Williamsburg Affordable Housing Plan Halted


The planned Broadway Triangle affordable housing project was designed to be full of multi-room apartments in buildings no higher than eight stories — perfect for chasidic families with many children, who can’t use an elevator on Shabbat or holidays.

So perfect, in fact, that a state judge has sided with plaintiffs in a bitter lawsuit claiming the project is discriminatory by design, meant to favor Orthodox applicants, though the surrounding area is heavily black and Latino.

In granting a preliminary injunction against the construction on 31 acres of city-owned land, planned since 2006, Justice Emily Jane Goodman voiced concern that two nonprofits selected in a no-bid process to develop the housing did not demonstrate due diligence in analyzing the impact of their plans.

The plaintiffs claimed a variety of factors, including the physical design, amounted to a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, state and city human rights laws, and the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The first phase of the project would create 181 units, with about 43 percent designated for affordable housing, subsidized by the city and state.

“There can be no compliance with the Fair Housing Act where defendants never analyzed the impact of the community preference,” Goodman wrote in her decision last month, which became public last week.

The ruling has exposed anew the long-simmering rift in the city’s fabric, despite years of negotiation by City Hall, when it comes to scarce public housing in overcrowded Williamsburg, and a perception that Orthodox Jews are favored over other groups because of their ability to turn out in large numbers for candidates.

Nonsense, says Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the United Jewish Organizations, the chasidic social service umbrella group, which was developing the project on city-owned land, along with another nonprofit, Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council.

He says the idea that including multi-room apartments was meant to favor chasidim is off base, because Hispanics, who also have a large presence in Williamsburg and surrounding areas, also tend to have large families.

“If you look at real statistics, the number is even higher than that of the Jewish community,” he said.

To back up his claim, the rabbi points to 2000 U.S. Census data for New York City showing 31,515 Spanish-speaking families reporting seven or more people in their household, compared with 25,915 for English-speaking families and 4,435 for Yiddish-speaking families. The largest share of those Spanish-speaking families, 6,025, reported income of under $20,000 in 1999, the data said. Of Yiddish-speaking families, 1,715 fell into that income category.

A demographic analyst working for the plaintiffs, however, Lance Freeman of Columbia University, testified that in the districts qualifying for the project, 90,000 blacks and Hispanics needed small apartments, compared with only 9,000 whites and/or Yiddish speakers who needed large apartments, the New York Times reported. That made the focus on large apartments out of character with the area, plaintiffs said.

At the heart of Goodman’s ruling was a vote by the City Council to rezone the property from industrial to residential. The two nonprofit sponsors then, in keeping with procedure, designated a preference for the majority of the units, selecting Community Board 1, which includes Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and not the adjacent Community Board 3, which includes Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Martin Needleman of New York Legal Services Corporation, one of the groups in the coalition of plaintiffs against the project, noted that the area served by Community Board 3 is over 75 percent black. “So when these decisions were made the city consciously avoided giving preference to CB3,” he said.

He added that the developers declined to consider making the buildings taller than eight stories, even if a stipulation was made to give chasidic Jews preference for lower floors, suggesting an intention to keep others out. “There was no reason not to let them build up,” he said.

But City Councilman Steven Levin, a Democrat who represents the area, said in a statement that the project was “in line with CB1’s continued commitment to down-zoning,” or smaller developments rather than high-rises that would add to the area’s density.

“Like all re-zonings, the city’s proposal went through the uniform land use review procedure (ULURP), which allows for ample public input,” Levin said in the statement. “Elected officials throughout the city have typically supported community preference as a result of the public input period. The Broadway Triangle is an important area in my district and while I respect the court, this decision is very disappointing not only to me, but to all Williamsburg residents who are desperate for affordable housing in the neighborhood.”

Goodman is retiring this month and the case has been handed to a new judge, Shlomo Hagler. The city and the defendants are debating whether to appeal the ruling or to allow the case to go to trial, said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, citing conversations with those involved.

The partnership of UJO and the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council is a powerful one, joining the chasidic community with a former rival, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who founded the latter group. When Lopez needed chasidic support to become Brooklyn’s Democratic chairman in 2006, the two groups buried the hatchet, to the relief of the Bloomberg administration, which no longer had to choose between their interests, observers say.

“This was an example of the city bringing into partnership the UJO and Assemblyman Lopez, which is really a turnabout from a lot of the fighting that went on over the past 20 years,” said Pollock.

He said the JCRC disagrees with the ruling. “Our reading of the fact pattern and the evidence presented and the history of the deal leads us to a different conclusion than the judge,” said Pollock.

Rabbi Niederman on Monday said the ruling, rather than the development plan itself, would cause tensions. “It’s like saying if you have a small family you deserve housing, if you have large families you don’t deserve affordable housing. Your place is then where? In a shelter? Is that the message we want?”

He said there was an “anti-Semitic undertone by some groups who have tried for years and continue to pit one poor community against another poor community.”

The coalition against the Broadway Triangle development, however, includes two Jewish groups, the Central Jewish Council and UJCare. Both groups are tied to Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the elder of two feuding heirs to the Satmar rabbinic dynasty. The UJO is tied to younger brother Zalman and to non-Satmar Orthodox.

Gary Schlesinger, director of UJCare, said the city’s power of eminent domain to create the development would displace several businesses owned by members of the Aaron Teitelbaum faction, while few of the factions members, if any, would get apartments.

“Why should we let Rabbi Niederman and Vito Lopez condemn [the businesses] for a development that is politically motivated? It makes no sense. We represent more than half the Jewish population of Williamsburg.”