This article was co-published by Prism and Next City as part of our Solutions for Economic Equity partnership, highlighting how low-income and marginalized BIPOC communities are cultivating, building and seizing economic justice in cities across the U.S.
When New York City emerged as the country’s first epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, community advocates in Brooklyn, the city borough seen by many as “the poster-child for gentrification in America,” needed to revise their response to their communities amid a new housing emergency. While hundreds of thousands of residents fled the city to escape the pandemic, far more had no other choice but to stay. New York City was under lockdown, forced to a standstill as the death toll spiked to four times the city’s normal rate, and nightmarish scenes from its streets were televised across the nation.
For decades, these advocates fought to keep their neighbors—many of whom are longtime residents going back multiple generations—in their homes amid an increasingly volatile housing market. Now, they had to make sure that their neighbors could survive there as they sheltered in place.
In Flatbush, the Brooklyn neighborhood that had become a Covid-19 hotspot, frontline group Equality for Flatbush (E4F) took on a new role in the community. Not only did it deliver PPE and culturally-relevant food through its “Brooklyn Shows Love” campaign—Flatbush is home to Brooklyn’s Little Caribbean—but it also provided financial aid for rental assistance, emergency services, funeral expenses and stipends for groceries when food distribution was backlogged.
After the murder of George Floyd, E4F raised “movement money,” as founder and lead organizer Imani Henry calls it. The funds were used to rent out hotel rooms for people arrested during protests and released late at night, distribute money for MetroCards, and run a “cop watch” to monitor police violence against both housed and unhoused neighbors.
Providing holistic care to the community has always been a part of E4F’s work as a longtime steward of Flatbush and other Brooklyn neighborhoods—especially those dominated by multi-generation immigrant households and communities of color. Its work adapts to the contours of the community’s evolving needs.
Before the pandemic, Flatbush was one of the latest Brooklyn neighborhoods earmarked for economic restructuring, which invited more police presence, surveillance and criminalization of its mostly-Black longtime residents. E4F’s work reflected that evolution, focusing on anti-gentrification and anti-displacement organizing, police accountability work, and community rapid-response as an alternative to 911, while also providing emergency housing, rental assistance and eviction defense—all of which took on a new shape during the pandemic.
“We really emphasized that this was a community effort rooted in the fact that mutual aid is practiced every day within migrant communities of color and so many political movements,” says Henry. “It’s not solidarity work. The same people getting rent assistance or groceries come in to pack and deliver groceries.”
The same can be said for other frontline groups across the borough—and the city—that had arisen to respond to the needs of their communities long before. The pandemic only made visible to the outside world the robust network of collectives and organizations already in place to provide mutual aid to the Black and brown communities they served, and well before the racial justice uprisings of that summer inspired community care.
During that time, E4F faced managing voyeurs who had flocked to the neighborhood to observe a community in crisis. Henry has received calls from reporters asking him to take them to “the places where people are dying,” as well as photographers who wanted to shoot E4F handing out groceries. A former journalist, Henry is careful about the narratives being projected onto his community, like images that evoke relief work, powerlessness, or destitution.
While the new attention on mutual aid and community care was exciting—and long overdue—E4F’s actions are intentional in prioritizing “the strength and resilience of our people, not the deficits,” including being selective about which fundraisers to participate in and where it receives money.
But by 2021, COVID-related funding for groups like E4F dried up as the desire to “return to normal” overtook the public health concern.
COVID-19 eviction protections in New York state ended on January 15, resuming nearly 200,000 eviction cases in the city, which were pending when the moratorium was instated, and triggering a fresh wave of new court proceedings for thousands more.
Much of the same issues as before
While the pandemic had exposed the obscene inequality in places like New York City, it did little more than pause the status quo. In Brooklyn, the same processes of disenfranchisement, gentrification and displacement simply resumed when the city reopened for business on July 1, 2021.
By August 2021, the median asking rent in Brooklyn had nearly returned to a pre-pandemic high, according to StreetEasy data.
“When people talk about gentrification and displacement, they focus on the changes in their neighborhood and the people they see around,” says Travis, a tenant organizer in Bushwick (who prefers to be identified only by his first name). “Those things are further down the line. What doesn’t get appreciated is that it can be a slow and insidious process. When there’s a new building, it wouldn’t be there if people weren’t displaced out of their homes first.”
Bushwick, the neighborhood to Williamsburg’s southwest, is a predominantly Latino neighborhood with strong immigrant working class roots. Today, however, it’s characterized more by its music and art scene, populated by out-of-state transplants and young professionals.
Melvin Rivera, a housing and social rights activist and longtime Bushwick resident, agrees with Travis—his fellow member of political art collective Mi Casa No Es Su Casa (also known as Mi Casa Resiste)—and can attest that this transformation didn’t happen overnight.
