senior housing
Photo credit: ECCC Media

Rising rents in Flatbush and East Flatbush have made it difficult for many tenants, including Haitian seniors on a fixed income, to maintain a decent quality of life in the neighborhood. 

Gastonac Morette, a congregation member at the Evangelical Crusade of Fishers of Men church on East 31st Street, described the hardships faced by a friend, who is in her 50s. 

“She struggled to pay over $1,000 for a studio (apartment), it’s very expensive,” said Morette, who is in her 60s. 

Morette said that Haitian seniors in the community, many of whom live in one-bedroom apartments, face high living expenses overall. Large bills for things like gas and electricity add to the cost of rent, she added. 

To solve the affordable housing challenges seniors in the community face, the Haitian-led Evangelical Crusade church is coordinating a $45 million initiative to build a seven-story, 89-unit affordable senior housing development at 1488 New York Avenue, in East Flatbush. 

When the building is finished, likely by early next year, potential tenants can apply through New York City’s Housing Connect website. Units will be available to New York City seniors ages 62 and older making less than 50% of the area median income (AMI). The need for affordable housing in central Brooklyn continues to outstrip supply, and Haitians in the community face potential barriers in the application process. 

Rev. Dr. Samuel Nicolas, the pastor at Evangelical Crusade church, said there is not enough affordable senior housing in the community.

“When we talked about this about 12 years ago, we talked about doing something for the seniors. Something for that population that nobody is catering to. Everybody’s doing things for people 25 to 55, but the elderly population is, you know, they are falling through the cracks,” he said. 

Evangelical Crusade owned the land at 1488 New York Avenue from 1977-2017 but now holds services at 557 E. 31st St. The church invested $1.9 million of the money it made from the land sale in 2017 back into the housing development. 

It has assembled a diverse group of partners for the faith-based project. The office of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Councilman Jumaane Williams had contributed $1 million and $500,000, respectively, as of early 2019. Other funding came from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and Bank of America financing programs. The office of Farah Louis, who represents New York City’s 45th city council district, did not return a request for comment. 

According to Nicolas, elected officials on both sides of the political aisle have been supportive of the project. While the development is currently under construction, with scaffolding erected at the site, it took the church 12 years to get to this point. The application process through HPD was competitive, and the church had to select a developer and an architect. It also took some time to build support in the community. 

“Even after we tried two years ago, we did not make it in the first round, we were wait-listed,” Nicolas said. 

“And we’ve been having issues with other folks, community folks, trying to build this up because … African Americans, Haitians, they do not (typically) build affordable housing. This is not something that we do, that the community does. We’ve had a lot of backlash, we’ve had a lot of people trying to stop the project,” he added.

Evangelical Crusade church negotiated to make sure it had naming rights. The housing development will be called the Bishop Philius and Helen Nicolas Senior Residence. 

The Bishop Philius and Helen Nicolas Senior Residence under construction. (Photo courtesy of ECCC Media)

“It is being named for my mother and for my father. They founded the church, they founded the church 47 years ago, and it is because (of) that church property (that) they were able to do the senior affordable residential apartments,” Nicolas added. 

Haitian architect and Flatbush resident Rodney Leon, of Rodney Leon Architects, provided architectural consulting, along with Heritage Architecture. African American-owned Brisa Builders, based in Flatbush, and BEL Community Housing Associates, have worked to construct the building. 

Leon, who was raised by immigrant parents in Flatbush, said working on the project has been a transformative experience. 

“I’m able to participate in establishing an institution here that would benefit their generation as well as future generations and provide much needed affordable housing that would allow a lot of people who have been here for a long time to hopefully stay in the community,” he said. 

Economic development along the Flatbush Avenue corridor has brought an influx of higher-income younger people and upscale services to the community. But this, in turn, has impacted cost of living, as developers seek to buy up one- and two-family houses and transform them into buildings with more rental units. These units usually sell at the market rate. 

“That’s causing anxiety among people who remember a less dense neighborhood,” Leon said. 

According to Leon, the New York Avenue development gives seniors the ability to maintain their social connections and way of life, at an affordable cost. Churches (including Evangelical Crusade), medical services and grocery stores are well within walking distance. 

