Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Little boys in yarmulkes peer from apartment balconies, watching the men below toss bread into a bonfire.
The annual spring ritual marks the first day of Passover in the Hasidic Jewish enclave of South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where daily life is built on ancient laws and religious devotion. But the insular community depends on outside money to survive — federal subsidies to help many low-income Hasidic families cover the rent.
New York City's 123,000 vouchers make this the largest Section 8 voucher program in the country. Reluctant landlords and rising rents are making vouchers nearly impossible to use in many areas of the city. Tenants, especially larger families, are often relegated to the edges of Brooklyn and the Bronx. That's why this cluster of Hasidic households stands out.
The neighborhood is home to one of the highest concentrations of Section 8 housing vouchers in the city, according to federal data analyzed by WNYC and the Daily News. In several of its census tracts, Section 8 tenants compose more than 30% of residents, a level reached only in scattered pockets of the Bronx.
The difference: In Brooklyn, the Section 8 tenants live smack in the middle of one of the city's hottest real estate market.
The juxtaposition happened over years, not overnight. Leaders leveraged longstanding political connections to win favorable zoning changes. Local developers bought and built to meet the need. Residents organized to get in line for rental subsidies. Block by block, the community created a de facto free market, affordable housing plan.
It's only possible in a tight-knit community where the haves help the have-nots, said Rabbi David Niederman, a community leader and local power broker.
"We have people keeping the price lower," said Niederman, executive director of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg. "Even a person living on Section 8 can pay the monthly rentals."
Skeptics suggest an off-the-books economy has underpinned development within this community. Many residents bank informally and property is regularly swapped between family members and holding companies.
"There's a cash economy and things are not done strictly according to law," said Marty Needleman, executive director of Brooklyn Legal Services and a community advocate who has clashed with the Hasidim for years over fair-housing issues.
All sides agree the community is clamoring for affordable housing, a demand fueled by one of the highest birthrates in the city. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish couples typically marry in their late teens and have many children.
A sliver of the community makes money in diamonds, real estate and trading. But many men favor religious study over work, and most women stay at home, so money can be tight. Those who work are often relegated to low-wage jobs due to a lack of secular education.
Old-timers recall the days when kids slept in bathtubs or on fire escapes. Determined to do better, community leaders took action — and one important piece was helping the Hasidim apply for benefits.
Public assistance supports many of New York's poorest communities, but few are as organized as this one. Overwhelmed by demand for vouchers, the city rarely opens up its waiting list — now 120,000 names long. But in the few times Section 8 was offered in recent years, local social service agencies like Niederman's United Jewish Organizations put out the call.
Take February 2007, when the New York City Housing Authority opened the waiting list to nonemergency applicants for the first time in years. On the first day of the 90-day window, United Jewish staff helped 2,000 people apply, according to an agency newsletter. NYCHA said it received more than 200,000 applications in all.
During spring 2008, the city Department of Housing and Preservation offered 400 vouchers to residents of Community Board 1 in Williamsburg and Greenpoint to help address displacement from a recent rezoning.
UJO signed up more than 600 people in a six-hour stretch.
It's unclear how many Hasidic applicants actually received vouchers because individual tenant information is confidential.
WNYC looked at the number of vouchers in census tracts where at least 40% of the people spoke Yiddish. While inexact, this analysis shows Section 8 has been an anchor as the community has grown.
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