Faith leaders come together to break ground on affordable, sustainable housing in Brooklyn
BROWNSVILLE — Catholic and Buddhist leaders came together to help build a long-awaited housing project in one of the poorest areas of Brooklyn.
With soaring housing costs and a high poverty rate in the Brownsville/Ocean Hill neighborhoods, eligible seniors and formerly homeless elderly residents can now look forward to new, affordable apartments, spearheaded by faith leaders and Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens (CCBQ).
The future eight-story, 135-unit building on the corner of Sackman Street will be called the Catholic Charities Loreto Apartments, built on the former site of Brownsville’s Our Lady of Loreto Church.
The parish was first closed in 2009 due to financial concerns and was demolished in 2017.
“It was beyond repair, it had to be torn down, and it didn’t make a lot of people happy,” said Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio at a Jan. 9 groundbreaking ceremony for the new apartments. “But now it’s for a good purpose; housing for the poor and elderly. Some of the artwork from the old church will even be preserved for the new building. We’re stabilizing the neighborhood, and it’s great to see ideas come to fruition.”
The Loreto Apartments, one of 25 senior housing centers in Brooklyn and Queens launched by CCBQ, integrates affordable independent residences for seniors (AIRS) with supportive housing. 54 AIRS units are reserved for the elderly (62+ years), while 81 units are reserved for formerly homeless individuals (55+ years old, frail or disabled).
According to CCBQ, rents for these supportive units will be underwritten at an amount affordable to households earning 60 percent AMI. New York State funding for the Loreto Apartments includes $3.4 million in permanent tax-exempt bonds, federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits that will generate nearly $19 million in equity and an additional $24.6 million subsidy from New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR). The state’s Department of Health will also provide funding for supportive services through the Governor’s Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative (ESSHI).
The $48-million project was the result of interreligious dialogues — between Pope Francis, Bishop DiMarzio, Catholic and Buddhist leaders in 2015 (and again in late 2019) — about a social program bringing Catholics and Buddhists together as part of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID).
They decided to focus on developing “green housing” for those in need, involving religious organizations that provide social services like Catholic Charities.
“It’s difficult to dialogue about theology, but we can work together in service,” the Bishop said. “The [Loreto apartments] is the success story of this interreligious commitment to do something for the elderly poor.”
“The Church teaches us that every person has a basic right to have a place to call home, and we know that having a place to live provides stability and identity to the most vulnerable in our society,” DiMarzio said at a press conference. “Pope John Paul II said that a home is much more than a roof over one’s head. It is a place for building and seeking one’s life.”
Other senior residences to be built include housing in Chicago’s Lakeview area and Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
“For both the Buddhist and Catholic faiths, we want to support people in need and do what we can, especially for people with housing difficulties like seniors and those going through financial difficulties,” said Rev. Patti Nakai, a Buddhist leader from Chicago, who was also at the dialogue. “Catholics have more of a structure to do this, so the Buddhists are glad to sign on and help out.”
Next door to the construction site, the Catholic Charities Monsignor Anthony J. Barretta Apartments was opened in 2013 on the former site of Our Lady of Loreto School.
Catholic NY Councilman Rafael L. Espinal, Jr. (District 37) said that the new apartments are a positive way of facing the ongoing housing crisis in the city. Last year, his office allocated $1 million in funds to help with the groundbreaking and construction of the site.
“Unfortunately every day we are seeing people evicted from their homes, rents continue to rise to levels they cannot afford, and homeless shelters are jam-packed in this area,” Espinal said. “So we’re going to help fix overpopulation of shelters, help seniors living on a fixed income to be able to get a real affordable housing. It’s a win/win for everyone.”
He also said about Our Lady of Loreto: “As a Catholic, I felt bad about seeing a church demolished. But I know it’s for the right reasons, and this is going to leave a legacy for CCBQ and for people who live here.”
Loreto Apartments residents will also be connected with Catholic Charities Neighborhood Services; including an on-call nurse, health counseling, case management and transportation to a nearby senior center.
Other planned amenities include 24-hour security, a fitness room, two large community rooms, and rooftop solar panels aimed at reducing the cost of electricity and the housing’s carbon footprint.
Among other notable features to be provided? Buddhist/Zen-inspired meditation practices — including yoga and tai chi — for senior residents.
“We wanted to go beyond just a building, to provide something for human minds and spiritual practices for the community,” said Venerable Chang Hwa of Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist church in Elmhurst, Queens, at the groundbreaking. “Sometimes after people retire, with or without faith, they need a way to uplift spiritual levels. We wanted to include a kind of interfaith service for them to practice.”
Buddhists from Hwa’s church helped to design a community meditation space and outdoor walking area for the residents.
The Loreto Apartments have an expected 2-year construction period, while applications and lottery housing is expected to open within that time frame.
In the spring, CCBQ will also break ground for another senior housing in Astoria.
“Brownsville is coming back as a thriving area, and we’re delighted that we’re able to carry the tradition of the parish,” said Msgr. Alfred LoPinto, the President and CEO of CCBQ, whose home parish was Our Lady of Loreto.
“It’s [sad] we had to take the unused building down in terrible need of repair, but it’s a great joy to be able to stand here and say the tradition of Loreto is going to continue — as senior housing and a community center —and will provide those very needed services, just as the parish did for the immigrant community. Loreto was the home of the Holy Family, and now it will be the home of the seniors.”
72-year-old Leon Taft, who has been going through the application process for various senior housing throughout Brooklyn, said he was excited to see new affordable apartments going up in his neighborhood.
“It makes me feel good, and I hope I get one of them.”