To Solve Housing Crisis, Build Communities First, Says Longtime East Brooklyn Priest

Nehemiah Spring Creek townhomes. Photo by Alexander Gorlin Architects via Archinect

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Rev. Edward Mason has seen many changes in Brooklyn during his 37 years in the ministry there — most recently parishioners forced to move due to rising home prices.

As pastor of a pair of congregations in Ocean Hill and Brownsville (Our Lady of Mercy and Our Lady of Presentation-Loreto), the Bushwick resident has been an advocate for his congregants, including in the realm of housing. His churches and others nearby, collectively known as East Brooklyn Congregations, are the developers of Nehemiah houses.

Photo by Sean Devlin

Rev. Edward Mason in front of Our Lady of Mercy in Brownsville. Photo by Seán Devlin

Widely considered a success, the Nehemiah program began in 1983 and has to date produced over 4,000 single-family homes purchased at below-market rates by their occupants in eastern Brooklyn.

A few years ago, the New York City native took exception to a broker calling his area Crown Heights, and defended Ocean Hill-Brownsville as a distinct community.

Currently, the church is helping tenants organize to improve their buildings and has filed several cases in housing court on behalf of tenants.

We recently caught up with Rev. Mason at Our Lady of Mercy on Mother Gaston Boulevard in Brownsville to talk about advocacy, the needs of his parishioners, and to find out what’s new.

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Our Lady of Presentation-Loreto. Photo by Cate Corcoran

Q: How have things changed here in the past 20 or so years?

A: It’s Brooklyn, New York, so change is inevitable. It’s something no one could have ever predicted at this scale. Unfortunately, many people in the parish are being pushed out. A generation of potential homeowners weren’t able to take that step because of price increases and the fact that there were no homes to be bought, and we’ve seen many parishoners who have had to leave for Queens, Long Island, and New Jersey.

Let’s also look back 20 years — Brownsville was devastated and nobody was living here. We’re surrounded by the Nehemiah Homes here, which the church has built. We were able to get the land here in East Brooklyn and we’ve built over 4,000 single family homes for moderate to low-income families here. We sold the homes for $1,000 over cost, and it worked. 45 to 50 percent of the buyers in the homes have come of out New York City housing projects, proving that some residents just needed the opportunity.

Q: What do you think Brownsville residents need?

A: I’ll give you the top five needs together – they’re all affordable housing. If you can’t afford to live here, nothing else matters. I think that’s the defining issue for East Brooklyn at this point.

brooklyn gentrification affordable housing

The interior of Our Lady of Mercy in Brownsville. Photo by Seán Devlin

Q: In regards to outside forces of gentrification, what has the reaction here been like?

A: I’ll be honest, I am amazed, impressed, and heartened by the lack of bad feelings and potential violence that has come with the newcomers. Newcomers aren’t the developers or real estate people — they’re just trying to live their lives. They’re largely living side by side with people whose lives are being changed negatively by these newcomers, mostly in peace.

My point from the beginning has been that gentrification is not a natural phenomenon. There are parts of it that happen, but much of it happens from human decision from real estate people, developers and politicians.

Q: Where do you see this process going next?

A: I think that parts of East New York and Cypress Hills will change even faster than Bushwick has. Much less of those areas is rent stabilized and protected, and there’s the J train out there. I think a number of older people who are homeowners, who might have bought a home for $75,000 decades ago, will sell and make 10 times that and live very well somewhere else.

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A street in Cypress Hills. Photo by Susan De Vries

Q: Are there any other underlying issues that you think people don’t always see?

A: I think we need to look at rebuilding the fabric of communities. We’re in a housing crisis where we’re building at all costs. We’re building in parking lots on unused NYCHA land — why not build a garden on that land? It adds to the dignity of the community, and that’s not a conversation we’re even having anymore.

Q: What role do the local parishes play to help locals find housing?

A: We try to provide resources through education and organization. However, we’re reaching out to sources of housing on our accord too. The government has ideas, not plans. I’m waiting on action steps to preserve housing.

The churches around here reach out through EBC (East Brooklyn Congregations), and we’re looking to reach out to the private sector — potentially Wall Street. They can save this city for the people who live here.

Our Lady of Presentation-Loreto. Photo by Cate Corcoran

Our Lady of Presentation-Loreto. Photo by Cate Corcoran

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

In terms of what we’re doing on the ground, we’re providing advocacy for tenants rights to try to organize buildings. We’ve brought several cases into housing court on behalf of tenants. We’re working to provide that advocacy to advise tenants of what their rights are and more.

Demographics are changing, certainly — we have 1,700 units of NYCHA housing in this parish — I believe that an important aspect of what we need to do here is advocate for the people who make up this neighborhood and want to be here. We just want to bring about good things to people who live here.

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