Photo: Coretta Scott-King Senior Housing. (New York Housing Conference)
First article in an ongoing series.
Read Part 2.
NEW YOK CITY--In her short adulation at the official opening of Coretta Scott-King Senior Apartments in East New York, Brooklyn, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of
How a Dump Became
A Housing Dream
It was "one of the coldest nights I think I can remember in history,” said Dedra Wade, recalling the crucial meeting in March 2006, in her decade-long quest to build the lower-income Coretta Scott-King Senior Apartments in East New York, Brooklyn.
Wade arrived at the meeting not knowing whether she would draw the support she’d need to realize her dream project. To her surprise, she said, “So many seniors turned out that I couldn't believe that these seniors battled that frost-bite-cold to come out to this meeting and the room was full to capacity."
Noting that Brooklyn Community Board 5, a key community body, "was in favor for us from the beginning," Wade described the vexing challenges she faced establishing community trust and garnering support.
The low retirement pensions and Social Security benefits of seniors at the meeting were not sufficient for them to have decent housing in East New York. Wade's plans could change that. Also, she said, the seniors insisted that the building be named after Coretta Scott-King, who had passed that year.
Mabel Jones, 76, a retired YWCA daycare teacher, recalled the meeting and why she showed up for it. Jones lived about a half block from the dumpsite and was fed up with "seeing all the garbage and dumping, and I would call the precinct" to complain, but no officer showed up. But that didn't stop her from calling.
After the meeting, she joined an unofficial but spirited cohort of seniors supporting Wade's plans for the senior housing project. "Wherever Miss Wade needed us to come, like this church on New Lots [Avenue], we went. I prayed so hard for an apartment. Prayed for the ground, the constructionists. In my heart, I just didn't see it any other way."
Yet, of all who were at the meeting and hopeful about moving into the building one day, only one was alive to attend the day of the official opening.
But in the same breath, the commissioner acknowledged the grim realities of decent housing for seniors in one of the most underserved neighborhoods in New York, a Brooklyn community often described and referred to as the most dangerous in New York City.
"Thank God, thank God, thank God and thank God," Commissioner Donna M. Corrado told approximately 150 people in front of the entrance to the 51-unit building, as she heaped kudos on the Community Partners Commission Association (CPCA), and the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC), one of the city's largest multiservice nonprofits.
"It can take divine intervention to get an apartment,” Corrado continued. “There are thousands of seniors wishing they could be here and have one of these apartments. Every day we get thousands of calls from seniors."
5,000 Requests for 51 Units
More than 5,000 requests were received for the 51 units in Coretta Scott-King apartments. Only those with lower incomes (from any racial or ethnic group) were eligible and selections had to be made by lottery.
East New York’s population, according to city statistics, is 52 percent black, 37 percent Hispanic, with only small percentages of those who are white or “other.” Life expectancy in that community is age 77.7. A few miles away in largely white Borough Park the life expectancy is 83.5.
The pageantry on that bright and warm October day in 2015 was impressive. Numerous speakers local and nationally-prominent speakers lavished praise on CPCA President Dedra Wade, whom many called the "the visionary" behind the $13 million housing project.
"Dedra Grant Wade, you are New York's Coretta Scott-King," said an Atlanta, Georgia, clergy member who worked with the Martin Luther King, Jr., family.
According to neighbors, the site had been a large, city-owned dumping ground, strewn with cars, refrigerators, air conditioners and detritus of all make and manner. Used for illegal dumping, the site was rumored to be soaked with toxic waste, although environmental tests showed the land is uncontaminated.
Under normal circumstances, a housing construction project of this size can take three years. Coretta Scott-King took 10. "What you are seeing right now behind me is a miracle," said Wade's business partner, Dennis Taylor, during the ceremony.
He noted the many distractions and controversies the group had to overcome involving political and commercial interests, as well as unexpected financial problems--all of which added an extra seven years to the project.
New York’s “Mason-Dixon Line”
East New York's business and political atmosphere has been described as small-townish. One veteran businessman said the area is divided by what he called the community Mason Dixon Line, a thoroughfare called Pitkin Avenue. "There are certain agencies that can do business [north of Pitkin] on that side, but they are not welcome on this side," where Coretta Scott-King was built, Taylor said.
