Crown Heights North & Deborah Young
Crown Heights North Association Town Hall and Deborah Young
On April 17 at 6:45 in the evening I arrived at the yearly Town Hall of the Crown Heights North Association, a venerable institution that was instrumental in getting Landmarks status for large sections of Crown Heights. The meeting took place at the Brooklyn Children's Museum, and it was chaired by Deborah Young, the President of the Association. She called the meeting to order and mentioned that this was the eleventh town hall that had been held in as many years. Before the formal program began, she called on various people to say a few words. Nizjoni Granville, the Chair of Community Board 8 spoke about the importance of getting community involvement, a representative of the Children's Museum welcomed participants to the venue, Ethel Tyuus spoke about a recent victory in applying Article 78 to the situation at 873 St. Marks Avenue. Three speakers were scheduled – Simeon Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council, Yolande Nicholson of the N. Y. State Foreclosure Defense Bar, and Sarah Lazur of the Crown Heights Tenants Union.
Bankoff spoke about issues related to Historic Preservation. He referred to the four phases through which Crown Heights had been declared a historic district. Three phases are now in place and the fourth remains to still be done. Becoming a historic district not only preserves the integrity of the neighborhood but gives residents a way of commenting on and influencing what happens in the community in which they live. Bankoff said the Landmarks Preservation Commission takes the position that a homeowner can pretty much do what he or she wants if he or she maintains the historic nature of the the house. One area of contention is what owners do with the space behind their houses. Building extensions or planting trees can affect their neighbors and issues can be brought to the LPC if the modification blocks sunlight or views, but it is an uncertain situation in which regular practices still need to be developed. He also spoke about resources that are useful in historic preservation. One of these is Sanborn Maps done during the 1030's and 40's. Every house in the area was photographed and mapped. This tool is invaluable in discovering was existed eighty years ago and opens a door to the past even further back. Bankoff explained that there are different forces always at work on individual homeowners who wish to develop their properties, but that the community can have an influence through organizations like the CHNA and Community Board 8 and its Land Use Committee. Information and awareness are essential. At the end of Bankoff's presentation Mr. Caldwell of the 77th Precinct was introduced as someone who had taken an interest in Third Party Transfers, a practice by which the owner of a house can be dispossessed. Caldwell was praised as someone who has often intervened to prevent this practice.
Mention of this practice provided an opening for the next speaker – Yolande Nicholson, who talked about the practice of foreclosing on properties and evicting the owners. She said that there had been an epidemic of this since the financial crisis of 2008-9. Homeowners in arrears usually could not renegotiate outstanding loans, banks would seize properties or sell the loans to developers looking to take ownership and flip the properties. Blacks and Hispanics were the most common victims of these practices with the result that after 2009 Black and Hispanic ownership in Crown Heights declined from 80% to 50%. Real estate interests have managed to create a special housing court to deal with these cases, and these courts routinely decide against the owners. One result has been an explosion in the homeless population which has doubled under the DiBlasio administration from roughly 30,000 to 60,000. Nicholson criticized DiBlasio's housing policies, which have been to work with developers, who must make a portion of their buildings “affordable.” This affordable housing is usually anything but, and the developers meanwhile destroy perfectly good housing and keep adding to the crisis as they drive prices in the market ever upward. Nicholson called for a complete moratorium on foreclosures and development of a housing policy that would create genuine low cost housing. She also spoke in favor of allowing homeowners to restructure loans so that they could pay them off and keep their homes and also to create strong enforcement measures against people using unethical means of to obtain deeds through fraud or deception.
The final speaker was Sarah Lazur of the Crown Heights Tenants Union, which was founded in 2013. When Deborah Young introduced her, she said the CHNA was taking an increasing interest in the problems of renters whose numbers have been increasing dramatically recently. Sarah told how the Tenants Union is a loosely organized entity that works like a labor union with each building being a “local.” The Union organized buildings to deal with their own specific problems, but they work to get the different buildings to help each other out. The Union informs tenants of their rights and gets them to deal with their problems in a united way. She told how operating in this way proved effective again a company called Pinnacle Management which had a long history of harassing tenants, not doing repairs and warehousing apartments. By gathering information about their practices in many building that Pinnacle manages, the Union made progress in court and also in reversing some of their practices. The Tenants Union deals with many types of people, long term renters who have lived in the neighborhood most of their lives and new arrivals as well. Some of their members have modest means and others have jobs that pay well and access to helpful resources. The Union brings these people together to find out about general problems and figure out ways of dealing with them.
