Opinion: Elizabeth Street Garden Should Be Used For Affordable Housing

elizabeth street garden

A few blocks to the west of our normal coverage area, a battle has been raging over the future of the Elizabeth Street Garden. City Council member Margaret Chin and city housing officials want to use the publicly owned parcel for new residential housing for seniors. Community Board 2 and a coalition of community groups are fighting to move the redevelopment plan elsewhere, arguing that the green space is desperately needed. The city is seeking $6 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC) for the project. There was a passionate debate about the proposal at a recent LMDC hearing. The following opinion article was written by K Webster, a Little Italy resident. The Lo-Down welcomes submissions on this or any neighborhood-relevant topic from people with differing points of view. Submissions should be sent to tips@thelodownny.com.

Notes on behalf of affordable housing on Elizabeth Street

There is little in the way of… awareness of problems which… affect the excluded … This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power… are far removed from the poor… a true ecological approach always… must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment. – Pope Francis

As a whole, Community Board 2 is financially well-off.

We are 72% white.

This Council District has the second best park access in the entire City, according to New Yorkers for Parks.

Gardens nearby: Liz Christy, LaGuardia, M’Finda Kalunga, Hua Mei Bird, Elizabeth Hubbard, Horticultural Society/Emma Lazarus and Forsyth Conservancy.  Many of us who live in Little Italy work these gardens. I’ve helped build and organize in all the SDR Park gardens.

This project would be 100% permanently affordable senior housing – 50% going to CB2 seniors.

The Special Little Italy Historic District would require any building to have a set-aside for open space.

Building senior (any) affordable housing takes fierce political will, city-owned land, services and facilities required by elders, and time. Even if such sites were found, it requires years of political and inter-agency wrangling.

One in five seniors are poor and are a growing demographic; senior housing wait lists can be up to 10 years, NYC has 57,000 homeless people, 24,000 of them children. This school district has over 3,000 children living in shelter.

A CB2 member noted the Mayor’s affordable housing plan means each community board’s shared responsibility would be 3,389 units.

Manhattan’s asking rents are creating segregated neighborhoods – luxury building has meant increased pressures on low income rentals. 91,000 people applied for 235 subsidized units on 42nd Street today.

If the city blinks on this, and doesn’t build in wealthier neighborhoods, how does it ask already majority low-income communities to share ‘open’ spaces?

Elders sort through garbage and cart enormous bags of recyclable bottles to defray rent here. Scores of homeless people sleep on both sides of the Bowery.

Two years ago, learning this site would become affordable housing, the leasee invited the public into its manicured lawns. This has been a showroom for a lucrative trade in artifacts scavenged from the demolitions of historic buildings. It’s rented out for ad launches, movie shoots, and fashion shows.

Many people came to the LMDC hearing. The two overflow rooms were fairly equally filled with advocates for both – though many of the Chinese elders did not speak. In this entire debate, there is little acknowledgement of just how intimidating it can be to speak in such venues – due to language, economic class, custom, and/or racism. It can skew results and make our neighbors invisible. No matter anyone’s intention.

In this traditionally low-income neighborhood, the influx of wealthier residents continues. Older, less affluent, often immigrant residents are at risk, along with small businesses that serve them.

We have to look at the impacts of racism. No one wants this scourge, but it requires us to look squarely at the outcomes of decisions we make. A recent study by Stanford University examined white racism. They found that too often we whites deny the existence of our own racial privilege and “use hardship claims to deny personally benefitting from [it].” All of us whites have to grapple with the fact of privilege whether we ‘want’ that privilege or not.

At the LMDC hearing, a CB2 member and affordable housing supporter was booed, another CB2 member was asked not to speak for housing, an older man was heckled at a CB2 meeting and left the hall. Comments have been written questioning the ‘right’ of Chinese elders to weigh in who were supportive of housing (though Little Italy, according to the census, is now majority Asian heritage) and code phrases used liked “bussed in” to describe a van that picked up seniors at a downtown senior center (with no apparent awareness of that phrases’ history).

