The climate of contentiousness within Churches United Corp., the collective of North Brooklyn churches formed in 2003 to advocate for affordable housing, has not abated since late November, when Father Jim O’Shea resigned as the organization’s executive director in what many claimed to be a move coerced by politically motivated church higher-ups.
Now, the organization itself has splintered. Many prominent members of Churches United Corp. — including Robert Solano, the former Executive Board secretary before the Board was disbanded in November, along with former board member Esteban Duran — have formed a parallel organization, Churches United for Fair Housing. Solano, Duran and company claim clergy leadership effectively excluded them from having input in Churches United Corp., thereby forcing them to launch the parallel organization.
(Churches United for Fair Housing was the original name of the organization before it was incorporated as a 501c3 in 2006.)
“We tried our best as lay leaders to communicate with our pastors, but we’re not comfortable with the way they weren’t taking input from us,” said Solano.
But the organization’s clergy leadership denied these claims. When asked if there was any truth to Solano’s claims, Father Rick Beuther of St. Peter and Paul Church, said: “No, not at all. I’m actually meeting with him tomorrow.”
Added Father Anthony Hernandez of Transfiguration Church, another prominent clergy leader in Churches United Corp., “Nobody wants to disenfranchise anybody. We want to work in conjunction with them, collaboratively, for the advocacy of affordable housing.”
Solano, Duran and company are also threatening to pursue a legal injunction against the leadership of Churches United Corp. for disbanding the Executive Board in the first place. They claim that the Board’s dissolution was not permitted by the organization’s bylaws.
“This action was a nullity. It would have had to have been voted on at a meeting that requires a quorum of at least nine people. At the [clergy] meeting [where the board was disbanded], there were only five people there,” said Martin Needelman, the attorney representing the disgruntled former board members.
“We’re still following up on the legal possibilities and we may well have to litigate this.”
But Father Hernandez said, “I would like for them to produce the documents that showed we didn’t act in a valid way. Is this a legal claim, or a political action?”
Needleman, Duran, and Solano said the dissolution of the board illegitimately put leadership of the organization solely in the hands of the clergy members and was effectively a coup d’etat.
Furthermore, they believe these clergy members are being pressured by Bishop Nicholas Anthony DiMarzio of the Brooklyn Archdiocese, who, they claim, has a political agenda having to do with the rezoning of the Broadway Triangle.
“The Broadway Triangle is the issue behind all of this,” said Esteban Duran, speaking of the 31-acre stretch of land in an area bordering East Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant whose rezoning has spawned a divisive battle in the community.
When contacted more than once month ago about these allegations, Father Kieran Harrington, DiMarzio’s spokesman, called them “categorically untrue.” Beuther and other Churches United clergy members have also stated that there has been no pressure from the bishop on the Broadway Triangle.
Duran, Solano, and Needelman have been outspoken opponents against what they insist is an exclusive process the city is using regarding the rezoning the Triangle. Father O’Shea, the ousted Churches United Corp. Executive Director, was a critic of the city’s handling of the rezoning as well.
The basis of their claims can be traced back to last October, when officials from the city’s Housing Preservation Development — which is overseeing the rezoning of the land — hosted a preliminary planning session, or “charette,” to gather ideas for the rezoning of industrial area that has been largely unutilized for the past three decades.
But only two community organizations — the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council and the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg — were invited. Conspicuously absent were groups like Los Sures, St. Nicholas Neighborhood Preservation Corporation, and Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, all of which have long track records of developing housing in that area.
These groups and others have banded together to form the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition, of which Solano, Duran, Needelman, and many other members of the nascent Churches United for Fair Housing are members.