Plans for the mixed-use development also include a community center, laundry room, common-area space and a medical suite that would provide geriatric care. 

Addressing affordability

Community members and activists have consistently highlighted the need for more affordable housing in Brooklyn and throughout New York City. Anthony Beckford, a member of the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, takes issue with the narrative pushed by city officials and developers. 

He said the AMI set by the city is too high and that the median income in the immediate neighborhood is much lower ‒ less than $32,000, by his estimate. The area median income for a single individual, according to the city, is $74,100. New York City determines this amount by factoring in incomes from wealthier, surrounding areas that include Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. 

Census data from 2018 for Senate District 21, which encompasses Flatbush, East Flatbush and other nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods, shows a per capita income of $36,426. 

When asked about the incomes of most Haitian seniors, Morette said they are “definitely below” the median for the neighborhood. 

Beckford said that local seniors, many of whom are on a fixed income from social security or disability, face ever-rising rents, landlord manipulation and property neglect. On top of housing, seniors also have to pay for transportation and food costs. 

“AMI is part of it, and the fact that there isn’t enough services to help offset (living) cost,” Beckford said, regarding the barriers to housing affordability. 

He called for more housing subsidies for seniors and neighborhood-wide rent rollbacks. 

“The language of affordable housing is not something that reflects the need of the community,” said the 38-year-old Beckford. 

Based on its income guidelines, Rachel Dure, a program manager who handles supportive housing for the Haitian-American Community Coalition (HCC), said the senior housing development at 1488 New York Avenue does represent an affordable option for community members. Dure helps clients in Brooklyn, many of whom are seniors, find affordable housing and navigate the health care system. 

If Housing Connect accepts a low-income senior’s application to live in the complex, the would-be tenant can go through the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) to receive help covering living costs. HRA would pay 70% of rental costs, if the tenant is receiving public benefits. Dure said the difficult part of this application process ‒ which often requires multiple interviews ‒ is the language barrier, as many Haitians in the community speak limited English. 

“They may know a little bit of English … but if you start going into income details, you’ve lost them,” Dure said about some of the Haitian clients she has worked with. 

While Dure sees many community members applying to live at the development in order to remain in the neighborhood and maintain their social ties, there will be plenty of competition for the available units. 

“I think everything in New York City right now is very competitive, and housing is on the top of the list,” Dure added. 

Any city resident who meets the criteria can enter a lottery to live in the Bishop Philius and Helen Nicolas Senior Residence. Evangelical Crusade church has been especially proactive about sharing information with residents in the Flatbush area. A community information session scheduled for March, however, was canceled due to coronavirus. 

“We’ve been passing information to the community boards, church members, community members, in terms of when it will be available. We were not able to have the (March) community session because COVID-19 shut down everything,” Nicolas also said.

The economic shutdown prompted by the spread of coronavirus has also delayed the anticipated completion date of the project, which was originally intended to be completed by the end of the year. While affordable housing construction was deemed essential, some manufacturers could not make deliveries to the construction site. 

HPD and the project’s other financers have provided an extension to February 2021, without penalty, Nicolas confirmed. 

According to Leon, housing tax credits for developers and the availability of housing subsidies for seniors provided by the city combine to make the development project on New York Avenue affordable. 

The Bishop Philius and Helen Nicolas Senior Residence will be located near the corner of Farragut Road and New York Avenue. (Photo courtesy of ECCC Media)

The project is being developed under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program ‒ which requires developers to provide affordable housing in rezoned areas ‒ and the Senior Affordable Rental Apartments (SARA) program. In addition to providing low-interest loans to support construction, the latter program requires that 30% of units be set aside for homeless seniors referred by the city or state. 

Kuza Woodard, director of development at Brisa Builders, said that “no tenant will pay more than 30 percent of their household income toward rent.”

While the housing needs in the community are great, Leon said the development will provide some relief for seniors who may be struggling with housing costs. 

“What we’re trying to do, since this is an area that’s changing rapidly, is provide an alternative to the free-market housing that’s out there,” he said. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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