The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: Atlantic Yards

The First Mayoral Debate: De Blasio Looks Energized

Last Tuesday, the Democratic and Republican Mayoral Candidates faced off in their first televised debate of the general election. With the second debate happening tonight, we’re giving you a refresher on how the candidates defended their affordable housing positions. Check out this video from last week, and you can read summaries at Daily News Live-blog, Business Insider and ABC.

It only took the candidates 13 minutes to get to the issue on thousands of voters’ minds: affordable housing. The first question coming from the viewers via Facebook and twitter was from a woman identifying herself as Pamela from Harlem, who according to the newscaster, “can’t afford to live in her neighborhood anymore because she says all the empty lots she sees is [sic] filled with high-priced condos”:

“Are plans being made to make affordable housing for people like myself who work, make an income of less than $100,000 and do not have Section 8?” 

Democratic nominee Bill de Blasio answered first, discussing his plan to have over 200,000 new and preserved units of affordable housing over the next ten years. He went on to say:

“What we need is affordable housing for every New Yorker so they can stay in the neighborhoods they love near their families, near their friends — and that’s what I’m focused on creating.”

Republican nominee Joe Lhota also opened strong, “On January 1st, I’m going to declare a housing emergency — the need for affordable housing is overwhelming.” He went on to discuss his plan to build 150,000 units of new housing in the next four years, saying that for any new development the “cost for [any] variance is going to be affordable housing.”

When confronted by a question asking why he did not do more to fight for affordable housing as Public Advocate (specifically around Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn), de Blasio argued that in fact he did try his best to put pressure on Ratner and others. He went on,

“The bottom line is that we have to require the creation of affordable housing in all new development we do. Right now the Bloomberg policy is its optional.”

This sparked one of the most interesting exchanges of the entire debate.

When asked to respond, Lhota boldly pronounced, “I don’t believe in mandatory inclusionary zoning… I think its a violation of the constitution.”

When one of the panelists tried to ask Lhota a follow up, de Blasio interrupted: “I have to respond to that” calling mandatory inclusionary zoning “legal and appropriate.” The further into this specific response he got the more energetic the former NY/NJ Regional Director of HUD became: “We are demanding affordable housing back in the name of the people.”

Then a panelist asked for Lhota to clarify his position, but after a full answer, Lhota’s stance was still unclear — so de Blasio jumped in again ahead of the panelist to push Lhota to clarify if he supported mandatory inclusionary zoning or supported Bloomberg’s policy of optional inclusionary zoning.

“There’s a middleground.” Lhota said — at which point de Blasio halfheartedly tried to interrupt, eventually letting Lhota reiterate his talking points while making frustrated glances at his opponent.

An exciting 7 minutes for all.

Mandatory inclusionary zoning is an exciting idea that has the potential to reshape affordable housing development in New York City. But we also want to direct focus to the thousands of rent stabilized units that are at risk due to predatory equity and its associated problems: deferred maintenance and harassment, or displacement and gentrification. Any new administration needs to come up with creative solutions to tackle the constant loss of affordable housing through deregulation.

Zoning is Not Just for Urban Planners!

Zoning laws, ultimately controlled by the City Council, directly shape the built environment of New York City neighborhoods. But one could argue that the zoning process undermines participatory democracy in any local government, including New York City. Though the process is theoretically open to a public approval period, zoning documents are dull and wonky, typically written for insiders — politicians, city planners, ambitious advocates. But zoning, which dictates what kinds of housing, stores, and buildings are allowed to be built in any given space, has an enormous impact on the affordability of the city. By manipulating the zoning laws and providing developers with powerful tax-related incentives, city governments can encourage some kinds of development over others.

Rezoning issues have been at the heart of almost every headline project (Willets Point, Atlantic Yards, Domino Sugar, East Midtown/Grand Central..the list goes on…) built under the Bloomberg administration. Though there is a process for public review of rezoning documents, under this administration the local government hasn’t appeared very interested in the results of these community forums.  Neighborhood groups have had very little input, compared to say, Bruce Ratner, in shaping how their communities are rezoned and in what kinds of development end up being built. This is a problem, and this is why groups like ANHD have put the zoning code front and center in issues they are fighting for this mayoral election season. ANHD is demanding that mayoral candidates put forth a position on mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would force the hand of developers to build affordable housing. (Check out this policy brief they released last year for background.) This is also why CUP has created a series of tools and workshops to explain the zoning law and the urban land use process to community groups so that they can more strategically insert their voice.

We’ve written before on this blog about rezoning in Bushwick, and the impact it could have on the neighborhood’s residents. Basement units, like we featured on the blog yesterday, could all be legalized through a change in the zoning code – and the effects on housing affordability could be huge.

