Antonio Reynoso Announces Diversion of Funds as Rumors of a Potential Mayoral Campaign Swirl

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

In the historic walls of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 27, Borough President Antonio Reynoso, the first Latino to be elected to the position, announced that his office would be redirecting funds toward aiding his constituents with support services rather than social events and large gatherings. The decision came at a time when Mayor Eric Adams announced this month that all city agencies must cut their budgets by 15 percent by April 2024. According to Reynoso, this is a necessary measure for dealing with a lack of funds across the city. 

“Right now, there’s a lot of need in Brooklyn. As of today, I am announcing that moving forward, my office will direct Borough Hall funding and resources toward delivering aid to New Yorkers and alleviating the strain on city services,” Reynoso said. “I cannot in good conscience host parties and celebrations when so many Brooklynites are struggling. I’m committed to using the platform and resources that I have to deliver on behalf of those who need the most help because it’s the right thing to do.” 

The Borough President did not go into the specifics of how the funding would be allocated but firmly stated that parties and celebrations at Borough Hall would come to an end as more than 110,000 migrants have come to the city and New Yorkers, both native and new, are fighting to make ends meet. In a recorded speech on Sept. 9, Adams said the city-wide cuts were in response to New York’s continuing migrant crisis. His statement came days after he was recorded saying that the migrant crisis will destroy New York City. 

“As you know, we’re in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, a crisis that will cost our city $12 billion dollars over three fiscal years,” Adams said. “While I have worked closely with city agencies to reduce the impact that these cuts may have on New Yorkers who rely on our services, the truth is that longtime New Yorkers and asylum seekers will feel these potential cuts, and they will hurt.” 

On Wednesday, Reynoso said that the mayor’s management report shows that the city is struggling to meet the basic needs of New Yorkers, and pointed to a decline in the quality of city services such as SNAP, cash assistance and NYCHA public housing. 

“Homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression. The city’s rate for processing food stamps is the lowest it’s been since 2006. In fact, less than 40 percent of SNAP benefits were processed on time, down from 91.9 percent when Adams took office,” Reynoso said. “Not to mention that the average timeline for repairing a single vacant NYCHA unit has surged to 370 days. It takes one year to repair a single vacant NYCHA unit, and it is up from around 161 days the year before, nearly five times longer than it took to make repairs in 2019.” 

Reynoso said that his announcement was not a retort against Adams, but a nod to the Mayor’s intention of cutting back costs. Despite this remark, Reynoso came out hard against the Mayor’s proposed budget cuts during the New York City Council Progressive Caucus rally on Sept. 19, also outside of Brooklyn Borough Hall. Members of the Caucus, which include representatives.

Lincoln Restler, Shahana Hanif, Jennifer Gutierrez and Carmen de la Rosa, proposed higher taxes on the rich, rather than cuts of social services, to cover the cost of dealing with the new influx of migrants. In a speech, Reynoso said he was disappointed with how the mayor’s office has dealt with the migrant crisis. 

“It’s the first time a mayor has stood up and said ‘I give up. I throw my hands up.’ Who does that? Not in New York,” Reynoso said during the rally. 

Hector Gonzalez, a Vietnam Veteran and an attendee of the event on Wednesday, said he was pleased that Reynoso was cutting back social gatherings in order to spread out city resources, especially as an immigrant from Puerto Rico. 

“We learned that today is going to be the last time they’re going to get together because of the crisis that is going on. He wants to take advantage of the crisis to address what is really needed. I believe that’s a plus for everyone,” Gonzalez said. “This is the time that we have to contribute, in every sense, to try to better our society. The other thing that people forget is that 100 years ago, more than they, we also have immigrants, and they went through the same thing that is happening nowadays.” 

As the 2025 Mayoral election creeps closer, there are rumors of who will challenge Adams. According to reporting by Politico, Reynoso’s name has been floated, but it is unsure if he will make a run for it. According to Gonzalez, Reynoso should focus on his constituents in Brooklyn before he makes the jump to another position. 

“I believe that’s a little bit far nowadays, because he has so much work on his hands, and he wants to concentrate on what those needs are,” Gonzalez said. “When you start in one position, and you think of all the other ones and you don’t take care of what you’re doing, that is not proper. I believe the people have to be supported for what they voted, and when the time comes, then a decision could be made.” 

Three Potential Brooklyn Cannabis Stores Showcase the Uncertainty of Marijuana in New York State and City

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

Brooklyn’s Community Board for District 2 made local weed history in their meeting on Wednesday Sept. 13 by bringing three marijuana stores up for approval and passing them all without any contest. However, despite the support from the community, there is still not a clear path toward licensing for any of the stores in front of the council due to a state-wide restraining order on all licenses pending a lawsuit against the Office of Cannabis Enforcement. Still, the hearings were indicative of one truth: legal marijuana is coming to New York, even though the specifics of how is not quite clear yet. In the community board, chairperson Lenny Singletary emphasized the importance of understanding how to deal with the new applications and predicted that there would be much more to come.

