The Middle Class Squeeze in Bedford-Stuyvesant

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Painted garage in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Households in this census tract matches the city's median income. Painted garage in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Households in this census tract matches the city's median income. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

The city's median income is $51,865 across the five boroughs. In Manhattan it's closer to $70,000; in the Bronx it's around $34,000. And in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in Census tract 267, where brownstones break all-time price records, it's $52,253.

 Stepping gingerly down the icy stairs of her three-story brownstone, Rosalind Morris shakes her head. Her kids forgot to lock the front door again.

"Those kids leave everything open," she says, marching off to catch a late subway to her nursing job at Elmhurst Hospital.

Morris grew up in her family's Renaissance Revival brownstone, which was built in 1899. It’s now home to a household of 12: kids, grandkids, in-laws. Told that she lives in a census tract that matches the city’s median income, and asked if she feels middle class, Morris doesn't hesitate.

"Always did," she fires back. "Bi-racial child growing up in the '60s. I was middle class when middle class wasn’t popular. You figure that out."

Morris’ mother was a hairdresser; her father, a Trinidad native, played saxophone in a Calypso band and was a maintenance worker at Brooklyn College. He helped sell real estate on the side and in 1946 the couple bought a home on Hancock Street for $6,000.

Now, there are eight children living there and only two adults are working: Morris and her daughter, an MTA dispatcher.

Despite the upward trend of Bed-Stuy brownstones selling for millions in this census tract, Morris says she's not tempted.

"I’m going to stay here 'till I die and I’m going to pass it on to my kids," she says. "The way my mother passed it on to me."

She says half her income goes to paying a mortgage she refinanced so she could fix the building's 100-year old plumbing. A quarter of her income goes to fixing up the house. But she does splurge once in awhile. Last Halloween, she took everyone in the house on a four-day Carnival cruise to the Bahamas. That was rare, though.

She says she usually runs a tight ship.

"Like my mother, she taught me to always save things for a rainy day and I’ve lived on that mentality because she went through the Great Depression. So, I live like I’m going through the Great Depression," she says.

Rosalind Morris' home, which is included in the American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City because of the terra-cotta, stained glass, elliptical arches and Byzantine columns (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Much of the housing in the eight blocks that make up Census Tract 267 dates to well before the Depression, and the neighborhood has a 19th century charm.

There are six buildings in this tract that are included in the American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City: family homes made of red terra cotta, with stained glass, elliptical arches, and Byzantine columns, and there’s a neo-Renaissance townhouse. Director Steven Soderbergh even used a high school next to the tract that was once a hospital to shoot his latest TV series, the Knick, set at the turn of the century. While filming he filled the streets with dirt, old trolley cars and horse drawn buggies. The brownstones needed little altering.

Building painted for the set of Steven Soderbergh's The Knick (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

While Rosalind Morris was born into the neighborhood, others, like Avi Frey, 32, his fiancée and their French bulldog, Ralphie, arrived just seven months ago. The public interest lawyers says they came because of the large apartments and neighborhood feel.

His second-story, one-bedroom walk-up is flooded with light from three windows that still have the original molding. Both Frey and his fiancée, a first year teacher, have law degrees and huge student loans. As a household, they’re more than double the median income for the neighborhood. But they can hardly afford to live there.

"Spending $2,000 a month, it’s a very short-sighted financial approach," Frey admits. "It doesn’t permit the type of savings that would allow us to buy a home," he said. 

Frey says they eat almost every meal at home, and are pretty frugal, only splurging on $120 dinners twice a month. They aren’t making any long term plans.

"The sad thing is, as much as we love this neighborhood, by the time we’re ready to purchase, whenever that might be, this neighborhood, we’ll be priced out of," Frey says. "I don’t know what the next Bed-Stuy is, I don’t know if we’ll be looking at East New York at that point, or something like that. It won't be here."

