“Citizen Power” Rebuilds East Brooklyn: The Nehemiah Housing Plan in the 1980s

By Dennis Deslippe

The jubilant mood of the five thousand people gathered on an October day in 1982 to break ground for a housing project in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn contrasted sharply with the surrounding vacant lots and abandoned walkups.  As the crowd of African Americans, Hispanics, and white ethnics cheered, New York mayor Ed Koch lauded the East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC) for its construction of affordable two- and three-bedroom single-family houses. To the shouts of “EBC!” Mayor Koch led the countdown, from ten to zero, as the bulldozer dug into the ground to create the foundation for the first house. Dubbed the “Nehemiah Plan” after the biblical prophet who rebuilt Jerusalem, its organizers sought to transform neighborhoods whose deterioration matched that of the South Bronx as a national example of urban decay. Over the next three decades, the EBC oversaw the building of 4,500 homes, and in that time Nehemiah homeowners did not experience a single foreclosure. Among many more costly and struggling housing programs, the Nehemiah Plan was, according to a New York Times reporter in 2000, “a hidden-in-plain-sight success story.”[1]

Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1972. Some New York City streets were lined with vacant lots and abandoned as the city took ownership of tax-foreclosed properties and acres of land | Photo by Winston Vargas via  Flickr

Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1972. Some New York City streets were lined with vacant lots and abandoned as the city took ownership of tax-foreclosed properties and acres of land | Photo by Winston Vargas via Flickr

This success was rooted in the EBC’s broad understanding of urban politics and religion in what they called their “citizen power organization.” This reflected the group’s affiliation with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a national community network established in 1940 and led for its first three decades by Saul Alinsky, who is generally considered the founder of modern community organizing. The IAF’s “iron rule of organizing”—“Never do for others what they can do for themselves”—was manifest in the origin, design, and funding of the Nehemiah houses. The language of citizenship ordered the EBC’s approach to the Nehemiah Plan. Author and journalist Jim Sleeper thrilled that, “As in a civics text come to life, the people here were instructing their elected representatives, not the other way around.” Other community organizations found the East Brooklyn housing initiative to be a powerful example of the localization of authority and decision-making as residents in the South Bronx, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia adopted the Nehemiah Plan.[2]         

 The Nehemiah Plan demonstrates the centrality and persistence of citizens’ power in the 1980s. The EBC’s unique approach differed starkly from conventional urban politics and housing policies by drawing on a potent body of ideas that drew on civic republicanism and nineteenth century populism. Where “community development corporations” (CDCs) focused on service provisions and economic capacity building, the EBC concentrated on building political action and generating the power and leadership of local people. They invoked Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville, making citizenship, not profit or efficiency, the measure by which to assess the value of urban policies.  They asserted themselves as “middle Americans,” independent of both liberal social programs and the conservative “ownership society” that they argued masked the cruel effects of free market solutions on urban neighborhoods.  Populist inflections, which pitted “common people” against “the elite,” underscored their critiques of urban neglect, political corruption, and economic marginalization.  This understanding of citizens’ power structured their disciplined approach to designing, funding, and building Nehemiah houses. “Grassroots are shallow roots. Our roots are deep roots,” said Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood at the 1982 groundbreaking event.[3]

 Religion played a key role in “deep roots” organizing and urban renewal in the EBC. It manifested itself institutionally through member churches that provided the main source of funds and social space in which to organize. Local clergy and lay members brought their various theological, scriptural, and ethical traditions to bear on community concerns and sought consensus for courses of action. These traditions included the Social Gospel, first promulgated by Progressive-era Protestant reformers, with its application of Christian principles of charity and justice to social problems. The prophetic theme of liberation and collective empowerment in African American churches was prominent as well.  The Catholic notion of communal interdependence in which the goods of creation were meant for all (“solidarity”) and the importance of intermediate organizational forms such as families, community groups, and unions alongside the state (“subsidiarity”) shaped the group’s basic direction. Other prominent networks of ecumenical, faith-based citizen organizations such as PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing), DART (Direct Action and Research Training Center), and the Gamaliel Foundation shared an approach similar to that of the EBC and other IAF affiliates.[4]

