For 13 years the Vazquez family has watched Sunset Park change from the window of their three-bedroom apartment on 55th Street. This year, the shifting tides of New York real estate hit home.
Developer Galla Condominiums recently bought and converted to condominiums a dozen apartments in the 16-unit building at 546 55th Street where Carmen and Alex Vazquez live with their children. Each unit that goes up for sale marks one less rent-stabilized apartment in a neighborhood where such units are scarce.
As the number of rent stabilized units dwindle, long term residents find themselves living surrounded by housing that rents and sells at rates far beyond what many longtime and new immigrant residents in this working-class neighborhood can afford.
The median rent in this area of South Brooklyn is $981 per month, according to the 2006 American Community Survey for census area PUMA 4012, which includes the more affluent neighborhood of Windsor Terrace to the northeast.
Approximately 86.7 percent of renters pay $1,500 or less in monthly rent, according to the survey. This is reasonable by New York standards. Yet over half spent more than 30 percent or more of their gross income on rent. The federal government defines “affordable housing” as housing that costs less than a third of a family’s yearly earnings.
Sunset Park has no subsidized housing. Forty percent of rental units in the area are rent-regulated, compared with 45 percent citywide, said a 2008 report by NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. This means market rate units make up 41 percent of housing stock in the neighborhood, nearly double the citywide share. And the number is growing.
So rent-stabilized tenants hold on tight. The Vazquez family may by law remain in their apartment. The non-eviction plan under which their building converted to condominiums prohibits the landlord from forcing them out of their three-bedroom unit, for which they pay $960 per month.
“We’re not trying to push anybody out,” said landlord Jaime Davila. “Pay your rent, get what you are paying for—we’ll provide heat and hot water.”
Davila and his partners at Galla have, however, their sights set on the trio of three-bedrooms in the building. Though none of the tenants in these apartments have left, the Galla website advertises three bedroom properties for sale on 55th Street.
“We’re in the process now of working with some of the tenants who are going to be moving out in the next couple of weeks,” said Davila, who would not go into further detail.
Call it gentrification. Call it growth. But this South Brooklyn neighborhood that for years struggled with crime and poverty is, in the midst of a recession, attracting a new and more affluent population looking for more space, and lower prices.
On a sunny Saturday in October, prospective buyers passed in and out of the brand new plate-glass front door of 546 55th Street. Alex and Carmen lingered outside while locals walking by and passing in cars greeted the couple.
A neighbor drove by in a shiny black SUV, and shouted a hello at Alex. “They’re selling those?” he said. “I wish I could afford one.
“You can,” said Alex Vazquez. “They’re cheap.” He meant it.
Property values in Sunset Park, like rents, remain reasonable in comparison with much of Brooklyn, and a steal for those accustomed to Manhattan prices. Condominiums in Sunset Park average $438 per square foot, according to a September report from The Corcoran Group. Condominiums on average run $595 per square foot in Brooklyn.
“It’s a really great alternative to people being priced out of Park Slope,” said John Wescott, a salesperson at The Corcoran Group.
Wescott recently helped a Park Slope couple buy a three-bedroom apartment in Sunset Park for $348,000. A Sunset Park resident himself, Wescott lives in a brownstone his partner purchased several years ago. “He bought here because it was affordable,” said Wescott.
For many in a neighborhood where 25 percent live below the poverty line, however, the prices remain out of reach. Locals throughout the neighborhood see the potential that Manhattanites and Brooklyn migration may push Sunset Park’s working class base out of the neighborhood.
“We’d like to keep our community a working class community and affordable to the folks who live here and welcoming to the folks who want to move here,” said Jeremy Laufer, manager of Community Board 7.
But some local organizations and leaders ask, “affordable to whom?”
“That’s a huge question,” said Tarry Hum associate professor of Urban Studies at Queens College. Hum has written about urban issues in Sunset Park, including questions of housing and displacement.
She said stricter enforcement of existing laws and anti-harassment measures may help preserve housing affordable to the poor and working class who make up Sunset Park’s base.
Then she added, “We live in a market economy, and I’m not sure that the political will is necessarily there to protect affordable housing for low-income people. It’s a real dilemma.”
Carmen Vazquez plans to take full advantage of the protections granted to her under the law. Though she said her family will not purchase its apartment from Galla, she would like to own a home one day. In the meantime, she does not plan to go anywhere. Not yet.
“I want to buy,” said Vazquez. “I’m staying here until we buy.”