"I'm a born New York City resident citizen," Wade said in an interview, but she needed a "green card" to do business in East New York. "If you don't come on the arm of somebody they know and like, you don't get in. You can't even sit down to a meeting table."
Wade spent 24 years at the New York City Department of Probation, and became the department's first community-affairs chief. Before retiring eight years ago because of injuries in a car accident, she played an important role in the city's law enforcement effort to confront the bedlam in East New York caused primarily by gangs, especially in public housing. One of her contributions was creating public-service programs for that community.
One of the experiences that prepared her for the stamina she’d need to fight for the Coretta Scott-King Senior Apartments involved a program she started to educate and employ probationers. East New Yorkers had to be convinced. "Every meeting I went to," she said, "people kept saying, 'We don't want these people in our community.' I kept saying, 'They live here already. You all don't know that?'"
Wade went on, "I started making maps and showing them--not with names but with black dots--where everybody [probationers] was. Some of the areas were literally black with the dots of people who lived on the blocks."
She recalled saying a the meetings, "So, all were trying to do is make them better so they don't revert to crime or end up going to escalated crime and going to jail, going to prison."
Among her other programs was one to recruit community-service work crews to help clean up streets and lots and to remove graffiti.
Her frequent visits to East New York were fraught with risks, but that's how she eventually met Dennis Taylor. At the time he worked for a local nonprofit community housing developer. When he first encountered Wade at a housing project, she described her public-service strategy, and Taylor said he asked, “How can you do that when you're part of probation. Probation's mandate is to lock folks up?"
Her program, called Certificate of Relief from Disability (CERT) enables a judge to restore some rights that a person loses when convicted of a crime. Anyone with a minor criminal record who has not been convicted of two or more minor felonies is eligible.
Taylor saw how passionate Wade was about CERT because, for example, so many young people would graduate from high school or be enrolled in college only to find that their past convictions for minor crimes as teens created serious problems for them, such as in applying for jobs.
He was so impressed with Wade, Taylor said, "we've been working together ever since," eventually becoming her business partner.
“Disconnected” and Hoping to Return
Many of the seniors who supported the project, Wade said, had become “disconnected from the communities that they built. They helped build these communities and they make their friendships here, but had to move out of the neighborhood and so far away from what they know. I think that was so hard for them."
People often age in their homes around family and other aging friends, forming what gerontologists call a NORC, or naturally occurring retirement community. "That's something so healthy for seniors because they stay with familiar friends," Wade said. "They need the community no matter how broke down and beat up the community becomes, they just stick it out.”
Among those at that meeting were elders who had been forced to move out and hoped to return. As people in communities like East New York aged in the one- or two-family homes the bought years ago, many fell victim to predatory lenders and defaulting on their mortgages.
Even as Wade garnered support and overcame community intransigence meeting by meeting, the project was beset with unanticipated costs and that led to Wade dipping into her own savings. That created a financial strain, including on the savings she and her husband had set aside for their son and daughter’s college education.
Despite the funding the senior home project had received from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Wade learned at one point that she needed $1.5 million. Unexpectedly, she learned, that New York City housing rules some rules and regulations made building requirements they department said could not be covered with the federal funds.
“Could you imagine us still being held up because of $1.5 million," she said. "Do you think HPD [New York City Housing Preservation and Development] would allow us just to use" the fed funding? No. They said either you find the money or we give it to somebody else--that was the option."
Lotto to the Rescue
Fate--in the form of her husband winning a New York Lotto--was the answer to Wade’s prayers. She used some of the winnings to keep the project going. She also said more than once that prayer helped her complete the project and that she prayed often with Mable Jones, one of her first elderly supporters back in 2006.
Jones, who one day chastised Wade for losing faith when she was at a low point because of problems with the project, became the only surviving senior among her initial group of community supporters, who lived to see opening day. She also was the first one chosen in the lottery.
"I'm amazed that I'm in here, and one of the first to get in," said Jones, interviewed a few days after the opening day ceremony when she was moving into her apartment.
"I will tell you the truth, that God does answer prayers. A friend of mine put my name in a long time ago." She prayed even though Wade reminded her several times that she couldn't do any favors to help her get an apartment. At the time of the lottery drawing, Wade was too upset to attend. She couldn't face the possibility of Jones not getting an apartment.
Gregg Morris wrote this series for the Amsterdam News supported by a journalism fellowship from New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America with sponsorship from the Silver Century Foundation.