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Williamsburg Affordable Housing Debate Reveals Neighborhood's Ethnic Divide

By Gwynne Hogan | June 15, 2017 12:25pm
 The development would include some affordable housing and public green space.
The development would include some affordable housing and public green space.
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Department of City Planning

WILLIAMSBURG —  Deep-seated racial and ethnic tensions among Jewish and Latino communities who straddle two sides of the Broadway Triangle area resurfaced this week over a massive 1,146-unit apartment complex slated for South Williamsburg.

Leaders from the Latino community have expressed concerned that the apartment layouts in the Rabsky Group's sprawling eight-building project — which includes 287 units of subsidized housing — are slated to be built with multi-bedroom units that they say favor the Hasidic population and perpetuate segregation in the neighborhood.

Robert Solano, a Latino Williamsburg resident and head of Churches United for Fair Housing, cautioned members of Community Board 1 at Tuesday night's meeting that backing the project at 200 Harrison Ave. would mean an "expansion of the Jewish community."

 The Rabsky group's plans to rezone an area within the Broadway Triangle are entering the formal rezoning process.
The Rabsky group's plans to rezone an area within the Broadway Triangle are entering the formal rezoning process.
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Department of City Planning

Solano said Rabsky hasn't yet provided a committed breakdown of how big apartments in the complex will be. Attorneys for the developer said only that they won't build studio apartments or large five or six-bedrooms. 

But they could still build a large portion of four-bedroom apartments which would give large Hasidic families in the area an advantage over blacks and Latinos who typically have smaller family sizes, Solano said.

"How many four-bedrooms?" Solano said. "That within itself will then determine the diversity of the project."

Jewish Orthodox representatives rankled at what they called anti-Semitic comments.

"People are ready to hurt their own constituency, depriving them of affordable housing that hasn't been built just because [the developer] is Jewish," said Rabbi David Niederman, head of United Jewish Organizations, an umbrella coalition of Orthodox religious groups in Williamsburg. "It's perceived that it's a Jewish project because it has a Jewish devleoper."

"This is a project that is going to be [a place] where African Americans, Latinos live next door to each other in wonderful relationships," Niederman said.

Orthodox Jewish Community Board member Simon Weiss called opponents to the Rabsky Group's plan "anti-Semitic and discriminatory."

"Such a thing would fit in 1938 Germany," he said. "They had a propaganda minister who kept on repeating lies and lies and lies and lies [about the Jewish community]. That's what's happening now. They're repeating these lies and lies and lies."

The contentious debate Tuesday at the public meeting where the community board approved the proposal for redevelopment of 200 Harrison Ave. with the support 25 members against opposition from 15, revealed deep-seated rifts between Jewish and Latino communities located on all sides of the Broadway Triangle region, an area bound by Broadway, Flushing Avenue and Union Avenue on the border with Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Some privately-owned and city-owned properties within the Broadway Triangle area were rezoned for residential development in 2009, but housing advocates and community groups promptly sued the city arguing the rezoning violated fair housing laws because large apartments in low-rise buildings would unfairly cater to Orthodox Jewish Williamsburg residents.

While the pending lawsuit has left city-owned land, which was supposed to house affordable apartments, languishing for nearly a decade, private developers have built around 1,000 units of housing, most of which has gone to the Jewish community.

"It's a segregated rezoning. The city has participated in creating a segregated community through rezoning. How is that right?" Solano said. "I walk through the Broadway Triangle rezoning [every day]. Don’t tell me it's inclusive."

Solano, along with local City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who represents the area directly across from Broadway Triangle, and other community groups who've opposed the project for months and shut down a public meeting about it last fall, fear that rezoning yet another property in that area would continue to divide the neighborhood.

On Tuesday night, Reynoso urged community board members to vote against the project, which has pitted him Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents Broadway Triangle and argues the area direly needs more affordable housing.

"We get too bogged down in that zero-sum mentality that everybody loses," Levin said, following the board's vote. "There has not been any affordable housing built south of Broadway [in Community Board 1] in probably over a decade."

The CB's role is advisory in the city's Land Use rezoning process and its ruling will pass onto the Borough President's office, where a public hearing will be held on Monday, July 10.