Avi Frey and his dog Ralphie (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

No one tracks the affordability of the neighborhood like Ban Leow. He's a real estate broker for Evans & Nye which, he says, bears some responsibility for the skyrocketing cost of homes.

"A lot of middle class people are looking for homes around here, it also seems they’re being priced out," he says, speaking from his gleaming office with exposed brick and Edison bulbs in the window. "The vigorous activity of Bed-Stuy became suddenly so hot, we are partly the reason for it as well."

Leow's office is also located in this census tract. The real estate agent claims to have broken records, closing a three-family home for $1.85 million and a four family for $1.45 million. Not exactly middle-class prices.

"Brokers are always the person that brings the right people in, creates this vibrant mix of people, and hence business will come in, prices will go up and you are liked by some, hated by many," he admits.

Evans & Nye’s mortgage banker, Joe Spinelli, helps people get financing and says he hasn't qualified a single person who makes less than $100,000 in this neighborhood for a loan.

"I don’t want to say a majority, but a high percentage of people who are from here, and have been living here, not just recently, would not be able buy in today’s market. Absolutely no way, absolutely not," he says.

A home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn on Hancock Street, which is included in the AIA Guide to New York City because of its Pompeian-red-terra-cotta and brick (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Lisa Tompson, 42, feels lucky she got in early. Her Innervision Beauty Salon has been on the neighborhood’s commercial hub on Tompkins Avenue for more than 17 years. She grew up in this tract and owns the building where she lives.

"I’m really here to see all the changes that’s been made. And it’s for the better. You invite different businesses, different kinds of people. It’s a good thing. I like it," she says, pausing for a second. "Yeah." 

While she says she’s middle class, she's getting a lift by renting out one of her apartments. She’s still making about the median income, and feels the economic pressure every day. She’s hopeful Mayor Bill de Blasio will improve things.

"I think he’s going to be a lot better than the last mayor," she says, while braiding a customer's hair. "I believe that he’ll make different changes for everybody in general, for the middle class, and the no class."

Lisa Tompson, 42, owns her business and home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

However, Tompson may not be around to see the changes. In the next five years she's hoping to move somewhere warmer, maybe in the South. Unlike her neighbor, Rosalind Morris, Tompson is ready to cash in on the booming Bed-Stuy market.

According to Census data, about 22 percent of the population in this tract moved in since 2010. And 43 percent moved in between 2000 and 2009. With rising rents and home prices, chances are good by the next Census that this tract will have a hard time remaining in the middle.

A mural outside of a building supply store on Halsey and Tompkins Ave. in this census tract (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)
A neo-Renaissance town house in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn on Hancock Street, which is included in the AIA Guide to New York City. It was built for a successful Irish immigrant in the 1880s. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)
Detailed stain glass on this historic building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn on Hancock Street (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)


Karen Frillmann


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Comments [5]

Lalaland from Brooklyn

Mr. Leow should be careful with his words: "Brokers are always the person that brings the right people in, creates this vibrant mix of people, and hence business will come in, prices will go up and you are liked by some, hated by many," he admits."

A: clients choose brokers, not the other way around.
B: you sound like you may be discriminating
C: you are licensed salesperson, not a broker (also the article could use correction on this count). Interestingly there doesn't appear to be a broker working at this office. The headquarters is in Texas, and there is no broker listed as a broker for the Brooklyn office. I'm gathering it's legal since the DOS is issuing salespersons licenses, but it's hard to imagine proper oversight of salespeople in Brooklyn from Texas.

