Recently I met with Pratt Area Community Council (PACC) Executive Director Deb Howard in her office on Dekalb Avenue.
Hi Deb. Do you live in the neighborhood? How long have you lived here? She said she lives on Adelphi Street and has lived in the neighborhood since 1974.
Where were you educated? Please describe your career path. How did you get involved in housing advocacy work? Deb has a B.A. in Urban Studies from Knox College. During her senior year she participated in an urban studies project in Chicago. After that she became a VISTA volunteer for two years at “The Voice of the People,” where she got involved in tenant organizing and helped manage apartment buildings. But she says that it was primarily music that brought her to New York City. In 1974 she and a bunch of friends rented a triplex apartment on Clermont for $300 a month and started auditioning for different rock operas. Two of them got into “Hair.” In the mid-1970s Deb ended up traveling all around the country performing in both “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” After her daughter was born in 1984, Deb became a stay-at-home mom. She remembers coming across a job ad for a housing advocate in the window of PACC’s office on Dekalb Avenue and thinking this was something she could clearly do. On January 2, 1990, she started working at PACC. At the time, the organization only had three employees and a bookkeeper. Now the community development corporation (CDC) boasts almost 60 employees and four offices.
What other community-based groups are you involved with? I know that you sing with the wonderful Lafayette Inspirational Ensemble which is based at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. Could you talk a bit about the latter and what it means to you? Deb was a founding member of the Lafayette Inspirational Ensemble 14 years ago. Unfortunately her busy schedule often conflicts with the group’s concert and rehearsal schedule, so she no longer sings with them regularly. As a member of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, she sings in the main choir every Sunday. She’s had a passion for singing since at least the age of 5. At the church she’s the chair of the capital campaign and has overseen the roof and church tower renovation as well as the restoration of seven stained-glass windows. In addition to being active at the church, Deb serves on two boards: South Brooklyn Legal Services and as treasurer of the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers. She also mentioned that she was the president of Friends of the Clinton Hill Library for 17 years organizing their fundraising events but had to give it up when she became the executive director of PACC. She regrets that the organization was not as active after her departure and hopes that it’ll somehow be revived, perhaps by a local young mother who can find time for the commitment.
What are some of your favorite places in the neighborhood? Deb loves the Irondale Theater Center, which found a great space as its home in Ft. Greene. She also spoke enthusiastically about Jamel Gaines’ Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn which has Saturday classes at The Ronald Edmonds Learning Center MS113 on Adelphi. As for local restaurants, she said she frequents Chez Oscar and the Black Iris, especially because she often works late, and they’re convenient to the office. Deb also mentioned Yu Interiors as a great place for Christmas gifts. In general, Deb loves architecture and looking at historic buildings. A couple of the buildings she’s been obsessed with are 418-422 Classon Avenue between Quincy and Gates, one of PACC’s recently completed projects, and the old Brooklyn Fire Dept. Headquarters on Jay Street.
The Pratt Area Community Council (PACC) is celebrating its 45th anniversary and will hold a big party on October 21st at the Irondale Center. I asked Deb to talk about some of their current projects and to tell me about some of the work they do that CHB readers may not be aware of. Deb highlighted four major areas in which PACC is active and stressed that one of its key functions is to link individuals to other groups and to engage in coalition building.