“The reason I wanted Mr. Smith [Health, Environment & Social Services Chair] to go through these is that these are the first cannabis applications that have come in and it’s important for us to understand how we process this,” Singletary said. “I would imagine that we’re going to see an increase in cannabis applications, especially given the state regulations where they’re going to heavily fine illegal applications, as well as passing monetary fines along to the owners of the buildings that are allowing this to take place.”

The Office of Cannabis Management is currently being sued due to OCM’s Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary program, a program that only permits licenses to those who fulfill two requirements: a prior cannabis conviction, or that of a close family member, and having owned a legitimate business for at least two years. With the lawsuit pending, New York Supreme Court Justice Kevin Bryant declared a temporary restraining order on all CAURD licenses in New York City in Aug. 2023. The three proposed locations, Pura Vita Enterprises Inc at 288 Flushing Avenue, Are We Good Enterprises Inc at 154 Vanderbilt, as well as YRM Dispensary LLC at 436 Albee Square W, are now in limbo. The owners are unable to continue moving forward with establishing their businesses, despite starting the process of working towards a license. According to Andrew Cooper, professor of the business and law of cannabis at Hofstra University, as well as a practicing cannabis, psychedelics and healthcare attorney, this leaves the owners of these stores in a deeply uncertain situation.

“These people committed everything. I mean, built teams, and they got people around them who could help them. They spent their time and days going around looking at space, talking to landlords, and negotiating with a lot of predatory lenders. We got plenty of those,” Cooper said. “Now they’re just stuck in this weird abyss.”

The production, distribution and recreational use of cannabis was legalized in New York State in 2021, with the passing of the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act. Later on, the OCM established the CAURD in order to prioritize those who had been harmed by the prohibition of cannabis in the state — now, four service-disabled veterans, represented by law firm Feuerstein Kulick, are suing the OCM because they believe that the conditions are too narrow and therefore unconstitutional.

According to a similar lawsuit filed against the marijuana legislative agency in March 2023, the original MRTA law passed in 2021 outlines that licenses should be open for all and that the CAURD program is in violation of that. That lawsuit was filed by the Coalition for Access to Regulated and Safe Cannabis, a group that seeks to expand access to all applicants and does not agree with the priority afforded to CAURD applicants.

“Rather than perform the tasks required by the MRTA – which would promote a safe and regulated cannabis industry for medical patients and adult-use consumers alike – CCB and OCM have improperly assumed the role of the Legislature to impose their own policies over those of New York’s elected officials and, by extension, their constituents. This unconstitutional overreach violates the separation of powers doctrine,” lawyers for CARSC wrote. “New York’s Legislature required CCB and OCM to open ‘the initial adult-use retail dispensary license application period. . . for all applicants at the same time.’”

All of the applicants under review by the community board had gone through the initial stages of the OCM’s CAURD application process. During the community board meeting for District 2, Brendan Smith, Health, Environment & Social Services committee chair, walked the board through the various steps that the applicants had to go through before coming in front of CB2, and are different from the unlicensed smoke shops that have exploded around the NYC area. Cannabis shop owners must have security details at their locations, and they must check the identification of anyone who enters the premises of their stores, according to information shared by Smith during the CB2 meeting. Furthermore, Smith said that the stores have already gone through stages of community discussion prior via the OCM application process.

“There has been an awareness at our committee about the prevalence of smoke shops about unlicensed illegal cannabis businesses throughout the community. What was important for this conversation was to focus the conversation on the applicants in front of us and their circumstances,” Smith said during the meeting. “Keeping in mind, these three applicants went through significant licensing processes with the Office of Cannabis Management to ensure that the protocols were adhered to and to ensure that they comply with different levels of compliance from the Office of Cannabis Management.”

Despite MRTA passing in 2021, the city has only managed to pass a handful of legal cannabis stores, though illegal ones have popped up like weeds on the corners of New York City. Currently, there are four legal marijuana dispensaries in New York City, and an estimated 2,500 illegal ones, though the number might be higher, according to numbers released by the state in April. Cooper said the reason that the cannabis rollout has taken so long is the stringent requirements that OCM has outlined in order to prioritize justice-involved individuals.

With pending lawsuits, the path forward for these three stores is uncertain, regardless of whether or not they have been approved by the community board or not. Until they receive a final walk-through from the OCM, the stores are unable to sell any of the marijuana that is piling up in warehouses in the state, according to Cooper. Since the identity of marijuana license applicants is kept private, none of the store owners were able to be reached for comment.

