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Pol Fights for 'Illegal' Polish-Specific Affordable Housing in Greenpoint

By Meredith Hoffman | September 17, 2013 8:33am
 Greenpoint's dwindling Polish population is mobilizing to fight for affordable housing.
Greenpoint Polish Petition
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GREENPOINT — A petition for Polish-specific affordable housing in Greenpoint's proposed waterfront towers has earned nearly 250 signatures since its creation this weekend — but the document's "discriminatory" demands violate multiple city laws, officials said.

Local politician Chris Olechowski started the petition, which demands that apartments be set aside for Polish residents in future developments Greenpoint Landing and 77 Commercial Street.

He said the petition's intent was to prevent further displacement of Greenpoint's longtime Polish community, which used to dominate the neighborhood but has "lost its footing" with rising rents and gentrification.

But a New York City Commission of Human Rights spokeswoman said it was illegal to have a quota system in housing based on ethnicity, according to the New York City Human Rights Law.

And real estate lawyer Craig Delsack said setting aside units for any ethnicity would violate the nation's Fair Housing Act (also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968), which prohibits discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex or national origin."

"The general rule is housing can't be discriminatory based on attributes people can't change," Delsack said.

But when Olechowski, North Brooklyn's 50th District Leader and a longtime local activist, was told Polish-specific housing would be illegal, he said he would still continue to circulate the petition.

"You know what? Change the laws, because nobody came along and said there were rules and regulations that would allow people to stay in place in their homes in the Polish community here," Olechowski said. "Nobody's regulated the rents in this community. Market-rate rents are legal but they're affecting peoples lives."

The petition — which has been reprinted in Polish newspapers, Olechowski said — demands "that the quota for Polish residents qualifying for affordable housing be set in accordance with the percentage of the Polish population that has traditionally resided in Greenpoint." Olechowski said he had not yet determined the exact number of units they would demand.

Olechowski — who plans to present demands to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's office in a public hearing on the developments and then to the City Council when it votes on the towers — said the Polish community "deserves consideration and special consideration given the fact it’s been here all these years."

"I don’t think there's anything wrong with asking for it," Olechowski said of the Polish-specific units. "What we’re doing is what we think is fair for our community... Our community is being disintegrated."

Olechowski, who is working with the local nonprofit the Pulaski Association of Business and Professional Men in circulating the petition, said the guaranteed units for Polish residents were crucial since the waterfront development might force out those remaining in the neighborhood by driving up real estate prices even further.

One of those vulnerable residents is Valentina Jakowiuk, a petition signer who said she's waited six years for local affordable housing and has spent the past several months fighting eviction by her landlord.

Since the 78-year-old speaks only Polish and relies on Polish-speaking doctors, Jakowiuk is not sure where else she could live in New York.

"I want to stay here...All my doctors are in Greenpoint," Jakowiuk, who lives alone and has chronic medical issues, said in Polish through a translator. "I would love to have an apartment I could live in here."

Olechowski said Jakowiuk and many others, particularly Polish senior citizens, had "nowhere else to go," and that the problem would spiral out of control with the new development.

"We're talking about 10,000 new residents coming in and they'll economically overwhelm the community," Olechowski said. "Change is inevitable but we want it to be an interplay of old and new, a tapestry. That's what New York is."

But Delsack maintained that just because Poles were experiencing the brunt of Greenpoint's gentrification didn't mean they were entitled to special treatment.

"Income is colorblind," Delsack said of provisions for low-income housing. "The landlord cannot discriminate based on protected class."

A spokesman for the Brooklyn borough president's office said it was too soon to comment on the petition's request.

“It would be premature for the borough president to make a public comment on...proceedings until his public hearing has concluded," said the spokesman, Stefan Ringel. "As always, he welcomes all residents to continue to weigh in, either by attending the hearing or submitting comment directly to his office.”

A representative for the developers of Greenpoint Landing referred questions to the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and a representative for 77 Commercial Street did not return emails requesting comment.

A spokesman for the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development would not comment on the specific case, but said that the petition's demands seemed to call for illegal action.

"In general, setting aside housing for specific ethnic groups would probably be per se discriminatory," the spokesman said, "and likely in violation of numerous federal, state and local discrimination and fair housing laws."

The public hearing on the developments will be held Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Borough Hall.