By Michael Hollingsworth
I glance over at my clock and it reads 4:50. I’ve spent the majority of my day struggling to breathe as my body and lungs try to recover from almost a month’s long battle with COVID-19. My morning started before dawn. I toss and turn in bed trying to find a comfortable position that might hopefully allow me to breathe and grab a few hours of sleep to give my body and mind the rest that it desperately needs. When that fails I decide to get up and start my day.
As I sit on the edge of my bed I look down and can see what I already felt: my chest unnaturally expanding in and out. I then prepare myself for what I know is going to be another miserable day. I pop a couple of Tylenol hoping to ease the pressure that has been building in the back of my head and force myself to eat a banana even though I haven’t had much of an appetite since I got sick.
After reading and returning some emails I talk to a neighbor, who along with her husband is also struggling with COVID-19. We talk about our symptoms and experiences, the lack of information about this virus, and wonder about the long term effects COVID-19 might have on our bodies and our community. Shortly after that call, I receive a text from another neighbor and friend who along with his spouse is also recovering from COVID-19. He tells me about a new testing center that has just opened in Brooklyn. I dial the number, fill out the intake form, and they promise that someone from the Department of Health will reach out to me soon.
When I hang up the phone I sit at my desk and think about all the things that have been weighing heavily on my mind these past few weeks. My health, work, rent, utilities, the well-being of friends and neighbors, and my inability to physically contribute to my community in the way that I’ve become accustomed to. But I take some solace in knowing that at least soon I might be able to get some relief, and the burdens that have been weighing on me as of late might be lessened. One less thing to stress about would surely help my mental and physical recovery. But opportunists/profiteers are always on the prowl.
What makes this day even more painful and infuriating than the difficult days that preceded it is that I see that I have received an email from Oksana Wright. Ms. Wright is an attorney from the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP which represents the developer CP VI Crown Heights LLC, in our ongoing Franklin Ave. rezoning court case. For those of you not familiar with our history please see our explainer. Ms. Wright in part wrote:
Since the Governor’s Executive Order 202.6 considers affordable housing construction to be essential, we respectfully write the Court to seek guidance on whether this urgent matter could be further adjudicated by the Court via a pending or a separate application. We would also appreciate any guidance with respect to any currently planned changes to the Court’s operations that would allow this motion to proceed in the near future.
We hope you are safe during this difficult time.
Ms. Wright is using this as justification and claiming that the “affordable” housing they want to build is essential for our community. The same community they have never visited, which they admitted in court. The same court where NYS Supreme Court Judge Johnny Lee Baynes served before he died of COVID-19. Justice Baynes determined a year ago that this project (including the unaffordable housing that it promises) should be put on hold until a determination was made regarding its legality.
We’ve spent the better part of that year watching these developers break the Temporary Restraining Order, get caught, and then attempt to use the Court of Appeals to override the TRO, fail, break the TRO again, get caught, be ordered to restore the site to its previous state, and then use the Court of Appeals to have that order stayed. These lawless developers and their legion of lawyers have now aimed their disrespect away from our predominantly Black community and aimed it at the rulings of two Black judges. These men, like our neighborhood, have been mocked, ignored, and disrespected.
Why would a community want to welcome criminals who have already broken the law multiple times before they’ve even poured the concrete foundation of their destructive project? Nothing has changed about the case itself or the supposedly “essential” nature of Cornell Realty’s proposed project. The only thing that has changed is that there are fewer and fewer of us left every day to keep fighting.
The developers have already stated they are going to only provide 140 “affordable” units for people whose income would have to be 60% of Area Median Income (about $60,000), thus creating rent-burdened apartments in our community, whose AMI is $40,000. To add insult to injury, they chose an MIH (Mandatory Inclusionary Housing) option in which 25% of the units are supposed to be affordable, which should be 202 out of the 803 total residential units, so their plans to build only 140 will short change the community by 62 “affordable” units!
