Housing War Pits Ultra-Orthodox Against Latinos In ‘Last Corner’ Of Booming Brooklyn
In the all-purpose room of the Swinging Sixties Senior Center, in Williamsburg, members of Brooklyn’s Community Board 1 met in mid-June to begin deciding the fate of two empty lots. Would the board vote to rezone the lots so that they could become the site of a massive, high-end housing development, or would the lots remain vacant until the community could figure out a better way to use them?
At the meeting, residents both for and against the 1,146-unit project — which includes 287 affordable apartments — lined up to have their say. Microphones, along with plastic smiles, were passed back and forth between opponents.
Board members should ask themselves, “What I would do for my child to make sure that he or she has a roof on top of their head?” implored Rabbi David Niederman, director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, who stood to voice support for the project.
“We don’t have to accept a bad plan just because affordable units are included,” countered Antonio Reynoso, the council member for the neighboring Community Board 3. “I want to be clear that the people who you’re dealing with know exactly what their doing and they’re not here for the public’s interest.”
For nearly 30 years, these lots have been at the center of the housing hopes of four growing communities: Latinos, African Americans, Hasidic Jews and high-income families priced out of the “Brownstone Belt” of neighborhoods like Park Slope and Prospect Heights. Their presence has brought renewed attention, and this controversial new development, to the Broadway Triangle, a 52-acre swath that adjoins the tips of Williamsburg, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant. It’s some of the last unbuilt land in North Brooklyn.
The board, which comprises Williamsburg and Greenpoint, eventually voted 26–15 to recommend the zoning changes. Now the Rabsky Group, a developer led by ultra-Orthodox Jews, will bring the project to its next regulatory test: a July 10 hearing at Boro Hall, at which community members will have another chance to comment publicly on the development.
Everyone agrees that the Broadway Triangle needs housing. But many residents do not trust the city to insure that housing in the Triangle will go to residents of color. An attempt by the Bloomberg administration to develop the Triangle resulted in a string of buildings occupied exclusively by Hasidic Jews, despite a court injunction against the city’s plans.
“What we’re beginning to see is that the Rabsky site is the last available site to remedy the historical inequities and segregation that have affected this area for over 30 years,” said Ron Shiffman, a professor of urban planning at the Pratt Institute and a veteran city planner for over five decades.
Yet some community leaders are worried that the latest development will perpetuate the same patterns. They distrust the developers and their motives, and say the city isn’t doing enough to build affordable housing. They believe it will have an outsize number number of three- and four-bedroom apartments, and that this will make the majority of affordable units available only to large Hasidic families. (The Rabsky Group has not disclosed the floor plans of the Triangle development.)
Opponents of the project also fear that both the market-rate and the affordable units will go mostly to non-Hispanic white occupants. Community Board 1, which comprises Williamsburg and Greenpoint, is nearly two-thirds white. Half the affordable housing units in the Rabsky development would go to Community Board 1 residents, since the Triangle falls within that board’s jurisdiction.
Across Flushing Avenue and Broadway the neighborhoods are less than a quarter white, and the need for housing is great. In 2011 a professor of urban planning at Columbia University calculated that between Community Boards 1 and 3 there were 9,000 Yiddish speakers who needed apartments with three or more rooms. In the same area, he concluded that 90,000 Latinos needed small apartments.
Kevin James, 56, a resident of the Triangle for almost his entire life, has been watching the Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg grow for 20 years. In the 1990s it gave residents hope, he said, to see Hasidic Jews push back against gangs and build new housing developments.
“People thought they were building for everybody,” James said. “But they were building for themselves.”
“Right now the Jews take everything. They got the money,” said Luis Martinez, a retired mechanic who has been a patron at La Guira, an Italian restaurant in the Triangle, for over 20 years. “It’s looking out for your own community. This is what the Jews do all the time.”
The bigger problem, housing activist Martin Needelman says, is the city’s failed affordable housing policy — not discrimination on the part of Jewish builders. Rabsky gets tax breaks from the city for pricing just 20% to 25% of its units below the market rate.
“The racial pressure is not intentional, but that’s the impact when you build luxury,” said Needelman, an observant Jew who is the co-executive director and chief counsel of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation. “If it’s 80% market housing, it’s going to be overwhelmingly white. That’s just the reality of the market.”
Needelman has lived in South Williamsburg for 45 years and has been involved in efforts to mitigate segregation in the area around the Broadway Triangle since the 1980s.
“Our litigation has never been against the Jewish community, it’s been against the mayor,” Needelman said.
Yet at the June 13 Community Board 1 meeting, members of the Hasidic community took concerns over the number of bedrooms in the apartments as intimations of anti-Semitism.
“Let me say what the problem with this project is,” Niederman said. “The problem is that it’s a Jewish developer. And somebody’s afraid maybe, maybe, Jews will also have a part in that development. That’s the bottom line.”
Niederman further criticized what he said was pressure on the developer to lower the number of market rate apartments in the development beyond what the deal with the city would require. The current plan calls for 25% of the units to be designated as “affordable.”
“We would love that it should be 50%,” Niederman told the Forward. “But these developers are not the federal government. This is a private development that is developing land that has been idle for years, and therefore he’s entitled to make a profit. And just because he’s a Jewish developer that does not take the right away from him to develop like any other developer.”
Rabsky has certainly acquired a reputation for making a profit — even, allegedly, at the expense of the law.
Isaac Rabinowitz and Simon Dushinsky, two Hasidic Jews who live in Williamsburg, started the group in the 1990s. Despite having been named the No. 4 developer in Brooklyn in 2015 by The Real Deal, the company maintains an extremely low profile. It has no website. There are no pictures of either Rabinowitz or Dushinsky online. Even as it has secured an $80 million loan to build a tower in Downtown Brooklyn, it has remained nearly invisible to the public eye. Opponents of its Triangle development maintain that neither principal has made an attempt to meet with residents.
A 2015 ProPublica report detailed how Rabsky overcharged tenants for rent at The Driggs, its luxury housing development in the northern part of Williamsburg.
“It is clear that this unscrupulous landlord is violating rent-stabilization laws,” New York City Public Advocate Letitia James told ProPublica. (Through a spokeswoman, Rabsky declined to comment on allegations of overcharging rent.)
Recently, Rabsky decided to make 20% of the units at their Rheingold Brewery site affordable, after the previous developer of the site had planned for 24% affordable units in a non-binding agreement with the city. The four percent deficit means 88 more apartments will now go at the market rate.
All this will be on the minds of the Brooklynites who will head on July 10 to Boro Hall for the next hearing.
“Ultimately we’d like the borough president to reject the plan,” said Barbara Schliff, the tenant organizing director at Los Sures, a not-for-profit that serves residents in South Williamsburg. “That didn’t happen at the community board, but that’s why there’s a review process. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll go to the next step.”
Schliff hopes to help get 200 people to the July 10 hearing, even if she is less sanguine about their ability to stop the Rabsky development.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and every time the community voices its opposition on a rezoning, unfortunately it goes through anyway,” Schliff said. “What’s the point of a public hearing if even when the public is against something it still gets rezoned?”