In order to make room for gentrifiers, Rivera says, “Landlords make homes uninhabitable. Then they rebuild and refurbish the homes, and now, they figure, ‘Hey, instead of renting to this multigenerational family that lives here at $1,200, we could start renting individual rooms at $1,000-1,200 each.’” Consequently, property values rise, often pushing low- and moderate-income homeowners to foreclose on taxes. “It’s a trickle-down effect,” says Rivera.
The problem with keeping most longtime residents in their homes is that, because Brooklyn is more of a renters’ market, it makes it harder to protect residents from the whims of predatory landlords. This summer, rent increases in New York City broke records, forcing renters in Brooklyn and Manhattan to put down more than 50 percent of their income toward rent, which is simply untenable for the many New Yorkers living paycheck to paycheck—and who are still vulnerable to the physical and financial risks caused by the pandemic.
“If we want to stop displacements and gentrification, then there needs to be more energy and focus on keeping people in their homes and protecting them from being tricked, coerced, given deals, or forced to live in unpleasant conditions,” says Travis. For him, the best way to do so is to organize.
‘Doing the best that we can’
But organizing faces new challenges as the issues confronting it compound. “The economic damage and racial injustice that plagued us during the height of the pandemic still exist,” says Henry of E4F. “It’s very hard right now for the vast majority of New Yorkers. We’re all just doing the best we can.”
And with rent prices at an all-time high, and soaring inflation raising prices faster than expected, it’s not just the communities at greatest risk of displacement that are feeling overwhelmed.
“Now, people are understanding that this is just the beginning of it being inaccessible for everyone,” says Mi Casa member Cynthia Tobar, the housing justice advocate behind the oral history project “Cities for People, Not for Profit: Gentrification and Housing Activism in Bushwick.” “The very people who come into these neighborhoods and gentrify are being outpriced and stay a shorter time because they can’t afford it. Greed has just taken over.”
Tobar, another longterm Bushwick resident, is also a community partner with Mayday Space, a movement project and organizing center in the neighborhood, and an advisory board member of the Bushwick Housing Independence Project (BHIP). “All the generous donations that we’ve been able to count on before, those are starting to become more limited because now everyone is experiencing economic struggle,” she says. That makes it all the more difficult to organize when everyone in a position to help is stretched for capacity and trying to survive themselves: Tobar herself has had to readjust her role as she returned to work with the rest of New York.
Travis doesn’t collect an income for heading his tenant union, so his capacity equally depends on the time and resources he has to spare while supporting himself. “It’s a lot of work,” he admits. He needs help, but most other community advocates and organizers, including Rivera, are also volunteers and are challenged with the same capacity issue. “We just can’t do it all.”
Mutual aid and collective care are hard sells at a time when everyone appears to be struggling, but advocates say that this is exactly when they are most urgent. “When people are inclined to being more active, it’s normally out of self-preservation,” says Rivera. “Something has to affect them directly. They want to look out for their own self-interests rather than supporting the larger community as a whole.”
Travis agrees. “People need to care more; I don’t know how else to say it,” says Travis. “People will DM me for their problems but not show up for their other neighbors. We need that sense of community where your problem is my problem.” He warns that landlords harassing and abusing tenants will continue unabated otherwise.
The housing justice movement across Brooklyn needs allies, especially among newer residents (including those who took advantage of the fallen rent prices, only for them to rebound). Fewer Brooklynites are being spared the consequences of the bloated housing market’s latest turn, so it pays to be in community with their neighbors. Perhaps the first step for gentrifiers is to learn a bit of self awareness in how they’re entering spaces. “It’s more about being a conscientious neighbor and coming into communities mindfully, and trying to contribute to these neighborhoods rather than being extractive and destroying what’s there,” says Tobar.
Many of these new residents might come bridled with the guilt of being a contributor to the very issue that they’re fighting to remedy, but Tobar isn’t interested in their guilt. “It’s like, okay enough of that. How do we move forward? How can we transform these moments of hardship into moments of community care?” These are some of the questions she hopes new neighbors entering gentrifying communities will thoughtfully probe, because support is desperately needed.
“We see our work as literally life and death,” says Henry, who again stresses the role of police violence in assisting with the process of displacement.
Community care, lamentably, is often only considered in times of crisis, which Tobar hopes to one day move away from. “One day, I would like to see us move beyond just struggling and be able to enjoy the fruits of all that struggle,” she says. “I want to get to that point as a community where I see more people in my neighborhood and my street enjoying the efforts of all that work. Because it gets exhausting, and I think it’s long overdue for people.”
Frances Nguyen is a freelance writer, editor of the Women Under Siege section (which reports on gender-based and sexualized violence in conflict and other settings) at the Women's Media Center, and a member of the editorial team for Interruptr, an online space for women experts to disrupt discourse in traditionally male-dominated focus areas. She is currently working on a creative nonfiction portfolio on race, identity, and the American Dream.