Battling Brooklyn gentrification, one building at a time
Meet Bernell Grier, executive director of IMPACCT Brooklyn
The nonprofit Bernell Grier leads has fought to protect low- and moderate-income residents from being driven out of gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods for longer than many of our readers have been alive.
Members of Pratt Area Community Council launched Displacement Watch to keep tabs on this looming threat — a half-century ago.
Today IMPACCT Brooklyn, as it’s now called, continues that work in several ways.
One is through participation in Stabilizing NYC, a citywide coalition funded by the City Council to teach tenants how to organize and fight landlords who use “unsavory” tactics to push people out of their homes, said Grier, who is the executive director at IMPACCT Brooklyn.
“We unleash the power within the community,” she said in a recent interview in her Crown Heights office. “It already exists. Let’s let it rise.”
IMPACCT Brooklyn also fights gentrification-related displacement through its ownership of nearly 1,000 units of affordable housing.
Its focus is preserving them as affordable units for the long-term and keeping them out of the hands of investors who are not community-friendly, said Grier, who was a banking executive before she joined the nonprofit world.
As another means of fighting gentrification, IMPACCT Brooklyn and other nonprofit developers have formed an organization called the Joint Operating Entity, or JOE.
“Its purpose is to … allow us to come together to leverage our united strength to be able to preserve, purchase and develop affordable housing,” Grier said.
IMPACCT Brooklyn does “mission-based development,” meaning it collaborates with churches and community groups on affordable housing projects.
For instance, Grier’s organization is currently working with an entity called Providence House to renovate two Bedford-Stuyvesant buildings and partnering with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church to build a seniors housing development, also in Bed-Stuy.
Some IMPACCT Brooklyn properties are supportive housing for people who are formerly homeless or living with mental illness or chronic medical conditions. The organization either contracts with an agency that provides supportive services for residents or provides the services itself.
IMPACCT Brooklyn is looking to expand its work as a services provider through new supportive housing it builds.
The group also fights the displacement of low- and moderate-income Brooklynites from their neighborhoods by helping those threatened with eviction and teaching tenants how to navigate affordable-housing lotteries and become financially fit first-time homeowners. It also provides legal and financial services to small business owners.
From aspiring math teacher to banker
Grier lives in a Clinton Hill co-op she bought in 1988. She said if she hadn’t bought the apartment then, she wouldn’t be able to live in the neighborhood now — she couldn’t afford a home at today’s prices.
She was born and raised in Harlem and lived in the NYCHA’s Ralph J. Rangel Houses for 25 years.
In the 1970s, while a student at City College of New York, she got a summer job as a teller at Chase Bank. After getting a high score on a test from the human resources department, she was invited to join the bank’s retail management-training program.
Grier was planning to be a math teacher, but the city of New York was in fiscal crisis and was laying off teachers. So she enrolled in the bank’s program, switched her major from math and education to economics and finished her college degree through evening classes.
After Grier graduated, she took a job with one of Bank of America’s predecessor institutions. It didn’t have a computer system. Grier asked if she could join the team that computerized the bank’s operations — and got a “yes.”
“My parents always taught me the worst thing that anyone can ever say to you is no, so why not ask?” she recalled.
Men tried to poach her clients
Along the way, a boss suggested she should try for a job as a relationship manager, which is another name for loan officer. So Grier completed a 16-month training program modeled like an accelerated MBA.
She recalled being one of three black students in her training group of about 25. She finished the program at the head of the class in a tie with a white man. He was assigned to the national division; she was assigned to the metropolitan division.
Her position involved cold-calling to sell the bank’s products and services throughout the tri-state area.
“It was intense, but I was successful at it,” she said.
At one point, loyal clients warned her that male colleagues were trying to poach them from her.
“Why do you want this woman to handle your account? Don’t you want a man to handle your account?” the colleagues asked. She called them out on their behavior.
Later, when Grier wound up working in Brooklyn, she decided to get involved in volunteer work in the borough.
“I found that I really loved it,” she said. “It helped me to understand my passion really lay more in community than in banking.”
Grier turned to full-time nonprofit work in 2004 by becoming chief operating officer of Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City, an institution that helps people shape up their finances and become homeowners.
As its interim chief executive officer and then the chief executive officer, she guided the organization and its clients through the subprime mortgage crisis. Grier left Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City “at a time of strength” in 2015 and is proud she turned it over to another black woman to run, she said.
Grier has led IMPACCT Brooklyn since 2016.
The nonprofit is celebrating its 55th anniversary with an annual awards reception on April 25. The fundraising goal for the event is $300,000. Click here for more info.
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.