Residents Launch Last Minute Effort to Save Park Church

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

An abandoned notice board in front of Park Church. Photo credit: Oona Milliken

The fight to keep Park Church on 129 Russell Street in Greenpoint alive has been ongoing for years ever since the Metropolitan New York Synod, a chapter of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, announced Dec. 2021 that it would pull funding for the church due to declining membership. Currently, MNYS is in the process of selling the building, originally built in 1907, to GW Equities LLC, led by developers Avraham Garbo and Berish Wagschal. On Thursday Aug. 31, activists and community members gathered in a Zoom public hearing in front of Judge Richard Latin to halt the sale and attempt to repurpose the building for community use. In a statement from MNYS, Robert Lara, Assistant to the Bishop and Officer of Communications for the synod, said that the decision came after considerate deliberation.

“The Metropolitan New York Synod Council approved the sale of the former Messiah Lutheran Church building, where Park Church Co-op operated, following careful evaluation,” Lara said in an email. “This decision was made due to declining worship attendance and safety concerns with the building’s structure. The sale proceeds will support the growth of viable congregations, particularly those serving marginalized communities, in alignment with the synod’s commitment to anti-racism. ”

Other community members disagree. Jeremy Hook, a long-time Greenpoint resident working to keep the church in place, said that the sale of the church would be incredibly detrimental to the community, and that the synod is behaving like a developer rather than a religious organization.

“It’s ironic that they identify as Lutherans when you recall where Lutherans come from, what the 101 Lutheran theses actually were about, which was Martin Luther saying, ‘Hey, the Catholic Church is just kind of acting a whole lot like a business here and just about making money,’” Hook said. “And I would say that there’s a bit of a similar thing going on with the ELCA.”

According to Hook, the Church was not just a spot for religious worship, but a place for Greenpoint residents to gather, organize events and create a community space. Community members at the hearing gathered and shared their favorite stories and events over the years, including dance parties, Drag Queen Reading Hour, drives to give out free food and shelter as well as birthday parties for children.

Kaki King, a Greenpoint resident and the creator of a silent disco event at McGolrick Park, said at the hearing that there were many spaces for adults to hangout in the area, such as bars and restaurants, but almost none for children. According to King, the church was a place for her family to hangout in.

“Some of my happiest memories of raising my children are definitely from the inside of the park church and I truly hope that our words are heard and that something can be done to help the sale or in future events, you know, preserve the community spirit that is very strong in this in this community,” King said.

As the sale moves forward, this is a last-ditch effort to halt the process, according to Hook. Community members submitted a request for a hearing to the Attorney General’s office, and were approved by Assistant Attorney General Colleen McGrath, who wrote in a letter that Attorney General Letitia James had no objections to the sale but was open to hearing the dissenting voices of the community. According to McGrath, the sale is valid according to New York state law, so there could be no objection to the transaction on that front, but still wanted to raise the concerns of Greenpoint residents.

However, the Attorney General’s Charities Bureau has received a number of complaints objecting to the proposed sale of the Property due to its perceived negative impact on the Greenpoint, Brooklyn community, where the Property is located,” McGrath wrote.

GW Equities have not announced their plans for the church, but have several large-scale projects under their belts, including 13-story residential and commercial development in Downtown Brooklyn. Greenpoint Assemblymember Emily Gallagher said at the hearing that the church was affordable and accessible for all types of community members, and that Greenpoint had enough large developmental projects.

“We have quite a lot of luxury and high end housing that is being developed in this community that is not providing for the same number and diversity of people. So I’m here to ask you to think about justice, rather than nearly law, and see if we can preserve something that is such a vital space for our wonderful community,” Gallagher said. “We really do not have many free spaces in this community where people can meet and gather and have important discussions, especially in the long winter months.”

Other community members do not see the church sale as a loss. Stefan Rysek, a longtime Polish resident of Greenpoint, said that churches were valuable to the community, but did not oppose the residential project.

“People need some kind of mental help from the churches, for example, the Polish churches,” Rysek said. “You know what? I’m not against the apartments being built.”

Park Church had a declining congregation for years, a national trend as Gallup reported that church membership in the United States dipped below majority for the first time in 2021. Churches across the country are closing their doors because there are not enough people to create a significant congregation. Hook, who describes himself as allergic to religion, said that he understood the difficulties MNYS must have faced in keeping their parish open, but advocated for keeping the church as a secular community space.

“In fact, the problem that I will address tomorrow is that, you know, I acknowledge that the congregation itself was shrinking, at the end of the day they probably only had about 15-20 tiding congregations,” Hook said. “So I understand that it must have been a lot of trouble from that end. But the building simultaneously was thriving as a community center.”