The site has a host of supporters who want this to be a garden and have worked hard for the past two years to see that it was opened and programmed. They use the site as their political base. They have fluent English speakers. They have a professional PR campaign – power point presentations and videos (one with a celebrity buyer of a $3 million condo), a community board chair who also serves on the board of the garden group, along with a former board chair of the Municipal Art Society. A requested NY Times op-ed was written, and it has The Villager’s op-ed support and favorable reporting.

The site has a host of supporters who would welcome this housing as an anchor of affordability in our neighborhood. We have the City Council Member and HPD actively working to create affordable housing here. A number of advocates for the aging and low-income elders who live in unregulated apartments agree, including many immigrant Chinese elders and there was a favorable  DNAinfo article.

For some, this housing will come too late: the evicted elder from the Italian Museum, the grandmother whose granddaughter felt she died of loneliness in a wheelchair in a third floor walk-up, and others.

The environmental justice movement works hard to counter the perception that the environmental movement is concerned more with plants than people.

Some historic preservationists understand, too. Others appear to expend more energy on preserving buildings than the people in them.

Both movements are important for our quality of life – neither is more important than people.

Wanting to share our neighborhood with low-income seniors is not an act of self-sacrifice, but a way to act, not just talk, against the separations that no human wants. Saying “we are for affordable housing – just not here” is inauspicious for any community’s long-term life. It turns our backs on those in greater need when we have, as a community, so much.

Gabriel Byrne, in a pro-garden video said, “How we look after the vulnerable… these are the marks of what it means to be a compassionate society,” and he spoke of the need for a “spiritual life” in a community.

Therefore I conclude with Pope Francis:

At times we see an obsession with denying any pre-eminence to the human person; more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the dignity which all human beings share in equal measure. We should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst… to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out… Saint Francis … shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

The garden group was asked to share this space. They would lose a lot of garden and that is hard – but they would gain neighbors and a united community.

8 comments to Opinion: Elizabeth Street Garden Should Be Used For Affordable Housing

  • david

    Keep the park, turn Bourdain’s food pier into homes for the homeless.

  • Tony

    OK, your opinion was thoroughly convincing.
    Can’t believe I am saying this but I now believe that these sites are prime for affordable housing development:
    Liz Christy
    LaGuardia
    M’Finda Kalunga
    Hua Mei Bird
    Elizabeth Hubbard
    Horticultural Society/Emma Lazarus and Forsyth Conservancy
    And parts of SDR park/gardens
    Should be able to build at least a few hundred affordable units with some set aside for seniors. This will allow CB3 to fulfill its share of units.
    Affordable housing is more important at this point. Like one of the seniors remarked, “..I like gardens but I can’t sleep in one at night..”

  • Joseph Hanania

    I love this park, in a crowded neighborhood underserved by green spaces. And, per a recent NYT story, there is another, larger site for affordable housing with more units on the West side, near Houston St. The argument against that site is that the housing will be further from the residents’ relatives in Chinatown. So the argument comes down to travel convenience for residents, vs. more green space for all of us. Put me down for more green space.

  • RoBow

    Oh my, there is sooo very much about this article that is incorrect. Can’t tell if it’s by lack of knowledge or flat out lying, but wow, it’s amazing.

    Having attended the LMDC hearing, the description of it is far from what went down. The pro housing people were all in groups as if brought in by the council member. Just watching them you didn’t get the sense that they knew why they were there. Probably a language issue, but it just felt icky. The pro-park people were at least twice the pro-housing groups and spread throughout the overflow rooms. Also, after I signed in outside, I was told there were too many people, and that I could go home because signing in was enough. I didn’t, but I’m sure many pro park people did because of the long wait to get in.

    I’m all for housing the poor elderly, who isn’t, but I can’t see this area as being any help for them. It’s so expensive. It seems wrong to give them a place to live in an area where they can’t afford the price of groceries or services? We’ll make them chose between eating and medicine, because they can’t afford NoLiTa (ugh) prices? With the financial changes here over the past 5 years, which even challenge me, it just doesn’t make sense. Why would we confine older people to live only in doors or risk blowing their budget?

