All they had to do was sign on the dotted line.
But just five years after approving plans to use a $22 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HOPE VI program to renovate their deteriorating houses, the tenants of Brownsville’s Prospect Plaza look back at a deal they couldn’t refuse and find themselves puzzled and dispirited. They’re getting the reconstruction and some money to move--and almost nothing of anything else.
First, their entire four-building complex will be emptied, a process that is already underway and should be wrapped up by the middle of next year. One of the buildings, containing 102 apartments, will be demolished. The other three will be renovated. The tenants will be relocated, but not to nearby townhouses. Those have yet to be built--and when they are, most will be offered for sale at prices far beyond the reach of the overwhelmingly poor residents of the projects.
Instead, Prospect Plaza’s tenants are being offered replacement apartments in other housing projects or Section 8 vouchers they can use to rent apartments on the private market. They have been promised the right to return to Prospect Plaza, which defines the area around Saratoga and Prospect avenues, but most doubt they will ever be able to move back. And the social services that were supposed to be up and running already are nowhere in sight. A consortium of community groups and churches, which joined with project tenants to jointly administer the funds, are now duking it out for control of the money.
All told, many Prospect Plaza tenants have lost faith in the plan that once seemed like their salvation. “I don’t know anything, except we have to get out,” says Joanne Jones as she sits in the sun in front of 1765 Prospect Place, where she has lived for 13 years.
“I think they’re full of shit--straight cheese,” says Keisha Washington, as her children rollerblade through the dirty halls of 1750 Prospect Place. Several of the apartments are already empty, their doors padlocked. Washington, who grew up in the apartment where she is now raising her seven kids, believes that the HOPE VI deal is simply a plan to remove the existing tenants and bring in higher-income people.
Washington’s got reason to worry. Strictly interpreting a 1998 federal law, the New York City Housing Authority, which manages the city’s 346 housing projects and is in charge of the Prospect Plaza deal, now requires that half the vacancies in all public housing developments go to what it calls “working families”--with incomes between $31,450 and $66,550, depending on family size. The 1999 Housing and Vacancy Survey found the median income in city housing projects was $9,704. Such “deconcentration” is an explicit goal of HOPE VI, too. When the development reopens, it will have the elusive income mix that NYCHA officials are sweating to achieve at other complexes.
Even residents who say they’d welcome higher-income neighbors are running out of patience. Milton Bolton, the president of the Prospect Plaza Tenant Association and once a big booster of the plan, is now ambivalent. He’s distressed that the social service programs are not established yet--particularly the homeowner training workshops, since he someday hopes to buy a house. Bolton, a soft-spoken bear of a man, sits in a straight-backed chair and bounces his 2-year-old son on his lap as his seven other children scoot in and out of the room. “We welcome the changes,” he says. “We welcome the impact if it’s done right. But no matter what we do, it still feels like we’re fighting a losing battle.”
Such gripes are normal whenever renovation plans become more than dreams on paper. But this particular vision--$75 million invested in troubled Brownsville--carries with it some terrible tradeoffs. To be redeveloped, Prospect Plaza must become a ghost town. Every week, several families move out, and their apartments are padlocked. The remaining tenants have been told that they will all have to be out within a year. The renovations--scheduled to be finished in early 2004--will almost certainly make Prospect Plaza a nicer place to live. But most of the families who patiently lived through tough times--drugs, deterioration, and gun violence, including a 1994 rooftop sniper and the 1995 crossfire killing of a four-year-old girl who was rollerskating in front of her home at 1765 Prospect Place--believe that they won’t be around to celebrate the project’s rebirth.
The federal Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere program, a.k.a. HOPE VI, proposes a good deal for tenants and city agencies alike. It offers hope to housing authorities across the country, allocating money to severely distressed housing projects, seeking to clean them up and build new housing. And it offers hope to tenants because HOPE VI leverages other funds to provide ongoing social services, job training, and recreational opportunities so that the projects do not once again become human dumping grounds dominated by crime, drugs, and gunfire.