 

Jeremy Hook speaking at the Park Church Hearing

Katie Denny Horowitz, Executive Director of North Brooklyn Park Alliance, speaking at the hearing.

Council member Lincoln Restler.

Fifth generation Greenpoint resident and community activist Kevin LaCherra.

Small Haitian Restaurant in Park Slope Continues to Beat the Odds

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

Edgina Desormeau, owner of Bonbon Lakay, a Haitian restaurant in Park Slope, said her business started as a side hustle in 2018 that she ran out of her apartment. Since then, Bonbon Lakay, which means “Homemade Treats,” in Haitian Creole opened in Park Slope in 2021 and has survived the COVID Omicron wave of 2022, two rounds of flooding, as well as the usual hurdles that small-business owners face.

Currently, Bonbon Lakay runs a Pay It Forward program to raise money for people who need free meals and to fundraise for other business expenses. Despite the difficulties of owning a small business, Desormeau said that her customers, as well as sharing Haitian food with New York City, means the world to her.

“Our customers continue to be so excited about our business, no matter what our menu looks like, no matter what our product offering looks like,” Desormeau said. “They really truly energize us. I’ll have a bad day, and then a customer will walk in and remind us why we started.”

Desormeau said she originally started selling wholesale Haitian goods like peanut butter, cookies, fudge, soda and crackers because she missed the foods she grew up eating. She was born and raised in Haiti, but moved to the United States when she was 11, and said she always knew that her work would be connected to the place she grew up in. After a trip to Cap-Haitien, often referred to as Okap, she said she was having difficulty finding the treats she loved as a child, and decided that she needed to do something about it. According to Desormeau, she started selling wholesale Haitian goods on top of her advertisement job until it became unfeasible.

“This business was taken over my apartment, like I would be blocking my neighbor’s doors with like 40 cases of peanut butter,” Desormeau said. “We really outgrew the space and it became this thing where it was like, ‘Okay, if I can’t get into a physical brick and mortar to do this right, to do this the way it’s supposed to be done, I don’t want to keep doing it.’”

Desormeau said the Pay It Forward program grew out of people coming in after the Omicron wave and asking for free food. According to Desormeau, Bonbon Lakay did what it could, but the restaurant was already low on resources from paying for the damages caused by floods and the losses incurred by the pandemic and did not always have the bandwidth to give food or goods away.

“As we’re coming out of Omicron, we’re getting this stream of people coming in asking for free food, and we did what we could give them free food, but at the end of the day, we’re a business, you know, we’re not a soup kitchen,” Desormeau said. “I was grabbing lunch with a friend in Manhattan, and this restaurant had a Pay It Forward board where any meal that you purchase, they would match and they would give a meal for free. I see this board, and I’m like, ‘This is an aha moment. Why not create our own Pay It Forward board?’”

Despite launching the board in May of 2020, Desormeau said that Bonbon Lakay did not promote the initiative until the end of 2022 into the beginning of 2023 when a customer suggested that Desormeau put the board online. From then on, Desormeau said the board became about simultaneously helping our neighbors who might need a free meal, but also about helping Bonbon Lakay stay in business.

“In looking at how 2022 unfolded for us and thinking about the year forward, there was a moment at the end of 2022 where I genuinely did not know if we would make it to 2023,” Desormeau said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, we’re finally going to put this on the website, we’re going to encourage people to pay it forward.’ And we’re going to be candid and say, ‘Hey, our pay forward board was initially born out of folks asking us for free food, and now it’s not only now a way for you to sponsor us to pay it forward, but it’s also pumping that much needed cash flow into the business.’”

Desormeau also launched Operation Soup Joumou at the end of 2022 to raise funds. Soup Joumou, a soup associated with Haitian Independence Day on January 1st, is symbolic to Haitian people as it was solely reserved for French slave masters in Haiti, off-limits for enslaved people. When Haitians gained independence in 1804, the soup became a way to celebrate a free Haiti, and the tradition continues to this day. Desormeau said the goal of Operation Soup Joumou and Pay It Forward was to raise $100,000, which Bonbon Lakay has still not managed to do. Still, Desormeau said the two initiatives managed to bring in new business and money, and Bonbon Lakay continues to survive. According to Desormeau, her customers make the struggles of keeping Bonbon Lakay open worth the effort.

“It’s always sweet and motivating to hear [customer’s] stories. We sell a cookie here called Bonbon Amidon. This older gentleman was telling me how he ordered Bonbon Amidon from us, and, this is an older man probably in his 40s 50s, he was telling me how he cried eating Bonbon Amidon,” Desormeau said. “To be completely honest with you, I have moments where I’m absolutely not hopeful and I’m ready to quit. Then a customer walks in and it makes me feel like it’s day one of the business all over again.”

