Interviews & Profiles

Amidst the city’s affordable housing crisis, nonprofit developers step up to help

IMPACCT Brooklyn’s Bernell Grier challenges following the end of pandemic-era concessions, and the organization’s support of MWBE business owners.

IMPACCT Brooklyn’s executive director Bernell Grier

IMPACCT Brooklyn’s executive director Bernell Grier Image courtesy of IMPACCT Brooklyn

As New York City faces its worst housing crisis in 50 years, shortages point to gaping income disparities and limited opportunities for historically disenfranchised communities. As Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams focus on creating more affordable housing, nonprofit developers across the city are also answering the call. 

Among those organizations, IMPACCT Brooklyn for 60 years has supported individuals and families across Brooklyn by renovating and developing market livable homes for working class households. Projects slated for completion in 2024 include a Myrtle Avenue development with 60 units of supporting housing for individuals with mental disabilities and below-market rate commercial spaces, and a 238-unit affordable housing complex on Fulton Street, developed through a joint venture with RiseBoro, Steps at Saratoga and Urbane Development. IMPACCT Brooklyn aims to empower predominantly low-income Black and brown communities. In addition to providing services that educate and protect both future and existing tenants from predatory landlord practices, IMPACCT Brooklyn also provides workshops and training to Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises. The organization’s Project Restart and Gates Program have provided funding to MWBEs while advising owners on loan applications, legal and accounting issues. 

New York Nonprofit Media spoke to IMPACCT Brooklyn’s executive director Bernell Grier on the state of the city’s affordable housing crisis, his organization’s work and the unique support it provides to MWBE business owners. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does one become eligible to qualify for this affordable housing?

For our new constructions, there's two things that happen: one is referrals through the government agencies, otherwise it's through the lottery system, where we have to run lotteries on these apartments. For example, on 811 Lexington we ran the lottery for that building – for 63 apartments we got over 27,000 applications.

What are your thoughts on the housing lottery process? Is this the most sustainable way for low-income individuals to find housing?

That becomes a bit of a sticky wicket. It’s the process that the city of New York has had in place for decades now. We try at IMPACCT to educate the community about how to be in it to win it. The lottery process is more of an issue of supply and demand. There is definitely a need for income-targeted housing – income-targeted meaning housing that is affordable for people who are low-income and even middle-income families. It’s just very hard in New York City to find a place to reside. So far, no one has come up with a better system. Overall we have seen, especially in some of the rounds that we've done lately, more people from the community, beginning to get apartments. But it still ends up being a thing where there's just not enough housing that can possibly be built to meet that demand. The other thing that IMPACCT does for people who are currently living in apartments, is to help them sustain living where they are. We do have eviction prevention programs, [where tenants] know their rights, so that we can educate people, not just the ones in our buildings but throughout the community, on how to make sure that their landlords are doing the right thing, and that they can stay in their apartments.

I’m curious to learn more about these unfair eviction practices and the work that IMPACCT has done to protect tenants

Even prior to the pandemic we were seeing people being pushed out of their apartments, and some of it is because the rent goes up and people just can't pay for it. That’s one issue of whether people are generating enough income to support living in New York, but there are other situations where landlords want to move people out because they know that they can get a higher rent, and they will do things to push people out of their apartments. In terms of pushing— whether it's not making the necessary repairs, giving them leases that are not in compliance with the law. And if people don't know their rights, they don't know how to fight it. So we have clinics: we work along with Take Root Justice, with Brooklyn Legal Services, as well as just having our own webinars and in-person clinics, to educate the community at large about knowing your rights, and how to fight. We also organize tenant associations within buildings so that the residents can get together and really collectively understand. Because when you don't have the financial power, having the people power ends up making a big difference. 

What are some examples of the help IMPACCT provides to tenants in housing court?

What I have found is, when it gets to housing court, it's typically where they might not have been able to pay rent. There's been a lot of confusion to an extent over the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, ERAP,which was something that was put in place during the pandemic. People could apply and it was a way of helping both the tenant and the landlord: it helped them to pay rent, on the landlord side, it helped to have revenue to care for the property. And what happened after the eviction moratorium ended, and also persons who got ERAP, some of them did not continue— ERAP covered a portion of the arrears, but not all of the arrears. So, in some instances, especially during the pandemic, you had a choice of do I pay rent, or do I buy food, especially as people lost their jobs and were the sole breadwinner. So you just see that there's a lot more in terms of evictions, especially since the moratorium on eviction has been lifted. These were problems before the pandemic, but with a pandemic adding on to it, and people not having a way out, there was no longer a safety net. 

How has the situation worsened since the pandemic?

What we're finding now is, again, because it was the moratorium on eviction, and now that moratorium has been lifted, there are no longer more returns. Now the courts and the landlords can say, you can be evicted. Now we're seeing that there's more evictions than there had been during the pandemic. So from a residential standpoint, it's worse than it was during the pandemic. 

What percentage of people served by IMPACCT hail from Black and brown communities?

I would say 70% are from Black and brown communities. We do, however, find that there are several again, white people too, that have been impacted by this. But I would say that the majority, largely because we are in central Brooklyn. 

Tell me more about the Rolling up The Gates Program and Project Restart?

Rolling up the gates started over 20 years ago, to help small businesses [fill] our vacant commercial spaces. We found that we were able to provide below market rents to our commercial tenants while covering our expenses. So we had our spaces fully occupied up until the pandemic, where we started seeing small businesses pushed out. A lot of the landlords started raising their rents and a lot of it is because there's been a shift in community. There was a point where [the communities] were predominantly black and brown communities with pockets of people with low-income, but all of that has shifted and blended, so you're finding medium-income areas. During the pandemic, we found again that businesses had to close – so we put together a team to provide support to small businesses to help them apply for different grants and SBA loans and other available relief. We were able to raise money that we could pass through directly to the small businesses who were occupying our spaces, as well as to businesses [through] different commercial corridors with grants ($10,000 and below) and we were slow to evict our tenants. And Project Restart involved taking small businesses through marketing, human resource management and finance [training] to help boost their business. 

What support services do you provide to MWBE business owners to get on their feet?

In terms of the different workshops, and connecting them with other places, whether it's with different community development financial institutions like TruFund, or the BOC network, and being able to help them to find ways to have resources in terms of capital. I'm encouraging [business owners] to become members of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and other organizations that help to promote small businesses, as well letting them know of utility costs and making sure they know everything to be in compliance with the city of New York, when they open their doors. So we provide them with the technical assistance and knowledge to move forward. 

What are some unique challenges faced by MWBE businesses

I would definitely say access to capital. Just being able to have the proper accounting support, good legal support in contract law and business law. They should also have good accountants working with them, and another thing is putting together your business plan and being able to pay yourself and recognizing staff needs. So it's really being able to have that source of working capital available to really have your business launched. 

How do you draw from your experience leading corporate America towards advising and nurturing the growth of the future female black entrepreneurs? 

I spent 30 years in the banking world as a relationship manager and being able to really understand the nuances of banking as we shape our programs helps me run our non-for-profit organization. The only difference between [nonprofits] and a for-profit business, is the tax status. So even for me, I'm running a small business, and all of the things that I need to know and being able to impart that, is [what I give] to participants in our programs.

What are some unique strengths that set Black female entrepreneurs apart from the rest of the market?

I really think that there is such a dedication, such faith in what they do. That overall drive, that dedication and the ability to say, hey, I'm working for myself, and I can't fail.