 The plain, four-page brochure for the Nehemiah Plan Homes that the EBC distributed in 1982 detailed an exciting ownership opportunity for residents. These houses would have spacious, carpeted living rooms, tiled bathrooms, and kitchens with Formica countertops, and hardwood cabinets; there would be full basements, double-glazed windows, natural gas furnaces, and parking pads so residents did not need to depend on street parking. Staggered building lines would help to mark off the monolithic, austere facades. The best feature was the price: two-bedroom houses of 1,000 square feet sold for $30,000 and three-bedroom houses of 1,200 square feet for $35,000, around 40 percent less than comparable housing in Brooklyn. Buyers would make a $5,000 down payment and then monthly mortgage payments of $300 for the two-bedroom and $350 for the three-bedroom houses. The EBC pegged the houses for working-class families with annual incomes of between $16,000 and $20,000.  The houses were enormously popular; by September 1985 there were over 3,000 applicants on the waiting list. [5]

 The Nehemiah Plan was the brainchild of developer and New York Daily News columnist I.D. Robbins, but the EBC maintained control over the design and funding of the Nehemiah Plan. Robbins and the Plan’s architect, for example, modified the houses’ layout when, as a result of the hundreds of organizers’ house meetings, local residents directed that the kitchen be placed in the front so that homeowners might watch their front yard, parking pad, and street as they prepared meals. While Robbins had day-to-day control over construction and sales, the “EBC-Nehemiah Trustee Board,” a group of some two dozen EBC members, met monthly to deliberate about such things as setting income levels for home buyers and considering future development sites.[6]

 The majority of the first 130  homeowners were from Brooklyn; another six were from Queens, five from the Bronx, and one from Manhattan (thirty-four percent came from public housing). Their median annual income was $26,000. They held a wide array of jobs, including nurses, nurses’ aides, hospital technicians, maintenance workers, public utility employees, letter carriers, and the garment workers. There were cooks, drivers, secretaries, manufacturing workers, and a sprinkling of white-collar professionals as well.[7] Nehemiah homeowners extolled the Plan. Cornelia Jones who moved into a two-bedroom house with her husband, two children, and a grandchild spoke of “a 25-year dream come true.” Sandra McCollum, a single mother with two children (and Alice McCollum’s daughter), reflected that “when you come up in Brownsville, you don’t look to set your sights very high.” After moving in with a sister for two years to save for the down payment, she ran down the street with the keys to her new house shouting, “It’s mine! It’s finally mine!” East Brooklyn residents understood the considerable barriers to homeownership. “Before Nehemiah, I had no hope of owning a home,” said Edgar Mendez, a member of Our Lady of Loreto Parish and a married father of five children. “Why? Because the economy is against me. The cost of construction is against me. The redlining of our communities are against me.” Homeownership was an act of citizenship. “I had no idea that I or my church could reshape the future of this community, this borough, or this city,” exclaimed resident Joyce Jones.[8]

Lead art from the December 1982 City Limits cover story on the Nehemiah program’s groundbreaking in Brownsville, “East Brooklyn’s Second Rising” | Graphic by Jim Sleeper via  City Limits Magazine , original photo by Luis Nazario

Lead art from the December 1982 City Limits cover story on the Nehemiah program’s groundbreaking in Brownsville, “East Brooklyn’s Second Rising” | Graphic by Jim Sleeper via City Limits Magazine, original photo by Luis Nazario

The number of Nehemiah Houses built was impressive. Since 1983, the EBC built 4, 500 houses in East Brooklyn. IAF affiliates accrued an impressive record as well: 1,000 Nehemiah houses in the South Bronx, 1,000 in Baltimore, 250 in Washington, D.C., and 135 in Philadelphia. United Power, an IAF federation of Chicago area congregations and community organizations, borrowed aspects of the Nehemiah Plan in their housing initiatives, begun in the late 1990s. While the focus remained on building affordable, single-family houses, the form and design of Nehemiah houses changed with new builders and architects. Their Spring Creek houses in the 2000s were modular houses designed by SoHo architect Alexander Gorlin, and assembled at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; their exteriors were infused with a palette of thirteen colors and no two adjacent houses shared the same color scheme. Despite this, the EBC’s “citizens’ power organization” identity, however, had not changed.  “I believe that because of Nehemiah we’ve moved from murder capital to model community,” noted EBC co-chair, Reverend David Brawley in 2006.[9]