When Sarah finished her presentation, someone spoke in favor of renaming Eastern Parkway for Major Owens. Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright spoke as did a woman running for Surrogate's Court, and after a few announcements, the meeting broke up.
The meeting gave an impressive picture of what the CHNA has accomplished in getting Landmarks status and also revealed how much remains to be done to get Phase Four, to get control of the foreclosure situation and to reach out and involve tenants in this work. It was wonderful to see the trajectory of past success point to the need to deal with new issues and keep making progress.
Having seen the impressive town hall on the 17th, I asked Deborah Young for an interview. She agreed, and a few days later we met at Colina Cuervo. It was then I discovered that not only is she the President now but was a co-founder of the organization. She had been out of New York City to take a job with the state. In 1999 she returned to the city, and in 2001 she settled on Sterling Place off of New York Avenue. As luck would have it, her next door neighbor was Denise Brown. The two ended up sitting outside together, and among other things, they talked about Crown Heights North (CHN), particularly housing. Denise had volunteered with LPC and shared her experience. Denise had certain skills and so did Deborah; their talk quickly led them into action. They reached out to other members in the community, organized a board and started the process to become incorporated and then became a non-profit. To name a few of the community members at that time, they included but were not limited to Ethel Tyus and Margaret Ross who both sat on the board. They had no money, but their goal was to get Landmarks designation for Crown Heights North, and to accomplish that they worked with local politicians and Community Board 8. Letitia James and Albert Vann were council members for CHN then, Major Owens was in Congress and Clarence Norman was a powerful figure in the Democratic Party. The C.B. 8 manager was Doris Alexander. CHNA got discretionary funds from the council members and together with C.B.8, set up a series of meetings with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Together a plan was created to make Crown Heights North a historic district. This was to happen in four phases. Three of those phases are now designated, and the fourth is on the brink of becoming a reality. Meanwhile the ties with C.B. 8 have grown. Board members from CHNA also serve on the community board . Ethel Tyuus is chair of the Land Use Committee, Gail Muhammed is chair of the Seniors Committee and serves on the SLAC committee, Deborah Young is a member of the Land Use, SLAC and EST committees. C.B. 8 is an important venue for CHNA to make its views known.
Landmark status gives the community a powerful tool to influence how housing is developed. For example, when a company leased the old St. Gregory's School, empty since 2010, the Land Use Committee did not support what they wanted to do, voting against a new floor and expansion into the space to the west. They also noted the lack of parking space and asked for more information about the structural problems in the basement. The current plan was to be brought to a halt, and C.B. 8 backed up the recommendations. A new plan will be needed or the lessee will have to scrap the whole plan. This all took place with the lessor having the full backing of the Catholic Church including the Bishop. This was just a skirmish in a larger battle as developers come in and push for ever larger projects, variances and changes in the zoning laws. There is an irony in this. CHNA has made the neighborhood more attractive by monitoring development, and this in turn leads to more developers wishing to come and build. The evictions and foreclosures and the bad behavior of banks and landlords and those who want to invest in properties with the idea of flipping them are all efforts to make money at the expense of Northern Crown Heights, but the reason they come in the first place is that Crown Heights is beautiful settled historic district with such great charm. It is a pattern that has been repeated over and over in New York – in Greenwich, Village, in Noho and Soho, in Williamsburg, in Park Slope, a wonderful diverse place of immigrants, artists, interesting stores with a distinct character attracts development, and their advent raises rents, brings in chain stores and large apartment buildings. Right now CHNA is resisting that kind of development and one can only wish them well as the fight goes on.
– John DeWind