Marie Testaverde has lived in her apartment along the Columbia Waterfront District for the past 18 years. Before that, the 60-year-old lifelong Brooklynite had lived in four different homes inside the borough since she moved out of her parents’ home in Carroll Gardens at the age of 22.
In this one-bedroom apartment, Testaverde has made a home: One couch is framed by pictures and drawing of dogs belonging to families she has dog-walked for. Sheer leopard curtains billow in front of south-facing windows, looking down on the sidewalk on Columbia St. A small shrine to the Virgin Mary hangs by itself opposite the couch. Eventually, she wants to fix the dark and uneven planks of her wooden floor, but doesn’t need much else in her neat and nearly empty living room.
A few weeks ago, construction began in the empty lot next to her first-floor home, a hallmark of a neighborhood influx and a sign of impending gentrification. But because of an agreement between the City Council, the Carroll Gardens Association, and developer Avery Hall, Testaverde doesn’t have to worry about having to move again. She is one part of the mayor’s plan to build or secure more affordable housing in the city.
Testaverde’s small part of the strategy worked as a simple tradeoff: The sale of the vacant lot along Columbia St. in South Brooklyn has permanently secured the status of six other buildings currently designated as affordable housing. In late July, City Hall announced that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s housing plan was ahead of schedule. The six buildings translate into 28 units, or 0.07% of the 35,595 affordable housing units preserved since the citywide Housing New York Plan was implemented in 2014. An additional 17,341 new units of house were erected during the same period.
On July 21st, Council Member Brad Lander; Vilma Hermia, Director of the Carroll Gardens Association; Avery Hall’s co-founders, Avi Fisher and Brian Ezra; and Testaverde, a tenant of the Carroll Gardens Association, all gathered to celebrate the deal with a press conference at the new construction site, near the intersection of Columbia and Degraw Sts. Over the sounds of morning rush hour traffic, people from each group greeted each other, introduced colleagues, and posed for a picture by the green, wooden walls of the construction site. It was a photo op three years in the making.
In 2013, Avery Hall Investments was looking for its first property to develop in Brooklyn. The co-founders, Ezra and Fisher, had already worked for years in real estate in New York City and Washington, D.C., respectively, and were setting their sights on Brooklyn. When Avery Hall found the empty lot on 163 Columbia St., they were led to the Carroll Gardens Association, the owners of the property.
In the early 1990s, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development transferred ownership of six apartment buildings and a vacant lot there to the Carroll Gardens Association. The Association, a neighborhood preservation corporation, refurbished 28 units, which have played an integral role in the city’s South Brooklyn Renewal Project, the second phase of the Columbia Street Revitalization Program, an initiative announced in 1992.
Since its founding in the 70s, the Carroll Gardens Association has become the largest affordable housing provider outside of the NYC Housing Authority in South Brooklyn. At the same time, the Columbia St. waterfront has grown in popularity and price. These days, a single bedroom apartment costs around $3,500 per month.
Part of the plan was to convert the empty lot at 163 Columbia St. into an open community space. But it remained empty for the last two decades as the Carroll Gardens Association struggled with resources.
When Avery Hall first contacted the Association, they thought the space could be developed as affordable housing. But as Vilma Heramia, executive director of the Carroll Gardens Association, explained it, at only 1,991 square feet, the space would have been “too small and not financially viable.” But the plot of land, overgrown with unkempt vegetation, attracted Avery Hall. The group envisioned a top-rate, low-rise apartment building to fit in with the surrounding charm of the Columbia waterfront.
The Association and the Brooklyn City Council were open to the sale of the property, but because the deed designated the lot to community open space, the city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development was not willing to relinquish the property for private development.
Meanwhile, deed restrictions were coming under greater scrutiny because of abuses in the deed relinquishing process. On May 16, the de Blasio administration released an executive order, No. 17, detailing the new process by which deeds could be released. The process must include public notification and time allotted for public hearings. Now the city must determine whether a property will serve the greater community need.
To convince the city to relinquish the deed to Avery Hall, District 39 Councilman Brad Lander came up with an idea: guarantee the current stock of Carroll Gardens Association housing as permanently affordable, meaning they will no longer have to worry about leases expiring or exorbitant price increases. The proposal also ensured that the funds from the sale would go toward creating more low-income housing. The deal was sweetened by converting a neighborhood garden one block away that was governed by a month-to-month lease into a permanent garden, satisfying the open space originally required by the 163 Columbia St. deed.
Vilma Heramia, Executive Director of the Carroll Gardens Association, during a tour of the community garden preserved in the deal with the city. (Photo by Melissa Bunni Elian / The Brooklyn Ink)
“Back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s when we did affordable housing, permanence wasn’t that important. Brooklyn wasn’t doing so well,” Councilman Lander explained during the press conference. “These days, we know that every unit of affordable housing, we want to make permanent, because we need it for the people who otherwise won’t be able to live here.”
One of the ironies of developing for professional and creative classes that gentrify neighborhoods is that people who live in the luxury apartments are dependent on the working class to support the lifestyles they live.
Testaverde, for example, has done all kinds of service jobs to keep a roof over her head and raise her three children: Dog walking, cleaning houses, baby sitting, laundry work, waitressing, and, at one point, working in a makeup factory. She has the hustler’s spirit that New Yorkers are famous for.
Without the Carroll Gardens Association and its $900 rents, Testaverde wouldn’t have been able to witness all the changes around her. “The last eight years, they’re out of control. Some people are paying $8,000 for a three bedroom,” she said. “How can people pay that? I can’t understand. They must be really professional people.”
In the end, the city agreed to the suggestions proposed by the Councilman Lander. The property was appraised and sold for $1.55 million dollars. “We’re not rolling in dough,” Heramia told The Brooklyn Ink. “We don’t have unlimited resources. So the funding that we derived to the sale will help us continue our mission.” The Carroll Gardens Association will use the funding, which is held in an escrow account managed by the city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development, as a seed investment into 70 additional affordable apartments.
The construction site at 163 Columbia Street (Photo by Melissa Bunni Elian / The Brooklyn Ink)
Affordability in New York City is guided by the average median income, which is $84,000 for a family of four. Sixty percent or less of the median is considered low-income. The Carroll Gardens Association describes its housing stock as work force housing and reserves 30% for homeless tenants.
The lot on Columbia St. was Avery Hall’s first venture into Brooklyn. Since its initial inquiry into the vacant property, the group has become involved in 12 projects and has completed or is in the midst of constructing several luxury apartments with a market capitalizations ranging from $25 to $55 million, as listed on the AHI website. The 163 Columbia St. project is slated to be worth $5 million.
Within the last few months, Testaverde applied for and is now receiving Section 8 housing vouchers, making her responsible for only 30% of her $900 rent. Soon, she will have neighbors with rents in the thousands. “There is no middle class here because they keep pushing us out,” she said of the changes in the neighborhood.
But as she points out, even a wealthy neighborhood needs other classes of people to provide services. She knocks on wood as she boasts of the good care she has provided families over the years. “For people to let you into their houses, you have to trust them. This is my bread and butter. You don’t jeopardize your bread and butter. You don’t jeopardize where you live.”
She feels safer. Thanks to the 163 Columbia lot sale, Testaverde’s apartment is out of harm’s way. Any move she will be of here own volition, and she has time to decide on whether or not she will move to Florida at her own pace.