Sunset Park Is Overcrowded: Housing and Education in the Neighborhood

K McCallum, Alec Mateo, Nicholas Maddalena, Susan Gerlovina, Nicole Turturro

So Why Study Overcrowding in Housing and Education?

It’s no secret that NYC has a ridiculous number of people. Subways are tight; housing is hard to find; and schools are packed. Housing and education are linked: much research has been put into studying the correlation between unstable home environments and performance in schools. When we attended the Sunset Park Community Board meeting, the Committees on Housing and Education shared the same message: Sunset Park is too crowded. As an extreme example, Sunset Park illustrates the issue of too many people in a small space evident throughout NYC.


A Brief History Of Sunset Park

The development of Sunset is most easily understood through the way in which local industries have shifted and how the immigrant population has changed in response to these shifts.

Early 1600s: Native Americans create settlements in what will one day become Sunset Park. Dutch settlers initiate trade between these two communities. As more settlers arrive, the proximity to the river and agricultural community make the area prosperous.

1664: English settlers immigrate into the area. The settlement is still predominantly Dutch.

Early 1800s: Coach lines are constructed in 1825, initiating urbanization. Slaves are granted freedom in 1827. The local language shifts from Dutch to English.

1834-1850s: Brooklyn is established as a city. Urbanization plans, including factories and car lines, are put in place. Irish immigrants flood into the region due to the potato famine, establishing truly residential communities in Sunset Park.

Late 1800s: Trains are installed, vastly improving transit. This, and the industrial boom, catalyses a surge in population growth. Polish and Norwegian immigrants increase the population from from 9,500 to 31,000. The Poles worked as factory workers and groundskeepers at Greenwood Cemetery; the Norwegians were shipbuilders, which was essential to the port development.

Until the Great Depression, Sunset Park grew into a bustling neighborhood. Italian and Finnish immigrants created cultural enclaves and added to the residential and commercial infrastructure of the community. After the 1929 stock market crash, the community struggled in conjunction with the rest of the country. Local economy was boosted during World War 2 due to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, where materials for the war were manufactured and shipped. After the war, the local economy fell back into a slump. Road development tore the neighborhood apart. Original residents emigrated out of Brooklyn, and Latin American and Chinese American populations immigrated into Sunset Park.


The Current State of Affairs

According to the 2010 census data from the NYC Census Fact Finder, 8.175 million people are living in New York City. Slightly over 72,000 of those people are living in Sunset Park East (a region bounded by 5th Ave to the west, Ft. Hamilton Parkway to the east, Greenwood Cemetery to the north, and 65th St to the south). 54,000 are living in Sunset Park West (bounded by the New York Bay to the west, 5th Ave to the east, the Prospect Expressway to the north, and 65th St to the south). The Sunset Park neighborhood is a region is estimated to be about 2.25 square miles large, with a total population of 126,000 people. The population density of this region is therefore 56,000 people per square mile. [1] The population density of NYC is less than half of this number. By these numbers, Sunset Park is terrifyingly dense.

Despite the above-average population density of Sunset Park, their available housing is a mere fraction of the NYC total. At 38,000 available housing units (including vacant units, which is only about 5% of the total) to service the neighborhood population, the average household size in Sunset Park is 3 people. In-depth analysis of the statistic indicates that the percentage of five person or larger households in Sunset Park is notably larger than the NYC percentage. [2] This discrepancy implies that there is not enough housing to accommodate the region, and that existing units are overcrowded.

The NYC Department of Education School Search website lists 5 total schools in the Sunset Park region. Only one of these is a high school. 34,000 children under the age of 18 live in Sunset Park. Even if the age breakdown were interspersed evenly, that would still account for 5 schools catering to 6,800 students apiece. The high school alone would service over 8,000 students. Classrooms are stuffed as tightly as they are able, but the inevitable overspill of students is forced to leave their neighborhood to attend school.

  1. Other sources, such as the City-Data website (, measure Sunset Park as the region between 2nd and 7th Ave, with an area of 1.6 square miles, and a total population of 85,000. The population density is about the same, at 53,000 people per square mile.
  2. The NYC Census Fact Finder has statistics from 1-person to 7-person-or-more households. Sunset Park, relative to NYC, has fewer 1- and 2-person households; about the same percentage of 3-person households; and a higher percentage of 5- or higher person households. In the Sunset Park East region alone, 7-person or higher households make up about 10% of all households, compared to NYC’s 3% statistic.