Curbside Composting to Arrive in Brooklyn in October

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

Curbside Composting is coming to Brooklyn stoops Oct. 2, according to a schedule released by the Mayor’s Office. The program, which includes free bins for all Brooklynites who sign up before Oct. 13, is a part of a larger rollout to make composting mandatory across all five boroughs. 

Gil Lopez, an urban ecologist, compost applicator and educator for Big Reuse, said the program is important in making composting accessible to all New York residents. 

“The great thing about the brown bin, and the reason that I’ve been wanting to mandate compost forever, is until everyone in New York City, undocumented or documented, has access [to composting] and they don’t have to do anything special to get it, there is inequity built into our system,” Lopez said. 

Informational sticker on acceptable forms of waste to be disposed in the brown bins. Photo credit: Oona Milliken

The program began Oct. 2022 in Queens and resumed services in the borough in March after a winter hiatus. In 2024, brown bins will start to appear regularly in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx. The Curbside Composting initiative, sponsored by Park Slope Councilmember Shahana Hanif, is just one part of the Zero Waste Act initiative passed by the City Council in June of this year. 

The Zero Waste Act is a five-bill initiative that also includes annual reporting measures on the 11,000 tons of waste created in New York daily, community food scrap collecting centers, new construction of recycling facilities, as well as the city’s general efforts to withstand climate change. Under the new legislation, composting will be compulsory by the year 2025, when fines will be imposed on NYC residents who decline to sort out their organic waste. The fines will increase after each violation, starting at $25, then $50, and finally $100 for every following fine. According to Michael Whitesides, the communications director for Councilmember Hanif, the plan is to reduce the carbon footprint of the city and expand composting access to a broader range of people. 

“We’ve also really been focusing on getting multilingual outreach. A lot of the areas that we have composting right now tend to be white, wealthier, mostly English speaking communities,” Whitesides said. “The Councilmember has been really involved in trying to get some translated materials, not only about what is composting but also how to sign up for brown bin. We’re not just going to communities that already have access to curbside compost but really doing our work to expand it citywide.” 

The composting collection will be handled by the Department of Sanitation of New York and will be picked up on the same day that recycling is gathered. According to Whitesides, DSNY is putting in the work to let Brooklanites know about the brown bin rollout, including putting up flyers, doing social media outreach, and knocking on people’s doors. On Twitter, DSNY shared that more than 23,000 people have signed up for a brown bin in Brooklyn, and urged more people to participate in the program. 

According to an email response by Vincent Gragnagi, the DSNY press secretary, the compost will be sent to one of five locations across the city: the DSNY’s Staten Island composting facility, the Department of Environmental Protection’s waste management location in Newton Creek, an organic processing facility in Massachusetts, and Nature’s Choice composting plant in New Jersey. Gragnagi said the curbside composting initiative makes it easier for residents in the city to do their part in combating climate change, and in turn, also allows the city to reuse the organic material collected from community members. 

“We all share the goal of making it easy for New Yorkers to do the right thing and compost — and that is exactly what universal curbside composting does,” Gragnagi said in an email. “The goal of the procurement is to ensure that material collected in our curbside composting program goes to a variety of facilities, each of which will process the material and turn it into something beneficial, either renewable energy and fertilizer, or compost for parks and gardens” 

Whitesides said that composting organic material alone can reduce the city’s environmental impact by a third of its current carbon footprint. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, composting will reduce t

Gil Lopez speaking at an worm composting educational event for Big Reuse at the Park Slope Public Library. Photo credit: Oona Milliken

he amount of organic waste going to landfills, which produce a significant amount of harmful methane gas. Pilot composting programs in cities such as San Francisco have managed to reduce the amount of trash going to landfills by 80 percent, where the municipality has managed to compost 255,500 tons of organic waste each year, according to the Public Interest Network. According to Lopez, though the fight to increase composting has been active amongst grass-roots environmental circles in the area since the 1990s, this is NYC’s first large-scale initiative to enact mandatory food waste processing. 

Katie Cunningham, a Park Slope resident, said she wanted her neighbors to do their part to reduce methane gas from landfills by composting their organic material, and hopes that the brown bin program will increase the number of people who take the time to do so. After 15 years of living in the area, she said she has just started composting because of the readily available service, and in part, she said because the sign-up process to get a brown bin delivered to her home

 was so simple. 

“I’ve only been composting recently, I hate to admit. I’m excited that they’re invested in expanding this program and bringing it to Brooklyn,” Cunningham said. “The sign-up process is straightforward, you just go online and order the bin that you need. I’m hoping it will motivate more people in the neighborhood and more people in Brooklyn to start composting.” 

Lopez said many residents in cities assume that they are far away from the harm occurring to forests, oceans and other ecosystems and that New Yorkers should do anything they can to reduce their environmental impact. According to Lopez, composting is a big part of that. 

