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Where High Housing Prices Meet Activism

Earlier this year, Sam Beck, co-editor of Toward Engaged Anthropology, earned the Daisy Lopez Award of Churches United for Fair Housing. He earned the award for his work to help further the mission of CUFFH—that is, to provide affordable housing in North Brooklyn, where property values have skyrocketed in recent decades. Below, Beck discusses the work that helped him earn the award and why it is important.

 

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I received the 2013 Daisy Lopez Leadership Award of Churches United for Fair Housing (CUFFH). This organization’s mission is to promote the sustainability of the North Brooklyn Latino community by advocating affordable housing. This part of Brooklyn experienced the dramatic withdrawal of capital and city services in the 1970s, whose Puerto Rican and Dominican population suffered the consequences of low incomes, dilapidated housing, poor schools, and inadequate health care.

 

Through the efforts and commitments of Liberation Theology, charismatic priests and the energies of the youths they organized, abandoned and dilapidated housing was rescued. Over the course of three decades these young people established community based organizations that continue their work today. Churches United for Fair Housing got started by Father Jim O’Shea in 2003 as a result of New York City’s effort to rezone the manufacturing area along the East River, part of the Greenpoint/Williamsburg area, and open it up for luxury housing development.

 

This particular part of Brooklyn was intersected by a set of subway lines that connected it to Manhattan. A short train ride on the J, Z, M, L, and G lines brought commuters into Manhattan and connections to any part of the city. The Williamsburg Bridge and bus lines further made this a convenient area to call home.

 

In the 1950s in addition to the Puerto Ricans who migrated to the Williamsburg area, ultra-Orthodox Jews (Hasidim) started to rebuild their decimated community in the same place. Their pro-natal belief system resulted in this community’s exponential growth and an insatiable demand for housing. Their desires to be near their charismatic religious leader, the Rebbe, brought about the first rise in real estate prices. The next housing pressure started in the late 1980s and continued to this day.

 

“Hipsters” (artists, students, and others) who found the area attractive and less expensive than Manhattan’s housing, impacted the people who had settled here before them. As landlords found the demand for housing lucrative, real estate prices increased dramatically. Affordable housing pressure increased with the passage of rezoning and the construction of luxury housing towers along the East River with incredible views of the Manhattan skyline. Churches United for Fair Housing stepped into the fray and demanded the inclusion of affordable units in any luxury housing construction that received New York City incentives, like 25 year tax abatements. The mandated number of units was 20 percent of the total in large units. Negotiations resulted in an increase in affordable units between 30 percent and 40 percent. CUFFH insisted on an integrated approach. The idea was that low-income people had a right to staying in their neighborhood and having the same access to the river as the affluent. CUFFH fought against exclusionary and gated communities. The Latino struggle was one of inclusion as citizens and residents of the United States and obtaining the same level of resources, dignity, and respect given to people with greater wealth.

 

Latinos saved the very buildings that were incrementally being gentrified. The neighborhood with which they identified was being wrested from them, as was the community structure that a demographic concentration of Latinos allowed. Religious commitments intersected with family ties, kinship, and neighborliness. Without sounding overly romantic, people could depend on each other for support when it was needed. As the area was being gentrified, many could no longer afford to stay and moved to areas of greater affordability. Almost two-thirds of the Latino community was displaced by 2010. Those who stayed were able to do so due to the subsidized housing that was available to them. Churches United for Fair Housing struggles to keep people in place and enable them to continue to build the ties that bind an urban ethno-religious community.

 

Daisy Lopez was among the first who reached out to Father Jim O’Shea and joined the Executive Board that he created. She is of Puerto Rican descent, a social worker, semi-retired and the survivor of cancer, domestic violence, and a stroke. Daisy also made the transition from the Churches United for Fair Housing that Father Jim created and moved on to the Churches United for Fair Housing that was recreated by younger members of the Board, Juan Ramos, Esteban Duran, and Rob Solano. Father Jim was asked to resign from the organization by the Bishop of Brooklyn and Queens due to a political deal made with Brooklyn’s Assemblyman and head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, Vito Lopez. This was a deal that included an under-the-table agreement through which publicly funded housing was going to be ceded to the Hasidim, a deal that Father Jim rejected. The result was the collapse of what Father Jim built and the rebirth by the young leaders he mentored.

 

Daisy Lopez is one of the quiet unsung heroes in this community who despite difficult times continues to commit herself to benefit others. Naming the CUFFH Leadership Award seemed the right thing to do. I am honored by this award because I am an outsider to this community and entered it by supporting their struggle mostly as a result of a community service learning course that I teach that engages my Cornell University students in various North Brooklyn community-based organizations. I have also committed myself to communicate the struggle in which North Brooklyn Latinos are engaged to a larger audience and in this sense identify myself as an engaged, public and activist anthropologist.

 

 

 

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Sam Beck is Senior Lecturer in the College of Human Ecology and Director of the Urban Semester Program of Cornell University. His publications include Ethnicity and Nationalism in Southeastern Europe (1981, ed. with John W. Cole) and Manny Almeida’s Ringside Lounge: The Cape Verdean Struggle for their Neighborhood (1992).