“It’s not going to be easy because some of these banks have a different conception of what is right and wrong than you and I,” said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries to the crowd at the Pratt Institute’s Higgins Hall on January 27. “They want to take taxpayer money, but not return any money to the taxpayer. They want to benefit from the public, without making sure the public benefits.”
The crowd of residents, reverends and local school children was listening intently to the popular assemblyman’s State of the District address, a few hours before the president gave his own big speech. In his third edition of a speech almost unheard of on a district level, Assemblyman Jeffries took on the federal government, the banking and real estate industries and the criminal justice system.
“I will not let them get away with turning their backs on our community,” he said a few lines later. Assemblyman Jeffries was talking about the lenders whom he called a special interest in part responsible for saturating the 57th district, and others, with luxury properties.
“Over the last decade we’ve been victimized by the irrational exuberance of a housing market that has spiraled out of control, fueled by greed and driven by abusive landlords, brokers and developers. One of the consequences of this irrational exuberance is the fact that our community has been flooded with luxury condominium, after luxury condominium, after luxury condominium.”
After conducting a block by block survey of his district last summer, the assemblyman’s office identified 66 such properties, now in need of reduced or refinanced loans in order to make them affordable going forward.
“You and I know, Rev. Trufant, they weren’t built for us,” he added, name dropping the popular reverend from nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church, “They weren’t built for working families, they weren’t built for artists, they weren’t built for the middle class, they weren’t built for senior citizens. Some of these apartments have asking prices in excess of one million dollars. They weren’t built for us.
“But then the economy collapsed. And now, many of these luxury condominium buildings are sitting empty, collecting dust. I’m not mad at it. The lord works in mysterious ways.”
The assemblyman recounted a meeting with the CEO of the New York State Affordable Housing Corporation, which ended with an allocation of $5 million to make such luxury housing affordable. He says his legislation called Project Reclaim, which incentivizes loan restructuring and encourages new affordable housing developers to take over distressed buildings, now has the support of the state’s leadership.
“Even the White House has responded,” he claimed. He told reporters later, however, “Patrick Gaspard is the person who I had the initial dialogue with to ask him to identify somebody within the Department of Housing and Urban Development who can be the key person there on enforcement.”
He added, Kirsten Gillibrand has spoken with the city’s former head of Housing, Preservation and Development, Shaun Donovan, who is now the president’s secretary at HUD, about it, too.
In a related matter, Assemblyman Jeffries pointed to Section 3 of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 which, “ensure(s) that when employment or contracting opportunities are generated because a covered project or activity necessitates the employment of additional persons or the awarding of contracts for work, preference must be given to low- and very low-income persons or business concerns residing in the community where the project is located.”
“Now, I don’t know why there was a failure to enforce Section 3 in the past,” the assemblyman said, “but there’s a new sheriff in town now.”
“I’ve asked the federal government to make sure that when stimulus money is allocated to this community, that it actually be used to stimulate the economy in this community. Section 3 full employment initiative is designed to breathe life into the promise of economic justice contained in the 1968 HUD act so that the dream so eloquently articlated by Dr. King might one day become a reality in our community.”
The assemblyman pointed to a comprehensive job training program he is working on as well as a partnership with the Downtown Brooklyn business community to identify neighborhood jobs for local residents. And, he said, if the city’s housing authority fails to comply with Section 3 when $108 million federal stimulus dollars flood into the city, he is prepared to take them to court.
Residents of the district are also still smarting from the death of local resident Shem Walker, on the steps of his mother’s house in Clinton Hill and allegedly by an undercover police officer “who mistook him for a criminal” just a few hundred yards from Pratt. The district attorney’s office is still investigating the matter, so there is no further information about the incident available at this time.
“We need bold dramatic legislative reform of the criminal justice system, we need to make sure we have a a permanent independent prosecutor in instances of police brutality, because the relationship between the police and the district attorney is too close – that is the reason there is a failure to prosecute officers, like the one who shot Omar Edwards in the back,” said Mr. Jeffries. (Edwards was a police officer from Crown Heights, shot by another, white officer who mistook him for a criminal near the Harlem precinct where he worked.)
“There will be some good days and there will be some bad days, but through it all we will persevere,” Assemblyman Jeffries said in conclusion. “Though the housing crisis we will persevere, through the unfairness of the criminal justice we will persevere, through the rough economy we will persevere, we will keep looking forward, we will never look back, we will climb the mountain top and we will rise.”