by Steven Prokesch for The New York Times

October 6, 1992


The Dinkins administration and a group of churches and homeowners' associations in Brooklyn have reached an agreement in principle that will allow the group to build as many as 1,300 single-family houses for lower-middle-class families previously unable to buy their own homes.

The agreement, which calls for the construction of 700 to 800 rowhouses west of Pennsylvania Avenue in East New York, was reached last week and will be formally announced later this week, city officials said yesterday. The area is now one of the most impoverished and crime-racked in the city. Another 500 houses are to be built about a mile away in the Spring Creek section.

The group, East Brooklyn Congregations, has been in the forefront of the so-called Nehemiah housing movement, named for the Old Testament prophet who rebuilt Jerusalem, which started in New York and has been copied elsewhere.

Nehemiah has proven that houses for low- and moderate-income families can be built at low cost and with minimal government subsidies. East Brooklyn Congregations has already built about 2,300 two-and three-bedroom homes in Brownsville and East New York in the last eight years. Aimed for Working Families.

In Brooklyn, the church organizations have financed construction of the homes, which have then been sold to working families. The last homes sold in Brooklyn cost about $61,500. Applicants were required to have a minimum income of $20,000 and a maximum of about $53,000. The vast majority had incomes of $20,000 to $30,000.

Costs and income levels for the new homes will presumably be about the same.

As in the previous Brooklyn program, East Brooklyn Congregations is undertaking the latest project with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Construction is to start by early 1994.

The Dinkins administration has long been pushing East Brooklyn Congregations to build its Nehemiah homes in the new area of East New York -- from Pennsylvania Avenue on the east to Junius Street on the west, and from Sutter Avenue on the north to Linden Boulevard on the south. Thomas Jefferson High School, which has become notorious for violence, is in the neighborhood.

Felice Michetti, the city's Commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development, has approved the deal, said the Rev. John Peyton, pastor of St. Rita's Roman Catholic Church on Shepherd Avenue and a leader of East Brooklyn Congregations.

Asked whether Mayor David N. Dinkins had endorsed the plan, Leland T. Jones, the Mayor's press secretary, said, "It's still under review." The tentative agreement was reported yesterday in The Daily News. City officials said parts of the program would also require the City Council's approval. A Promise to Clear Land Paving the way to the deal, the Dinkins administration agreed to East Brooklyn Congregation's longtime demand that it clear away dilapidated or gutted buildings in the area so large tracts of land would be available. To do that, the city will need to acquire some properties.

"I think it's a significant move by the city and East Brooklyn Congregations in trying to rebuild the East New York area after many years of neglect," Father Peyton said. "It's another beacon of hope."

City officials and leaders of nonprofit groups that are rehabilitating gutted apartments or building new houses in the area have wanted East Brooklyn Congregations to integrate its townhouses with viable existing buildings.

But the group has resisted, arguing that it needs a critical mass of houses -- at least 800 to 1,000 in East New York -- if its new communities are to be stable.

Critics have also accused the Nehemiah movement of wanting to displace the poor and contended that single-family homes do not make adequate use of land. Enthusiasm in the Precincts

But many merchants, city and housing officials, and police precinct commanders are enthusiastic supporters of Nehemiah.

"I'm ecstatic that they are getting the land," said Deputy Inspector Patrick J. Carroll, commander of the 75th Precinct in East New York.

He said existing Nehemiah neighborhoods in his precinct have helped bring a decline in crime there, with a four-year decline in major felonies.

"The crime and drugs have reached its high-water mark," he said. "You have a community coming alive again as opposed to before, which was nothing -- a lot of vacant buildings with people in them not functioning."

The city has also agreed in principle to allow East Brooklyn Congregations to build 500 attached townhouses, which come with a basement, driveway and front and back yards, in the northern section of Spring Creek near the vast Starrett City complex.

That development would lie between Flatlands Avenue and Vandalia Avenue and roughly between Schenck Avenue and Fountain Avenue. The group has long sought land in the area. Concerns About Pollution

Construction on the Spring Creek site will depend on an environmental-impact study. If the site, which is near a disposal dump, is found to be polluted, cleanup could be too expensive to make construction feasible.

The deal to build in East New York is not contingent on East Brooklyn Congregations getting the go-ahead at Spring Creek. Construction in Spring Creek is to start by mid-1995.

In the late 1980's, the Koch administration announced its support for giving the Starrett Housing Corporation, the developers of Starrett City, the entire Spring Street site, including the portion just awarded for the Nehemiah homes. Devorah L. Fong, a spokeswoman for Starrett Housing, declined to comment yesterday on the Nehemiah deal.

About half of those who live in the existing Nehemiah homes in Brooklyn had lived in public housing projects. They paid $51,000 to $61,500 for the homes. The city provided the land and gave each Nehemiah homeowner a $10,000 loan that has to be repaid when the home is sold. New York State subsidies enabled homeowners to obtain below-market mortgage-interest rates.

The value of the Nehemiah and other nearby houses in the area have risen sharply. Besides building equity, Nehemiah homeowners have monthly mortgage payments of $300 to $600 on average, or half what many were paying for rent in public housing or private developments.

Another church group is building an additional 540 Nehemiah homes in the South Bronx. About 150 of those are completed or are nearly so.

The New York developer who has been the ideological leader of the Nehemiah movement, I. D. Robbins, has been deeply involved in both the programs in East Brooklyn and the South Bronx.

In an interview yesterday, he was angry that construction in East New York and Spring Creek would not begin much sooner and feared that the plan was a delaying tactic on the part of the city. He also worried that the deal did not include plans to tear down several blocks of abandoned buildings on New Lots Avenue, saying that the crime there threatened the viability of the new project.

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