A powerful assemblyman in Williamsburg says he’ll block state funding for a badly needed housing development if it contains too many subsidized apartments earmarked for chasidim, or if Latino leaders are denied input on the project.
"I can’t support something that doesn’t reflect the housing needs of the community that I represent," said Vito Lopez, chair of the Assembly’s Housing Committee, who has often been at odds with chasidic leaders on housing issues in the overcrowded Brooklyn neighborhood.
The local chasidic community says it is "outraged" at opposition to the project, only the second development to be built under the sponsorship of the United Jewish Organizations, the chasidic umbrella group in Williamsburg.
"This is a trap to deprive poor, needy, overcrowded Jewish families of much-needed housing," said Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of UJO.
The controversy is the latest episode of continuing housing competition between chasidim and Hispanics in the diverse neighborhood. In addition to the ethnic communities, Williamsburg has become increasingly attractive to artists and young families fleeing Manhattan post-9/11, making housing even scarcer.
The complex to be constructed on the former site of the Schaefer Brewery on Kent Street will contain 350 apartments in two 25-story towers overlooking the East River. Control of the project was given to UJO in an agreement with the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
The agreement is similar to those arranged with Latino groups in the area, such as the development of a former Rheingold Brewery site in nearby Bushwick.
In the Schaefer plan, UJO selected a developer for the site with the proviso that a share of the apartments would be available for low-income rentals. The developer, Kent Waterfront Associates, has set aside an unusually high 40 percent of the units, or 140 apartments, for subsidized housing. The remaining 210 units will be sold at market value.
The immediate vicinity of the brewery site is heavily chasidic. But insisting the development falls within the catchment area of Los Sures, a Hispanic nonprofit housing group, the group’s leaders and some elected officials are insisting Latinos have an active role in planning the development to ensure fair access.
Allocation of housing is to be decided by a city-supervised lottery. But Lopez, who represents a district close to the site, says typically large chasidic families will have an edge over Latino applicants in vying for units that will contain as many as five bedrooms. He says producing a large number of these super-sized apartments could be a backdoor way of creating greater access for chasidim.
"Very few [Latinos] have family sizes of 16 people," he said. "It’s imperative, if I were to support the project, to have a better apartment-size distribution."
Ground has not yet been broken for the site, but the initial plan filed with HPD calls for 27 of the subsidized units to contain more than three bedrooms. Of those, 22 units would have four bedrooms, and five would have five bedrooms. A majority of the subsidized units, 63, would have three bedrooms, with the remainder one- or two-bedroom units.
Rabbi Niederman conceded the plan could change when construction begins.
Lopez said it was scrutiny of the project by city and state officials that led to a reduced number of four- and five-bedroom units.
"It started out as threes, fours and fives," said Lopez. "With the help of some people overseeing the project it became modified. It is moving in the direction of fairer distribution.
"We are hoping and expecting that if it does move along there will be an apartment distribution that will allow all groups to fairly participate," he said.
Although some Latino leaders have sought to reverse the deal, completed on the last day of the Giuliani administration, giving UJO sole control over the site, Lopez said he is not seeking to change the sponsorship.
"There should be some kind of relationship with the Latino community … so that all of us politically can come together to support the subsidy obtained through state tax credit program," he said.
The state awards tax credits to private corporations in exchange for providing capital to build the subsidized portion of housing developments. Sources said Lopez, in his role as housing chairman, could indefinitely block the allocation.
Rabbi Niederman insists the larger apartments would not necessarily go to chasidic families. He said a family as small as three people could qualify for a three-bedroom unit if it consisted of a parent with different-sex children.
Further, he said a subsidized development built by Los Sures on South 4th Street, comprised of two-family, owner-occupied homes that include a rental unit, consists entirely of three-bedroom units, making them unsuitable for large chasidic families.
"It’s hypocritical for them to say that on [the Schaefer Development] a majority is being built for the chasidim," said Rabbi Niederman.
Insisting there will be "real competition" for housing at the Schaefer site between qualified families from both communities, Rabbi Niederman said he was confident that the tax credits needed for the project would go forward.
"The census records reflect the unbelievable amount of overcrowding in the community," he said. "Therefore, it’s inconceivable that a legitimate process should be denied."
A spokesman for the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which administers the tax credits, said there was currently no application pending on behalf of Kent Waterfront Associates.
"It’s in the application process where issues like unit or room counts are laid out for DHCR," said Dan Gilbert. "Without that application there is not much for us to comment on."
A bitter, public battle over state housing funds in Williamsburg between Jews and Latinos could pose a thorny political problem for Gov. George Pataki as he seeks a third term.
"You have one group that is a core constituency and another that is drawing closer to his circle," said one political insider familiar with the situation. "This could turn the governor’s politics upside-down."