A Gentler Way to Gentrify

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Robison Wells
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Developers in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick do not like to be called “developers”. The word is loaded with a lot of negative public connotations, not the least of which is the dreaded term of “gentrification.” Instead, the real estate developer Venn prefers the term “impact developer”, a developer that is concerned about the quality of life in the communities and towns in which they operate. Gentrification has been associated with higher rents and hipster classifications, and Venn wants to avoid that. It doesn’t even refer to its residents as residents, but as Venners, or members.

A Venner is more likely to pay around $900 in rent for a room—a private bedroom with a communal living room—which is substantially less than many of the surrounding areas. They also are privy to private social gatherings at local bodegas and nightlife.

This model is similar to what some call co-living, or renting a room for $900-$1200 a night and sharing communal space, including a co-working office, a coffee shop, and an art gallery, plus frequent social events, such as a recent road trip to the beach on a chartered school bus.

By contrast a modest studio apartment in any of these areas has a median rent of $2100.

Since arriving in Bushwick earlier this year, Venn has renovated 20 buildings for a total of about 200 rooms. They sign long-term leases, with plans to only increase rents 3-5% at the end of the lease. Bushwick has plans to take over 30 more buildings in the next year.

One example of a Venner was Clayton Sean Brown, Jr, a student at NYU who could no longer afford the $1600 rent in the student housing, and chose to move out to Brooklyn for $900 with three roommates. “I’m a person who doesn’t really have financial support from my parents,” said Mr. Brown, who works part-time at a gelato shop, adding that this is the cheapest rent he has had in New York.

Venn is not without its critics. Many point out that the development is not sustainable for families, and that the Bushwick community’s median income of $51k is 17% lower than that of the surrounding area, because Bushwick attracts a lower-income, roommate-dependent class.

“These buildings are still fundamentally often serving younger, whiter populations than those who have historically lived in the neighborhood,” said Emily Goldstein, a director at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a coalition of housing organizations.

Venn is undeterred. “This is our northern star: We will solve displacement,” said Chen Avni, the company’s chief experience officer. But there is a long way to go. About 40 percent of Venn’s Bushwick renters are not from New York — many are from the Midwest and Europe — and the median age is 24, Mr. Avni said.

To learn more about this gentler approach to gentrification, and its pros and cons, check out the New York Times.

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