Swiping in at the Nassau stop yesterday, I happened to look down to the ground, and instead of spent MetroCards, I found a smattering of small flyers printed by the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (BAN) depicting two rather gentlemanly pigs looking fondly into one another’s eyes, carving up a piece of juicy meat with utensils. The fat slab reads “Brooklyn,” while the rest of the flyer called on residents to join BAN outside the Brooklyn Museum. Starting at 7 a.m., protestors demonstrated their outrage against the annual Brooklyn Real Estate Summit happening inside, and emphasizing that, in general, they’re not really cool with Brooklyn being treated like a fine cut of meat. “Land is for people, not necessarily for the elite,” a community garden activist told the crowd. “Brooklyn’s not for sale! Brooklyn’s not for sale!” the protestors chanted back.
Real estate industry players have either the best-worst copywriters or just the worst-worst copywriters, and in the case of the Brooklyn Real Estate Summit (put on by Green Pearl, a company responsible for “private label conferences”) it’s the latter. The conference’s website describes the “theme” of this year’s event as “how these Brooklyn developments will shape the borough into a place to live, work and play.” Which is funny, because the 2.5 million people who live here might already describe the borough as a place where they live, work, and play.
The real estate conference, now in its sixth year, was formerly run by the boutique real estate firm, Massey Knakal (in 2014 the Wall Street Journal wrote 2014 the firm “dominates the market for midsize office, retail and apartment buildings” and by the end of the year, Cushman & Wakefield– one of the largest multi-national real estate firms out there– had bought them out for $100 million).
The fight between landlords and tenants is as old as the day is long, but the protestors who gathered outside the Brooklyn Museum today encouraged a more nuanced view of gentrification by challenging the way many people understand the current real estate climate. It’s a story that runs through media narratives and individual explanations on both sides. But instead of explaining the affordable housing crisis as an abstract condition in which the market is simply “hot” (i.e. prices are skyrocketing, glass towers are sprouting everywhere, and neighborhoods are turning into Middle American-like strip malls) the protestors presented a very real set of conditions that are the result of a coordinated effort between politicians, real estate moguls, and bankers.
BAN refers to this troika as a collusion between “greedy profiteers” and elected officials, all “hell-bent on destroying the cultural, economic, and social diversity of New York City.” And today representatives from each group happened to be in attendance at the Brooklyn Real Estate Summit inside the Brooklyn Museum. One sign read: “We are human beings, we are not bottom lines.” A small group of bored-looking police seemed to be encouraging the group to hug the curb along Eastern Parkway.
“This is against the museum’s stated mission to serve the community,” a protestor shouted into a megaphone as a growing crowd huddled around her, holding up banners and intermittently cheering, chanting, and blurting out affirmations. Last week, the Brooklyn Museum’s director, Anne Pasternak, responded to news that protestors planned to demonstrate outside of the conference. She emphasized, “Of course we wanted to be responsive” to the protestors. According to the Times, Pasternak urged Green Pearl to begin a dialogue with the conference’s protestors. Instead, the conference organizers invited one representative from the opposition to attend the summit, which BAN reportedly declined.
The future of New York City housing definitely looks bleak, especially given the rapid increase in housing prices throughout areas of Brooklyn (and the rest of the city, for that matter) where people never imagined the wealthy would wrestle one another out of deeds to call home.
According to the real estate website Zillow, in Bushwick the monthly median rent (what they’ve dubbed their own “rent index“) went from $1,698 in December 2011 to $2,379 in September 2015 (peaking in March 2014 at $2,566). The increase for buying a home in the neighborhood has been even more dramatic in the last decade or so. According to Trulia, the median price for a home in 2000 was $85,000 (less than half that of the Brooklyn-wide medium at that point) and spiked to as high as $800,000 this year, over $100,000 more than the borough’s median. While the Brooklyn-wide market has grown steadily, neighborhoods like Bushwick go through dramatic spikes.
But as is common with complex social phenomenon like gentrification, there are often conflicting truths. While one protestor pointed out that, in many cases, neighborhoods’ real estate development have outpaced the growth of essential resources, such as public schools, another argued that, “Brooklyn was fly before they got here, and it’ll be fly when they leave.”