But more fundamentally, HOPE VI, inaugurated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1993, was born from the sense that the nation’s grand experiment with public housing has failed--that instead of giving people a boost, housing projects have become eternal ghettos. So HOPE VI does not attempt to create more federally subsidized apartments. Instead, it seeks to downsize housing projects, cutting the number of units dramatically and demolishing high-rises in favor of townhouses. And HOPE VI does not attempt to make more housing available to the poor. Instead, it seeks to tweak the income mix in the projects, bringing working-class people into housing developments dominated by the very poorest.
With these goals, HOPE VI offers tenants a Faustian bargain. If they want their housing projects improved, they must make use of HOPE VI money. But, in most cases, if their deal is approved, they will have to relocate, and many of them may never be able to return. Some buildings in their developments will be demolished. The supply of public housing will shrink. In essence, HOPE VI forces residents to confront a horrible question: Do we have to destroy public housing to save it?
In the eight years since HOPE VI was established, HUD has allocated $4.1 billion for 149 projects across the country. This, the agency claims, has leveraged almost $7 billion in private financing for retail development, local services and private housing. Much of the focus has been on tearing down multistory buildings. From 1993 to 2000, HOPE VI paid for demolition of almost 97,000 public housing units. In their place, the program created 61,000 new or revitalized dwellings. In all, HOPE VI has reduced the number of apartments at those developments by more than 37 percent; in the last four years alone, the program has authorized demolition of 33,796 apartments. As at Prospect Plaza, tenants are offered replacement apartments in other projects or Section 8 certificates. But HUD has done almost no follow-up to determine how these families have fared in their new homes.
While the townhouse communities that replace the old high-rises may be an improvement, the math is inescapable. HOPE VI may make life better for some housing project residents, but it reduces the supply of affordable housing. For instance, Albany, New York, won a 1998 grant to improve the Edwin Corning Homes, but the plan reduces the number of apartments by 35 percent, from 292 mostly low-income units to 160 mixed-income units in 80 townhouses. The plan calls for another 200 units around the city, but, factoring in income-mixing requirements, low-income tenants will still experience a loss in available apartments.
Similarly, Birmingham, Alabama, garnered a $35 million HOPE VI grant to demolish a 910-apartment complex and replace it with 1,029 new scattered-site townhouses. This sounded great, until residents read the fine print: Only 340 of the new units would go to low-income residents. In the end, there was a net loss of 490 low-cost apartments.
Boosters say HOPE VI creates vibrant new communities in areas that have long been blighted. “We’re not just revitalizing a development--we’re revitalizing a neighborhood,” explains a New York-based HUD official familiar with the project, who asked to remain anonymous. “It may be the neighborhood needs a different mix of incomes. And the department for some time has been pushing racial deconcentration and economic diversity.”
Critics contend, however, that HOPE VI is a tool for displacement--pushing out lower-income residents in favor of better-off tenants. In a 1998 audit, HUD’s own Inspector General recognized the problem. While the audit saluted the “impressive physical revitalizations” HOPE VI has brought about, it cautioned that “improvements to the lives of the residents who lived there are much less obvious.” What’s more, the audit revealed that at most HOPE VI developments, fewer than half the original tenants returned after renovations were complete.
Some of those residents undoubtedly chose not to return, whether because they found better places to live (though not easily in cities with tight housing markets) or had no desire to move twice in just a few years. HOPE VI is counting on them not to come back. In most of its projects, the result is about one-third fewer affordable units than when reconstruction started, and some families that want to return may never get the chance.
At first glance, Prospect Plaza would seem an odd choice for a HOPE VI grant. Its four red brick towers of 12 to 15 stories were built in 1974, making them much newer than many of the city’s other housing projects. From the outside, the buildings don’t seem particularly deteriorated, at least not noticeably more than the surrounding neighborhood. Indeed, to the east of the project, Prospect Place dissolves into a vast vista of weed-filled lots, while to the west, across Saratoga Avenue, many of the larger buildings are vacant and boarded up. Prospect Plaza’s tenants have the usual litany of complaints--rats, roaches, lack of security, thin walls, shoddy plumbing--but they never felt that their homes were structurally unsound.
