Housing for the Ages--The quest to build Coretta Scott-King Senior Apartments

Gregg Morris | 12/8/2016, 4 p.m.
In her short adulation at the official opening of Coretta Scott-King Senior Apartments in East New York, Brooklyn, the Commissioner ...
Coretta Scott-King Senior Housing New York Housing Conference

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 the Aging praised the nonprofit Community Partners Commission Association, Inc. and the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, one of the city's largest multi-service nonprofits. In the same breath the commissioner also acknowledged the grim realities of decent housing for seniors in one of the most underserved neighborhoods in the city, 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 of the 51-unit building at 660 Jerome Avenue where a temporary dais was set up and several in the audience sat in chairs. "It can take divine intervention to get an apartment. There are thousands of seniors wishing that they could be here and have one of these apartments. Every day we get thousands of calls from seniors."

More than 5000 requests were received for the 51 units in Coretta Scott-King apartments. Only applications from those with fixed incomes were to be considered and the selections for the 51 units had to be made by lottery and it was open to all races and ethnicities. East New York, according to city statistics, is

52 percent Black, 37 percent Hispanic, 3 percent White, 2 percent Other. Life expectancy in that community is 77.7. A few miles away in Borough Park the life expectancy is 83.5.

The pageantry on that bright and warm October day of last year was impressive. Numerous speakers lavished praise on the president of Community Partners Commission Association, Dedra Wade. The speakers ranged from esteemed local and nationally known members of the clergy to representatives of senior officials of city and federal agencies like HUD as well as the Brooklyn Borough Presidents Office and members of the New York City Council.

Speaker after speaker eulogized Wade as the "the visionary" and driving force behind the $13 million housing project constructed on what was once a large, city-owned dumping ground. "Dedra Grant Wade, you are New York's Coretta Scott-King," said an Atlanta, Georgia, clergy member who worked with the King family.

"You are the embodiment of driven determination," Eric Enderlin, Deputy Commissioner, New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said about Wade who stood nearby the improvised podium for speakers. Appearing on behalf of Commissioner Vicki Been, he concluded his laudatory comments about Wade's persistence, drive and passion by recalling the words of Coretta Scott-King, "Struggle is a never ending process, freedom is never really won. You earn it and you win it, in every generation."

Cars, refrigerators, air conditioners and detritus of all make and manner were regularly dumped in that eyesore, according residents interviewed for this article. Illegal dumping, especially at night, spurred rumors that toxic wastes were leaking into the ground. Subsequent environmental tests, however, showed that the land contained no toxic wastes. The plan of Wade's Community Partners Commission Association was to build something akin to a "naturally occurring residential retirement community." Such communities are also known as NORCS, which "maximize and support the successful aging in place of older residents," according to the New York Department of Aging.

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, who spoke briefly and succinctly at the podium. "There was a lot of distractions, there was a lot of controversy, there was a lot of decisiveness, there was a lot of everything that had to be taken on to make this a reality." He was referring to the realpolitik of political and commercial interests whose agendas had to be addressed. That reality plus unexpected financial problems that seemed to pop up at the most unpropitious times added the extra seven years to the project.

East New York's business and political realpolitik has been described as small-townish and that the community is divided by what one veteran businessman called the community Mason Dixon Line, Pitkin Avenue, which runs west to east from East New York Avenue to Cross Bay Boulevard. "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, the veteran 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." What follows is a summary of how Wade's Community Partners Commission Association dealt with that reality. The deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development comment about Wade's "driven determination" was not an exaggeration.

Wade is a former chief in the New York City Department of Probation and for 24 years served under four mayors and six commissioners. She was the department's first community affairs chief. Before she retired 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 and especially in public housing. One of her contributions was creating public service programs for that community.

Educating and employing probationers benefits a community, she said about one program she started. But 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?'" She opened their eyes about the realities of their neighborhood by painting them a picture. "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 (those on probation) who lived on the blocks."