While these aren’t necessarily competing narratives, they underscore an important fact: we find it easy to chalk gentrification up to a series of predictable “cycles,” but the notion of inevitability is not only misleading, it’s defeatist. If there was one thing each person at the protest agreed on, it was that a a solution to the affordable housing crisis was possible through coordinated action, what some even referred to as “revolution.”
“This problem can be solved,” one speaker told the crowd. She pointed to affordable housing as the solution. First, however, the “systemic disease” of “racism, genocide, and gentrification,” needed to be addressed. “They don’t want no people of color in this city at all, and they don’t want no poor people in this city anymore,” she lamented. “This city is starting to look like Emerald City.”
But the rhetoric about racial divides was kept at a minimum today as protestors faulted the powers-that-be as opposed to neighborhood newcomers, “gentrifiers,” or, even more amorphously, the “hipsters.” On their website, BAN appeals to “longtime and new residents of all nationalities” to sign their petition and participate in demonstrations.
Imani Henry, one of the BAN organizers, also emphasized the need for people to band together. Throughout the event, he called up a stream of speakers. “Anyone else want to speak?” He looked around to the crowd while others stepped up to the megaphone. The event was attended by a diverse crowd, and the issues discussed by the speakers demonstrated just how complex the issue of gentrification really is: specific concerns ranged from endangered community gardens and libraries to reparations for slavery.
BAN welcomed “middle income people,” the homeless, and even those who have been forced to leave New York City entirely. One woman who actually works as a real estate agent spoke to the “horrendous” experience her mother, a lifelong New York resident and woman of color, went through while trying to find an affordable apartment. “I love everyone who loves me, but to see my people be displaced in this building,” she said, was a clear violation of “basic rights.” Her mother eventually gave up and moved to New Jersey. “The people in there,” the speaker pointed to the Brooklyn Museum. “They’re scumbags who want to shove out working class people and communities of color.” She finished by emphasizing the problem is not one confined to New York City– “This is global.”
Though BAN is a Brooklyn-centric network, the breadth of communities represented (from a native New Yorker born in the Bronx and raised across Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan to immigrants who, until recently, were able to walk from their homes to their jobs in Sunset Park) shows that the multi-pronged issues of affordable housing and community preservation are widespread and multifarious. Gentrification in Sunset Park and the revamping of Industry City does not equal developers trying to rebrand the South Bronx as the “Piano District,” nor does the hyper-luxury push in Williamsburg resemble the changes in the Bed-Stuy real estate market.
The Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network calls itself a “mass-based coalition of tenants, homeowners, block associations, anti-police brutality groups, legal and grassroots organizations working together to end the rampant gentrification and displacement of low to middle income residents of Brooklyn, New York.” The alliance, a coordinated effort of grassroots tenant and community groups as well as issue-specific organizations such as The Bushwick Cop Watch Team and the Artist Studio Affordability Project, was spearheaded by Equality for Flatbush as an effort to coordinate like-minded community groups that are as diverse in their interests as they are allied in their distrust of the real estate industry.
BAN lays out a “ten-point platform” for city officials that includes a variety of demands– from the amorphous (if not incredibly ambitious) “alternative and creative affordable housing for all” to clearly defined and very specific points. Among the latter goals are passing the Small Business Survival Act and putting an end to 421a, a tax break offered to developers in exchange for affordable housing that the laws’ opponents argue is abused by real estate moguls and not nearly strict enough in its demands. The laws governing 421a were renewed over the summer, with some very minor changes such as a $200 hike in the threshold below which rent-regulated apartments (i.e. about half of all rentals citywide) become deregulated.
Many in the real estate industry argue that repealing 421a would potentially cripple the building boom altogether and halt an important source for new affordable housing. It seems that officials in Albany tended to agree. The closed-off session inside the Brooklyn Museum today was a reminder of the lack of transparency– another issue BAN confronts head on in their ten points– that is so much a part of politicians’ dealings with the real estate industry. Protestors called out Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams specifically, who was present at the summit today, in particular for siding with developers based on the pretense of increasing “diversity,” something the crowd booed profusely.
As for what was going on inside the Brooklyn Museum, we’ll have to wait and see. We might never hear the details of what Eric Adams and some billionaire developer spoke about, but we do know BAN will continue to call out these closed-door meetings between city officials the real estate industry for what they stink of– back-room deals.