelle Benn, dedicated, young and energetic young organizer from Flatbush, told of a family she is currently trying help whose landlord simply lets the ceilings fall down on top of the children, not once, but more or less regularly, so that their mother fears for their safety. Once she moves her children out (but to where?) you can bet those ceilings will be fixed as the rent goes sky high.

There was another story deMause told about a family with two parents working, long-time residents of Crown Heights, who cannot find anyone willing to rent to families with children; the landlords would rather have an apartment shared by three or four working young professionals, instead—why bother with kids?

An audience member asks a question

Everyone in the crowded auditorium seemed to agree with Ron Shiffman, urban planner and founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development: There is no sane public policy in place. Real estate interests; new, wealthy owners and investors run the game. They receive state and city subsidies on the promise that 20% of new developments will be “affordable housing” while 80% can go for ever-rising so-called market rate—again, affordable for whom, and market rate for what income bracket?

Renters, small business and long-time home owners who tend to charge more reasonable rents when they rent, be damned. No one with power is on the side of those who have actually lived in these neighborhoods and made them, now, such attractive places for the wealthy to move, or for people to park their money, without even having to live here. Every battle takes enormous organizing energy; each battle has to be fought again and again since public policy does not change.

Ron Shiffman and Juan Ramos

Decisions about new development are made without community input. In Fort Greene-Clinton Hill, a land-marked district, we live increasingly in a moat: The cranes rise, stacking floor on top of floor in new high rises in a ring around us. Most of these new high-rise apartments appear to be empty, but many empty ones are owned as investments by absentee owners who receive the tax-breaks that ownership brings.

Then, there is this, as Shiffman and other panelists said: prices and rents skyrocket, while wages for the working and middle-class, for teachers, social workers, artists, police officers, those who actually contribute to the daily cultural and communal life of the city, have long stagnated.

We simply cannot afford to pay what the uber-wealthy can pay, nowhere near as much. But these streets have been our homes.

In the old days, no one made a distinction between owners and renters. Local owners, who live in their homes, wanted good tenants. Tenants were happy to be good; rents were affordable, space was ample; we agreed that our streets were beautiful. This was true even during the crack epidemic, even when street life was more dangerous than it is, now. We loved our mixed neighborhoods and looked out for our neighbors. Now, we feel like outliers; we watch the complexion of the neighborhoods changing as people of color “vanish” either to return down south or be pushed further out (to where?).

City Councilmember Robert Cornegy, Jr.

Is it racism and classicism at work? Seems to be, and no one could actively disagree—those of us in that room, that is. Though no one had a ready answer either, and people like Juan Ramos and Jherelle Benn have been organizing neighborhoods for years, winning small victories, building coalitions.

“If anybody were on the trail of the real villain,” one of the panelists said, “it would be the whole capitalist system.” No one stood up to disagree with that, either. Though it must be pointed out that all in the room were on the side of small, local business owners—it’s the chain stores, banks and big rents that are driving small businesses out.

“What would ethical gentrification look like,” Vines asked panelist Sharon Zukin, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College.

“There ain’t no such thing,” Zukin replied. No one disagreed with her, either.

What do we do, now, that we have a progressive mayor and city council? Sane public policy in the public interest would be a start. Everyone in the room seemed to agree. At very least, there should be a 50-50 split between affordable units, and they should really be affordable based upon real incomes, and market rate units whenever a new development, with its government subsidies and tax-breaks, is approved.

An audience member asks a question

This is a proposal approved by our Congressman Hakim Jeffries, by the way, but without a chance, at the moment, of being turned into actual policy. Then, too, the influx of money from investors who have no intention of making our neighborhoods home, should be halted. So should profits new owners are gleaning from properties, like AirBnBs. In an ideal world, there could even be a cap on the profit margins flippers and absentee landlords are allowed to make for owning but not maintaining and not staying in communities.

These solutions, reasonable and humane, fly in the face of the absent villains in the room: racism, classism, and, yes, unfettered capitalism.

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  1. Two small corrections: The family I spoke to that can’t find any landlords who’ll rent to them because they have kids is in Bushwick, not Crown Heights. And it wasn’t me who spoke about worrying that my child won’t be able to afford to live in Brooklyn when he grows up — though it certainly should be a concern of everyone with kids and no trust funds.

  2. Gentrification is not an over nigh process. The villans are the politicians and slumlords in gentrified neighborhoods who leech off of the poor until the gravy train arrives. There are no poor jewish, Italian, irish, german or Russian nabes in Brooklyn. There are many poor African American, Caribbean American and Spanish native tongue Americans in Brooklyn.
    For the pol the vested interest is appeasing monied land holders and staying in office. For the land holders it is profit. The pols in gentrified nabes do nothing for their poor constituents in many cases 5-10-15 years before gentrification takes root. To do so would jeopardize their relationships with monied land holders. who often outnumber and out-earn (and do not live among) the ethnic background of their constituents.

    1. Have you ever been to Brooklyn? There are many poor Irish, Jewish, Russian, Italian, etc neighborhoods.

  3. Very interesting post. Excellently done— as usual! Some thoughts. . . I am happy you mentioned Air BnB. As far as I am concerned, they should be banned from NYC for artificially jacking up rental prices. See “What the Sharing Economy Takes” The Nation, 1/27/15 Henwood I have to quibble with you on two points. First, I take issue with your automatic dismissal of large housing developments that have made a “moat”. If done correctly- say 80% real affordable 20% market rate, the city can gain tons of affordable housing while affording middle and low income people all the opportunities of living close to the central business/cultural district. Brown stones are beautiful but they cannot make up for the utter housing shortage because they just don’t contain enough units. Seems to me like this is a little bit of NIMBY-ism. Also, you make a blanket statement about the inherent good of “small businesses” and the bad of chains or big box stores. I am not so sure this is the right generalization to make. Small businesses can exploit workers and continue to under-serve the community- such as with bodegas that underpay immigrants and lack any selection of fresh fruits or vegetables. The policy should be to promote- the right kind of businesses that serve the community and are owned by the community as opposed to promoting the wrong kinds of businesses simply because they are small and have local owners. Also- how did the panelists square their pro-local business consensus with their anti-capitalist consensus. Seems to me that many of the officials and leaders in the local communities are all about over throwing capitalism until they are in control. Just a thought?

    1. you make very good points, Abe. Thank you. Yes, about Nimbyism, except that my point was that these are luxury high-rises and mainly are used or seem to be being used as places to park money.

  4. politicians some of them are corrupted with the developers,always this 20 percent affordable, new mayor same b.s. never a wide range of incomes,condos on top of condos,crownheights rent high to the sky,prospectheights rent high to the sky etc,but what these politicians do make close door deals and then they want your vote,they want to march with you in protest,vote vote vote for what, I voted and rent still rising, cant afford to live in the hood, speak to politicians for help there hands always tied,to busy, etc politicians and developers go hand in hand.

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