"So, all were trying to do," she recalled saying at meetings, "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." Other programs included recruiting community service work crews to help clean up streets and lots and to remove graffiti. Her public service programs played "a lead role when they (law enforcement) arrested some of the major gang members," she said. Her frequent visits to East New York were fraught with risks but that's how she eventually met Dennis Taylor. "I was readily armed every day," she recalled. "I didn't know what Mr. Taylor's capacity was but he was out here every day, and I was pretty much scared for him some of the times."

"Well at the time," Taylor recalled in an interview, "I was working for a local nonprofit community housing developer. She (Wade) had come over with this program called CERT that was working out of the Cyprus Hills houses (on Euclid Avenue) and she came in one day and I will never forget it, and she was selling me this story (about her public service strategy). I said, well, how can you do that when you're part of probation. Probation's mandate is to lock folks up?"

CERT is the acronym for Certificate of Relief from Disability and a judge can restore some of the rights that a person loses if convicted of a crime. Anyone with a minor criminal record who has not been convicted of two or more minor felonies is eligible. Wade was passionate about CERT in East New York, especially because of youth, such as high school graduates and college students, who were trying to put their lives in order. Their records of convictions for minor crimes as teens, however, created serious problems for them, such as applying for jobs. Wade explained her strategy, Taylor said, and "we've been working together ever since." Several years later that alliance helped significantly with Wade's "green card" after Taylor became her business partner.

Brooklyn Community Board 5, which encompasses East New York, Cypress Hills, Highland Park, New Lots, City Line, Spring Creek, and Starrett City, "was in favor for us from the beginning," Wade said in the interview several days before the official opening as she gave a short summary of the vexing challenges she faced establishing trust and garnering support. Another well of early support came from senior citizens either living in the neighborhood and those who had felt compelled to move out but wanted to return.

"One of the coldest nights I think I can remember in history," recalled Wade about a meeting in March of 2006. "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." It was held at a local neighborhood Democratic club just a few blocks from the dump site.

"We told them that we were seeking site control of this piece of property, and we needed their support," she said. The fixed incomes of retirement pensions and social security benefits of those seniors at the meeting were not sufficient for them to have decent housing in East New York. Wade's plans could change that. Also, the seniors insisted, Wade recalled, that the building be named after Coretta Scott-King who had passed that year in late January.

Mabel Jones, 76, a retired YWCA daycare teacher, recalled the meeting and the reason she showed up for it. Jones, who lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant before moving to Jerome Avenue, 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 ever showed up. But that didn't stop her from calling. "I just couldn't stand to see what I was looking at. They came in late at night. They would sneak in and just unload. Sometimes they broke down the fence. It bother me so bad," she said.

She learned about the meeting by word of mouth and attended even though she wasn't sure about the agenda, only that someone was promising to get rid of the dump. After the meeting, she was part of an unofficial but spirited cohort of seniors supporting Wade's plans for the Coretta-Scot King project. "We just jumped on band wagon because we wanted to see something done," she said. "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 that they would be able to move into the building and who made their voices heard at other meetings, only one was alive to attend the day of the official opening. "Many of them passed due to what happens to people when they retire," Wade said about seniors, the regret obvious in her voice. "They get disconnected from what they knew. They 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." She said seniors need to live in what she called a "naturally occurring residential retirement community."

"That's something so healthy for seniors because they stay with familiar friends," she said. "They need the community no matter how broke down and beat up the community becomes, they just stick it out. Back then a lot of one and two family homes were being built and they (seniors) couldn't afford them and neither could the people who got them because there was a lot of predatory lending" that resulted in many defaulting on their mortgages, she said.

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 and that created a financial strain at home because of the funds that she and her husband had set aside for the college education of her kids, a son and daughter. Despite the funding from HUD, she learned at one point that she needed $1.5 million for an unexpected cost and because of rules and regulations she couldn't use any of the HUD funding. " Could you imagine us still being held up because of $1.5 million," she said in an interview. "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."

Fate in the form of her husband winning a New York Lotto was the answer to her prayers. She used some of the winnings to keep the project going. Wade also said more than once that prayer helped her complete the project and that she prayed often with Jones who one day chastised Wade for losing faith when Wade was at a low point because of problems with the project. Jones was the only survivor of the seniors 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 days later 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 New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America with sponsorship from the Silver Century Foundation.