Opinion: Elizabeth Street Garden Should Be Used For Affordable Housing

Elizabeth Street Garden site.

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.