In Flatbush, affordable housing advocates, residents hope elections will bring some relief


A housing lottery for 250 Lenox Road launched in 2021. Photo by Leonardo March.

This article is the third in a series about the 2022 federal midterm and state elections, supported by the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. The first two installments looked at the Haitian-American legislative caucus in the NYS Assembly and how the caucus could change if more Haitians were elected to office. The final installment will look at outreach to help Creole-speaking residents vote successfully. 

BROOKLYN — On a regular basis, groups such as the Erasmus Neighborhood Federation in Flatbush help Haitian residents complete housing applications through Housing Connect, an online portal to find affordable apartments and homes.

In Flatbush, the median rent of a one-bedroom apartment jumped 15% over the past year to $2,350. In contrast, the median neighborhood income is $68,930, which is 5% less than the city’s median income of $72,930. This means that the average resident needs to spend nearly 40% of their monthly income on rent. 

Yves Vilus, executive director at Erasmus Neighborhood Federation, said soaring housing prices are taking a major toll on the Haitian community, particularly those whose income can’t sustain the cost of living in Flatbush.

“The phrase ‘affordable housing’ in Flatbush is a joke,” Vilus said. “Many Haitians work jobs as nursing aides or security guards, and there’s no way they can afford these apartments.”

Housing rights advocates said much of the legislation concerning housing is primarily at the state level, leaving local politicians with minimal ability to address the issue. Still, they said, housing concerns will be a key issue when voters head to the polls Nov. 8.

“Housing will absolutely be at the forefront of voters’ minds in the upcoming election,” said David Alexis, a Democratic candidate for State Senate District 21. “When it comes to the elections, it’s not only important to have folks aware of how they can use their vote, but how they can build their power to push for legislation that will improve their lives.”

Among the seats up for election that represent large Haitian communities are State Senate District 21, where incumbent Kevin Parker is running against Alexis; State Assembly District 42, where Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn runs unchallenged; and Congressional District 9, where longtime Congressmember Yvette Clarke faces off against Republican Party candidate Menachem Raitport. 

Alexis, director of Community Partnerships at The Drivers Cooperative, said it is imperative that Flatbush residents elect good leadership for their district on Nov. 8. 

“It’s incredibly important for everyone to know that when they go to the ballot box, voting is a tool to push for legislation that will improve their lives,” said Alexis. “You learn a lot when you work with people on the front lines.”

Numerous factors burden the average renter in addition to cost. Homeowner age predominantly skews older. As a result, many residents don’t know where to look for resources, particularly online, about housing protections under the law.

There is a shortage of affordable apartments in the neighborhood. According to data from NYU’s Furman Center in 2019, 57% of rental units in Flatbush were affordable according to median income rates, which was 13 percentage points lower than in 2010. In addition, none of these units were public housing rental units. 

Other groups in the community working with Haitian tenants include JCHHOMES, which helps residents with the housing application process. Nonetheless, they find it difficult to encourage Haitian residents to accept help, said representatives from JCHHOMES. 

“Haitians are very skeptical about the whole process and they’re reluctant to provide their information for the applications,” said Junie Clauther, Executive Director of JCHHOMES. “Now, we are seeing more of them opening up and trying to get those services, but it’s still a real need in the Haitian community.” 

Clauther primarily helps Haitians who are Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients. 

“I’m a home health aide on TPS and I’m making $15 an hour,” said Marie, who declined to give her last name due to her immigration status. “Housing is very expensive right now and Junie is the person I am calling for help.”

One prominent local group advocating for housing justice is the Flatbush Development Corporation, which educates tenants about their legal rights in New York State. Recently, a member of the coalition helped organize a group of 13 tenants, who were being overcharged rent, to sue their landlord. The group was awarded $50,000 in overcharges between the tenants.

Poor living conditions also remain a huge issue. 

“I was flabbergasted to see this going door-to-door,” said Casey Russell, a training and curriculum manager for the Tenant Advocate Program at FDC. “I went to one building where one side of the hallway had no electricity or gas for six months.”

What elected officials can do

Russell said the FDC has collaborated with local Haitian elected officials such as Farah Louis of City Council District 45 and said Louis has done some work with the organization, including virtual workshops such as Know Your Rights, which educates tenants about their housing protections under the law.  

However, there is only so much an elected official can do to address this issue since much of the regulations come from the state level, Russell said. 

Alexis said local elected officials have not done enough to enforce legislation through the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 and Good Cause, a bill protecting tenants from eviction. 

“We had landmark legislation passed for housing in 2019, but not enough of it has been enforced and there’s not much support,” said Alexis. “There also has not been enough education about Good Cause in this community, and that’s a major, major failure.”

In his door-to-door campaigning, Alexis says residents continually bring up housing as a top-of-mind issue. One man’s story in particular has stuck with him.

“He had lost faith in supporting elected officials, because he fought really hard to maintain his two-bedroom apartment for his family,” said Alexis. “Even though he had voted in previous elections and tried to share his concerns and frustrations, he continued to see his rent increase and [asked] me why should he even bother voting.”

Bichotte-Hermelyn has backed State Assembly bills in Emergency Rental Assistance, housing support and the eviction moratorium. 

Alexis said he would like to see her hold more town hall meetings with community members about affordable housing, as well as putting pressure on others in state government to fight for legislation concerning tenant and homeowner protections.

Louis declined to comment. Bichotte-Hermelyn did not respond to requests for comment via social media, email and phone.

This story was originally published in The Haitian Times