What Prospect Plaza did have was a number of vacant parcels in the area, providing room for new construction nearby. And from the New York City Housing Authority’s point of view, Prospect Plaza had another important characteristic: it is an extremely low-income development. The average Prospect Plaza family earns approximately $11,700 a year--22 percent lower than the rest of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community, and less than one-third of what the average household in New York City earns. And, given that many Prospect Plaza residents have large families, the disparity in income is even more shocking. Per-capita income in the project is just $3,450 a year--80 percent below the norm for the rest of New York.
So NYCHA made a pitch to secure HOPE VI funding for Prospect Plaza. The first proposal, submitted in 1997, contemplated renovating all four towers and adding some new townhouses. Tenants couldn’t see a downside. At the time, HOPE VI regulations required that tenants endorse all deals, and Prospect Plaza’s residents overwhelmingly approved the plan.
Unfortunately, HUD wasn’t so ardent. To the bureaucrats in Washington, that proposal was deficient, both because it wouldn’t break up the density of the development and wouldn’t create new homeownership units. HUD rejected the plan.
So NYCHA retooled its approach. A year later, it submitted a new proposal calling for one tower--the 15-story, 102-apartment building at 430 Saratoga Avenue--to be demolished. NYCHA told tenants the building had structural problems because it was built on low ground, had water damage to the foundation and was settling unevenly.
The application offered no documentation of the alleged structural problems with 430 Saratoga Avenue, and it’s unclear whether NYCHA ever provided HUD with any. In its application, the authority simply noted that the building would be demolished. Again, the residents signed on.
“The tenants were promised the earth, moon and stars,” recalls Judith Goldiner, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, who spoke with Prospect Plaza’s tenants early in the process. “They were happy with what NYCHA was telling them and didn’t want to hear anything else.”
This time, the application was successful: the feds allocated $22 million for renovation, demolition and new construction at Prospect Plaza. Over the past year, NYCHA has quietly emptied 430 Saratoga Avenue. In early May, there were only 10 families left in the building, all of them waiting for apartments to become available in other projects to which they have chosen to move. The hallways were eerily quiet, with giant dead-bolts and padlocks dominating the doors to all the vacant apartments.
“Nobody wanted to move; everyone was forced out,” says a woman who grew up in her grandmother’s apartment in the building and asked that she not be identified. She adds that her grandmother was happy in the building and was initially shocked to learn that she would have to move.
Her memories are rosy, of knowing her neighbors and joining for summertime block parties. Her grandmother moved into 430 Saratoga Avenue the day it opened and is still in her bright, airy apartment as she waits for a similar-sized unit to come available at a nearby housing project. No matter what happens at Prospect Plaza, the woman notes, this much is sure: Her grandmother and many of the other 101 families that lived in 430 Saratoga Avenue will not share in it.
Even as it has emptied the building, NYCHA has continued with routine maintenance. The agency even brought in a contractor to lay new tile and paint the walls on the 15th floor, despite the fact that all tenants on that floor have been relocated and all the apartments are vacant. (Officials working on the Prospect Plaza plan said they were willing to talk with a reporter as long as they got agency approval, but NYCHA refused to allow them to speak and declined to cooperate with the preparation of this article.)
In addition to demolishing one tower, the Prospect Plaza plan calls for gut renovation of the other three buildings, which will allow NYCHA to reconfigure the units to create larger apartments. (This will reduce the number of remaining units by 10 percent.) The Prospect Plaza plan also calls for construction of 10 townhouses containing 68 rental apartments for low-income families and 40 two-family townhouses that will mostly be sold to middle-income owner-occupants.
