Home Ownership in Crown Heights

Home Ownership in Crown Heights

2 Crown Heights Home.jpg

It is not a secret that real estate prices in Crown Heights have been booming over the last few decades. Prices took a small dip during the financial crisis of 2007-10, but they resumed their march upward. I experienced this when I moved to Sterling Place in 2010 as a renter. I asked the real estate agent what the two duplex building would cost. He opined $500k to 700k. I couldn't do that, but I was not surprised when the landlords put the place on the market in 2014 at 1.1 million, and they got the full asking price in a matter of months. This last year I heard about a sale on St. Johns. Someone I knew, who had brought the house for 1.4 million in 2014 as a place to raise a family, found that he and his wife would prefer to be near his and her family in California. They put the place on the market at 1.8 million, and, after a single open house, sold it for 1.9 million. The attractions of Crown Heights are many: beautiful housing stock, some dating back to the 19th Century, a bustling and interesting commercial life on Nostrand and Franklin Avenues, a racially and ethnically diverse community with plenty of artistic life, a community that is landmarked mainly due to the efforts of the Crown Heights North Association, and one with a strong sense of involvement and community. Community Board 8 meetings are well attended and a great place to find out what is going on and see how the community tries to shape its future.

As buildings in the area increase in value, naturally developers want to participate in the action. They want to acquire buildings and turn them into luxury housing, or tear them down and build large luxury apartment buildings though this means changing zoning regulations. To the west of Nostrand Avenue one can see the process working itself out. Large apartment building have sprung up on Eastern Parkway, St. Johns Place, Prospect Place and many other streets and avenues. A fight is going on to the south of Eastern Parkway. Zoning was changed to allow two 16-story buildings on Franklin Avenue and now there is another effort to build 39-story towers that the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is fighting, saying they will block their sunlight. If rezoning has been successfully resisted east of Nostrand, this is in significant part due to landmark status, which preserves the beautiful old buildings and the wonderful neighborhoods of tree-lined streets that result.

However, all the efforts that preserve the beauty and charm of Crown Heights only whet the appetites of developers more, and they are primarily focused on the many homeowners who acquired their homes in the '60's, '70's, '80's, and '90's, often for less than $200,000, sometimes way less. These properties now sell for over a million, sometimes way over a million. Owning such a property has given many people valuable assets, but there are problems that older people on fixed incomes must deal with – rising real estate taxes, repairs that in a landmarked area are quite expensive and for which one needs to get permission from the Community Board, possibly a mortgage and then all the usual expenses – water, telephone, electricity and gas and sometimes tenants who may have complicated lives and often are members of the family who may expect to be forgiven paying rent.

The least expensive way to acquire a property is to locate the people who are in trouble and exploit their problems. These tend to be older residents who are Black or Hispanic, and developers will go after them legally, or sometimes illegally, ethically, or sometime unethically, and they have been effective. Yolande Nicholson of the NYS Foreclosure Bar says figures show home ownership of Blacks and Hispanics in Crown Heights have gone from 80% in 2010 to 50% in 2018, and this has been accomplished largely through foreclosures and buyouts. The ways to get leverage are numerous. One might offer a mortgage to make repairs or pay taxes and ask the confused owner to a sign document while assuring them it is just a formality. Once money has changed hands, it is very difficult to undo the damage. Or maybe an older person will die intestate (without a will) so that numerous family members become the joint owners. A developer will locate one person, buy his or her share, and demand ransom from the rest of the family, forcing a sale through Partition if he is not satisfied, or buying out the others for way below market price. Or sometimes there is a buyout from a person amazed at the money offered who then discovers that that money is half what would be available on the open market. Very common is for a developer to find someone threatened with foreclosure, buy up their loans and then evict them in a court system that favors the real estate industry. In the cause of “efficiency,” a special housing court, without elected judges, will move foreclosure cases along as quickly as possible with little or no effort to renegotiate loans and no effort whatsoever to look into the practices of those filing the suit.

There are a host of resources available to homeowners and there are sympathetic politicians like State Senator Zellnor Myrie. He along with several other local politicians sponsored an event at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on July 29. There an audience of 40 to 50 heard from a panel about homeowners' rights. Richard Farrell, the city's Assistant DA for Housing Fraud, Benjamin Columbo from the Dept of Buildings, Jennifer Brown, Deputy in the Dept of Finance, Detective Russo of the Sheriff's Dept., someone from Brooklyn Legal Services, Alisha Martinez of Community Board 17, Carrie White of the NY Attorney General's office spoke. They covered how to prevent fraud, how to get tax exemptions one might be entitled to, what to do about construction next to one's house, how to deal with strangers offing “help,” the work of the Homeowners Protection Program (HOPP). All these presentations were sponsored by Neighborhood Housing Services, which offers all kinds of help to homeowners and prospective homeowners.

Myrie goes even further. He took the list of people who have liens on their properties in the 20th Senatorial District, and along with his staff visited them to let them know about their situation. In some cases, these people had not opened their mail or didn't understand the notice they had gotten. Far better they meet someone honest who can tell them about the numerous services available than some shark looking to get control of their property by hook or by crook.

What strikes one is, that in this struggle, the old time home owners are on the defensive. Some fall and some stand, but no new low-income people are becoming home owners. Could there be strategies that would reverse the damage? Senator Myrie is open to such ideas. He plaintively told me that he represents a district in which, in the current situation, he would never be able to afford to buy a home. Perhaps something could be done through NYCHA. Could not public housing become a vehicle for residents to come to own the places they live? This happened with the Mitchell-Lama program. People started out with affordable rents, but were given the chance to turn their housing into co-ops. Might not something be possible with low-cost housing – that renting could eventually become ownership? Or does the future just belong to the rich and those who facilitate the desires of the rich?

– John DeWind

UpdatesRobbie Klein