“We are part of the ecosystem. Period. We never separated from the ecosystem,” Lopez said. “People assume that they are not a part of the natural world. If that were true, we wouldn’t be experiencing the tripartite climate catastrophe that we’re in right now … We live in a world where everything is connected, and there’s no way you can sever that connection, no matter how big, bad, rich or elected you are.”

Thomas Leeser, a Park Slope resident, said he is glad that composting is coming to Brooklyn, and that he has been composting since he moved to the area three years ago. Leeser said that he had no issue with the program being mandatory, as composting is good for the environment. 

“It’s a good thing, you know, I’m happy that it’s happening,” Leeser said. “We should all do our part for the environment.”

Fire Ravages Nine Business in Heart of Satmar Neighborhood in South Williamsburg

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

Storefront in the aftermath of the fire

Smoke rose over the cars on Brooklyn Queens Expressway Aug. 20 after a fire engulfed nine stores on Lee Avenue in South Williamsburg. 10 New York Fire Department firefighters were injured in their attempts to control the five alarm fire.

In a press conference, Laura Kavanagh, NYC Fire Commissioner, said that the call came in at approximately 9 a.m. and though fire department personnel arrived at the site in under four minutes, the fire was serious by time FDNY appeared on scene. According to Kavanagh, while members of the FDNY were injured, one firefighter sustaining life-threatening red-tag wounds, no other people or animals were hurt.

John Hodgens, Chief of Department for FDNY, said in a press conference that the situation on Lee was quite advanced by the time the call came in and that up to 200 fire department and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel were needed in order to control the fire and secure the site. According to Hodgens, most of the stores were closed, so firefighters had to break through the metal roll down gates of each storefront.

“It takes a lot of staffing, a lot of hard work, it’s not an easy task. Our other members have to go in and search to make sure there are no victims and start opening with tools the fire that is hidden above the ceiling [and under the roof],” Hodgens said. “It’s a very labor intensive operation, and they did a great job. Unfortunately, a couple were injured, but they are doing well.”

Hodgens said the 90 degree heat on Sunday added a further challenge to fighting the fire, as well as the sizable amount of smoke from the burning street block, but that the fire was under control as of the early afternoon. To ensure that the fire did not spread to the multi-unit dwelling next door and that no residents were hurt, Hodgens said that fire department personnel secured the wall bordering the fire and evacuated all residents. In accordance with FDNY protocol, an investigation led by a fire marshall will soon begin in order to determine the cause of the fire.

Carlos Masri, a South Williamsburg community member, said Lee Avenue is considered to be an economic and cultural hub of the Hasidic community, and that the damages to the area will be considerable.

Local community members gather around the site of the fire on Lee Avenue

“This will affect [the community] very much. This was one of the main centers where people will come here throughout the holidays, or before shabbat. It’s the main hub of this few blocks, and this is one of the major strips. There are restaurants, dry-good stores, all kinds of stuff. It’s like a little mall within the community,” Masri said.

Masri said many Hasidic families right now are out of New York City for the summer while their children attend summer camps, which also might be one of the reasons that all stores were empty at the time of the fire. However, with the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah fast approaching in September, Masri said that the community will feel the effects of the loss more strongly.
According to Masri, having strong local businesses is important for the Hasidic community because they are in compliance with Jewish laws and cultural norms.

“It’s a unique neighborhood because everyone is shopping locally,” Masri said. “Because of traditions and rules, it requires you to shop locally in accordance with Jewish laws and Hasidic culture so that’s why it’s really important to have

FDNY personnel on the scene

local stores. It’s not like you can go out to any other place.”

Lincoln Restler, New York City councilmember for the district, said the fire is a tragedy for the South Williamsburg community, and that he is saddened by the incident.

“This is the street that everybody in South Williamsburg comes to shop for all their needs. To have a devastating fire like this, that destroyed nine beloved local businesses, it breaks my heart,” Restler said. “There are many dozens of people who worked on this corner who don’t have jobs, and there are nine small business owners who poured their blood, sweat and tears into building out great small businesses for our community. In a flash, it’s all gone.

Restler said that the city council will work with the business owners and community leaders to rebuild the Lee Avenue shopping center.

“It’s going to be a long road, a long process, but we’re committed to working as closely as we can with each of the businesses affected to help them get back on their feet,” Restler said.

Carroll Gardens Residents Rally Against Eviction

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

Organized chants of “Save Our Homes!” and “Irving Langer: Shame, Shame Shame!” rang throughout the street on Tuesday July 25 in Carroll Gardens as speakers at a rally in the neighborhood urged the people attending to fight against the end of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program at 63 Tiffany Place. The end of the program is expected to trigger a wave of evictions of people from the building as the current landlord Ivan Langer, recently dubbed one of the worst landlords in the city, will be permitted to impose rent hikes on tenants.

