OPINION: Speaking Plainly About Gentrification

Over 2.6 million people call Brooklyn home. There are just as many, if not more, opinions on gentrification and its impact on our borough’s future. As I travel from neighborhood to neighborhood, it is at the top of nearly everyone’s list of concerns. Yet, while I hear many of us talking about gentrification, it has been difficult to generate constructive dialogue, one where we honestly identify the issues at the core of our complaints as well as potential solutions to those challenges. With Brooklyn’s focus squarely on our affordable housing crisis—and the need for us on both an economic and a moral level to build and preserve tens of thousands of units for low- income and working-class families— now is the time to speak plainly about gentrification and how we can combat its negative effects.

In my estimation, there are four factors that exacerbate these effects, the first of which being the harassment of tenants by bad-acting landlords. I have begun holding a series of tenant harassment hearings around the borough, highlighting the predatory landlords that are playing games with the health and safety of their tenants. After our opening hearing at Brooklyn Borough Hall, our office had gone through an entire box of tissues from speaker after speaker pouring their eyes and hearts out, retelling their nightmares. Denying someone heat, hot water, sanitation or other basic services is not a negotiation tactic; it’s a crime. Not only are we actively tracking potential criminal cases to direct to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson where we see actions are violating laws like criminal mischief, we are working with civil rights attorney Norman Siegel and legal advocates to pursue patterns of bad behavior that may lead to civil suits. Concurrently, legislators in Albany should revisit in the next session how to strengthen the penalties attached to these statutes. Leadership on the state level is needed to deter this behavior, keep tenants in the communities where they have lived for decades, and end the massive hemorrhaging of affordable housing units in Brooklyn.

The second factor is the lack of integration of new arrivals into neighborhoods deemed to be gentrified or gentrifying. When many people speak about gentrification, they lament a loss of community in the abstract sense, the close-knit feeling of collaborative spirit. Community, especially in a place like Brooklyn, is not something we view as a luxury, but rather a necessity for a thriving, prosperous place that looks out for its own. Some new arrivals embrace that energy head-on, and they are to be lauded. Others have taken a more caustic approach, failing to practice what I call “Brooklyn common courtesy.” We can foster and strengthen these bonds through activities like block parties, street fairs and sidewalk sales, which bring communities out to engage with one another. Highlighting common spaces like community gardens and parks, as well as building capacity for community-based organizations, are also great tools to fostering relationships and understanding.

The third factor is a partner to the second, and that is the challenge that existing community residents face in dealing with what many believe to be “missed opportunities.” Back in the bad old days, long before neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Prospect Heights were deemed anything close to attractive, parents would tell their children to buy the home down the block, to invest in the community. Many chose to find opportunities elsewhere. As these neighborhoods experienced their renaissances, property values went from accessible to astronomical, making a return home difficult. Soon enough, we will see this same story play out in neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York, areas where real estate values were once rock-bottom and are now rising at a staggering rate. There are strategies we need to explore to get existing residents to invest in their communities, creating opportunities for homeownership, such as the land bank program that has turned around vacant and abandoned properties in other parts of New York state.

Finally, the most basic fear we face around gentrification is the fear of change, or metathesiophobia, as it’s called scientifically. We must remember that the history of New York City is the history of change. East New York, which is now a heavily African- American and Latino neighborhood, was once a Jewish and Italian bastion. Sunset Park grew up as an Irish, Polish and Scandinavian community, evolved into a hub for Latino immigration, and has recently evolved into one of the fastest-growing Chinatowns anywhere. Populations shift for a variety of reasons; the important thing is that no one is forced out or kept from coming into any community. We should not be shouting down two- and three-story affordable housing opportunities on one street, and then be standing idly by while five- and six-story storage facilities shoot up on a nearby avenue. Brooklyn belongs to every Brooklynite, newcomer and community cornerstone alike, and it is our shared responsibility to combat the affordability emergency at our doorstep as neighbors, hand in hand. 


Eric Adams is the Brooklyn Borough President.