This offensively unaffordable project will speed up the cycle of secondary displacement that has already begun. For example, my building sits next to the lot that Ms. Wright’s employer seeks to colonize. Three years ago, as the Franklin Avenue rezoning began to work its way through the ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process, my landlord Joel Weiner and Pinnacle Group, perhaps speculating on the future of the neighborhood, set in motion a plan to convert my building from an 84-unit rent-stabilized building into luxury condos.
In the cold winter of January 2017, Mr. Weiner (who is one of the worst evictors in Brooklyn) denied my pregnant neighbor’s request to be added to the lease of the apartment she had shared with her roommate for years. Mr. Weiner’s conversion campaign also drove away my friends Jennie and Ben; in November 2017, after living here for a decade, they decided to move away instead of living through years of construction and uncertainty.
My current neighbor Margaret, after living here for almost two decades, has been given until July of 2020 (when COVID-19 is likely to still be raging) to vacate her apartment. Furthermore, when developers and landlords speculate and bring in new luxury housing the damage isn’t just contained to the block where the new luxury units will be built: two blocks away Shalom Drizin of Fieldbridge Associates, owner of Ebbets Field, has filed more than 1,800 eviction cases between 2014 and 2016 and is one of the worst evictors in Crown Heights. We are living proof that building luxury units in low-income neighborhoods has a ripple effect.
At a time when we’re under attack from a new invisible enemy, the old one rears its venomous self-serving head, looking to opportunistically strike during our moment of crisis, when the courts are mostly closed, and when we’re too busy fighting for our lives to devote the necessary attention to scrutinizing land use battles. There is a reason why the city put land-use procedures on pause during this crisis, and it is precisely the pandemic profiteering that Cornell Realty Management LLC is attempting to carry out behind our beleaguered backs.
I’ve long since dispensed with the idea that these soulless developers or those they employ care about anything other than money. Their unfettered capitalism, endless greed, callous nature, and disrespect for our community knows no bounds. While the bodies of our seniors are literally piling up they’re focused on colonizing.
Brooklyn has 31,279 confirmed cases and 2,811 deaths so far and they’re focused on colonizing. While black and brown people are dying at a higher rate than every other ethnic group in this city they’re focused on colonizing. They have no decency. They won’t even give us a moment to come to grips with the damage this pandemic has inflicted on our neighbors and community before they resume pouncing on us like a ravenous pack of jackals, lips still stained with blood and flesh stuck between their teeth from their last two feedings.
Ms. Wright has a perverse definition of “essential.” In her email, she claimed that her client’s desired economic activities were “essential,” meaning that the restrictions that apply to everyone else in the pandemic should not apply to her client. But what’s truly essential is giving my community a chance to deal with this current pandemic. The nurses, the home health attendants, and the MTA workers who live in my building and neighborhood who are risking their health and lives every day are essential.
The 99 cent store and the pharmacy on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Carroll Street (which wouldn’t be there today if Cornell Realty Management LLC had immediately gotten its way) literally saved two of my friends’ lives over the past few weeks as they both battled COVID-19; these local businesses are essential. My neighbors who made Crown Heights a community long before it became trendy are essential. Access to affordable health care is essential. Increasing the number of condos and luxury (or “market-rate”) apartments in Southern Crown Heights is NOT essential.
There are a lot of similarities between developers and COVID-19. They both lack compassion and have disproportionately ravaged black and brown communities in New York City. COVID-19 invades our bodies and then uses its self-replication machinery to destroy us from within. Developers and their agents invade our neighborhoods and then use our own elected officials, police, governmental agencies and courts to displace, disfranchise and destroy us from within.
COVID-19 wants our bodies and in too many cases our lives, and these developers and their agents want our land. Their goals are the same – to use us for their own benefit – and their endgame is the same – to extinguish our existence.
Michael Hollingsworth represents the Organizing Committee, Crown Heights Tenant Union. Hollingsworth is one of the parties that filed and is pursuing a lawsuit against the real estate industry for development along the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Michael has been battling for his life for over a month (COVID-19) and just had a relapse after writing this article. We are gravely concerned about his well being and we ask everyone to say a prayer for his recovery.