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Fighting Displacement in Williamsburg's Southside

Thursday, April 24, 2003

  • By: Maryline Damour
  • Organization: Legal Services Brooklyn A
A tour of the Southside of Williamsburg (bordered by Metropolitan, Union and Division Avenues) reveals a tightly knit community with neighborhood-based businesses and a vibrant Latino culture, with few hints that the gentrification that occurred in Greenpoint and the Northside of Williamsburg is coming this way. But beneath the surface, the rapid migration of wealthier individuals has unleashed a war for scarce real estate that is threatening the survival of this long-established community.

Once one of the poorest areas in Brooklyn, the Southside's population has risen dramatically in the past decade, due in large part to a migration of young, economically upscale professionals from Manhattan. This has resulted in a growing displacement of low-income tenants who are struggling to hold on to the neighborhood they have rebuilt.

Barbara Schliff is the Director of Housing Resources at Los Sures, a community organization that has been rescuing and building affordable housing in Williamsburg for over 30 years.

"The Southside is a neighborhood where generations of families have made their homes. Now this community is breaking up because they can no longer afford to live here."

With prospects of huge profits from tenants willing to pay $600/month per bedroom for apartments currently renting for $600/month total, landlords are engaging in tactics of neglect and harassment to evict long-term residents. Common practices include refusing to make critical repairs or providing basic services. Especially targeted are senior citizens and immigrants living in many of the most deteriorated buildings, since even apartments in poor condition are in great demand. Lacking the resources to fight back, the most vulnerable are a favorite prey.

Strategies To Preserve A Community
In an effort to keep the Southside intact, both Barbara and her team of tenant organizers and Brooklyn A's lawyers have been working with individuals and tenant groups to secure their rights. Los Sures is also working to reduce the displacement pressure by expanding the stock of affordable housing. "There is barely any real estate left in the Southside. Developers have bought most of the remaining burned-out buildings and vacant lots, and are making few, if any, units in new buildings available for low-income tenants."

In the fight to secure low-income housing, Los Sures has formed a group, Save Our Southside, which works to ensure that new developments provide significant numbers of affordable apartments, are marketed openly, and have fair access to applications. The group has been active in the re-zoning process over the past year for two waterfront developments: one on the old Schaefer Brewery site (350 units) and the other at the former Domsey Wholesale Clothing Company site (540 units).

The group's efforts include attending and speaking out at Community Board #1, City Planning Commission and City Council hearings about the need for affordable housing, and fair marketing practices. As a result of community pressure, including that of local elected officials, particularly Councilmember Diana Reyna and Assemblyman Vito Lopez, 40% of the Schaefer units and 10% of the Domsey units will be affordable to lower income families.

The Development Paradox
Barbara Schliff is quick to point out that although Los Sures is not against development, gentrification is a problem.

"Our mission is to develop the Southside so that people can live in a good neighborhood. What is happening now, however, is that the very people who worked so hard to improve and stabilize their neighborhood are being pushed out." One possible response that Barbara would like to see is for Community Board #1 to create a strategic plan for developing the Southside. This way, instead of merely responding to each individual developer's agenda, developers would have to fit into a greater Southside plan. This would, in turn, lessen the displacement of established residents.

As more and more people seek reasonable rents in established communities, the tension between development and preservation will continue. Unchecked, this tension will wipe out the years of efforts at stabilization and revitalization in these communities. Los Sures and Brooklyn A are working to ensure that vibrant and active neighborhoods are not lost to their low-income residents.

Maryline Damour is Brooklyn A Director of Development.

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