It’s one of the busiest seasons for the East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, which buys and delivers free groceries.\
Kelvin Taitt, who started the group as an experiment to help his community during the pandemic in 2020, couldn’t have imagined how much need there is in the four neighborhoods it serves.
One of them, East New York, represents the intersection of some of the fastest-rising rents and highest rates of unemployment in the city, an analysis of data from the DEEP-MAPS model of the labor force and Zillow shows.
At the height of the economic fallout from the pandemic in December 2020, the unemployment rate peaked at 31.27% in East New York’s 11207 zip code. As of September, the seasonally unadjusted national unemployment rate was 8.9%—down from the previous year’s 14.7%.
Additionally, from 2014 to 2020, the same zip code saw a 22% increase in its observed rent index, a statistic used to measure changes in asking rents over time. That increase was double the average for available zip codes in the NYC area. Citywide, rent increased by 10.23%.
Long before the pandemic, many New Yorkers experienced significant rent burdens, overcrowded living situations, unsteady and low-wage employment and other difficulties that contribute to housing insecurity. For years, increasing rents have outpaced income growth.
As many as 800,000 New Yorkers lost unemployment benefits after Labor Day
People seeking help return to Taitt’s program whenever there’s a COVID-19 spike. Now Taitt is planning to build micro and borough-wide food hubs.
“We didn’t want folks to have to make a decision between putting food on their table or paying their rent,” Taitt said.
One elderly brother and sister on limited, fixed incomes saw their bills pile up and felt they didn’t have anyone to turn to for support as their expenses continually escalated.
“The bills and the utilities will…. go up all the time,” Taitt said. “The cost of food goes up….and they just can’t afford it.”
MORE insecurity = MORE movement
Raysa Rodriguez, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, visits shelters to make sure she gets a good understanding of how families are faring.
On a recent visit, she spoke with families about ways to prevent being forced to return to the shelter system, a process that can be traumatic.
“PTSD isn’t this thing that just happens to adults. We know that young children, infants and toddlers can have PTSD,” Rodriguez said.
The shelter experience is not the only hazard. Moving into overcrowded apartments and “couch surfing” with friends or family, can result in anxiety, behavioral changes and difficulties with self-regulation and sleeping.
After peaking to over 15,000 in 2017, the number of families in city shelters fell to around 10,000 in September, according to the the Coalition for the Homeless.
Rodriguez warned against misinterpreting the statistics.
“Just because there’s a decline in numbers doesn’t mean there’s a decline in need,” Rodriguez said. “We were busy before COVID; We’re even busier now.”
The state of New York has intervened in several ways, including with the Landlord Rental Assistance Program that accepted applications through Nov. 21, the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which will roll out $1.2 billion in funds to qualifying applicants behind on rent, and the a moratorium on evictions.
But advocates say help is slow to come by—and barely enough for the increased number of people in need.
“It is deepening conditions that have already existed and digging that hole even deeper,” Rodriguez said, adding that shelters should prepare to accept a higher number once again if services do not improve.
“Homeowners [who] have tenants, in many instances, are far behind in rent,” said City Council Member Inez Barron, who the represents part of East New York.
Barron’s office has worked with one homeowner in her district with two tenants who owing more than $20,000 in rent.
Several federal unemployment assistance programs—including one that was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act—expired on Sept. 5.
A need for better solutions
Decades of disinvestment, redlining, predatory real estate practices and flawed affordable housing plans have left Black and brown residents in Brooklyn, including East New York, with less access to safe and affordable housing, a key factor in as well as limiting their ability to build wealth, according to the authors of a report by Brooklyn Communities Collaborative.
The city’s long-term solutions to address housing insecurity include “mandatory inclusive housing,” which requires developers to include affordable units in any new housing developments.
A quarter of units must be affordable for residents with incomes averaging 60% of the average median income, or AMI. In the future, Barron said, a third of the housing units in her district will be affordable for those with incomes averaging 80% of the AMI. Units are also set aside for the formerly homeless.
Yet the task of meet the needs of all those who need affordable apartments can seem insurmountable.
Taitt said he knows of one building under development that may create about 20 affordable units. Nearby homeless shelters house 200 people each.
“You have another 180 folk that are still out of homes,” he said.
“I commend our officials for […] advocating for more affordable housing in our communities — that helps,” Taitt said. “But the lottery takes years for some people to even get a phone call.”