By Danielle Hester
Two months before Kimberly Grey was to be released from prison earlier this year, she had no place to go and no family to take her in. After more than 16 years of incarceration, she was unsure of her place in the world outside prison walls.
Knowing Grey’s situation, her counselor recommended she contact Providence House, a non-profit organization that helps women who had been incarcerated, abused or battling with some sort of mental disability make the transition back into society.
“I was nervous and scared,” said 37-year-old Grey. “Doing 16 and a half years, everything in the world had changed. When I called them, they accepted me over the phone that same day.”
Last May 14, Grey was released from prison and moved into one of Providence House’s transitional housing for women on parole who undergo a reentry program. The complex is located in the Prospect LeffertsGarden area in Brooklyn. There are “so many things are offered for men coming out of prison,” she said in appreciation of Providence House, “but none for women.”
Yet while Grey has benefited from supportive housing, not everyone in her “new” community feels the same.
Joanne Newbold, a community resident of Prospect Lefferts Garden for 20 years, worries about how such programs affect the community and her job—especially now that she knows Providence House is in negotiation with the city to purchase an abandoned apartment building located on her block.
“This community is still trying to come around,’ said Newbold. “We already have our share of crime and drug activity.”
Newbold, who is a real estate broker, said she first found out about the Providence House project while showing a house on Lincoln Road. “The couple said to me, ‘We really want to live in this neighborhood, but not if that halfway house will be here.’”
The couple eventually decided not to buy in the neighborhood.
Newbold’s sentiment is shared by a majority of other community residents and reflects a division within the neighborhood between those who can benefit from supportive housing, such as Grey, and those who feel the neighborhood has already been saddled with too many rehabilitation centers, halfway homes and homeless shelters. And while they support the mission of Providence House, they are saying enough is enough.
“I get it. I get the mission,” said Newbold. “But it’s not like we don’t have these types of housing projects in the community already.”
The proposed housing complex would include 26 affordable studio apartments, standing at six-stories high. Twenty of these units would be reserved for single women who have a history of homelessness and incarceration; five of the units would be available to women who meet the low-income criteria—making less than $30,000 annually—and one unit would be reserved for an on-site building manager.
When Sister Janet Kinney, executive director of Providence House, presented the project at the community board meeting in May, the board members voted 28 to 6 against it and told Kinney and her staff to revise the plan before presenting it again at the next board meeting. Now, the project is undergoing a city landreview process. “We are at the second level of review,” said Kinney. “It is a complicated process and we won’t know anything for a while.
Meanwhile, neighbors continue to protest. Outspoken residents like Newbold and Barbara Rodgers, have started circulating petitions and reaching out to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s office.
Rogers, who has lived in the community for five and half years said her main objection to the project is that “the building they want to build is in violation of zoning regulations.”
The block of Lincoln Rd currently only consists of two-, three-and four-story buildings, including family homes, duplexes, and smaller apartments and condominium buildings. Rodgers suggests that a six-story building will draw unwanted attention to the block.
She also said throughout the years several residents had tried purchasing the abandoned building, which has been vacant for more than 20 years. “You know what the city told them?” she said. “They said it couldn’t be bought.”
But Kinney feels that the community is reacting out of fear. “Whenever you have anything that is new it is not uncommon for people to fear what they do not know,” she said.
Neighbors argue it is more to the matter than being fearful.
Community resident Phillips Cruise, who has been in prison before and now self-employed as a martial arts instructor, added, “It’s not that we don’t agree with the mission here. It’s the methodology we don’t support.” He went on, “I think the important question is does the community want this? Based on what I want and what I’ve heard, the answer is no.”
For more than 20 years, Providence House—which currently has eight housing locations throughout New York City, including six in Brooklyn—has provided transitional residences, individual apartments and permanent supportive housing for women in traumatic situations.
“The fact that we have been in the community for years with no problems speaks volumes of our program,” Kinney said.
The women living in the permanent supportive housing programs are considered tenants. They sign leases and pay rent. They must also have jobs and/or be enrolled in educational and training programs.
“They help you out with welfare, make appointments for you and give you referrals for different programs for employment and substance abuse.” explained Grey.
Despite strict regulations for the women and round-the-clock security that would be placed at the apartment, residents still feel their neighborhood is in jeopardy. They said a saturation of transitional housing programs turn the block into a “red-zone” for police and cause property values to decrease.
“I do this for a living. I definitely believe that the property value goes down,” Newbold said. “Now my concern is how will this affect my job?”
But ten-year resident Dynishal Gross, who is one of few neighbors in support of the project, said having the abandoned building on the block was affecting property values more. “Providence House is trying to take a decrepit building and reconstruct it for something positive,” she said. “They, Providence House, even presented research showing that once people get over their prejudices having the development raises property values.”
According to astudy done by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University, the prices of properties closest to supportive housing—which are the properties opponents of supportive housing claim are most likely to be affected by the development—increase in the years after the supportive housing opens. Apparently, the study noted, prices rise as the initial fears subside.
Newbold and others are not buying it. “I think it is hilarious,” she said, chuckling. “If you read it, it really says nothing.”
Kinney defended the report by saying, “I did not go out and do the research of course, but from my standpoint I think that anything that stabilizes property values is a good thing and can only lead to positive things.”