St. Ann’s Housing Forum: Widespread struggle for affordability, but few solutions

“I don’t recognize my neighborhood anymore,” said Victor Li of Kensington. “No one can stop the developers.”

“I live on Franklin Avenue, and our landlord has pulled one maneuver after another,” offered Elisa Holland of Bed-Stuy. “They want the rent-controlled tenants out, and will do anything to make it happen.”

“Who can even afford a studio for $1800 a month?”

Emotions were raw at an affordable housing forum at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights Tuesday evening. Personal tales were thick with resignation and the panelists, while erudite and empathetic, offered only limited solutions.

“First, we need to strengthen tenant protection services,” said Caitlyn Brazill, VP of Strategic Partnerships for CAMBA, a multi service nonprofit that often focuses on those at the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Brazill also emphasized the need for further investments in affordable housing and more widespread accessibility to legal representation for tenants in housing court.

“Development is good, but if there’s no protection, people are forced out,” Brazill said. “They lose in housing court, and then we see them doubling up, tripling up with relatives. If they strain those family relationships to the breaking point, that’s usually the path where we end up seeing them in shelters.”

Council Member Stephen Levin agreed. “The problem [of affordability] is astounding, and getting worse,” Levin said. He cited the 70% increase in housing costs in the last 10 years despite only a 30% increase in wages. “This alone is a profound snapshot of the problem,” Levin claimed, often leading to homelessness for some, displacement for others.

“The homeless population has expanded significantly,” Levin added. “It’s alarming.”

Council Member Levin agreed with the audience that $1,800 seemed like an astounding figure for a studio apartment, but because others were willing to pay, he explained, it “sets the market” and leads to “secondary displacement” for more moderate-income residents. Another problem, Levin noted, involves overcrowding of schools and other community infrastructure, as environmental impact studies and community board decisions often fail to consider such peripheral consequences from an influx of residents (the towers planned for Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park were offered as an example).

Aaron Koffman, Director of Affordable Housing for the Hudson Companies (a private real estate eveloper), took most of the onslaught of the public’s frustration. A frequent topic was the impending development at 626 Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, which Hudson is spearheading. Despite the project leading to the addition of fifty-one new affordable housing units, and the overall increase of housing arguably driving down market prices (through increased supply), the tower’s promotion as a “luxury” rental caused ire from an audience increasingly priced out as imposing developments have risen around them.

But Koffman, with a background in the Doe Fund and currently working for the branch of Hudson that creates affordable housing (both in “inclusionary zoning” and stand-alone affordable units), substantively engaged the audience while also offering some concessions.

“The 80/20 [voluntary affordable housing allotment] program could use some tweaking,” Koffman admitted. “I don’t think it’s always applicable, city-wide. We could do different things in different places.”

Levin agreed, noting that the new mayoral administration was increasing opportunities to secure more public benefits from developers in exchange for allowing them to build.

“Bloomberg never saw a development or developer he didn’t like,” Levin said. He mentioed greater (or proper) facilitation of the ULURP process as just one area that could yield additional set asides for affordable housing units, or other amenities, for the public. Mitchell-Lama Housing was also offered as another beneficial program, and the panel briefly touched upon municipal decision-making often being held hostage by lawmakers in Albany (though repeal of the Urstadt Law was not explicitly discussed).

The event was moderated by Cindy Rodriguez, Urban Policy reporter for WNYC-New York Public Radio.

The Rev. John E. Denarno, Rector of St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church, hosted the event. Denarno was appreciative of the panelists for appearing, and for the large turnout, even if everyone couldn’t always agree on the path forward.

“We may not have been able to tackle all of this issues tonight,” Reverend Denarno said, “bit it’s a start.”