Housing Discrimination Continues to Plague Crown Heights

Racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination permeates every aspect of life from education to healthcare.  This article will concentrate on the discrimination found in housing in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  Housing discrimination is discrimination in the purchase or rental of housing on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, sex, etc…  It can take the form of rental discrimination, sales discrimination, discrimination in banks approving loans for mortgage, or deprivation of insurance.  There is a national law known as the Fair Housing Act which was written specifically to prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, and disability.  This federal regulation was enacted in 1968.  Yet, regardless of this law, and many other laws prohibiting discriminatory practices, the problem remains.

How does housing discrimination work?  Housing discrimination comes in three categories, exclusionary, nonexclusionary, and disparate impact.  Exclusionary discrimination actively excludes and denies access.  This form of discrimination usually occurs when renting or buying a house or apartment.  An example of an exclusionary practice is redlining, the refusal to sell minorities property in certain locations.  Nonexclusionary discrimination involves discriminatory practices within an established housing arrangement.  An example would be denial of services or taking advantage of a tenant financially.  Sometimes, policies won’t outwardly discriminate, but may have a disparate impact.  These are apparently neutral policies and practices that have a negative impact on minorities and protected groups.

Crown Heights is a neighborhood located in the central portion of Brooklyn.  According to the 2015 Department of Health Community Profile, the racial makeup of Crown Heights is 64% Black, 18% White, 12% Hispanic, 3% Asian, and 3% other. A large part of the white population is Hasidic Jews.  Key social and economic indicators are as follows: 20% of the population failed to graduate high school, 27% of the population are poverty stricken with a 12% unemployment rate, and 51% suffer from rent burden.  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, rent burden is defined a spending 30% or more of household income on rent.  These populations are vulnerable to changes in the cost of living because they cannot keep up with rising prices.

Crown Heights has most of its housing stock in brownstones with a rapidly growing condo and rental market.  A growing rental market is an indicator of gentrification because apartments are raising rent in an area already suffering from rent burden.  This of course affects the 27% of the population who are living below the poverty level.  Gentrification pushes the poor and those burdened by rent out of a neighborhood.  This is known as displacement and it often affects communities of color, which have a lower income.  Policies that were put in place to help tenants afford their homes such as rent regulation gives landlords incentive to push tenants out.  Lance Freeman states in There Goes the ‘Hood that under New York City’s rent regulation policy, when a tenant moves out, the unit is deregulated and the landlord can control the market rent.  With the growing divide between market rent and regulated rent, landlords have an incentive to push tenants out.  Sometimes landlords use a monetary incentive.  Other times, landlords harass tenants and deny services to get them to leave.  These practices are examples nonexclusionary housing discrimination.

This was the case for Lisa Mathis.  Her story is told in The New York Times article “Staying in Crown Heights, Even as It Gentrifies” by Kim Velsey.  She grew up in Crown Heights.  She attended the local school, played handball at the local park, and got her library card at Brower Park Library.  She married and left, but when her marriage failed, she returned.  Twelve years ago, she and her two children moved in with her mother in a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment.  At $1,200, the rent was steep for her.  Yet, she was able to save up for furniture to make that place a home.  She lacked a lease, but the rent never increased.  Unfortunately, her building was sold to new owners.  These new owners offered monetary incentives, buyouts, to get tenants to leave.  Those who stayed were forced to endure months of renovation done to other apartments.  Unwilling to move, she saw a lawyer who revealed that she was being charged much more for rent than legally allowed.  The situation got worse from there.  The landlord told the tenants that the central heating system would be replaced.  Yet, the tenants were forced to live months on end without heat.  Frequent gas leaks resulted in her apartment’s cooking gas and hot water being shut off.  While she was able to stay, many others were forced out.

Another article in The New York Times reveals similar mistreatment of tenants by landlords in Crown Heights and other gentrified areas.  Landlords harass tenants, deny services and maintenance, and use eviction in order to get residents to leave.  Tenants that are pushed out or displaced are forced to move to cheaper neighborhoods like East New York, or to other surrounding states.  The legal process to sue the landlords for discriminatory practices is difficult and slow.  These cases and that of Lisa Mathis are all examples of nonexclusionary discrimination.  They all involve discriminatory practices within an established housing arrangement in which services are denied and tenants are taken advantage of.  While this form of discrimination casts a wide net, those most often caught in it are low income households of color.  This form of housing discrimination is also associated with gentrification.

The situation looks bleak, but the communities and the local government are fighting discrimination and thinking of solutions.  Crown Heights residents protest the mistreatment and discriminatory practices of the landlords.  They band together to form the Crown Heights Tenant Union.  This organization uses “a collective bargaining strategy to demand both stricter enforcement of existing tenants’ rights in addition to new, stronger protections that eliminate loopholes in the law that favor landlords.”  The Bedford-Union Armory is being developed into a recreation center and apartments.  When met with concerns from the community, Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo announced that 400 apartments would be built on the site, and an increase of affordable units would rise from 99 to 250 which met the population’s needs.  Crown Heights and its formation of tenant organizations has battled the discrimination that comes with gentrification.