Photo courtesy of NYC Comptroller Brad Lander’s office

John Levya, who has lived in the apartment complex for three decades, said the tenants have been dreading this moment for years. When Levya moved into the building after it first opened in the early 90s, he said the rent for his apartment was $604, now it’s $1,142 per month, a rare and almost fantastical price for the leafy Carroll Gardens neighborhood, where median rent for a one bedroom market rate apartment runs around $4,000. Levya said that many of the renters cannot afford to stay in the neighborhood without rental protections, and will have limited options for housing if prices are increased. 

“People who moved in their 30s, 40s and 50s are now 60, 70 and 80. We even have a 90-year-old-couple that lives here. Where are they going to go? It’s just horrible,” Levya said. “At least three people have broken down and started crying here with me. Everybody has a dark cloud over their head, and that’s all we talk about in the elevator.” 

The apartment building is currently a part of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which provides a “dollar for dollar reduction in federal income tax” for owners and developers of housing designated for low-income people. Rents under the program cannot exceed 60% of area median income, which means that current landlord, Langer, has to cap rents at $1,590 for a one bedroom apartment, less than half of the median rent price for a one bedroom at Carroll Gardens’ marketplace value. 

However, the program is temporary. After 30 years, renters will no longer be protected by the Low-Income Tax Credit Program. For 63 Tiffany Place, that day is coming up in December of this year. 

Ben Fuller Googins, deputy director of the Carroll Gardens Association, a non-profit organization striving to keep Carroll Gardens accessible to people of all income levels, said one of the inherent problems with the program is that it only provides safeguards to tenants for a fixed period of time. 

“One of the major programs, not only in New York City, but in the country for creating affordable housing, is this Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, and it’s inherently problematic because it has an expiration date,” Fuller-Googins said. “There is a more fundamental problem, where we need to create a system that’s actually for low-income people, and is permanent.” 

Longtime Tiffany Place Tenant Joy Foster said in a speech that New York City had become a hostile city to renters, especially low-income ones, due to rising prices across the city. 

“When I moved here 25 years ago, what I paid for rent was actually quite close to the norm … and now those rents have increased over ten fold. It’s not commensurate with people’s salaries,” Foster said. “It’s a sick and twisted game that is being played for the very few, the few at the top.”  

According to the United Way of New York City, half of New York households can not afford to live in the city, and “do not have incomes that cover basic needs, such as housing, food, health care, and transportation.” After the pandemic, rent payments in New York City grew double the national rate at 33 percent between January 2021 and January 2022, as reported by the NYTimes. 

This is true too in Carroll Gardens as prices have skyrocketed around 63 Tiffany Place since the tax program was implemented. According to the NYU Furman Center, rates in the area have risen 38.3 percent since 2006, swiftly outpacing the slower 7.1 percent change in income levels over the same time period. 

Tiffany Place was originally surrounded by old factory buildings and other low-rent housing. Now, the neighborhood is filled with bakeries and shops, designer dogs on expensive leashes and renovated brownstones that sell for millions of dollars. According to Levya, the people in the building were pioneers in the area when the neighborhood was much less affluent.

“You know, we built a great community. When we first moved here, it wasn’t as nice as it is now. You couldn’t really walk around at night. It was really desolate, dark out here,” Levy said. 

Some residents will be able to remain in the building after December. Linda Bell, resident of Tiffany Place for 29 years, said she has had to file a form every two years and travel an hour away to get her paperwork stamped by an office in Jamaica, Queens in order to renew her lease. Because of her efforts, Bell now has a short-term rent-stabilized lease that is valid until 2025, but many residents do not. Levy said he has not been given a lease by the landlord in eight years. In a phone call, Bell said she thinks the lack of lease renewals might have been intentional on the landlord’s part. 

“I assumed it’s because they are trying to get rid of all of [the tenants],” Bell said. “[The tenants] think they have rights because they’ve been paying the same rent since 2012, but that is not so.” 

Jenny Akchin, an attorney specializing in housing for local activist group TakeRoot Justice, also said she thinks that the landlords decision to let the tenants’ leases lapse was deliberate as it leaves the residents with very little legal protections from eviction or rental increases. 

“We’re a little nervous about what’s going to happen in December when the tax housing credit program expires with all these tenants who don’t have leases. We think this is definitely part of the plan,” Akchin said. 

Akchin said her organization is trying to provide tenants with rent stabilization protections to keep their rents lower after the tax credit program expires, though some residents will not be eligible. So far, Akchin said they have managed to get about a dozen tenants rent stabilized, but are aiming for 25 to 30. According to Akchin, the landlord has been appealing their rent stabilization requests because of a legal gray matter based on uncertainty around whether the building is classified as a condominium or apartment complex. As a general rule, condominiums are ineligible for rent stabilization. 