    The one thing I never read about when this issue comes up is the financial details: how much can your income be and still qualify to live here? I hear it’s in excess of $100,000. If built, poor people are never going to live in this building. The property values are too great for the math to work. I hope someone with the facts will prove me wrong, but it hasn’t happened yet. If the math were in this writer’s favor, the number$ most certainly would have been included.

    I prefer the park, because there is so little green space west of Bowery and south of Houston St. And I don’t even need to play in it — just being able to walk past it and benefit for the fresh air and
    open space is invaluable. Just to see some sky and feel a breeze is enough. It never needed to be turned into a park for it to be a great open space for an area with so little of it, but a future park, run by
    the Parks Dept, would be even mo’ better.

    It’s just unfortunate that our govt has pitted park advocates and housing advocates against each other by wrongly making this lot a part of SPURA. SPURA is no where near this park! That’s where poor elderly housing was supposed to be built. That was the plan, and there’s more than enough space. But, our council member cut a deal with Bloomberg, and now we all suffer, fighting each other over a tiny plot of land when so much exists in the SPURA area. And with so many org’s, Warhol Museum, etc., ditching the SPURA plan, there is now the space there to really build this housing. This housing should be built, and it’s time to take it back to the original plan in SPURA.

  • Ela Thier

    Thank you for the courage and compassion that it took to write this. It’s quaint and lovely to have a green space in a bustling concrete jungle, but at what price? At what price do we settle for charming little comforts over human caring? As a white, middle class person, I’ve been coerced into numbness and I appreciate the reminder to reject it. I’d rather feel the devastation of poverty and homelessness, and feel connected to human beings, than settle for the isolation that comes with the ice castles that we can afford – even the green ones.

    This article is such a refreshing (and upsetting!) reminder that we don’t need to settle for numbness. Living in a white, middle class bubble is at the root of the loneliness, depression and self-hate that we all know too well. We can refuse it and work together towards a richer life than that – one of generosity, compassion and awareness.

    The manicured outdoor showroom is not there for the love of nature. It’s not OK to dress up a materialistic desire with pseudo-environmentalism. This garden is used for commercial gain, and it comes at the cost of us being human. As the author points out, there are over half a dozen parks in the neighborhood (real green spaces – not commercial spaces that include grass as part of the “hip” display.)

    Thank you for the hopeful reminder that poverty and homelessness is a devastation to all of us. “we are for affordable housing – and ESPECIALLY here”.

  • Ela Thier

    Thank you for the courage and compassion that it took to write this. It’s quaint and lovely to have a green space in a bustling concrete jungle, but at what price? At what price do we settle for charming little comforts over human caring? As a white, middle class person, I’ve been coerced into numbness and I appreciate the reminder to reject it. I’d rather feel the devastation of poverty and homelessness, and feel connected to human beings, than settle for the isolation that comes with the ice castles that we can afford – even the green ones.

    This article is such a refreshing (and upsetting!) reminder that we don’t need to settle for numbness. Living in a white, middle class bubble is at the root of the loneliness, depression and self-hate that most of us know too well – and have been asked to get used to. We can refuse it and work together towards a richer life than that – one of generosity, compassion and awareness.

    The manicured outdoor showroom is not there for the love of nature. It’s not ok to dress up a materialistic desire with faux-environmentalism. This garden is used for commercial gain, and it comes at the cost of us being human. As the author points out, there are over half a dozen parks in the neighborhood (real green spaces – not commercial showrooms that include grass as part of the “hip” display.)

    Thank you for the hopeful reminder that poverty is a devastation to all of us. “we are for affordable housing – and ESPECIALLY here”.

  • RoBow

    “This garden is used for commercial gain” Well, that’s just no longer factually true.

    “real green spaces” — nothing in Sara Roosevelt Park has green grass and most trees don’t even have any green on them.

    Very kind words, but it’s a much more complicated issue.

  • Bowerygals

    Author response:
    The garden project was begun only after learning the lot was slated, imminently, for affordable housing.