The Crown Heights Assembly, a people’s assembly of neighbors fighting for housing justice in Crown Heights, has also focused on illuminating the off-putting zoning process. They’re working together with their members to a) educate around the impact that rezoning would have on the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and b) provide talking points for public forums to residents who want their voices heard.

Check out this great graphic CHA created that breaks down what it means when the city says things like “R7” and “FAR.” And pay attention to the candidates’ answers when they talk about mandatory inclusionary zoning. Knowledge of these terms and processes is a powerful tool to effectively organize for more affordable housing in our city, and we support those groups working to democratize this procedure.

Evaluating Ed Koch’s Affordable Housing Legacy

Photo by: New York Daily News

Photo by: New York Daily News

On Friday, former Mayor Edward Koch died at the age of 88. To some, he embodied the city of New York — vivacious, tenacious, and fearless.  To others, especially those in the LGBTQ and Black communities, he was aggressive, alienating, and insensitive.

When Koch was elected, New York City was experiencing an unprecedented urban crisis marked by violence, poverty, and a notorious fire during the 1977 Baseball World Series. During the game, nearby apartments caught fire, which destroyed much of the housing stock in the South Bronx — nearly 80% of some blocks. The blaze, now an iconic symbol of the state of housing in New York City in the late 1970s, was started by tenants trying to heat their buildings themselves. Many buildings in the South Bronx had been abandoned by their landlord due to insurance payoffs or defaulted mortgages. While the city took ownership of many of these buildings, they did not have the capacity to properly manage the spaces.

In 1985, Koch entered his third term with a new housing initiative. He pledged to rebuild the South Bronx by making a 10 year and $5.1 billion commitment to constructing or repairing 252,000 housing units.  Koch’s plan successfully rebuilt many Bronx buildings, empowered tenants, and expanded affordable housing. While he receives much credit for this plan, it is necessary to remember that his policies were only in response to the industrious resident organizing that turned numerous abandoned buildings into livable squats long before  Hizzoner ever set foot in the Bronx.

In the wake of the 1970s housing crisis, tenants took charge. They formed local organizations and used federal dollars to pay the staff.  Many of the tenants also decided to own their buildings by turning them into cooperatives.  UHAB was instrumental in supporting tenants reclaim and reconstruct their homes. In doing so, they pressured the Koch administration to allocate more money into these endeavors and trust that tenants have the capacities to manage their buildings. Tenant associations and local community groups saw value in buildings that Ed Koch desperately did not want NYC to own. His housing policy was a response to sustained community organizing, and this is what needs to be celebrated.

Ed Koch’s plan laid the groundwork for his successors. It is possible to see Ed Koch in Mayor Bloomberg’s 10 year Housing Marketplace to create and preserve 165,000 affordable housing units by 2014.  Like Koch, Bloomberg does not think the city should manage buildings, but is using the economic power of the city government to incentivize private developers to create affordable housing. Using practices that harken back to Ed Koch, Bloomberg has prioritized development in New York City and wooed major landlords. But New York doesn’t have a development problem anymore, it has an affordability problem.  Many of the housing developments that the Bloomberg administration has partially enabled (Domino Sugar, Atlantic Yards, Willets Point) are controversial projects with questionable affordability measures. Bloomberg is mayor of a different New York, and with ubiquitous speculation and soaring rents, the Koch framework  leads to city-sanctioned gentrification.

As housing advocates and tenant organizers, it is nearly impossible to imagine what we would be doing today if it weren’t for Ed Koch, as the Hizzoner certainly changed the face of affordable housing development in the city. Nevertheless, we think it is important to question the assumptions that New York City political leaders make about their proper role in housing today. By the end of this year, we will have a new mayor.  With that, we wonder: How will the new mayor’s housing policy reflect Koch’s legacy? And, What will we think of the housing marketplace, once Bloomberg’s pro-business attitude is less palpable and his critics have shifted their focus to Gracie Mansion’s new resident?  Only time will tell…

Atlantic Yards Developers Continue to Dodge Agreements on Affordable Housing

When the city agreed to subsidized the Barclay’s Center and Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, it did so as part of an agreement that included a provision to build a certain amount of affordable housing.  This agreement came after a 2005 “Memorandum of Understanding” with ACORN and the Atlantic Yards Development Company LLC, which proposed several scenarios in regards to affordable housing development.  The MOU’s terms was that 50% of the rental units built need to be affordable, and also that 50% of those affordable units need to be 2 or 3 bedrooms (family-sized).