“The really infuriating thing is that when we’ve applied to have tenants rent stabilized in the past, the landlord has actually appealed the decision saying that they can’t be rent stabilized because the building is a condominium,” Akchin said. “But [previous owners] never successfully converted it into a condo.” 

E&M Associates, led by Langer, is notorious across several different boroughs for a high number of violations and evictions. Despite the work from tenants, activists and elected officials, it is unclear what will happen in December when the tax credit program expires unless Langer and E&M decide to either resyndicate the agreement or enter another affordable housing preservation program that will keep rents low. Almost 70 families and single people living at 63 Tiffany Place are at risk of losing their apartments. 

Photo courtesy of NYC Comptroller Brad Lander’s office

Neither Langer nor any representatives for E&M attended the rally, and E&M Associates have not replied to requests to come to the table in order to negotiate a way to stabilize the rents. 

In a phone call, Richard Walsh, a lawyer representing Langer and E&M, said there is no obligation for his client to negotiate any rent-stabilization measures or resyndicate the tax credit program. Walsh also said that the claims from the tenants are overblown.

“It’s voluntary, and we don’t have to extend it,” Walsh said. “We don’t know who’s making these claims up, they’re wrong. There’s no mass evictions on the horizon.” 

Walsh said that his client cannot raise rents to unconscionable levels, or the company is at risk of being sued by tenants, at which point a judge would decide if the price increase is unconscionable or not. According to Walsh, a tenant can only be evicted with “good cause,” which includes not paying rent, illegally subletting an apartment, or being a nuisance. If rents at 63 Tiffany Place are converted to market prices in December, tenants who cannot afford the new payments can either choose to fight eviction proceedings in court or move elsewhere. 

City Comptroller Brad Lander said that Irving Langer could keep the apartments affordable while still turning a profit. According to Lander, Brooklynites should come together to fight predatory landlords and maintain the atmosphere of their communities and neighborhoods. 

“That’s really what’s at stake here, the families in this building, but also the vision of a Brooklyn where diverse people can live together, where working class and middle class families can afford to live in beautiful neighborhoods like this one,” Lander said. 

Park Slope Flower Shop Receives Historic Business Award

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

Fonda Sara, owner of the flower shop Zuzu’s Petals on 374 5th Ave. in Park Slope, feels flowers in her body. 

“I have a physical reaction to flowers and growing-things, when I see a beautiful flower or an interesting flower in an incredible color, I literally have a visceral reaction,” Sara said. “I physically feel a jolt. I feel it in my body, it’s a thrill, an excitement.” 

Exterior of Zuzu’s Petals. Photo courtesy of Fonda Sara

After 50 years of delivering flowers to the people in Park Slope, Zuzu’s Petals was recently added to the New York State National Historic Business Registry. Sara said she applied because it felt like a tremendous accomplishment to have survived being a small-business owner for five decades. However, according to Sara, the designation is mostly just a social media buzzword to use for marketing purposes: she said the real satisfaction comes from fostering her team of workers and seeing the impact her business has had on the community.

“I feel that the designation as a historic business is important as a handle for social media. For me, the richness of my life experience is enough to make me feel that I’ve lived a good life. But in terms of external tools to promote my business, it’s just another handle,” Sara said. 

Sara said she also loves mentoring young creative people who might need a restorative break from a rigid career path, such as her manager Rebecca Brinkley, who she said will hopefully take the reins of Zuzu’s eventually. Brinkley, a former actress, said she started working at the flower shop during the pandemic when all her acting gigs dried up. According to Brinkley, she took a position as a salesperson with her friend and ended up staying long term even after her friend moved on to other things because she enjoyed work so much.

“I stayed here. And, I just liked it so much better,” Brinkley said. “As a creative person, it’s really nice to do something that’s physical. Also, the people that flowers attract are so much more pleasant to be around than anything else. Coming from the theater industry, it’s a relatively abusive place. What’s so nice about this is you go to the market, and all the florists are trying to help each other out.” 

“[Park Slope] was a nurturing environment for people to do things that weren’t the norm,” Sara said.

Photo courtesy of Fonda Sara

After a fire broke out in their original location on 9th Ave. in 2004, Zuzu’s went through a round of fundraising to move to their current location on 5th Ave.. Sara said the hardship she experienced from fire, as well as the time spent in the neighborhood, pushed her to feel that Zuzu’s deserved to be added to the historic registry.

“The definition of someone who qualifies to be on the registry is that you have to be in business in a neighborhood and that you’ve had to contribute to the neighborhood,” Sara said. “ I’ve lived in Park Slope for most of my adult life, and I feel it’s my heart and soul. It’s where my people are.”

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