DUMBO set to be next front for development’s battle against homelessness

“The cure to homelessness is housing.” Breaking Ground builds it.

December 19, 2019 Michael Stahl
The tower at right is 90 Sands St., a former Watchtower hotel that’s being turned into housing for formerly homeless New Yorkers. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle
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A new bill expected to pass in the City Council on Thursday will require certain developers that receive government funding to set aside 15 percent of their new rental units for homeless New Yorkers. All told, the legislation is projected to create about 1,000 new apartments for those most in need of housing each year — in addition to the 1,300 apartments the city will develop on an annual basis.

But even with the added housing, there are still 79,000 people in New York City living in shelters and on the streets — a number that represents 14 percent of the entire nation’s homeless population. One nonprofit is hoping to put in the extra work to make more change, especially in Brooklyn, a borough fast becoming unaffordable for its residents.

Breaking Ground, an organization committed to ending homelessness by developing and managing buildings with supportive housing and specialized programs, appears postured to reimagine a one-time Jehovah’s Witness hotel at 90 Sands St. in DUMBO.

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The group plans to turn the building into a residence for people exiting homelessness, as well as low- and moderate-income individuals and families. After buying 90 Sands for $170 million in 2018, Breaking Ground received rezoning approval from the Community Board 2 Land Use Committee in November, allowing the building to operate as a residential complex on a street otherwise zoned for manufacturing purposes. (The Buildings Department chose not to grandfather in 90 Sands’ residential-use status after the Breaking Ground acquisition.)

If their land use application is approved, Breaking Ground will generate 305 new apartments for formerly homeless people. The complex will also include 202 permanently affordable apartments for tenants with annual incomes falling between 30 percent and 100 percent of the area median income. That range includes individuals making anywhere from $22,410 to $74,700 per year.

Breaking Ground anticipates move-ins will start by early 2021, making 90 Sands the organization’s 21st permanent supportive housing building, its sixth and largest in Brooklyn. There are already Breaking Ground buildings in Brownsville, East New York and Weeksville.

Bringing supportive housing to DUMBO, one of the priciest neighborhoods for housing in the entire city, was not without its challenges. After an initial CB2 Land Use Committee meeting in June 2018 where the project was introduced, approximately 20 residents of a nearby co-op complex, Concord Village, voiced concerns about safety and increased loitering with the presence of formerly homeless people in the area. But addressing such fears is nothing new for the Breaking Ground, which will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its founding in 2020.

Paramount to Breaking Ground’s success is their ability to alter people’s perceptions of the homeless. Brenda Rosen, president and CEO of the organization, said the group prides itself on its transparency and accessibility, offering tours of their buildings to those who want to better understand who the buildings serve and how they do so. From the time Breaking Ground even considers developing in a neighborhood, Rosen said, the organization begins its community engagement immediately, working to quell any friction founded in the social stigma of the homeless population.

Stigmas around homeless are widespread. Many — such as the belief that people experience homelessness due to factors within their control — are based on misinformation. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, a homeless advocacy group, 44 percent of the nation’s homeless individuals are, in fact, employed.

Many Americans are more vulnerable to homelessness than they might realize. One study found that 43 percent of households in the U.S. are “liquid-asset poor,” meaning that if the household experienced a sudden loss of income, within three months it would descend below the poverty line. Mental illness and substance abuse issues are large contributing factors to homelessness, but the prevalence of social stigmas around homelessness can dissuade people from seeking help. Even when help is sought, access to such services can prove challenging in and of itself.

“Our philosophy is that in order to address the issues that have likely led to [someone’s] homelessness to begin with, we really need to provide somebody a stable home so they don’t have to use all their energy trying to figure out how they’re going to make it through another night,” Rosen said.

Breaking Ground buildings provide access to mental illness professionals, substance use referrals, employment services and other self-sufficiency programming.

Plans for 90 Sands include public spaces to help with community integration in tandem with other programming, which in the past has included gardening clubs that led to produce markets. The building features a commercial space and an industrial-size kitchen. For now, Breaking Ground is unsure what will become of the kitchen, but Rosen said they envision a potential culinary arts center with an educational component, perhaps via a partnership with other nonprofits in the food industry.

Those who are homeless or live on low wages can gain entry into a Breaking Ground building through a couple different tracks: the city’s affordable housing lottery, and through outreach conducted both in-house or via partnerships with community groups. Rent rates are on a sliding scale, dependent upon income, with the balances provided to Breaking Ground through tax credits and other subsidies.

Currently, Breaking Ground serves 8,560 people in the New York City area through its various programming, the organization said, with 2,099 of them in Brooklyn. That number will balloon exponentially, given the more than 500 new apartments in the 90 Sands DUMBO development alone.

“We have a homelessness crisis in New York City, and the cure to homelessness is housing,” said Councilmember Stephen Levin, who represents the area in which 90 Sands stands. “That sounds pretty self-explanatory, but the reality is we need more affordable housing, particularly affordable housing that is available to people that have lower incomes and that are exiting homelessness.”

Levin said he’s very familiar with Breaking Ground, which he called “a great organization” with a long track record of positive outcomes. He added that bringing a Breaking Ground complex to affluent DUMBO “sends an important message to the rest of the city that supportive housing should be in every neighborhood.”

“These are our neighbors, who may have fallen on some hard times, but given the opportunity are really able to thrive,” he said.

In spite of some early grumblings at last year’s CB2 hearing, DUMBO residents seem to have warmed to Breaking Ground’s inevitable takeover of 90 Sands. At the hearing last month, not a single resident spoke out against it.

“We expect [the building] to fit seamlessly into the neighborhood,” Rosen said. “In the past several years … we’ve gone in front of a lot of different community boards, and had countless conversations, and I have to say that on balance we’ve really received a lot of support.”

Sometimes, according to Rosen, skeptics assume that Breaking Ground’s setups are only temporary. She rejects that assumption.

“We’re not leaving,” said Rosen. “We haven’t left for 30 years and we’re not going to now.”

Michael Stahl is a New York-based reporter covering business and technology across the borough. You can find him on Twitter

Correction (Dec. 20 at 12:40 p.m.): An earlier version of this story misdated the Community Board 2 hearing where residents complained about Breaking Ground’s plans for 90 Sands St. The story has been updated. 

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  1. Reporter1

    The developer who bought the property from the Jehovah Witnesses, Abby Rosen, made a killing selling the property to Breaking Ground. And who is subsidising the tidy profit made by Rosen? The taxpayer, of course, who will be paying higher taxes to subsidize the underlying cost of this boondoggle. Putting the poor in housing in one of the wealthiest new neighborhoods in New York City makes no sense at all. It’s sheer lunacy, You could probably offer twice as many units, if not more, for the same price in the Bronx.

    • P. Laptop

      “sheer lunacy”?

      Should lower income citizens always have to travel farther for work, school, medical and social services? Brooklyn can’t just ship out our poor to other boroughs. Many of the homeless whom I know personally in the neighborhood (where I live) have grown up in the area and have family nearby.

      Further, while I don’t like the shenanigans of the property transfer, I find the property in question far better suited for SRO than luxury residential, both in its architecture and its location.