    Re: proposing other gardens be razed for housing: The rational for blocking affordable housing has been “we have no green space nearby.” We do. I wasn’t sure if nearby gardens were simply unknown to those who made that claim.

    Conversely, those of us with housing could give up our buildings to create a garden space?

    Re: No greenery in SDR Park? M’Finda Kalunga, Elizabeth Hubbard (and Liz Christy on Houston) are lush. The other gardens are in stages of being of becoming greener – which takes a lot of work. Community gardens get built – not usually found. Btw many gardens don’t grow grass – requires too much water, power mowing creates emissions, etc.

    Elizabeth Street history isn’t comparable to Liz Christy, MKGarden, Garden of Eden, or Forsyth Garden Conservancy – all built around the late 70’s and early 80’s (when even Parks Department wouldn’t go into SDR Park). That was an era of greed-induced, orchestrated and literal destruction of the LES. These Gardens were wrested from drug dealers, landlord torched buildings, and pimps at great personal risk
    and with grueling labor. This site hasn’t earned that comparison.

    Re: “no longer for commercial gain”: other than September 2014’s lucrative fashion event, there is the leasee’s astute and ongoing use as showroom for the expensive wares of the artifact store.

    I’ve added a photo of affordable advocates in one of the two overflow rooms (below). I tried to address access and democracy issues above.

    I do wonder why the motives of the Chinese elders are questionable, but not other’s motives? No real estate interests here on behalf of this amenity? Issues of informed consent concern me most when children are drawn into political battles with little chance of hearing opposing views.

    Nationally $1,328 is the average social security check. Over one third of seniors rely on it for all of their income. That’s $15,936 a year. Hence bottle collectors. I think they really would like affordable housing.

    As to comparative stats between CB’s on: racial diversity, median income and affordable housing units – read the Furman report.

    For a look at this particular neighborhood’s affordable housing losses: http://gothamist.com/2015/07/15/rent_stabilized_map_nyc.php

    And from Property Shark: home price increases:
    http://www.propertyshark.com/mason/ny/New-York-City/Maps?map=nyc2&x=0.6209523809523809&y=0.48547619047619045&zoom=2&basemap=gentrification&star=1&tab=themes&ll=40.7198405825243,-73.8889649816725

    Appreciate the concern re: seniors not being able to afford their newly expensive neighborhood, but they already live here. People shop in Chinatown – which is very nearby and very inexpensive. I think CB2 elders would prefer to live in their neighborhood as they age in place. Aging is tough enough without being shipped out?

    The ‘alternative site’ offered (when, who, how?) is in a high traffic, high-rise luxury residential and office area (with no grocery stores – not even high end ones). I looked.

    Re: “I hear” the affordable housing will be for incomes in excess of $100,000 –please site source?

    Government didn’t ‘pit us against one another’ we are living in a time of vast income inequality driven by unchecked market forces– that’s the issue.

    From “The Dream Revisited” – Furman Center.
    “NYC remains firmly segregated. We’ve seen the smallest declines in segregation of any big city in the U.S. and we’re second-highest in racial segregation. Economic segregation is growing, with fewer mixed-income neighborhoods, and more very wealthy and very poor ones. … New York’s schools are the most racially segregated in the country…
    gentrification compels government action in order to make sure more residents benefit…“ – Brad Landers

    “…patterns concentrate wealth, human and social capital, and political influence in places far from the poor, and increasingly far from the middle class as well. As a result, any self-interested investment the rich make
    in their own communities has little chance of “spilling over” to benefit middle- and low-income families…” Sean F. Reardon, Kendra Bischoff

    “..the segregation of the past can endure into the future simply by the actions of “rational” individuals pursuing their self-interest with slightly biased perceptions driven by implicit associations we aren’t even aware of…” Kang.

    “…Two simple, but important, differences are scale and political power. Accordingly, when “gentrification” begins—when outsiders with more capital move into neighborhoods their ilk once abandoned–the current residents have to counter the political might of the extant middle and upper class of the city…” Rachel D.
    Godsil