Councilman Steve Levin’s loyalty to his political mentor and the embattled Bushwick-based nonprofit where he got his start is so strong he is giving the out-of-district group more than three-quarters of a million dollars to develop a housing facility 10 blocks from any of his nearest constituents.
Levin (D–Greenpoint) requested the $800,000 from the city’s 2011 capital budget — nearly one-fifth his permitted capital budget allowance — so that Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council could acquire and convert a former nursing home on Willoughby Avenue into an 80-unit complex for seniors and families.
The nonprofit was founded by Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D–Williamsburg), who still exerts tremendous influence over its activities and projects — and, it seems, over Levin, too.
The freshman councilman retorted that he is far more swayed by the project’s promise of more senior housing for constituents than by Lopez’s desires.
“There are 200,000 senior citizens on the city’s waiting list for [housing units],” said Levin, whose district includes Greenpoint, Williamsburg, DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights and part of Park Slope. “It is my overriding objective that we build housing for senior citizens, and it is beyond dispute that Ridgewood Bushwick builds and manages good affordable housing.”
That track record of housing is currently being reviewed by the state attorney general and federal investigators — which issued subpoenas requesting documents from Ridgewood Bushwick executives in September.
One of the items under investigation is the unusually high salaries that Ridgewood Bushwick pays its first and second in command — Christiana Fisher and Angela Battaglia, who moonlight as Lopez’s campaign treasurer and his girlfriend, respectively.
The city briefly halted scores of social services contracts to the nonprofit after an investigation found sloppy accounting practices, missing attendance sheets, and in one key instance, phantom city-funded programs — but most of those contracts have since been reinstated.
Throughout the ordeal, Levin has stood by Ridgewood Bushwick and its founder, frequently attending community meetings in Bushwick and East Williamsburg hosted by the lawmaker, and the nonprofit’s taxpayer-funded events such as Ridgewood Bushwick’s annual Thanksgiving celebration and two summer picnics.
Levin donated $12,000 from his discretionary fund to transport scores of seniors to a Long Island state park and feed them while a number of Democratic hopefuls wooed them for votes.
Levin himself has acknowledged several times that he would not be a councilman if Ridgewood Bushwick had not hired him in 2004, and if his mentor Lopez did not poach him from the nonprofit, elevate him to his chief of staff, and then endorse him in a race to succeed Councilman David Yassky.
But Levin has also been an eager backer of Lopez’s agenda in Council, lobbying for the Ridgewood Bushwick-sponsored 1,851-unit Broadway Triangle rezoning while vigorously opposing two significant rezonings, the 776-unit Rose Plaza and the 2,200-unit Domino Sugar plant redevelopment for not having enough affordability and being out of scale with the neighborhood.
Neither project involved Ridgewood Bushwick.
In addition, Levin also planted his former campaign manager, and Lopez’s current chief of staff, Debra Feinberg, on the board of Brooklyn Bridge Park, even though she doesn’t live in Brooklyn.
During his campaign, Levin received a total of $1,775 from Ridgewood Bushwick employees for his council run, as well as strategic planning and volunteer organizing assistance, which was widely credited for helping Levin win a seven-way primary race last September.
In his first year in office, Levin has kept in touch with the nonprofit that nurtured him.
In addition to the $800,000 capital allocation, Levin has directed $64,000 in member items funding — almost 10 percent of his allocations — to Ridgewood Bushwick.
The allocation includes $52,000 to help low-income families safely remove lead paint from their homes — a program that gave Levin his first nonprofit sector job six years ago.
Levin and his colleagues in Brooklyn’s Council delegation gave another $275,000 to Ridgewood Bushwick, including $50,000 for its youth center and $225,000 for its community organizing and legal services programs, none of which are in physically his district.
Some Downtown community leaders, including District Leader Chris Owens, have been grumbling over Ridgewood Bushwick’s share of both capital and expense funding from the city, and from Levin in particular.
“There’s plenty of need in Fort Greene and some of the developments he represents,” said Owens. “Politically, it’s foolish on his part and people should look at that relationship really strongly.”
Levin defended his decision to fund the future senior building, saying that giving outside the district is common and seniors are among the fastest growing parts of the city’s population, but will be searching for affordable places to live since Social security payments will remain about the same.
“We’re keeping apace with 1/1,000th of the need and it’s going to get worse when baby boomers start to turn 65 next April,” said Levin. “This project is building senior housing for a population that needs it, not just for my district, but for North Brooklyn and beyond.”