So far, only one portion of the reconstruction effort, the homeowner units, has moved forward. Settlement Housing Fund has been named as the developer of those buildings, but planning has been delayed because one of the proposed sites is currently used as a community garden. NYCHA is also now considering whether to expand the units to include basements. The houses will cost around $130,000 per unit to build and are slated to sell for anywhere between $107,000 and $211,000, depending on what kind of money Settlement Housing can put together to fund the project, says Carol Lamberg, the group’s executive director. The bulk of the homes will be sold to middle income buyers. Twelve units will be reserved for low-income families making less than $27,000 a year, but even those homes will be beyond the means of most Prospect Plaza residents.
The project plan also calls for a 30,000-square-foot community center that will house a day care facility, a computer laboratory, a room for continuing education classes, a gymnasium, and a drop-in center for seniors. The neighborhood should also see a 15,000-square-feet retail center that will house shops and a small-business incubator. HUD plans to invest $1.8 million in the social service effort, and it has budgeted community groups to pump in another $6 million of their own.
If there’s one person who’s part of the project who would seem a likely candidate to be the tenants’ friend and advocate, it’s Abdur-Rahman Farrakhan. A long-time housing activist, Farrakhan was working in the community when Prospect Plaza was built. For more than two decades, he’s headed the Oceanhill-Brownsville Tenants Association, a group that manages and renovates rental housing.
He’s seen many government officials promise to invest in Brownsville, and their consistent failure to follow through has left him suspicious and angry. “You’ve got a bunch of fucking thieves out there,” he says. “The politicians of Ocean Hill-Brownsville are corrupt. Those of us in leadership capacity should be ashamed of ourselves. We have failed our community.”
Farrakhan joined the HOPE VI effort when the Oceanhill-Brownsville Tenants Association took a seat on the board of the Prospect Plaza Development Corporation (PPDC), a new entity set up by NYCHA to manage the social service money coming to the area. His group has promised to raise $2.9 million in private money to add to HUD’s pool of funds for job training, business development and homeownership training at Prospect Plaza. This time, he’s unusually optimistic. “This is an excellent opportunity,” Farrakhan says. “HOPE VI affords people the chance to make physical as well as human impacts. The challenge is to make lasting impacts sustainable over the long term in both areas. If we don’t, we will be doing another HOPE VI in 2010.”
But if Farrakhan has committed his organizing know-how and keen understanding of pressure politics to the Prospect Plaza efforts, it hasn’t looked that way to other players in the project. If anything, he has become a lightning rod for everyone’s resentments. Early on, when Farrakhan became chairman of the PPDC, the group quickly descended into a nasty war of words. Farrakhan accuses other nonprofits--in particular the Brooklyn Interborough Community Network (BICNet)--of manipulating Prospect Plaza’s tenants in the hopes of getting large contracts for job training and technical assistance. “Everybody is looking to position themselves as best they can to be able to take advantage of this,” he says. Farrakhan says that Shelton Jefferson, who heads BICNet, “wanted a guaranteed contract and went to the tenants to stir shit up.”
Jefferson says he’s astonished by Farrakhan’s charge. “I doubt if Mr. Farrakhan would say something like that,” he says. “I have become involved in this project only because I was asked. I was asked by NYCHA to be an adviser to the tenants.”
For their part, the tenants acknowledge an interest in getting skills--and possibly jobs and contracts--through the training programs the PPDC will administer. Still, they contend, Farrakhan has been a negative influence. “He’s a control freak,” says Priscilla Davis, who has lived in the tower at 1786 Prospect Place for 14 years and is a member of the board of the PPDC, where she has feuded with Farrakhan. “I see him as a bully--one of those schoolyard bullies I had to beat up when I was little.”
Meanwhile, the other nonprofits say Farrakhan is the one seeking to cash in. His group group ran a $250,000 deficit in 1998, the last year for which its tax returns are available. Leon Gelzer, assistant director of Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation, which is also part of the PPDC, points out that Farrakhan earns more than $100,000 a year, while he and the executive director of his group earn half that.
