BROOKLYN — Over a decade ago, Myrtle Avenue in Fort Greene was often referred to as “Murder Avenue.” The street was filled with boarded up storefronts and its sidewalks littered with drug needles.
Today there are small boutiques and high-end diners along the thoroughfare — just some of the many signs that demonstrate how the neighborhood has joined the ranks of the economically resurgent “new Brooklyn.”
With the improvement in the quality of life in the 35th district — which includes Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and parts of Prospect Heights, Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant — has come an affordable housing crisis that the next City Council member will be challenged to tackle. The most recent data available from New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy indicates the rents increased nearly 26 percent between 2006 and 2009 in neighborhoods including Fort Greene.
A flood of money from real estate and developer interests into the 35th district Council race has highlighted the importance of housing to the district and stirred up tensions between at least two of the frontrunners for the seat being vacated by Letitia “Tish” James, who is running for public advocate.
The candidates for the 35th district include City Council staffer Ede Fox; Jelani Mashariki, the director of Pamoja House Men’s Shelter in Bedford-Stuyvesant; Laurie Cumbo, the founder of the Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts; attorney Richard Hurley; and former district leader Olanike Alabi.
In interviews with the candidates, who are all Democrats, they agreed that housing is the priority for the next Council member. While some acknowledged it would be an uphill battle for affordability because housing policy is mostly done at the state level, some said there were ways of working around the government.
“There are areas in this district that [are] currently zoned [for] manufacturing where we can rezone the area and create mixed-use zoning, and allow for light manufacturing,” said Fox, 42, who has worked in the City Council since 1996, first for Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito in East Harlem and, later, for Councilman Jumaane Williams in Flatbush.
She said that by rezoning the community can allocate affordable housing, office space and market-rate housing. She also criticized her opponent and fellow frontrunner, Cumbo, for accepting money from the real estate industry.
Cumbo received the endorsement of Jobs4NY, a political action committee backed by real estate developers, investment firms and insurance companies. As a PAC it is allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns without the candidate’s knowledge, which gives certain candidates a financial edge. In Cumbo’s case, the group paid for slick mailers promoting her candidacy. Cumbo has also received endorsements from many major unions including the Working Families Party and the United Federation of Teachers.
After getting bashed for the Jobs4NY endorsement, Cumbo said in an email to voters in the district that she said she wouldn’t accept any more money from the PAC because she believes in a “system that allows candidates to have an even playing field.”
“That is why I have officially and respectfully asked JOBS NY to immediately discontinue spending any independent funds in support of my campaign,” Cumbo said in an email.
Fox called that a campaign tactic. “After receiving ten of thousands of dollars from Jobs for New York for glossy slick brochures claiming her as their candidate, Ms. Cumbo now wants to disavow any association with them. It's just too little too late,” Fox said in an email. “People won't be fooled by this about-face! It's nothing more than a typical two-faced political ploy.”
Cumbo, who founded MoCADA as well as some after-school programs around the city, said she did not have a particular policy surrounding affordable housing, but did say she would “stabilize existing programs.”
“Put serious resources into not-for-profit agencies such as CAMBA and Pratt Area Community Council,” said the 38-year-old candidate, who previously lived in Prospect Lefferts Gardens at her parents’ house outside of the district until moving into the district to Clinton Hill in May. “Make sure that tenants are aware of the challenges that landlords are putting before them.”
Mashariki has lived in the district all his life and has seen friends displaced because of rent increases. He said the problem has many levels and to put policies in place he wants to work with people in different levels of government as well as developers.
“If there is development there needs to be mandatory inclusionary zoning,” said Mashariki, 38, who has struggled to gain any union endorsements. “Also what we can do is try to work with our state officials to let get us get home rule in NYC to be able to deal with our rent regulations, which is very important.”
A report released on Friday by City Councilman Brad Lander and the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development criticized the city’s voluntary inclusionary zoning program for not creating enough affordable units — less than 2 percent of all apartments developed in the city since 2005.
Hurley, who has practiced criminal and civil law since 1994 and got his start at the Queens district attorney’s office, said “affordable housing is a joke.” Instead, he said he plans to spend his time talking about low-income housing. But he gave credit to Mashariki’s idea.
“Mashariki has a plan that I think is good — zoning in the building,” Hurley, 52, said. “These floors are for low-income, these floors are for affordable housing and the rest could be luxurious housing, but there has to be inclusion here.”
The candidates have participated in over a half dozen forums to communicate policies they want to put in place to deal with the affordable housing crisis. But at least one resident takes issue with the candidates’ lack of sufficient policy on fixing the housing problem.
“They did not give real, direct substantive answers,” said Tyree Standback, president of the Residential Association of Lafayette Gardens Housing Development in Clinton Hill. “Each of them had a moment when they shined, but overall it was a poor quality of candidates on the issues.”
Alabi did not declare her candidacy until late May. She was waiting for James to officially declare her run for public advocate out of “respect to the current Council member.”
As the former district leader for the Assembly district, Alabi said she understands that the city has little control over rent rates and low-income housing. However, she said she would like to “raise the threshold for rent stabilization in apartments.”
Buildings built between February 1, 1947, and January 1, 1974, with six or more apartments and with a rent at or below $2,500 are eligible for rent stabilization. Tenants are protected from sharp rent increases under the program. Alabi doesn’t think that is enough.
“We should raise that even more,” said Alabi, who also thinks a woman’s age is private, and has received endorsements from unions including District Council 37. “I know one bedrooms in my district that are going for $3,000 and you know rent stabilization is obviously a safety net.”
Alabi, Cumbo and Fox have been leading in the money race. As of last night, Cumbo had $107,000; Alabi had $102,000; and Fox had almost $91,000. Mashariki had $4,500 and Hurley had roughly $37,000. All the candidates will receive six-to-one matched donations through the campaign finance board, and the next filing date is on August 9. The primary is on Sept. 10.