Housing Tensions Brewing
05/24/02
Staff Writer
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Months after a chasidic organization won control of a sprawling new housing development in Williamsburg, in a deal completed in the final hours of the Giuliani administration, a rival Hispanic group is stepping up efforts to get a piece of the action. Hispanic leaders say the deal to develop the former Schaefer Brewery site leaves them with no input over who will benefit from one of the largest allocations of low-income housing in the overcrowded area. But the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, which won the site control, insists the new units will be distributed fairly. "This could be very volatile," said David Pagan, administrator of Los Sures, the Hispanic housing advocacy group. "The project was done in an area thatís primarily Hispanic but without input from the Hispanic community." The executive director of UJO, Rabbi David Niederman, responds that Los Sures has had control of other projects that affected the chasidim and his organization raised no objection. "To say that you can trust one community but not trust the Jewish community to do a fair project is outrageous and does not smell right," said the rabbi. The Schaefer Development was the first order of business on the agenda of a recent community action meeting called by area Assemblyman Vito Lopez and City Council member Diana Reyna. The May 9 meeting focused on the future of Williamsburg's South Side; Los Sures means the south. The brewery brouhaha is the latest chapter in a saga of housing strife that continues despite a memorandum of understanding between Jewish and Hispanic leaders in 1997 to work together on housing projects. In recent weeks, leaders of Los Sures and the area's Hispanic congresswoman, Nydia Velazquez, have complained publicly of the "influence" of Jewish landlords and the re-zoning of land for residential use that has, they say, created new housing mostly for chasidim. At the same time, a string of fires in adjacent Bedford-Stuyvesant, at properties that have recently changed ownership, have prompted suspicion that landlords are seeking to empty the buildings in anticipation of zoning changes that will allow steeper rents. But the fuss over the Schaefer Development comes as a surprise to the former Williamsburg city councilman who pressed for the UJO sponsorship of the site. "I'm kind of shocked that Los Sures would surface in this kind of power play," said Ken Fisher, now an attorney in private practice. "They have traditionally had nothing to do with that corner of Williamsburg. It is racially integrated but a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Los Sures had always claimed other parts of Williamsburg as their catchment area." The 170,000-square-foot site overlooking the East River is to include two 25-story towers with 350 apartments, 140 of which will be set aside for low-income housing for which a large share of the chasidic and Hispanic communities qualify. Most of the brewery, abandoned since 1976, was razed in 1999. The remaining building, which still sports a bas-relief of a hand holding a beer mug, now houses the Zafir Jewish Center for Special Education, a chasidic school. The UJO's interest in the site goes back at least five years, and a deal was struck with the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development in October 2000. But the zoning change was not approved by the City Council until last December. Apparently unwilling to leave the project in the hands of the next administration, officials under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani hurriedly completed the deal on Dec. 31, Giuliani's last day in office. Under the agreement, Kent Waterfront Associates won the property for about $9 million, roughly 60 percent its market value, in exchange for the agreement to reserve a substantial number of apartments for low-income rentals rather than co-ops. One of the partners in Kent Waterfront Associates is Joseph Spitzer, a key Giuliani supporter and ally. Spitzer was a regular presence at Giulianiís City Hall and was awarded control of millions of dollars worth of real estate under the former mayor. Knowledgeable sources said that Kent Waterfront was not the UJO's first choice, but no other developer was willing to allow as many low-income units. Under similar agreements, the ratio of market share to low-income units is often 80-20 or lower, the sources said. Some say Los Sures and others are revisiting the brewery fray now because Mayor Michael Bloomberg has shown a willingness to undo Giuliani deals, particularly those completed at the 11th hour. He also owes his election to a strong Latino turnout. Others said Assemblyman Lopez was pushing for a role in the development. He did not return calls Tuesday. But it's clear UJO was not given preference over Los Sures. According to Housing Preservation and Development, UJO was the only group to ask for control of the site. Neither Bloomberg's press office nor the HPD would comment on the Los Sures effort to undo the brewery deal. An HPD spokeswoman said only that no formal plan to market the apartments had been presented. "When the developer presents a plan to us, we'll evaluate it," said Carol Abrams. City Councilman David Yassky, who succeeded Fisher, said he could not assess the feasibility of reopening the brewery deal. "You never know," he said. "The important thing is that the site gets developed as quickly as possible for people who live there. Both chasidim and Latinos are desperate [for housing] and in the end this project will serve both communities. It's not a question of either-or. The UJO is ready to go on the site and in a position to go forward." Pagan of Los Sures said another development, on Driggs Street, which was run by Los Sures ended up with 51 percent of vacancies filled by chasidim. "There was an open process and everyone had an opportunity," he said. "We just feel that on this one we were excluded." Martin Needelman of Brooklyn Legal Services, a tenant advocacy group, agreed with Pagan's account and said that when UJO has been the sole marketer of a development the available houses have gone "overwhelmingly" to chasidim. "That's been the case in at least five or six that I'm aware of," he said. "That's as opposed to cases when Los Sures is the sole sponsor or when they market together. Then it's always been equitable." Rabbi Niederman said HPD would be closely supervising the process of renting the apartments, which would be subject to a lottery. "They will be making sure that when the lottery is opened there are logs published to ensure we are following all guidelines," said the rabbi.

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