Life After Sandy: Will NYC Finally Invest in Affordable Housing?

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported that Sandy victims will be given priority for about 2,500 vacant apartments owned by private landlords across New York City. Participating companies vary from Two Trees Management (arguably a predatory developer associated with the controversial Domino Sugar project) to L+M Development Partners (a respected affordable housing developer that recently purchased the Ocean Village project in Far Rockaway.)

According to FEMA, nearly 96,000 households in the region are eligible for housing aid.  This still-developing agreement between the city and private landlords may only provide 2,500 units but is a significant first step in a long battle to ease this housing burden. The public-private coalition has overcome some significant barriers, including length of lease: federal and state law typically requires at least a 12 month terms for rent to be offered below market, but this housing situation may be temporary for some tenants. The plan raises some significant questions about recent trends in the New York City housing market and how we can move forward to ensure it meets the needs of ALL New York City residents.

As any New Yorker can tell you, the rent in this city is “too damn high.” The city has a historically low vacancy rate, hovering around 3%. Rent regulation laws are extended by law makers every year depending on the vacancy rate — typically contingent on whether or not there is a housing “shortage,” generally defined as a vacancy rate lower than 5%. New York City hasn’t had a vacancy rate lower than 5% since the rent regulation laws were first enacted nearly five decades ago. In one fell swoop, Sandy diminished the supply of affordable housing in New York, while increasing an already outsized demand. The market is tight, and the need is urgent. Giving priority to Sandy victims (who certainly do need it) will likely exacerbate this existing housing shortage, as there is a huge demand for overpriced apartments in this city even in the best of times.

Not only has Sandy made the housing situation in New York City much, much worse, it has thrown into the spotlight the fact that affordable and low income housing has not been a legislative priority for some time. In the post-Sandy housing crisis, we are calling on our New York elected officials to prioritize rehabilitation of existing housing stock over new developments. While we continue to invest in new developments and affordable housing that espouses gentrification over long-term affordability, tenants in NYCHA and low income rent regulated buildings suffer. While the city has invested millions into projects like the Barclays Center (still waiting for affordable housing to break ground here), Section 8 is frozen, and NYCHA’s waiting list is 16,000 families long. Sandy made this long-relevant problem more visible than ever.

Today, the New York Times editorial board published an opinion piece, “The Affordable Housing Crisis,” which calls on elected officials from President Obama on down to take new proposals to make rental housing affordable seriously.

[Low-income] families skimp on food and medical care to make the rent and tend to move often, making it difficult for their children to be successful at school. They are also more prone to homelessness, which is traumatic for them and extremely costly for the municipalities that run shelters.

Yet even as the need for affordable housing has grown, such units have disappeared. Over the last two decades, for example, private landlords have removed more than 200,000 apartments from subsidy programs so that they could raise rents. And, faced with weak federal support and no money for repairs, the local housing authorities that manage federally supported developments have boarded up or torn down more than 150,000 units.

This piece is distressing in the context of the national low income housing crisis. In New York City, with a choked market and a demand that increases daily, the situation is much more dire. It’s time for a change, for a real investment in affordable housing. If you didn’t already know so, Sandy just told us.


Friday News Round-Up

Before you go running out the door to protest Forest Ratner or see Jay-Z open Barclays Center, here’s some of what happened in the news this week.

  1. While we haven’t seen the notorious MTA ads in person yet, they were altered (corrected?) almost immediately after they were put up. After this week’s outrage over Pamela Geller’s posters, the MTA has altered their policies regarding advertisements. (Personally, I’d like to go after the ads for this book next.)
  2. Economists, op-ed columnists, bloggers, etc are tripping over each other to announce the next Big Crisis facing American cities. Student loan debt is a front runner. Pension funds are a close second.  Though this may seem far away from the work that we do to fight predatory equity, it’s not. Many state and city pension funds are invested in the very same companies that are buying up rent-regulated housing at inflated prices. This means that private equity companies are using public pension fund money to speculate on affordable housing. If pension funds do happen to get paid back for their investments in these funds – including Lone Star Funds – it will (partially) have been thanks to disinvestment and displacement in low income housing. We hate this. (Learn more about the pension fund problem this week at The Atlantic Cities.)
  3. There was an article in New York Magazine this week, exploring Brooklyn’s history and it’s rapidly changing neighborhoods. Starting with a pretty dire title (“Brooklyn is finished.”), Mark Jacobson goes on to weave his personal history in with the history of the borough, concluding that Brooklyners are a resilient people, they are no stranger to change, and that they will take Barclays Center (and gentrification) in stride, as they always have. We have mixed feelings: its true that cities change, and Brooklyn is no exception. But should we be less concerned about displacement and increased marginalization just because it has happened before? Probably not.
  4. It was a bad week for Stop-and-Frisk. Yesterday at City Hall, hundreds of people showed up to demonstrate against the policy, saying it unfairly targets minorities and young people. And on Tuesday, Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson announced that his office will no longer be prosecuting people for trespassing who were apprehended in public housing projects via Stop-and-Frisk without first interviewing the arresting officer.

As for us, we had a great event outside the New York offices of Lone Star Funds yesterday morning. We had a good time, and hope tenants did as well.

Stay tuned for more pictures and video.

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!