How Many People Are Living in that Bedroom? In Sunset Park, Maybe Too Many
In a Brooklyn neighborhood with no geographical relief valve, apartment overcrowding is on the rise.
By Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio
When Genesis Aquino walked into the apartment in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, this is what she saw: Crying children, toys strewn across the floor, a dark kitchen without windows that also doubled as a living room, and people seemingly everywhere. The foul smell came from poison put down to kill the mice crawling about.
Altogether, eleven people lived in the three-bedroom flat. In one room, two parents and their two children, still infants. In the next, six people — four children and two adults. And in the third bedroom, an unrelated elderly man who rented the space.
“All the kids were in there, they all wanted to run around. Half of them were in school, half of them weren’t,” recalled Aquino, who was doing the home visit while working as a childhood education specialist at PS-503/506 elementary school in the neighborhood. (She now works as a tenant advocate at a nonprofit called Housing Court Answers). “The two mothers were sisters, so they got along well,” but not always. “Sometimes, one of them would lock herself in the room with her kids.”
Sunset Park, home to more than 150,000 people, is bound by New York Bay to the west and is situated a half-hour subway ride from downtown Manhattan. Green-Wood Cemetery and Park Slope border the area to the north, Borough Park is east, and Bay Ridge is directly south. The neighborhood — traditionally a home to immigrants — has been adjusting to gentrification and its collateral effects — rising rents and overcrowded housing conspicuous among them. These factors are making it more and more difficult for people to find a place to live in the community.
In much of Brooklyn, gentrification is pushing people out of their neighborhoods. But in Sunset Park many of them stay, according to those who keep track. They just move in together.
Here, it’s common to combine households — particularly when families and individuals are displaced from their own homes because they can’t afford rent increases. But there is evidence that the situation in Sunset Park is even worse than in most other parts of the city.
From 2012 to 2016, the percent of units with severe overcrowding in Sunset Park increased 3.5%, from 5.1% to 8.6%, according to the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a non-profit that works to increase affordable housing in New York. In 2015, Sunset Park’s percentage of severe overcrowding per unit was the second highest of any of the 59 community board districts in the five boroughs of New York — at 8.7%. (The Office of the New York City Comptroller defines severe crowding as having more than 1.5 persons per room.)
Home to one of New York City’s three largest Chinatowns, Sunset Park’s 8th Avenue is packed with Chinese grocery stores and eateries. Little English is heard spoken or written on storefronts. On 5th Avenue, you are immediately transported to a street-corner in Mexico. Clothing shops boast quinceañera dresses bursting with shades of pink and shoe stores sport leather belts and boots from the Mexican state of Jalisco.
Here, 39.4% of residents identified as Hispanic or Latino, 33% identified as Asian, and 22.8% identified as white in 2016, according to the NYU Furman Center. Immigrants represent almost half (49%) of the population, compared to 37% in the city as a whole, according to a 2016 study by the Office of New York State Comptroller.
But Sunset Park is also a place where the perennial issue of overcrowding is one of the most intense in New York City. This is one more worry for struggling families, many of whom are undocumented and also fear deportation.
More than one quarter — or 26% — of households in Sunset Park live below the poverty level, compared to 22% in Brooklyn as a whole, and 19.9% in percent in the entire city. Even so, at least a quarter of residents in Sunset Park spend more than half of their income on rent, as reported by the Office of the State Deputy Comptroller for the City of New York.
From 2002 to 2014, the median monthly rent in Sunset Park rose 63% — from $750 to $1,225 across the board for all apartment sizes in the neighborhood, U.S. census data show. Affordable housing is less available than it is in the rest of Brooklyn — in Sunset Park, 51% of units are market rate compared to 41% in the rest of the borough. Market-rate apartments are not bound by any rent restrictions — landlords can raise the rents at their own discretion and aren’t required to provide leases, and tenants also have less legal rights than those in rent-regulated apartments.
Benito Bravo, a longtime community activist and dance teacher in the area, says he has often provided temporary living space for people forced out of their flats because they couldn’t pay the rent. “There are times when I’ve had to take in people, sometimes people I don’t even know, from one day to the next,” Bravo explained in Spanish over an egg, bean, and avocado Mexican breakfast — huevos rancheros — at a cafe on 43rd Street and 4th Avenue in Sunset Park.
