Fort Greene Residents Denied Affordable Housing

66 Rockwell Place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn on October 20, 2014. Photo by Valerie Edwards/NY City Lens

66 Rockwell Place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn on October 20, 2014. Photo by Valerie Edwards/NY City Lens

When 63 units came onto the market at Rockwell Place in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene district last year, it was one addition to several affordable housing developments in the area. Low-income residents of the district applied in large numbers via a lottery, but nineteen months after the lottery closed, most of the apartments remain vacant because few tenants have qualified.

The Dermot Company Inc., the developers of this location, have not succeeded in obtaining enough qualified applicants to fill these cheap luxury apartments, whose rents range from $546 to $748 per month. Residents of community district two have complained that the application process and eligibility criteria are not well suited to families and individuals in the area.

A housing crisis affecting low-income residents of New York City prompted efforts from Mayor William de Blasio to pledge the creation of 200,000 units of affordable housing within the next 10 years. According to the NYC Comptroller’s office, rents in New York City have skyrocketed over the past decade while New Yorkers’ incomes have fallen, creating a lack of affordable housing for the people that need it most. Brooklyn had the highest increase of rent by 31.5 percent, causing several residents to become rent-burdened.

The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development Inc. (ANHD), serves as an umbrella organization over the community based organizations fighting for affordable housing. According to Barika Williams, the group’s deputy director, the organization has had conversations with the NYC Department of Housing and Preservation Development (HPD) in order to press complaints that the application process is not reasonable. Williams said that the terms of the program should match the profiles of the intended beneficiaries.

“So on the one hand, it’s fair for a developer to say that we want to make sure that the people coming into these apartments are folks who are going to be able to pay rent month after month, but it’s not fair to say that we expect the exact same credit score numbers, credit history, references, recommendation letters for a family that has made $25,000 for the past three years as we do for a family making $90,000 for the past three years,” said Williams. Those families have very different circumstances and asking them to have the same proof in metrics is a little bit extreme.”

Williams also said that as much as local groups try to help residents and families prepare for the application process, being prepared and fixing requirements like credit scores doesn’t happen overnight. These things happen over a long period of time. If the expectation of the developer is not realistic in the beginning, these families are not going to be able to take advantage of affordable housing now, or in the next few months.

The NYC HPD regulates all lotteries. A lottery opens when developers are ready to fill their units of affordable housing, and closes within 60 days of the opening date. Once candidates send their applications in electronically or through mail, a computer assigns these applications random numbers. Developers select a pool of applications in the order of the number that is assigned to them. Applicants who are eligible are selected for an interview.

For the first lottery at 66 Rockwell Place, the McDermott Group provided the following criteria for their affordable housing units: renters had to have a household income between $20,000 and $40,000, depending on family size, and renters must already be from the neighborhood. Due to several applicants being denied, the developers had to reopen the lottery and extend it to the whole city.

Local organizations such as the Pratt Community Council have expressed concern over the criteria being unrealistic for this community, and have set out to educate families who have been denied and families pursuing future affordable housing lotteries about what level of housing they qualify for, the components of the application, and what they need to do to get themselves in a position to qualify.

According to Juanita Edwards, the director of community organizing at Pratt Community Council, there are several luxury buildings in the Downtown Brooklyn area that aren’t for the people of the community because residents cannot afford them.

“We begin to see a lot of buildings going up, but they aren’t filled, and we have a great concern about that because we have a lot of people in need of housing and instead of them building housing that would be for the community, we have more families in shelters than we have ever seen in our lives,” said Edwards. “This is how the community breaks up: once you break the families up, the community is broken and now we have a lot of strangers living here.”

New Destiny Housing is another member organization of ANHD. Executive Director, Carol Corden said, “People apply who can’t possibly afford an apartment because people desperately need housing, so you get lots of people who are applying for housing and can’t meet the income requirements because they may make nothing, they may be reliant on social security only, or public assistance only, and they may have 3 kids. You can’t put a family like this in a studio, you have to put them in a 3-bedroom apartment, which costs more, thus, narrowing the pool of applicants.”

Corden also said that developers use a combination of factors to structure their project in order to make it viable. Rent has to cover operating costs, cleaning, maintenance, insurance, Con Edison, etc. These are some of items in the budget that you need to cover through rent. Developers have to decide how much they need in order to cover costs and this determines some of the qualifications for families that apply.

Developers at 66 Rockwell Place had to abide by the neighborhood 50 percent community preference, meaning the developers have to bring in these people first. Moses Gates, the director of planning & community development for ANHD, noted that it’s the developer’s responsibility to bring the applicants in and vet them to see if they qualify for the apartment.

“The developers are allowed to set their own credit standards,” said Gates. “The only thing is that those standards have to be consistent, you can’t require one person to have a 700 credit score and the other person have a 600, they have to be consistent standards and they have to call in the people in order.”

According to Bob Engler, principal of SEB LLC, developers have 60 days of affirmative fair housing marketing that has to be done in all the minority outlets, papers, and churches. Engler believes that the developers at 66 Rockwell Place didn’t do the right outreach initially, in order to bring in more applicants.

“It has always been the case that any one program can’t solve all the needs of the community. Sure there are people over that level, and there’s people below that level, that’s just the way it is, but you have to continue to market and advertise, do all the outreach, and contact the community agencies to make sure everybody knows about it because a lot of people that have lower incomes are not tied in to the normal outreach marketing places,” said Engler.

Along with other organizations, community board two is a co-sponsor of a series of seminars intended to help residents understand pending affordable housing lotteries and better prepare themselves for the application.

District Manager, Robert Perris, said “In short, the thesis is, as gentrification has occurred, the most vulnerable tenants have been pushed out of the district and while low income residents remain, they are ‘dug-in’ living in NYCHA, Mitchell-Lama or rent-regulated housing, and not inclined to apply to the housing affordable housing lotteries.”

In order to better assist residents of Downtown Brooklyn with the affordable housing application process, real estate developers and local housing advocates have developed five free seminars for upcoming housing lotteries offering up to 1,100 affordable units over the next three years.