Jan. 10 2014 11:48 AM
Richard from Bronx

As a resident of a coop on the Grand Concourse, I share similar grievances to my friend who owns a coop at Columbus Circle. We are both paying a disproportionate amount of property taxes relative to land area and infrastructure consumed by New Yorker's in single-family homes. I am not sure how this issue is resolved and what impact it will have on the gentrification of neighborhoods. Personally, I prefer living in a pre-war layout apartment over a chopped up townhouse. If I could afford a full townhouse, it may be something I would consider. However, as an owner, I would expect to pay an equitable amount of property taxes. When brownstone Brooklyn was built up, it was a suburb for all intents and purposes. Now it is clearly part of the urban core. As such, it should adopt the multi-family model along it's transit corridors. Turning the transit rich Village and brownstone Brooklyn into historic districts and then pushing lower and middle income New Yorker's in multi-families to the transit poor fringes of the city seems like a third-world model for the future growth of NYC. If this is in fact the direction that the city is moving, the residents of those brownstones should at the very least be paying their fair share of taxes to promote new infrastructure for lower and middle income New Yorkers pushed to the fringes.

Jan. 09 2014 01:20 PM
Georgia from Brooklyn

I grew up in Bed Sty, when Bed Sty was Bed Sty, a mixed area. However, to see realtors knocking on doors indicating they come with money to purchase their homes is a little annoying. They offer the poor minority a sum which looks so great to them,the buyer gives them what 560,000 thousands for the house they the buy does a fix up job and flips them for higher prices, which is out pricing the minority who's 560,000 dollars took them no where, and by the way are looking to more back to the area not knowing the true insight. All I have seen so far is the price of the homes now, tell the truth, how much did you pay that person to more out so you can flip for that purchase price of over a million.

Jan. 09 2014 11:35 AM
David from Kew Gardens Hills, NY

I've been listening and reading your articles on the middle class with much interest. I have a particular axe to grind that I don't think you've covered thus far. Regretfully, for most of the NYC listening audience, I don't think my concern/complaint will garner much sympathy. My middle class woes concern my status as a modern Orthodox Jew(think non-Chasidic) living in Queens. Despite my family's combined income of $200K, we are struggling to pay our bills just like some of our Gentile friends who are making nearly a quarter of our salary. The problem is that our Orthodox lifestyle demands that we send our children to Jewish parochial school which is costing me nearly $30,000 this year alone ... and that's with financial assistance. On top of this, to live as an Orthodox Jew one needs to live within an Orthodox neighborhood because the synagogue one attends needs to be within walking distance from the home for Sabbath observance (Orthodox Jews do not travel by bike, car, bus, subway, etc. on the Sabbath.). Regretfully, housing prices in New York's Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods (and in other cities as well) are astronomically high. Th's true in Kew Gardens Hills, Kew Gardens, the Five Towns, etc. And so, my wife and I, and our 3 daughters, continue to live in a two bedroom and one bathroom apartment in Queens. We'd love to move into a house and achieve the American dream, but it's sadly beyond our reach despite our respectable joint salary. As I said, I don't expect much sympathy given the quality of our salaries, but I feel just as low on the quality of life totem pole as many of my poorer Gentile contemporaries. Perhaps if I were a Wall Streeter, doctor, or attorney (like so many of my Orthodox Jewish friends) I would be able to afford to live as an Orthodox Jew and simultaneously achieve the American dream. But alas, despite the higher-educational degrees and work experience that my wife and I have achieved, I think it's fair to say that we've reached the zenith of our earning potential. So what's the solution for my family? As if it were an option, do we have to give up being a modern Orthodox Jews just to afford to live a middle class life in New York? Signed, Defeated.

Jan. 08 2014 04:43 PM
Pat from Brooklyn

Enjoyed the piece and I always find it interesting to consider the meaning of “middle class” in New York. I’m hoping to close on a two family in eastern Bed Stuy with my wife in the coming months and while we consider ourselves “middle class” given what we have to spend on housing and student loans our gross income anywhere else in the country would be looked at very differently. However, so much demand for people to come live and rent in New York City and it’s hard to see housing costs leveling off or decreasing. I expect De Blasio won't end up doing much for the middle class on housing but likely more on housing for those with lowest incomes.

Jan. 08 2014 04:42 PM

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