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In Changing Bedford-Stuyvesant, LISC NYC Helps Students Gain a Deeper Understanding of Community Development

7.29.2016

Every summer, the New York City LISC Cashin Fellows program gives college and high school students the opportunity to gain valuable career experience in community development. LISC NYC works with Prep for Prep, an educational opportunity program for students of color, to identify students interested in urban policy and equitable development. Each Fellow is paired with a local community-based organization and becomes deeply involved in a wide variety of activities that include affordable housing development, community organizing, access to healthy foods, and economic development. The program is generously funded by LISC Board member Lisa Cashin.

On July 20th, the Cashin Fellows joined LISC New York City, Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, and Bridge Street Development Corporation on a tour through Bedford-Stuyvesant, the neighborhood that served as the birthplace of community development. By the 1960s, racially discriminatory housing policies, middle class and white flight to the suburbs, and disinvestment had caused the neighborhood to become one of the poorest in the city, resulting in riots. When Senator Robert Kennedy visited the neighborhood in 1964, neighborhood activists challenged him and other politicians to move “beyond speeches and help produce something tangible,” leading to the creation of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the nation’s first community development corporation. Over the years, Restoration, Bridge Street, and other community-based organizations have continued catalyzing change in the neighborhood by improving housing options, increasing educational and vocational opportunities, supporting programs in culture and the arts, and more.“I’ve always been interested in community development, so I thought this was a great way to get involved,” said 2016 Cashin Fellow Nana Minder, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and is working with the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. “Whenever I imagined the work I would be doing, I never imagined it would be in Bed-Stuy. So it’s been really exciting to look at my own community and say hey, the things that are dear to my heart, I can actually implement them here. I can make direct changes where I actually live and where I have been my entire life…now I definitely see myself working in Bed-Stuy when I finish college,” Nana said.

Much has changed in Bedford-Stuyvesant since the 1960s. In recent years, the problems of disinvestment, property abandonment, and blight have all but vanished. But this doesn’t mean that low- and moderate-income residents no longer face challenges. The renewed investment in the neighborhood has caused property prices to soar, leaving many residents unable to cope with the dramatically increased cost of living. Within the past five years alone, the median rent has gone up 15% and the median home sales price has almost doubled.

On the tour, the Cashin Fellows learned about affordable housing developments that have enabled lower-income residents to remain in their neighborhood, ensuring that they are able to benefit from the area’s recent economic boom. The Fellows visited Joshua Court, a 52-unit residential development that was rehabilitated by Bridge Street using tax credits that were syndicated by the National Equity Fund, a LISC affiliate. The building had been abandoned by its owner in 2005, and when Bridge Street took over the property in September of 2006, the residents had been without heat, hot water, and cooking gas for an entire year. The blighted building had become a magnet for crime, impacting quality of life for building tenants as well as other people living on the block. Bridge Street rehabilitated all 52 units, replaced the kitchens and bathrooms, installed a new elevator and trash compactor, upgraded the electrical and lighting systems, and improved security with cameras and a security guard. The building uses energy-efficient systems, such as solar panels, gas-powered hot water heating, and a solar thermal pre-heating system, which are estimated to save tenants $12,000 annually in utility costs. And because of the rent affordability restrictions, the tenants are able to remain in their homes without worrying about their rents rising to levels that they cannot afford.

Emilio Dorcely, President and CEO of Bridge Street, explained that homeownership also remains a focus of the organization. “Because there are no more abandoned houses or brownstones anymore, it’s become very challenging,” he said. “But we still continue to be committed to homeownership because it’s one of the primary ways that communities of color and working-class communities are able to build wealth.” Bridge Street’s Keep it in the Family program equips homeowners in the community with valuable knowledge about property ownership. “The values of these brownstones are going – within a decade – from $400,000 to somewhere in the $1 million to $2 million range, and the increased value of these properties requires a different level of understanding and a different level of planning. So we brought together an estate attorney, insurance brokers, and property managers to do a panel discussion to help people really think things through now that they have these assets. You’d be surprised the number of times when I first started at Bridge Street in 2011 that we would have individuals come to our office because they were at risk of losing the homes that they had inherited from their parents – because of either unpaid taxes or water bills, or because some unscrupulous person came to them and offered them cash, and because they didn’t know the value of what they had, they sold it for less than one-third of the actual value.”

The Fellows were treated to lunch at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation’s headquarters with CEO Colvin Grannum, who spoke to them about the future of the neighborhood. “In 1967 and 1968, we had riots on Fulton Street,” he said. “Buildings were burnt down…there was a lot of dissatisfaction and anger in the community. There was no mainstream investment in housing; the community had been redlined. Businesses couldn’t get loans, and there was middle class and white flight. So what you see now is quite different. We’ve got a stronger housing market, and we’ve got new businesses moving in. I sometimes refer to it as a ‘tsunami of investment,’ as opposed to fifty years ago when it was really a desert. The challenge for us today is how we try to leverage the tsunami so it doesn’t wash away too many people, but so that it’s used as a vehicle of power, growth, and development for all segments of the community.”

Although her Cashin Fellowship is only halfway over, Nana already has big plans for the future. “My main interest is helping young minority and black women in Bed-Stuy who are homeless or are coming from prisons. There are a lot of homeless women who live here or who are in abusive households and need a way out, but they don’t make enough money to sustain themselves. My dream would be to open up a women’s shelter or some sort of alternative living center for those women. My dream would be to take women off the streets and out of abusive households, and get them back on their feet again and help them realize their own power.” And it doesn’t end there. “Another major goal I have is to open up a café,” she said. “I’ve lived between the same two cross streets my whole life in Bed-Stuy, and as I’ve grown up I’ve seen so many different coffee shops open up in the area, and every time I go in one I never feel like I fit in because of the gentrification and displacement that have been going on here. It’s a weird feeling, because this is on the corner of my block where I grew up and I don’t even feel like I fit in. I’m a minority in my own neighborhood. So another one of my dreams is to have a café that really speaks to women like me and people of color.After lunch, fellows were given a tour of Restoration Plaza, a 300,000 square foot facility owned and managed by Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Restoration Plaza was once an abandoned milk bottling plant and was converted into a community facility in the 1970s when Restoration began its efforts to transform the neighborhood. The plaza houses a variety of programs and services, including an Economic Solutions Center, where residents can take advantage of job readiness programs, and a Center for Arts & Culture, which includes the historic Billie Holiday Theater. The plaza also contains a number of businesses, including pharmacies, banks, and Super Foodtown, a 25,000 square foot full-service supermarket offering a wide assortment of healthy foods.