“A couple of days ago people called me saying that there was a Dominican woman and her two children who had been displaced from their apartment and they didn’t have a place to go. They stayed in my living room for a few days.”
Families and friends often help out, Bravo noted, but that is only a Band-Aid, short-term solution. And, while many Sunset Park residents lack legal residency status, the housing crunch is typically the issue that causes the most stress. “I think that the undocumented people don’t think about whether immigration is going to come knocking at their door as much anymore, but about whether or not they can pay the rent each month.”
Many community activists are particularly worried about the rising real estate value of Sunset Park apartments due to the expanding Industry City complex on the waterfront.
Here, industrial buildings line the waterfront skyline, and inside, furniture stores sell rugs that start at $420, bridal dresses, and high-end cakes and treats. The most expensive cup of coffee in New York City finds its home here, at $18.
A controversial rezoning for Industry City is slated to be voted on later this year according to community members. Developers are seeking another 3.3 million square feet of commercial space. The project has become the focal point of a fierce debate about where Sunset Park is headed — and whether it will retain its working-class, immigrant-heavy identity.
At a gallery event about changes in the neighborhood, Marcela Mitaynes, a longtime resident and activist, spoke about Industry City. “They’re driving up the displacement pressure,” she said. “There’s speculation in the rise of property values due to Industry City. For me it’s really important that the tenants I work with understand this, because it’s directly affecting them and their housing.”
Mitaynes came to New York from Peru with her parents when she was a young child. She says she and her family had to move several times because of rising rents. She now works as the Project Coordinator at a tenants rights organization in the neighborhood called Neighbors Helping Neighbors.
Rising rents and overcrowding are not new phenomena in New York. The problems have existed since even before Jacob Riis documented the squalid living conditions in parts of New York in the late 19th century.
But, in Sunset Park, a particular, perhaps imperceptible, factor to an outsider makes the battle against displacement different.
Behind the facade of bustling 5th Avenue taquerías and the stream of Spanish and Chinese dialects heard in playgrounds, residents are frequently forced to move because of economic factors. Community activists describe it as a kind of epidemic. And for those who must move, what are their housing choices? The surrounding neighborhoods, especially Park Slope, are expensive.
It turns out that many remain in the neighborhood, but move into more crowded circumstances.
“They’re not leaving,” Mitaynes said. “A lot of what’s happening is that they’re couch surfing or they’re moving in with family or if they can’t afford their apartment anymore they’re having to just rent a room.”
In other parts of New York, there are more options. “When you think about Washington Heights, where the Dominicans are, and where they’re being gentrified, where do they go?” said Van C. Tran, a professor of sociology at Columbia University. “They go to the South Bronx. They go to Yankee Stadium. They move to Jersey. These are still proximate to their original community, which is right there.”
Community members in Sunset Park, however, do not have the option of crossing nearby bridges to reach affordable housing.
“We think about the geography of Sunset Park, in four directions, there’s nowhere they could go within 30 minutes that they could be resettled. So this uprooting would not just be an uprooting of the community, but also of a sense of identity in the neighborhood itself, in the long term,” said Tran. “And that’s also part of why overcrowding is the initial reaction to the situation.”
The descriptions of overcrowded conditions coming from community members in Sunset Park are plentiful: Sixteen people living in four bedrooms. Nine people in a one-bedroom. Mattresses sprawled across the floor — sometimes bunk beds to use the remaining inches of space. Curtains to create makeshift rooms when, as is often the case, the bedrooms are filled to capacity.
“It was sad to see the living situations, but families seem to live out their lives as anyone would,” said Jeannette Martinez, Family Literacy Coordinator at a parent-child home program called Reach Out and Read, part of NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn. She has been doing home-visits in the area for fourteen years. “A family will share a room no matter how many people they have in their family, but they make good use of the park space in the community.”
Genesis Aquino, the tenants rights advocate for Housing Court Answers, has herself lived in Sunset Park since she was a child, when her family emigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic. She recalled living in an illegally converted one-bedroom with her sister and her parents.
