Worn by housing crisis, Flatbush residents seek grim hope at the polls

Many voters believe that high rent leads to increased homelessness, long work schedules, and crime in Flatbush.

On the afternoon of the midterm elections, voters in Brooklyn’s Flatbush community declared that soaring crime, a lack of youth programs, job shortages, and support for Democrats brought them to the polls. Yet for many, one overriding issue looms over, and even causes, all others: “Rent is too damn high!”

“It’s a 360 degree circle,” said Suzette Boozer, a Flatbush resident of more than 35 years. “People can’t pay. So homeowners are moving into apartments. People in apartments are going to the shelters. Then there’s no room, so people in the shelters are on the streets. We get more crime and more robbery, because people just need that money. It’s a crisis.”

While gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan only gained 1 percent of New Yorkers’ votes on his “Rent Is Too Damn High” platform, the sentiment was echoed by several members of the largely African-Caribbean community, who steadily arrived to vote at the P6 public elementary school off of Flatbush and Snyder Avenues. “Rent is the main thing,” Boozer said. “It’s killing us, and it’s not worth it. Everybody’s worried and in over their head,”

Brooklyn has the highest amount of foreclosure activity in the state, according to RealtyTrac, a database with statistics on national foreclosure, auction, and bank-owned homes. Brooklyn sees 16.8 percent of all of New York state’s foreclosure activity, compared to Manhattan’s 2 percent. In September of 2010, 1 in every 1,565 housing units in Brooklyn received a default, foreclosure auction, or bank repossession notice, pushing more people into apartments and shelters. Brent Meltzer, Co-Director of the Housing Unit of South Brooklyn Legal Services, which works to find solutions for renters in non-payment status, said the firm has had to turn away potential clients this fall due to quantity.

Voters say that many residents in Flatbush face direct consequences of unaffordable housing, either being evicted or downsized to smaller apartments by landlords that want terminate rent control for long-term tenants, or working long hours to pay lofty rent. Cecilia Williams, originally from Trinidad, now struggles to pay for her one-bedroom apartment in the area, which she shares with three sons who regularly visit from college and boarding school. “When my son comes home from boarding school, he asks, ‘Where am I going to sleep, mom? On the couch or on the street,” said Williams. “I’m divorced, so I have no second help or second income other than mine. I’m single, and I’ve had a hard time. I’m voting because I’m asking them for help. I pay my rent, but I need help in getting low income housing.”

Foreclosure activity in Brooklyn (yellow), compared to the Bronx (red) and Manhattan (blue), November 2009-September 2010.

Williams voted for Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who she believes supports working families, and who won the Senate race with 61 percent of the vote. Several other voters expressed support for gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, Democrat and former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary, who addressed the state’s housing needs at City Hall last week by calling for expanded finance for building affordable housing and avoiding foreclosures. He did not address preservation of current housing or tenant protection. Cuomo beat Republican opponent Carl Paladino, who scarcely mentioned housing in his campaign, with 61 percent of the vote.

“Cuomo has been a very good guy on the issue,” Boozer said. “I think he could make some changes. He’s aligned himself properly on the issue and made an effort for the community. We need people who can stand out on the issue, not just talk.”

Yet Boozer, like numerous other voters, said she thought most of the rhetoric is “just talk,” and expressed serious doubt that the election would foster any concrete change on the housing crisis in Flatbush. While she would like to see policy cater to the working class and ensure that rent is stabilized, she said that politicians are only visible during elections and will disappear by Thanksgiving. “All the people we’re voting for today only come out for the election, not for our rights,” she said. “After today it will only be political issues, not the neighborhood. All that voting, and we’ll still be invisible.”

Flatbush residents will see come January.