* Advocacy issues: PACC focuses on issues that affect the community such as affordable housing and economic justice and works in partnership with other organizations to effect legislative change in Albany. * Issue of predatory equity: This refers to private equity funds and developers who purchased rent-stabilized buildings at untenable prices during the recent real estate boom. Many of these buildings are now in jeopardy and tenants in danger of possible foreclosure. For example, PACC worked hard to get the Anti-Harassment Act passed in City Council in May 2008 and this spring in Albany to strengthen vacancy de-control laws which were weakened in 2004. This piece of legislation protects older tenants from landlords who try to harass them out of their rent-stabilized apartments so that they can raise the rent above $2,000. As an example, she names Dermot Realty, which bought up 25 buildings in Downtown Brooklyn and has been notorious in harassing older tenants. PACC is instrumental in helping tenants to organize against such tactics by aggressive developers. * Home foreclosure: They have three counselors on staff to help people struggling with possible home loss. PACC helps people stay in their homes. She notes how Central Brooklyn (thru Jamaica, Queens) was targeted by subprime lenders. Due to Obama’s housing legislation, more loan modifications are now possible. Last year, they saved 146 homes, and they hope to save 190 this year. Her organization is very active in the state-wide coalition “New Yorkers for Responsible Lending,” which promotes community economic justice and works to eliminate discriminatory economic practices. PACC also offers practical homebuyer workshops on an ongoing basis. The cost for attending all five workshops is $50, at the end of which you receive a certificate enabling you to get access to affordable mortgages and free counseling. * Commercial revitalization/economic development: The goal being “targeted attention” to the revitalization of commercial corridors. They recently received a $200,000 grant from the Main Street program for façade improvements on Fulton Street between Grand and Bedford Avenues. Another achievement she mentioned is PACC’s initiative and persistence in encouraging Capital One Bank to open a new branch on the corner of Clinton Avenue and Fulton Street. Before it opened a few weeks ago there were no banks in a 23-block stretch of the street. Capital One has a strong small-business lending policy. She also pointed to the Fulton Street Business Improvement District (BID), which PACC was instrumental in helping get signed into law last December. Fulton Street business owners’ monthly assessments of $80 per 20 ft of storefront will begin in October, and the BID board expects to launch their program in September.
At their June 24th Annual Meeting, which was held at Gibb Mansion on Gates Avenue, they elected three new members to their Board of Directors: Tom Eastman, Lincoln Restler, and Jabir Suluki. The election of the new Board was followed by a lively discussion by Benjamin Dulchin, Executive Director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), and Keith Getter, management consultant at Neighborworks America, about the role nonprofits have today in preserving affordable housing. Though both acknowledged that these are tough times, the consensus seemed to be that PACC is in better shape than most nonprofits because it is fiscally sound. Additionally, PACC believes in and has built partnerships and coalitions which play a role in navigating successfully through stressful economic times.
Would you like to comment on the current status of the Fulton Street BID? Deb believes that the BID will be beneficial to merchants and is convinced that there’s a real benefit for it to be associated with a community development corporation. One of the chief aims of the BID is to provide targeted marketing for businesses, something which has been proven to bring new business to commercial corridors. In the case of the Fulton Street BID, particular emphasis will be placed on sanitation, security, and marketing. Among the items slated for the program’s launch this fall are a new website, a holiday marketing campaign, better street cleaning, security personnel and holiday lighting. Deb said the BID will enable them to attract capital dollars for the street so that it can be spruced up even more. In fact, Councilwoman Letitia James has just awarded the BID a $400,000 grant for new benches, banners, flower pots and garbage cans on 23 blocks of Fulton Street.
Which new projects are you particularly excited about? One of PACC’s key roles in the community is as an asset and property manager to maintain the affordable housing it has developed. PACC acquires and develops properties coordinating construction and long-term financing and applying for various types of subsidies to make them affordable. Typically this requires a commitment of 30 years or more. The organization currently manages 57 buildings comprising a total of 550 residential and commercial units, but this year they’ll add about 300 new units. They anticipate launching a property management business in February 2010 as a new income stream that will help ensure organizational sustainability. Their new office at 900 Fulton Street was opened explicitly for this purpose.
Finally, I asked how people in the neighborhood can support her organization and get more involved in the important work it’s doing. Deb said that they can become a member of PACC and start attending their quarterly breakfasts to gather info and see how to become involved in community housing work. One way would be to start by joining the PACC Leadership Group or Young Friends of PACC, the housing or economic development committees which advise the PACC Board. And of course people can always make donations. For more information, please visit their website at www.prattarea.org. You can also follow them on Facebook.