The speech, Jeffries’ third district address since being elected in 2006, was delivered at the Pratt Institute in Fort Greene before a capacity crowd of more than 250 people - an impressive turnout given his need to compete for attention that evening with President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address. (While some 48 million viewers tuned in to watch Obama, who spoke later that evening, Jeffries promised a better post-speech spread).
Jeffries focused much of his January 27th address on affordable housing and the proliferation of unfinished, empty or mostly vacant luxury buildings in his 57th Assembly District that he hopes to refit for middle and lower-income families.
“I continue to believe the most pressing issue that we face in our communities is the affordable housing crisis,” said Jeffries. In 2009, his office found 66 troubled luxury buildings in his district, a figure first reported by the Star.
He said he would continue pushing for the adoption of Project Reclaim, legislation he is sponsoring that has received city, state, and even national attention for its innovative approach towards refinancing unused market-rate units for less affluent occupants.
Project Reclaim would offer distressed developers city and state tax incentives to turn stranded condominiums producing little or no revenue into affordable housing, and pressure banks that benefited from the federal bailout to refinance mortgage debt on stalled projects if their developers make them more affordable for tenants and buyers from the community.
The mayor, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and state housing officials have taken interest in the issue. And in his speech, Jeffries said his office has spoken with Patrick Gaspard, the director of the Obama Administration’s Office of Political Affairs, about Project Reclaim.
He said he hopes to have the bill passed into state law this year.
“It is simply [unacceptable] to have so many luxury condominiums in our community when so many people need affordable housing,” he said.
Jeffries addressed the federal stimulus appropriation of $423.5 million in housing improvements to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Over $100 million of that has been set aside for the Whitman and Ingersoll public housing complexes in Fort Greene.
Under Section 3 of the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act, 30 percent of the workers on federally funded infrastructure projects to improve public housing must come from the local community. However, the provision is rarely enforced, Jeffries said.
He promised to partner with other lawmakers and community groups to “to make sure that [the] Section 3 law is enforced” when NYCHA begins its Fort Greene makeover.
He also touched on the issue of criminal justice reform, in the wake of several police shootings in 2009. In one incident in Clinton Hill last summer, an unarmed man named Shem Walker was shot and killed by an undercover police officer.
The case is under investigation by the District Attorney’s office. The police shooter’s identity remains unknown. “I have great respect for the police, but I just want to make sure they have great respect for us,” Jeffries said.
Unlike President Obama, who read his State of the Union address from a teleprompter, Jeffries spoke without any help, stopping often for applause. An aide said he memorized his speech beforehand, working over it many times.
Jeffries’ decision to hold a prominent district address - by now an annual gathering of many central Brooklyn power brokers - is a somewhat unusual one for state officials, many of whom do not give similar speeches.
It mirrored much of the ritualized ceremony of a presidential State of the Union, though on a smaller, more informal scale clearly geared for an audience of friends and colleagues.
Jeffries began by reassuring everyone that he would finish in time for them to hurry home to hear the president speak. He joked that the free food following his speech would make the local address well worth the wait.
“I know some of you had tickets to see President Obama,” he said. “But I promise we’ll feed you much better in Brooklyn.”