Habitat for Humanity Taps New Strategies to Keep Housing Affordable in Brooklyn

CEO of Habitat for Humanity New York City Karen Haycox. Photo via habitatnyc

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Once affordable, always affordable. That’s the new mantra of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

In July, the agency awarded $1.65 million to create and expand community land trusts across the city, a method of keeping housing affordable permanently through a nonprofit organization that owns land and oversees homes on it. (The homes can be rentals or occupant-owned houses or apartments.)

Habitat for Humanity, which creates owned housing for low-income families through sweat equity, is one of the awardees of the program. Since 1984, they have created hundreds of homes for low-income families in Brooklyn. They’ve previously used community land trusts in East Harlem and Suffolk County but not Brooklyn.

Brownstoner spoke to Karen Haycox, CEO of Habitat for Humanity New York City, and Matthew Dunbar, vice president of Government Relations and Advocacy for Habitat NYC, to talk about community land trusts, creating a more equal New York, and what Habitat for Humanity has planned in Brooklyn.

Haycox has been involved with Habitat for Humanity for nearly two decades, and she offered her take on what the new initiatives could provide for Brooklyn families.

Brownstoner: How will this new initiative and community land trust grant affect Brooklyn and Brooklyn residents in need of affordable housing?

Haycox: I think the easiest way to summarize why it’s an approach we’re keenly interested in is that we work so hard to put affordable housing in all five boroughs. These units can be lost within a generation without a plan — we want to build and provide affordable housing that’ll be affordable for generations rather than one at a time. It’s about serving families today and stabilizing neighborhoods in the future. Community land trusts allow people to have a stake in their community by owning a piece of it.

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Volunteers at a project on Dean Street, Brooklyn. Photo via Habitat for Humanity

What do you think about the housing challenges facing Brooklyn? Are there any solutions in sight?

Dunbar: Brooklyn has faced skyrocketing housing prices, and one problem is lack of home ownership chances for lower income families. HFHNYC is attempting to build these opportunities, but the problem is that even if you have access to buy your own place, the purchase prices are out of reach for too many families. The CLT will keep purchase prices low for families to be able to buy their houses for many generations. The CLT will create an alternative market that’s more equitable across the city.

The Nehemiah Houses have been widely praised as examples of successful affordable housing in Brooklyn. Is this model still workable in Brooklyn today? Can we take away any lessons from these developments?

Dunbar: There are benefits to all types of organizations, but we’ve made a value call as to what we’re going to do. For us, we look at the homes we’ve built in Bed Stuy and Ocean Hill, and we know those homes have certain restrictions that discourage flipping, but that only lasts a certain number of years. We’re changing from a recapture model to a resale restriction model to ensure that community investment in these homes is maintained over the years. Their value to the community balances out the limits to the wealth building model in home buying in the borough.

Haycox: It’s fair to say that we all adapt to different situations. As the complexities of affordable housing changes, it’s incumbent on us to change along with it. As things have changed, we’ve gotten more sophisticated to try to retain the assets we build for the future. We believe that home ownership should be available to everyone. I think we need to build a New York City for the future.

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Habitat for Humanity project at 402 Halsey Street. Photo by Christopher Bride for PropertyShark

What are your plans for CLT housing in Brooklyn?

Haycox: We’re looking at our pipeline and a few of our community land trust projects are in Brooklyn. We’ll have more details on that in the months to come. We have a few projects in development that we want to incorporate under CLT — one project we’re talking about is Habitat Passage in East New York. We’re also looking at a small co-op in Bed Stuy. We’ve been awarded some lots from HPD and all of those lots are candidates for the CLT program. Right now there’s 60 units in the Habitat pipeline that we want to work with the city to get on the CLT. The specifics are coming over the next few months.

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Model for the SEED project, co-operative apartments in Brownsville. Photo via Habitat for Humanity

Can you give us an update on what Habitat for Humanity is doing in Brooklyn?

Haycox: We are nearing completion on a project in Ocean Hill at 203 Mother Gaston Boulevard, and we’re aiming to have those 15 families at home for the holidays. We’re about 95 percent complete on that project. We also just broke ground on a 25-unit project called Seed, located at the intersection of Park Place and Thomas S. Boyland Street in Brownsville.

Dunbar: Over half of all the units we’ve built to date are in Brooklyn. Particularly in Bed Stuy, Ocean Hill and Brownsville.

Could the CLT model be applied to affordable artist housing or retail?

Haycox: There’s an opportunity city-wide for this to happen. If they fit in the income criteria, we’re always happy to work with interested parties.

Where do you see affordable housing in Brooklyn five to 10 years in the future?

Haycox: We don’t see the affordability crisis going away. We think there should be room at the table for home ownership for everyone. That’s the Brooklyn we’re committed to building. Homeownership preserves the culture and fabric of what Brooklyn is.

Dunbar: To build an equitable city, we need to make sure that low-income families have chances to build equity.

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