But at the end of last month, City Limits published an investigative report on Atlantic Yards and the shady negotiations that have been going on behind closed doors.  I’m sure that it comes as no shock that developer Forest City Ratner continues to weasel its way around this promise. Despite next week’s opening of the shiny New Barclay’s Center, affordable housing will not even begin construction until sometime this Fall. City Limits details how current plans for affordable housing, known as “Tower 2” differ from original promises:

Housing is more geared towards middle income than low, rents more than $2,700 a month and fewer family sized units than promised…Only nine of the 35 subsidized two-bedroom units would go to households currently earning less than $35,856 for a family of three (with rents at $835 monthly), while 17 would be reserved for the highest affordable income “band,” those earning 140-160 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), or between $104,580 and $119,520 for a family of three.

The community’s initial optimism about Atlantic Yards and its potential benefits has waned rapidly, thanks to a lack of transparency on the part of HDC and Forest City Ratner. Aside from a few feeble protests, New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC) has stood by as Forest City Ratner continues reduce the number of family-sized units in Tower 2. Though the city has refused to provide Ratner with additional subsidy when asked, it has allowed the developer to adjust the number of 2-3 bedroom apartments in order to save money. This essentially limits the number of low-income families who will be able to call Atlantic Yards home, and welcomes single, shorter term and higher income residents. These adjustments to Forest City Ratner’s affordable housing plan were made in secret.

In the long-run of community development, it is all too easy to forget the controversy that led to Atlantic Yards. (Just ask Robert Moses, whose controversial neighborhood-clearing urban renewal projects are now considered -by some- to be indispensible New York City gems.) There is real excitement in the air surrounding next week’s opening of the Barclay’s Center. Brooklyn has a basketball team now, Jay-Z is coming to play three straight nights of shows, and construction of affordable housing is significantly less glamorous than all that. All the wonky talk of what makes an apartment building appropriate and affordable for families is quickly being overshadowed by the Nets. Perhaps that is what Bruce Ratner and Forest City were counting on.

We have to prove them wrong! AY (Atlantic Yards) Crime Scene is working to highlight the injustices taking place around the development project.  They, along with other Brooklyn community groups, have organized several events in the coming weeks to demand a new plan for Atlantic Yards that puts the community first.  To check out a list of these events, click here.

For more information about Atlantic Yards development and the struggles over affordability, check out the City Limits article here.

Enough False Promises of Affordable Housing Development!

Brooklyn Clergy Turn Against Barclay’s Center, via Fort Greene Patch

There is a major lack of affordable housing in New York City, and everyone knows it.  When the government pushes large scale development projects, it is often the promise of jobs and affordable housing that win community support for the project. In the case of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn (the site of Barclay’s Center, the new Nets arena) developers promised to build over 2,000 units of low and middle-income housing. But as the arena’s construction is nearing completion, where is the affordable housing?

The lack of follow-though on affordable housing development is nothing unique to Brooklyn or to Atlantic Yards.  The same thing is occurring all over the city.  Willet’s Point in Queens is currently under development under the premise that the creation of affordable housing would be prioritized. According to the Wall Street Journal, however,

The companies would first spend years building a hotel and a large retail center in the area before moving on to constructing the housing in an unproven and polluted site near Citi Field.

Where are the priorities in NYC’s urban development?  Who is setting the agenda?  And how is the community manipulated in the process?

This week, Crain’s NY published another article highlighting community anxiety over abandoned promises of affordable housing at the former Domino Sugar site. Originally, one-third of the housing development would be set aside for affordable housing – a whopping 660 units.  CPC Resources Inc. and its partner, The Katan Group, are now selling the project to Two Trees Management, and it is unclear whether or not they will uphold the promise of affordable housing.

As usual, communities impacted by these development sites are fighting back! “Any developer or investor who wants to purchase Domino without committing itself to the 660 affordable units, should really think twice,”  Isaac Abraham, a Williamsburg community leader and housing advocate, told Crain’s NY.  And in Fort Greene this week, clergymen protesting against Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner created a new faith-based group made up of 25 Brooklyn congregations. The group, called Committee for Arena Justice,  is calling on New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo to pressure Ratner maintain his commitment to job creation and affordable housing for the community. The Fort Greene Patch reports,

We need jobs that can sustain families and not jobs selling hot dogs,” said Councilwoman Letitia James, D-Fort Greene. The criticism comes less than a week after Forest City Ratner opened up online pre-registration for hundreds of mostly part-time event positions at the arena.

The clergy are calling for a boycott of the arena until the developers “treat the community with respect.”  Committee for Arena Justice is holding a meeting at the Brown Memorial Baptist Church at 484 Washington Ave in Brooklyn to plan upcoming protests against Barclay’s Center, particularly against the grand opening featuring co-owner and rap-legend Jay Z.

As tenant organizers, we see false promises constantly – from banks promising to sell buildings to affordable housing developers to landlords who swear they’ll make the necessary repairs.  We understand the frustration about the real lack of affordable housing and investment in communities and support the boycott!  We look forward to supporting this effort!

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