By Harold F. Jenkins
Depending on who you ask, New York City is experiencing a crisis.
Homelessness has surged in the last couple of years to levels not seen since the Great Depression, housing courts are overwhelmed with cases, and people are being displaced in record numbers.
Williamsburg, a neighborhood in North Brooklyn was a less than desirable place to live a few decades ago. For a particular slice of New York City, areas like these were the only places they could afford to live and shop. Plagued with crime and high unemployment, areas of Williamsburg became home to many Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and anyone in close proximity to the poverty line.
Things started to change when the real estate market shifted in the early 2000s. Suddenly, developers, builders, and people in the market to buy were looking outside of the island. Brooklyn was optimal since it’s just a bridge away.
For unscrupulous landlords, the time they had waited for had finally arrived. All they had to do was evict their longtime tenants, transform the basic units that were in dire need of repair into modern luxe apartments and charge up to four times as much.
Evicting residents from their rent-stabilized apartments became limited only by their creativity. Fake eviction notices, harassment, and when necessary, using the overwhelmed housing courts as a tool to evict.
Some unwanted tenants received harassing phone calls at three a.m., others were met by goons who questioned tenants about their immigration status or use brawn to intimidate. Other landlords simply didn’t cash rental payments for months and used it as grounds for eviction.
From the margins, it’s simple to say that all these individuals need is legal counsel, but for many, that is a luxury. For others, being mired in the court system goes against their cultural background, so they decide to leave without protest.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to fight displacement by adding several mechanisms to the city’s laws. Soon, those in need of legal assistance will be able to receive low-cost assistance. However, some initiatives are contentious. The most polemic being the “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” plan, in which developers would be obligated to make a certain percentage of units in new projects affordable. Still, many of these “affordable” units are out of the reach of people living on a limited income.
For many it’s difficult to see that the crux of the issue goes beyond affordable rent. Gentrified areas are accompanied by new businesses that catered to a different clientele. Just like the residents that are forced out, so are the businesses that catered to them.
Williamsburg continues to see a mass transformation. Many of the community daycare centers, grocery stores, and restaurants that were staples for decades are now gone.
Nonprofit organizations have attempted to quell the issue, but this is a multidimensional problem. One that needs the attention of politicians, developers, nonprofits, community groups and boards.
Harold F. Jenkins is a man and an idea. He is formless and yet, takes shape through words and actions. This is his column, bi-weekly. Keep reading because Jenkins exists because of you.