Farrakhan insists that hostility comes with the territory. “I understand where they’re coming from,” he says of the tenants. “They’re new to this situation. Many of them have never ventured into something of this magnitude before.”
But at the same time as he professes empathy for the tenants, he is clearly angry that they have not treated him with what he thinks is appropriate decorum. At his job, staffers call Farrakhan ‘Chief.’ Prospect Plaza’s tenants are much less deferential. “In leadership you expect ingratitude,” Farrakhan thunders. “I don’t do what I do because of anyone. I do what I do in spite of most people.”
As for the suggestion that he’s only in it for the money, Farrakhan turns cutting. “I’m not known to be a liar, a thief, or an immoral person,” he says. “I’m not looking to be no goddamned Trump of the ghetto.”
Still, the projects’ tenants aren’t the only ones in the neighborhood who’ve got a beef with Farrakhan. Tenants at several buildings managed by Oceanhill-Brownsville have complained bitterly about hardball management practices, decrepit building conditions and bad renovations. Acknowledges Farrakhan, “We have not always been as prudent as we could be or should be. We hired a management company that really made a mess out of some buildings,” and adds that he has since improved his own organization’s building management staff.
In March, Farrakhan was voted out as head of the PPDC, replaced by Rev. Elliott Cuff, pastor of nearby Mt. Ararat Church, another partner in the social service effort. So far, Cuff has cultivated more cordial relations with the Prospect Plaza tenants.
Farrakhan admits that the dissention took its toll. “We should have been well into this project six or seven months ago,” he says. Indeed, according to the project timetable, the social services were supposed to begin in late 2000 and early 2001. But the only program that’s up and running is one that the tenants created: an effort to train people who want to become cashiers at Walgreen’s Drug Stores. The promised big ticket items--from children’s recreation to homeownership training, not to mention the construction of the new townhouses--have yet to get off the ground.
Compare that to the HOPE VI effort in Albany, which was approved the same time as Prospect Plaza’s. There, the demolition is complete, half the new homes are already framed out and a new community center is under construction, reports Darren Scott, the city’s HOPE VI coordinator. The development is on track to be completed by fall 2002, when work at Prospect Plaza will probably just be starting.
The lack of homeownership training is particularly galling to Bolton and other tenants. They know that the price of the new homes being built in Brownsville will be high, and that a tenant who hopes to purchase one of them will need help understanding the costs and benefits of owning a home and learning how to save and develop a credit rating.
Tenants also worry about a much more basic thing. They have been told that all tenants “in good standing” will have the right to return to Prospect Plaza in 2004, when it is a completely renewed neighborhood. This means that they must not be behind in their rent or face other problems, like reports of poor housekeeping or household members with criminal records. Given that NYCHA routinely sends eviction notices to tenants who are more than five days late with their rent, tenant association leaders worry that many residents, including themselves, will be deemed “not in good standing” and refused permission to return to Prospect Plaza once the work is done.
Bolton, who has put in countless hours on the Prospect Plaza deal, believes that he will not be allowed to return to the project once the renovations are complete. He has been unemployed for a while and admits that there have been many times that he has fallen behind in his rent. He’s even been put on probation for the problem. “What they’re telling me is once I leave, I’m not coming back,” he says. “We just have to hope they bring at least some of the people back.”
For the past five years, the tenants of Prospect Plaza have lived on an emotional roller coaster. At times they have been elated about the prospect of having homes in an ideal community. At other times, they are filled with rage, angered that the programs and benefits they were promised still seem so far away. Viola Bunch, who has lived in Prospect Plaza for 11 years and is secretary of the tenant association, acknowledges the despair. “Look,” she says, “the last thing we need is hope and dreams not coming through.”
Priscilla Davis, who recently quit as Tenant Association vice-president, believes the heartache and headache are not worth it. She offers some harsh advice for tenants at other housing projects who may someday be offered a HOPE VI deal. “I’d tell them don’t do it. Run--that’s what I’d tell them. Run as fast as you can.”