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Home-grown talent building a stronger community: Jeffery Dunston, CEO, North East Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation.

The main difference between Jeffery Dunston, CEO ofNorth East Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation, and many other developers in New York is that, rather than clocking in the outrageous number of hours he does on a weekly basis to get rich, he works hard because he wants to preserve the character of his community.

Dunston has watched Brownsville, Brooklyn--the neighborhood he grew up in--tuna 360 degrees from the time he was a child in the late 1970s and he watched the city condemn the homes his friends lived in, then watched both the buildings and his friends disappear one by one.

He stayed in the neighborhood during the subsequent decade when half the population abandoned the city for the suburbs, and the disenfranchised community weathered an onslaught of drug infestation and crime.

Dunston came onboard as a developer years later, after the Koch administration made a comprehensive effort to redevelop the housing of New York.

Now, as the Bloomberg administration has taken over and the housing vacancy rate in the five boroughs plummets to less than 1%, as developers ante up high stakes in Brooklyn, Dunston admits he still finds it slightly surreal to watch his borough changing. Yet the more it changes, the clearer his role in the process becomes.


"Having grown up in the community, having lived through all the political and social issues around housing, I find it very fulfilling to be able to do this," he said. "What I see now, is a community that is being rebuilt. It is coming upon us to make sure we are part of, the community is part of, it's rebuilding for the long term."

Though Dunston finds development work a natural fit for him, he sometimes admits he has to pinch himself to note where he has landed.

The $80 million dollar housing portfolio he oversees as the CEO of Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation looks very different from the fine arts portfolio he created at Parsons School of Design, where he received a full scholarship after graduating from high school.

Shortly after graduating Parsons, Dunston put his paintings and drawings aside and decided that, rather than stomach the role of starving artist, he would use his other aptitudes. He swapped the studio for the boardroom and then, following a strange turn of events that led him to the financial industry and a decade-long investment career, Dunston began shopping around for a job that would better suit his creative personality.

While working as a volunteer on the advisory board for a community development project creating a youth center in Brownsville, the attorney for the founder of North East Brooklyn HDC in BedStuy offered him a job as a project manager. Dunston accepted the position and, within six months, had closed his first deal. He slowly worked his way up the ranks and became associate director of community and housing development. Utilizing many city and state programs that offered incentives, such as the low income tax credits, homeless housing assistance, and HUD, Dunston helped to develop over 500 units of low-income housing, much of which was made available to populations that operateion the fringes of society, such as homeless people and people with mental health problems. Doing so they were able to offer some housing at approximately 40% below market rates.

As the numbers of people shopping around for affordable housing grew, Dunston realized the market had again managed to surprise him. Last month, a drive to find tenants for a new housing development North East created in partnership with the Housing Trust Fund Corporation and the New York City Division of Housing and Community Renewal on Myrtle Avenue, brought in over 6,000 applications for just 33 units of housing.

"People were lined up around the block to fill out those applications. It wasn't shocking exactly, considering the state of things, but it did surprise me. We haven't seen those numbers since the late 1980s. Affordable housing is obviously sorely needed in Brooklyn," Dunston said.

Just as Dunston's history in the neighborhood seeped into his work, so did his artistic sensibilities.

Architectural details, including paint choice and the design of communal spaces that include playgrounds and gardens, are integrated into every project North East Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation undertakes.

"Rather than recreating the standard manila boxes that most housing projects seem to mimic, we worked hard to make our buildings as home-like as possible. That benefits the residents, which in tuna benefits us. If people ate connected with the space that they live in, if they feel more ownership over their spaces, they ate less likely to vandalize it, they are going to take care of it," Dunston said.

Ultimately, Dunston became chief executive officer of NEHDC and now he looks at the industry from a new vantage point.

He remains committed to finding creative ways to develop affordable housing and to develop less reliance on grants or government monies.

One project in the pipeline, a new 7-story mixed use development on Marcy/Nostrand Avenue, will offset the costs of affordable housing through commercial and retail space on site. The development will be created through a partnership with Bridge Street Development Corporation and local architect, Michael Ivanhoe.

Additionally, the organization is working hard to provide home ownership opportunities to families across Brooklyn, including the teachers, policemen, nurses and other professionals who cannot always afford to live in the neighborhoods any more.

Through collaboration with the Bank of America and the Mortgage Zone, these projects offer clients direct access to mortgage money to purchase and refinance homes.

Dunston is also considering entering into new partnerships with private, market rate developers and possibly integrating luxury housing into some of North East's projects.

"I think it's important for us to recognize that, asa community development organization, we have to think about long term sustainability. To do this, we are going to need to examine diversifying locally. We can't accomplish everything only creating low-income housing.

"At the end of the day we area business, and we have to look at our building as a business, and manage our buildings efficiently to generate income from them, and simultaneously apply our social mission to the work that we do," Dunston said.

At the end of the day, they would never scrimp on the affordable housing either, Dunston said.

"We will always remain committed to affordable housing and have managed to continue to do this under increasingly challenging circumstances and will continue as long as we are in existente."
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Comment:Home-grown talent building a stronger community: Jeffery Dunston, CEO, North East Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation.(PROFILE IN CONSTRUCTION & DESIGN)
Author:Wolffe, Danielle
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Dec 5, 2007
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