 The EBC foregrounded the importance of stable, affordable single-family housing in a city undergoing gentrification. The EBC maintained its “deep roots” commitment to organizing and community-controlled projects. Although the Nehemiah Plan did not reverse New York’s deepening inequality it did provide, as historian Jonathan Soffer writes, “a model for community response in a neoliberal era.” In the 1980s, Nehemiah houses accounted for 38 percent of the net increase in East New York’s housing stock, and 77 percent of the increase in single-family houses. They bolstered family and community security with increased housing values as well. A 2001 Fannie Mae Foundation study found that living in a zone in which Nehemiah houses stood raised the value of homes by 23.6 percent relative to the wider district. The solid financing model meant that Nehemiah homeowners withstood the Great Recession’s hit on the nonprofit housing sector.[10]

Nehemiah streetscape in Brownsville | Photo by Gilbert Santana

Nehemiah streetscape in Brownsville | Photo by Gilbert Santana

 In recent years EBC organizers responded warily to the arrival of gentrification that affected much of East Brooklyn beginning in the mid-2000s. They reminded New York Mayor Bill de Blasio of what they achieved in the 1980s and 90s when “Gentrification did not occur. Regeneration did.” Their strategy for maintaining affordable neighborhoods included getting city officials to build new schools and parks, as well as improving public transportation links to the rest of the borough. In addition, they facilitated the building of a retail space of one million square feet. To counter the displacement of low-income apartment renters by building apartment units alongside new houses in its Spring Creek development, EBC leaders urged city officials to open vacant land, such as the 52 square blocks of the East Brooklyn Industrial Park as well as the Aqueduct Race Track site, to affordable housing. They continue to mobilize local people when thousands rallied in October 2017 at City Hall to demand that vacant NYCHA sites be transformed into 15,000 low-income senior housing apartments.[11]

 “How are we to live? Who are we as Americans? What is our character?” asked Robert Bellah and his co-authors in Habits of the Heart, their seminal book on civic and religious life in contemporary America.  EBC members embedded their responses to these questions in the Nehemiah Plan—in its rationale, its design, its building process, and its price. They began the Plan at a time when failed urban policies and political neglect made nearly invisible its poor and working-class residents. Their legions of trained local organizers and successful actions revealed the significant influence citizens’ power organizations brought on centralizing and technocratic forms of power.  As urban America has re-emerged in recent decades as a vibrant political, economic, and cultural force, East Brooklyn citizens have marshaled their civic and religious values to organize along the nation’s fault lines.[12]

Dennis Deslippe teaches at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. He is writing a book on the history of community organizations in urban America.

[1] “New York: Day by Day,” New York Times , November 1, 1982, B2; clipping, Jim Sleeper, “East Brooklyn’s Second Rising,” City Limits (December 1982), p. 13, box 80, folder 951, Industrial Areas Foundation Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library Special Collections and University Archives, Chicago, IL [hereafter, IAF Records]; Michael Powell, “Old Fashioned Bulwark in a Tide of Foreclosures,” New York Times, March 5, 2010, MB1.

[2] Industrial Areas Foundation, IAF: 50 Years of Organizing for Change (Franklin Square, NY: IAF, 1990), 17; Sleeper, “Second Rising,” p. 13; Powell, “Old Fashioned Bulwark,” MB1.

[3] Edward T. Chambers, Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice (New York: Continuum, 2004),138; Sleeper, “Second Rising,” p. 13; Ethan Schwartz, “Church Group Wins City’s Help in Brooklyn Housing Drive,” New York Times, August 18, 1985, 43.

