Saturday, October 18, 2014

Kensington Could Be the Last Stop for Affordable Living in Brooklyn 

Rising housing costs and new development are pervading neighborhoods on all four sides of Kensington, but this quaint little Brooklyn neighborhood doesn't seem to notice. All around Kensington, vegan bakeries and doggy fashion houses are setting up shop as wealthier newcomers are settling in. As affordable living dwindles in much of Brooklyn, Kensington can feel like the last town standing.

Kensington sits in the heart of Brooklyn, landlocked by Ditmas Park, Prospect Park South, and Windsor Terrance—all up-and-coming neighborhoods where property values have skyrocketed within the last four years. There, as in many other Brooklyn neighborhoods, young professionals and wealthy investors are changing the landscape. Hamil Pearsall, an assistant professor in the Geography and Urban Studies Department at Temple University, notes that "gentrification is marked by a dramatic rise in median property value, gross rent and, household income." Poorer residents get priced out of neighborhoods that begin this shift she said.

But not in Kensington, according to the NYC Department of Finance, the median sale price for homes in the towns around Kensington range between $410,00, to $525,000, while Kensington's median remains at a modest $265,00. The same pattern holds for household income and gross rent, which remain on the lower end of western Brooklyn's spectrum.

So is why has this cozy neighborhood managed to stay under the radar?

The culturally rich area is home to large enclaves of Bangladeshis, Sudanese, Russians, and Hasidic Jews—to name a few. Most of the streets are lined with ethnic grocery stores and restaurants.

"The way I see it there are several ingredients missing from the gentrification playbook," says Liam McCarthy, a real estate broker who owns the JMKBK agency in Kensington.

McCarthy says Kensington has the wrong type of housing stock for gentrifiers, lack of big commercial businesses, and a large ethnic population that sells realty exclusively through family networks.

Most of Kensington's housing stock includes one to three story family houses, condominiums, co-ops, and multifamily buildings that are geared for middle class residents, says McCarthy. By contrast, he said, the stock in BedStuy, Fort Greene, Ditmas Park, and other more upscale areas include renovated brownstones and large houses for wealthy people that went through cycles of boom and bust and are now back to boom again.

Another huge factor—the housing stock in Kensington is not terribly old. Pearsall, who studied gentrification patterns in the Bronx, says that neighborhoods with older homes that are ready for renovation make better targets for gentrification. Almost sixty percent of homes in Kensington's bordering neighborhoods were constructed before 1939, whereas almost half the homes in Kensington were built after 1939. Although newer homes can be renovated, landlords just don't have the same urgency to fix homes that are still in good condition.

Kensington is a stable neighborhood filled with diverse groups competing for space. Many of the groups prefer to sell and buy from each other through family networks, so a lot of the market is hidden from the gentrifying class, according to McCarthy. "A lot of housing ads are listed in Russian, Bengali, Urdu, or Hebrew, and won't be seen by people who only look for houses on Streeteasy, Trulia, and Zillow," he said.

Dr. Stacey Sutton, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University, says commercial businesses are a driver when a neighborhood goes upscale, and that is missing in Kensington. In order to appeal to city-based professionals, a neighborhood must have café's, eateries, bars, lounges, and sit- down restaurants, she said. Gentrified areas are chock full of commercial storefronts, like Starbucks or Best Buy.

So far, the largest industry in Kensington belongs to the health industry, which includes medical clinics and dental offices. Much further down the list, fifth to be exact, are "food and drink" related businesses with only one establishment currently registered as a "coffee shop."

Despite all the factors pointing against an upscale invasion, many residents still believe a storm is coming and that Kensington may be getting ripe for the taking.

Bridget Elder has lived in Kensington for the last sixteen years and says many residents are starting to see a change. "Things are changing and people are talking about how it's becoming less affordable to live here. Rents are slowly starting to increase," she says.

Another resident, Amy Fielder, says she sees changes in the area from when she moved to Kensington eight years ago. "The town is diverse, but you see more people from the city popping up than before."

Although some locals are starting to notice new trends, Kensington still seems to be dodging a financially loaded bullet—for the time being.  Realtor and resident Liam McCarthy feels the area is still very much fair game. "For now we are enough off-the-radar to keep on keeping on without much outside interference or input, but if the big money like developers and investors decide Kensington is a good bet the story could change very quickly."


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