And close to her childhood apartment, her grandparents lived with her six aunts and her cousin, all in a one-bedroom. “You get up to there, you had to go straight to the living room. No space,” Aquino said of her relatives’ apartment. “So my grandparents used to sleep on that side [of the living room], and then my uncle used to sleep on the sofa.”
Of course, community members build meaningful lives despite cramped living spaces. “They’re not living in squalor,” noted Sheldon Serkin, who heads children and family services at the NYU Langone Family Literacy Program.
There is also a certain closeness that people acquire as family members live nearby. “My mother lived in Sunset Park with me for more than 40 years. We used to share a room that we rented. But about a year ago she left for Mexico because of the same disillusionment with the rents, and she doesn’t want to come back,” said Bravo, the neighborhood dance teacher. “Now it’s only me here and it makes me really sad.” Bravo says he “might go back to Mexico.”
On Sundays in Sunset Park, families line the streets of 5th Avenue, coming in and out of the bodegas and taking their children to the playground. The kids suck on paletas (popsicles) hawked by street vendors and many residents sip glasses of fresh horchata (a drink typically made of rice) outside of the panaderías, or bakeries.
It is the kind of vibrant street life evident in almost any Latino immigrant neighborhood. But there can be a more complex reality at home.
Cesar Zuñiga, the head of Sunset Park’s Community Board District 7, was part of a parent-child home program that did home visits in the neighborhood — and researched the way that recently-arrived Mexican moms understood child rearing and child development.
“When I asked them about the challenges of raising children, almost 80% of the cases brought up their living conditions,” said Zuñiga, who comes from an immigrant family from Puebla, Mexico. “Particularly they talked about that what they wanted for their children was more opportunity than what they had growing up.” But they found it difficult to provide those opportunities while “in a space that was shared by a whole bunch of other people.”
Zuñiga switched to Spanish when he quoted the mothers explaining how they had to set specific times to cook dinner in shifts — for example, he said, if one family had set their time to cook dinner at 6 p.m., their children would have to stay locked in the room until dinner was ready. If not, there would be no room in the apartment. When the food was ready, then the mother would call her chamaquitos (Spanish for little kids), to come out of the room.
Other parents, Zuñiga said, had their young children in high chairs for much of the day because there was no space for them to walk or crawl around.
“They had to constrain their activities and their interactions within one room,” said Zuñiga.
Aquino noticed similar distress among families she met. In one particular case, she recalls, a Mexican family was living with eight children and the parents in a two-bedroom space.
Members from a local church approached Aquino to talk to her about one of the kids — a 15-year-old girl who was struggling in school and was having, what some adults would call, a rebellious streak, Aquino said. “She was having issues, and getting suicidal, her grades were lower in school, she was cutting classes,” Aquino recounted. “It all came down to the fact that the overcrowding was affecting her mental health, and that’s why she was behaving the way she was behaving. She had no space and there was no way to talk or have privacy at all.”
Having an overcrowded living environment can severely impact someone’s ability to navigate the healthcare system, and can exacerbate mental health issues such as depression, said Dr. Isaac Dapkins, chief medical officer at Family Health Centers at NYU Langone Hospital in Sunset Park.
“If someone is sharing living space with somebody else it can be hard for them to store their medications,” said Dapkins. “For example if you’re HIV positive and you’re taking medications, it’s possible for people to find out what you have from the medications you’re taking because of this lack of privacy.”
Accessing preventative care can be something that falls by the wayside, Dapkins said. Even birth control. Dapkins said he had a patient who had lost her place of residence and was living with family members. “Because of a number of dynamics she ended up getting pregnant really fast, and exacerbated the situation again. Part of that was due to her inability to get birth control which was impacted by the chaos of her having to move.”
As rising rents encroach further into the community, and developers eye the waterfront as a potential investment boom, many fear that rent-displacement, and overcrowding, will become even more widespread. Families continue to squeeze into increasingly tight living spaces behind the walls of the faded brick Sunset Park brownstones.
“A lot of the kids feel ashamed of how they’re living,” said Aquino. “That’s normal. It’s like a little jail, you know? It’s like a social jail. We’re just not meant to be locked in.”
Giulia Sinead McDonnell Nieto del Rio can be reached @GiuliaMcDonnell