Current Policies and Movements

Despite the growing severity of overcrowding in both the houses and schools of Sunset Park, there are surprisingly few official government actions being planned to help alleviate the issue. Additionally, the small handful of official laws being passed are not likely to have a substantial impact on the community. Governor Cuomo passed a law in August of last year which will require the School Construction Authority to begin collecting population data which will help the government effectively open up more school seats where necessary. Unfortunately, this new law does not target Sunset Park directly; rather, it lumps it in with other communities like Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, and Williamsburg. Comptroller Scott Stringer is also skeptical that this legislation will be helpful to any of these communities, stating that previously collected analytics have been lacking in “statistical [and] documentary evidence.” [1] If the additional data collected under this new policy is similarly lacking, it will be next to useless.

Because so little is being done by the government to combat overcrowding in Sunset Park, many community activists have taken up the charge on several fronts. Official “statements of needs,” submitted by community boards, indicate that the demand for education is far greater than that which the community can currently fulfill. [2] Protests are being held out in the streets of Sunset Park by residents who are fed up with the insignificant motions being made by the government. [3] While these two actions primarily help raise awareness for the issue, there are also organizations like the Fifth Avenue Committee that are taking real action to solve the problem. The Committee has recently proposed a plan to renovate a local library and build 54 affordable apartments over the building. [4] Once construction on this project is completed, the increased availability of both venues for living and learning will be an important step forward in the process of fixing overcrowding in Sunset Park.



Who Benefits from Overcrowding?

Even though overcrowding is thought to be negative overall, some positive aspects do arise in addressing the issue. A neighborhood nonprofit organization and the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee are working to preserve historic buildings in the area. Earlier this year, the committee submitted a “Request for Evaluation” to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to plead its case for 15 blocks of housing. [1] Preserving these buildings would save the community’s economic, social and cultural diversity from being destroyed and turned into larger developments. Furthermore, according to the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee, Sunset Park has been re-zoned, meaning that taller buildings can be built on 4th Avenue and more stories added to preexisting buildings. A new school has been proposed to be built on 3rd Avenue to combat overcrowding in schools. Because of Sunset Park’s overcrowding, the community can push for preservation and efficient development. [2]

On the other hand, overcrowding benefits capitalists. Landlords and tenants have divided small apartments to fit double the number of occupants. [3] Those living in the apartments are more able to afford rent; the landlord gets more money for a smaller space. This is common in Sunset Park, but also in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and the Highbridge Bronx. [4] However, many landlords are simply trying to push out the current low class tenants. This will catalyze renovation and gentrification of the neighborhood, bringing higher-income residents to Sunset Park and more wealth to landlords.



Who Loses Over Overcrowding?

Overcrowded housing in New York City affects people of low income and minorities, especially the African American and Latino communities. Many working class families are forced to live with relatives or friends because of the lack of affordable housing. Doubling up means parents are left without privacy, and children can more readily transmit illnesses to one another. [1] This instability is detrimental to children’s education. The New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students (NYS-TEACHS) advocates for the implementation of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that “entitles children who are homeless or experiencing instability with their housing to a free, appropriate public education, and requires schools to remove barriers to their enrollment, attendance, and success in school.”  NYS-TEACHS considers living in a doubled up apartment to fall into the category of “experiencing instability with their housing.” [2]

In Sunset Park, more than 35% of residents live in doubled up apartments. Community Board 7 requested funding for affordable two- and three-bedroom apartments to be built; most doubled-up units are families. Most of the larger apartments that could house families are set up for market rate or are luxury apartments, leaving a very small number of affordable family apartments for the poor. Lack of inclusionary zoning on 4th and 7th Ave left many families homeless, forcing them to double up with other families in the neighborhood. [3]

Overcrowding affects children throughout New York City’s public school system. One-third of the city’s public schools are overcrowded. Unlike overcrowding in housing, overcrowding in schools impacts people of all races and income levels that attend public schools. Even notably wealthy areas like Williamsburg, Tribeca, and Park Slope are affected.[4] Not only does the situation affect students, but also teachers.  The United Federation of Teachers, a trade union, focuses on advocating for better work environments.[5]  The federation often partners up with Class Size Matters, a nonprofit organization that advocates for smaller class sizes in general and fights against classroom overcrowding.[6] Both groups brought a lawsuit against the federal government to fight overcrowding in New York City schools.[5]

In Sunset Park, most students come from poor or immigrant families. The neighborhood needs about 1,900 school seats and is in desperate need of more primary schools.[3] A perfect example of overcrowding in Sunset Park schools is P.S. 169. This school is 46% Asian and 47% Latino. 42% of the students are English language learners. Although P.S. 169 meets the average city size for a kindergarten class, the fifth grade class size is well above the average.[7] Overcrowding in schools is a major issue for Community Board 7; the Committee of Education is currently getting approval for a new school on 3rd Avenue, but it is uncertain how much this school will alleviate the problem.


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