By Charlie Dulik & Alexandra Fennell
Like every major American city, New York is deeply spatially divided along racial lines, due to redlining, residential segregation and discrimination. Arguably no place exhibits this more clearly than north Brooklyn’s Broadway Triangle, the intersection of white Williamsburg, predominantly Latino Bushwick and traditionally black Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy). Today, the area remains a potent case study of how government action and market forces actively continue residential racial segregation, but also of how to effectively fight back and promote integration through a combination of community activism and litigation using a race-conscious fair housing framework.
In 2006, the Bloomberg administration in partnership with the United Jewish Organizations (UJO) and Ridgewood Brooklyn Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC), began planning for the development of a large parcel of city-owned land on the Williamsburg/Bed-Stuy border in the Broadway Triangle. The UJO serves a particular portion of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, the RBSCC is located outside of Williamsburg and Bedford Stuyvesant and did not provide services to either neighborhood. Furthermore, UJO had a proven history of discriminatory practices, and no experience in developing large affordable housing projects. Quickly realizing how the needs of the larger community would fail to be served by these groups, our organization, Churches United for Fair Housing (CUFFH) was born.
Unsurprisingly, the proposed development plan did not address the needs of the area’s large Black and Latino populations. Plans focused on three-to-four-bedroom units in low-rise buildings, which not only limited the total number of units but ensured that most units were suitable primarily for large, mostly Hasidic families, and unsuitable for the much larger number of small Black and Latino families in nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The plan also effectively excluded non-white residents by limiting the residency preference to the predominantly white Community District 1 (Williamsburg), despite the project’s proximity to predominantly Black and Latino Community District 3 (BedStuy). A demographer found that while the Bedford-Stuyvesant area was 77 percent black at the time, likely only 3 percent of residents in the new housing to be built would be black (!).
To combat this overt segregation and exclusion, CUFFH utilized a two-pronged strategy. CUFFH began organizing clergy and lay leaders to build a network of churches across the affected neighborhoods. This network joined with community groups to form the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition (BTCC) to demonstrate and build community power against any project that would clearly disproportionately serve one segment of the population. Despite repeated demonstrations and community vocalization, the project was overwhelmingly approved by the all-white community board and the city council. In response to this overt act of exclusion and segregation, the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition filed suit against the city. Broadway Triangle Community Coalition et al. v. Bloomberg et al. was filed in the New York State trial court in 2009. Because no study of the racial impacts of this development were ever performed as part of the approval process, we argued that the requirement to affirmatively further fair housing was not met. Though the city completes a city-wide fair housing analysis every four years, this was deemed unsatisfactory by Judge Emily Jane Goodman, who in the course of ruling for the plaintiffs on disparate impact grounds, noted that “[t]here can be no compliance with the Fair Housing Act where defendants never analyzed the impact of the community preference.”
BTCC was granted an injunction in 2012, and ultimately settled the case in 2017. The settlement included a requirement that housing options provided must meet the needs of Bed-Stuy residents, including a restriction that bedroom sizes more closely match the demographics of the neighborhood. The settlement also guaranteed that the process for selecting and designing the developments would be reopened to all affordable housing developers. Additionally, the predominantly black community of Bed-Stuy would also be included alongside Williamsburg in receiving preference in applying to these new units.
This case highlights the necessity for housing choice, especially in city-funded development. If racially and economically marginalized communities are not granted equal opportunity to housing and also face increased pressure to move out of their neighborhoods, their right to fair housing choice is violated. Equal opportunity is in part defined by ability and access—for a choice to be fair, available options must not rent burden or otherwise punish renters. For a family with a yearly income of $25,000, the choice between two different luxury units is no choice at all.
Furthermore, CUFFH found that centering race and fair housing proved vital and effective at both mobilizing community members and as a legal strategy. As Taylor Pendergrass, NY Civil Liberties Union senior staff attorney stated at the time, “this decision puts the city clearly on notice: When it proceeds to develop housing–whether in the Broadway Triangle or anywhere else—it must evaluate the potential impact on segregation and develop projects that include the entire community and will create more integrated neighborhoods.”