[4] Heidi J. Swarts, Organizing Urban America: Secular and Faith-Based Progressive Movements (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Anthony B. Pinn, The Black Church in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002); Charles E. Curran, “The Reception of Catholic Social and Economic Teaching in the United States,” in Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations, ed. Kenneth Himes (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2004), 469-92; Richard L. Wood, “Social Capital and Political Culture: God Meets Politics in the Inner City,” American Behavioral Scientist 40:5 (March/April 1997): 599.

[5] Pamphlet, “Nehemiah Plan Houses,” n.d. [1982], box 80, folder 955, IAF Records; typescript, “Statement of Michael Gecan,” n.d. [1985], box 82, folder 958, ibid; typescript, Board of Trustees’ Financial Statement for Fiscal Year Ending September 30, 1985,” box 81, folder 959, ibid.

[6] Carmelia Goff, interview by Jessica Roseberry, Shiloh Voices Oral History Project, Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Manhattan, NY, November 15, 2012; Michael Gecan, e-mail message to the author, September 14, 2017; Mike Gecan to Edgar Williams, n.d. [1984], box 85, folder 986, IAF Records; Michael Gecan report, September 12, 1985, box 82, folder 964, ibid.; Michael Gecan report, February 24, 1984, box 84, folder 978, ibid.

[7] Typescript, Board of Trustees, Financial Statement for Fiscal Year ending September 30, 1985, box 81, folder 959, IAF Records; typescript, Board of Trustees Financial Statement for Fiscal Year ending April 1, 1986, ibid.; typescript, “Analysis of First 131 Nehemiah Homeowners,” n.d. [ 1984], box 82, folder 968, ibid.; Hugh Kelly to Clergy and Lay Leaders, April 26, 1983, box 80, folder 955, ibid..; Paul Grotz to Michael Gecan, April 20, 1983, box 80, folder 955, ibid. The median income  for entire Brooklyn borough households in 1989 was $25,684, and for families it was $30,033. See U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, 1990 Census of Population: Social and Economic Characteristics--New York (Sec. 1 of 3) (Washington, D.C., 1990), 31.

[8] Schwartz, “Church Group Wins City’s Help,” p. 43; De Palma, “The Nehemiah Plan: A Success,” R1; Hornblower, “Homes, Hope Rising,” p. A1; U.S. Congress, The Nehemiah Plan: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development, 101-02.

[9] “EBC Signature Accomplishments” [www.industrialareasfoundation.org/signature accomplishments]; Samuel G. Freeman, “This Partnership of Government and Faith Succeeds,” USA Today, August 20, 2001, A15; C.J. Hughes, “Affordable Houses—Infused with Color,” New York Times, August 27, 2006, RE9; David Moberg, “Back to Its Roots: The Industrial Areas Foundations and United Power for Action and Justice,” in John Kaval et al., The New Chicago: A Social and Cultural Analysis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 244; Hassan, Shape-Shifting East New York.”

[10] Charles J. Orlebeke, New Life at Ground Zero: New York, Home Ownership, and the Future of American Cities (Albany: Rockefeller Institute Press/Brookings Institution Press, 1997),  147-48; Prichett, Brownsville, Brooklyn, 259, 261-62; Thabit, How East New York Became a Ghetto, 271; Osman, “The Decade of the Neighborhood,” 125; Soffer, Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York, 293; Ross, “The Impact of Community Organizing,” 164-65; Ingrid Gould Ellen et al., “Building Homes, Reviving Neighborhood: Spillover from Subsidized Construction of Owner-Occupied Housing in New York City,” Journal of Housing Research 12:2 (2001): 182, 210; Powell, “Old Fashioned Bulwark,” MB1.

[11] David Brawley and Ed Mason, “Mr. Mayor, Here’s How it’s Done,” Daily News (New York), February 23, 2015 [www.nydailynews.com/opinion/brawley-mason-mr-mayor-article-1.2123455]; Ameena Walker, “New Yorkers Rally at City Hall for Increased Affordable Housing,” Curbed New York, October 9, 2017 [ny.curbed.com/2017/10/9/16449262/new-york-city-affordable-housing-rally-city-hall].

[12] Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), vii.