“Ain’t nowhere else to go once you come here”

2178 Atlantic Avenue HDFC’s extraordinary fight to regain their building

Earlene King is the longstanding president and auntie of her co-op, 2178 Atlantic Avenue in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a primarily African American neighborhood in Eastern Brooklyn. During her oral history interview in late November, she wore a bright orange t-shirt printed with an illustration of the building with a silhouetted crowd of people celebrating on the roof. The words WE DID IT 2020 shone in front of a sparkling sunset and BROOKLYN was graffitied at the bottom. The shirt was made for a building BBQ last August to mark the victorious end of a years-long legal battle to regain possession of their foreclosed building. 

2178 Atlantic Avenue is easy to miss from the street— a nondescript, four-story residential building right off a six-lane street — but it is a treasured home for its residents, who persevered through a bureaucratic nightmare to be able to stay. 

Earlene was born and raised in Brownsville, Brooklyn to a mother who hailed from South Carolina. When she was 21, she heard about a sweat equity program through her brother, who heard about it through the priest at a local parish. She and her brother, along with two other locals, chose 2178 Atlantic Avenue to rehabilitate and homestead in coordination with HPD and UHAB. Two years later, they had moved in, and she joined the board, where she has remained and presided for almost 30 years. Almost everyone in the 16 unit building has lived in the building for over a decade. 

Yet they did not know that their J51 property tax exemption had expired in 2005 and needed to be renewed until their property taxes soared and their mortgage payments went from $3,200 to $8,500 dollars a month — way beyond their budget. The prospect of losing their building, which had housed generations of families, was unthinkable:  “A lot of us were panicking because we didn’t know our future,” said Kayla, a co-op resident. “I think not knowing your future in terms of your home is scarier than not knowing your future anyplace else.”

Earlene and Kianah Adams, a young mother born and raised in the building who serves on the board, led the entire co-op to save their home. Using their UHAB connection, they met a law professor at Brooklyn College who connected them with pro-bono legal counsel. The building went into foreclosure and was auctioned off to a real estate broker, who aggressively tried to harass them off the property. But after they made it plain to the judge that the building foreclosed not out of their financial negligence but from an unexpected change, the judge granted a 90-day stay on the property transfer. 

They sought help from their local Councilmember Darlene Mealy, who helped renew their J51 exemption and got them back-pay for the exorbitant amount that the city had erroneously charged, but the HDFC couldn’t receive that money because they no longer owned their foreclosed building. 

Earlene and Kianah filed for bankruptcy and spent a year going to court in person and remotely, totalling nearly a dozen court hearings to get their building back. Whenever they got a loan to acquire enough money to buy back the property from the broker, he raised the price from 500,000 all the way to 1.5 million dollars. Their court battle, which the judge described as “extraordinary,” finally ended in the summer of 2020 when they regained the deed of property. 

Regaining their building required tremendous resources, including committed lawyers. “[The lawyers] were like, ‘We’re gonna make sure you guys are able to get out of this.’ And they really did,” Kianah said. She credited a broad coalition of actors — their lawyers, councilmembers, Brooklyn College, Habitat for Humanity, UHAB — and then added, “And us! And us,” she said, looking over at Earlene. “Because [there] was no other option. No was not an option.”

Kianah’s determination to regain their building is rooted in her deep appreciation for being raised in an environment that offered her a safe, happy childhood, something not all her peers experienced growing up in Brownsville. She remembered playing outside near the six-lane Atlantic Avenue — “the street” — as a kid. “It’s so funny, looking at Atlantic Avenue now,” she said. “The street never seemed like Atlantic Avenue to me, if that makes sense. We were always safe, we were always looked after. It was always like, if it wasn’t your mother, it was somebody else’s mother.” She and Earlene spoke of kids running around the first floor hallway, hosting parties in the backyard, neighbors knocking on the door to say hi to the baby or taste whatever was cooking on the stove. 

The building feels familial but was not exclusive to residents. “I grew up here, even though I didn’t live here,” she said. “I lived in the towers [Atlantic Plaza Towers], but anytime I needed to cry or laugh, or Sunday meals, I was always coming over here.”  She complimented the board, saying,  “It’s like an open door policy. ‘Do you have a problem? Knock on the door.’ Nobody’s scared.” Kianah noted that her friends at school always asked to have playdates at her building  instead of hosting her. Non-residents  would hang out on their stoop. She suspected “something about the energy of this building” attracted others in the neighborhood.

Earlene noted that people who moved out would sometimes return and ask if they still had any empty apartments. But when they were thinking about leaving, Earlene tried to tell them: “Where you going?” Kianah nodded, “This is it.”  “Ain’t nowhere else to go once you come here,” Kayla chimed in. “You got the best neighbors.” 

Have a story to tell about your co-op? Contact Reb at ngu@uhab.org or 646-494-8467.

Is your building in danger of foreclosure, or struggling with high debt? Go to www.uhab.org/cip to get help from UHAB.