Despite the victory at this site, broader forces have continued to push segregation in the Broadway Triangle. After Bloomberg’s exit from office, Mayor de Blasio has continued to use market-driven strategies to attempt to alleviate housing insecurity. The de Blasio administration has sought to encourage as much development in low-income black and brown neighborhoods as possible, and to require each private development to provide a sliver of “affordable” housing. This strategy has clearly failed, and only accelerated segregation. Between 2000-2015 in Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg, respectively, the Latino population changed -13%, +16% and -16%, the black population
dropped -22%, -17% and -4%, and the white population grew +610%, +1235% and +41%, according to data from Comptroller
Scott Stringer’s office.
As neighborhood change has persisted, so too have more individual cases of residential segregation arisen. In early 2017, the Rabsky Group proposed to build 1,146 housing units on the so-called Pfizer site, also at the heart of the Broadway Triangle. The developer has refused to make a legally binding and enforceable commitment to specify the number of one and two-bedroom apartments, those best suited to the community’s Black and Latino households. About ninety percent of the proposed units will be priced out of reach for the majority of the area’s Black and Latino residents—while twenty-five percent of the units would be designated as “affordable,” only ten percent would be priced to be affordable for a family making under $40,000 per year. The remaining fifteen percent would be priced for residents making over $50,000 per year, with some renting for over $1,700 per month. This is being proposed in an area where the median income for Black and Latino households in the area is less than $25,000 per year compared with a median annual income for white residents of $61,198.
Facing similar circumstances as in the original Bloomberg case, CUFFH has begun deploying a similar strategy. On the community organizing front, CUFFH brought 400 congregants to shut down a hearing in front of the Borough President who subsequently voted No on the proposed rezoning necessary to develop that site. CUFFH then mobilized at a hearing before the Department of City planning, and were the first individuals to ever be arrested in a city planning land use hearing. Though city council eventually voted to approve the rezoning, it did so with 6 no’s and 2 abstentions. The near unprecedented departure from the council’s normal unanimous approvals of rezonings can be credited to CUFFH’s aggressive organizing efforts. After the project’s approval, a coalition, BRASH (Brooklyn Residents Against Segregated Housing) that includes CUFFH once again filed a lawsuit on the grounds of violating the Fair Housing Act, this time against both the city and the Rabsky Group. In April, the coalition was granted a temporary restraining order to stop construction at the site. When granting the restraining order, the judge noted the overwhelming community presence in the courtroom. Unfortunately, as this article was going to press, our case was dismissed on the basis of “no private right of action” for our AFFH claim. However, we are committed to continuing the fight for housing justice in the Broadway Triangle and throughout New York City!
Continuing to oppose segregative developments, CUFFH has realized the need for a resurgent integration program, and that any effort to do so must foreground race. The redlining, segregation and discrimination that shaped America’s residential racial divide explicitly targeted communities of color; policies seeking to undo that damage must recognize that history in order to effectively combat segregation. Simply focusing on “affordable” housing and not fair housing perpetuates the warped logic of speculative development, and fails to meaningfully address racial segregation. In the 50 years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act, HUD has failed to address residential segregation in a meaningful way. This lack of enforcement has allowed cities to move forward with colorblind policies that either perpetuate or dramatically exacerbate existing residential segregation.
Going forward, in addition to the necessary work of reacting to individual developments, we must proactively fight for integration on a city-wide scale. We must add mechanisms to enforce the affirmative furthering fair housing requirements outlined in the Fair Housing Act in each and every rezoning the city facilitates, or else these rezonings will continue to further racial segregation. Incorporating a Racial Impact Study into the rezoning process would give the city the opportunity to demand tangible remedies from developers to not just discourage segregation but to affirmatively further integration. These demands may be expressed through complaints and victories in the courts, but community organizing and community power keep this issue on the front page, forcing our elected officials to be accountable to the communities that they are segregating
Alex Fennell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Network Director overseeing the organizing department at Churches United For Fair Housing. Charlie Dulik (email@example.com) is the Lead Youth Organizer with Churches United For Fair Housing.