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A response to John Atlas on ACORN & Atlantic Yards

In August 14 issue of City Limits Weekly, in a letter headlined YOU GOTTA GIVE IT TO ACORN, John Atlas, who's writing a book about ACORN, made some fundamental errors in his analysis of ACORN and its role in Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.

Atlas wrote that "ACORN received the commitment from Forest City to include 50% non-market affordable housing." That's incorrect, and ignores a far more complex sequence. The developer originally promised the public a 50/50 affordable/market split for all the housing in the project. By the time ACORN signed the Housing Memorandum of Understanding in May 2005, the 50/50 agreement applied only to the rental units.

Presto: condos

Once ACORN was on board, less than ten days later, Forest City Ratner announced plans to add thousands of market-rate condos. The projected number of condos, once 2800, has since been reduced to 2360. That means that 2250 of 6860 onsite Atlantic Yards apartments would be affordable. That's less than 33 percent.

(Forest City Ratner has promised to build 600 to 1000 offsite affordable for-sale units, though that promise is not memorialized in the documents being considered by the Empire State Development Corporation. That could lead to 38 to 41 percent affordable units in the entire project.)

Consultation with members?

Atlas wrote that ACORN consulted with its members, convening neighborhood meetings and conducting a telephone poll. "It is rare for low-income people to be part of a planning process for a large urban development," Atlas wrote.

What he didn't mention is that the telephone survey included leading questions likely drafted in consultation with the developer. One question--I've seen a copy of the survey--asked whether people would be more or less likely to support the plan "if the proposal created 15,000 construction jobs and 10,000 permanent jobs."

Did listeners know that construction jobs are calculated in job-years, so that meant 1500 jobs a year over ten years? Or that the permanent jobs were office jobs hardly available to most ACORN members--and that many of the jobs would be relocated from Manhattan rather than new? (Now, given that office space has been slashed dramatically, the developer projects about 2500 office jobs.)

Another question: "How important is it to you for the proposal to set aside at least half the units for affordable housing?" Of course, the number was never more than half, and now would be less.

More importantly, the concept of "affordable housing" was not clarified. Those polled were not asked about affordable housing accessible to those in your income bracket.

Finally, ACORN members were asked their opinion of the plan, "[h]aving heard that thousands of jobs could be created, families might not have to be displaced, and thousands of units of affordable housing could be built."

Affordable to whom?

By use of the general term "affordable," ACORN encouraged support for the plan by members who would not qualify for most of the subsidized units. One ACORN Nets Arena Survey that I have shows that 65 percent of respondents reported household income under $30,000, 11 percent $30,000-$50,000, 8 percent $50,000+, and 16 percent wouldn't answer.

However, much of the Atlantic Yards project would be closed to them. Only 225 of the units would be available to families earning under $28,000, with another 675 units available to families earning under $35,000. That means that families in ACORN's core constituency would be eligible for only 13 percent (900 of 6860) of the onsite units. Another 225 units would be available to families earning under $56,000.

After all, 900 (40 percent) of the affordable units would go to families earning at or above the Area Median Income (nearly $71,000), which itself is well over Brooklyn's median income. Note that earlier 900 of the 2250 affordable unites were promised to moderate-income people earning 50%-100% of the AMI; now that group would be eligible for 450 units.

The affordable housing information session held last month by Forest City Ratner and ACORN showed that many attendees were disappointed by the cost of the affordable housing, the delay before it would become available, and their chances for getting access to it, since 50 percent of the units would be reserved for people living in the three nearest community board districts.

Real housing for the real Brooklyn?

Atlas seems to be joining Daily News editorialists, who called the project "real housing for the real Brooklyn," asserting that it would benefit "families who languish for as long as eight years on waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 vouchers."

However, those waiting for Section 8 vouchers would be eligible for fewer than half of the affordable units, and those waiting for public housing would be eligible for about half of the affordable units. There's an argument for subsidizing housing for the middle-class, but ACORN wasn't telling its members that.

Also, if those off-site condos are built, it's likely they wouldn't be available to most ACORN members. The Housing Memorandum of Understanding states, "It is currently contemplated that a majority of the for-sale units will be sold to families in the upper affordable income tiers."

Half and half?

Atlas writes that "it is extraordinary for New York (or any other city) to have a development where half the residents would pay market-rate rents and live side by side with the other 50 percent," and that "poor and working-class people will have more affordable housing."

Again, he misreports the percentage, and suggests that the affordable housing would be designated for "poor and working-class people." Moreover, as the graphic shows, the rents for 900 of the 2250 affordable housing units would start at more than $2000 for a family of four. That's easily market-rate in the nearby area. (Click on graphic to enlarge)

Middle-class vs. the poor

Atlas observes shortsightedly that "This battle over Brooklyn captures the tensions between middle-class professionals who want their particular vision of the city to reign, and the poor who need the new jobs and housing that a big development project like Ratner's can provide."

It's hardly a particular "middle-class" vision to scrutinize what would be the densest residential community in the country, by a factor of two. It's a civic responsibility, especially when ACORN's Bertha Lewis says she must worry about housing, not issues of density or the environment.

Also, those criticizing and opposing the Atlantic Yards project are not monolithically middle-class. City Council Member Charles Barron, an ex-Black Panther who represents poor neighborhoods in eastern Brooklyn, has called the plan "instant gentrification." The group also includes longstanding affordable housing groups like the Fifth Avenue Committee and the Pratt Area Community Council. Scott Sommer, host of WBAI's Housing Notebook, has called Atlantic Yards "a boondoggle for rich developers."

In other words, the Atlantic Yards project has split progressives.

Community groups and corporations

Atlas concludes that, "In a conservative era, where government has substantially withdrawn from supporting the poor, community groups have no choice but to directly wrench concessions from private corporations."

That may be a trend, but there are significant differences between the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), signed by ACORN and seven other groups, and the CBAs developed in Los Angeles.

“As a matter of principle, groups in our network don’t take money from developers. We want to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest,” John Goldstein, National Program Director of The Partnership for Working Families, said. At least four of the signatories to the Atlantic Yards CBA have received money from the developer, and Forest City Ratner has refused to answer whether others have been paid.

ACORN's best deal?

Atlas is correct that there's been a failure of government. Because our elected officials have moved too slowly to cope with a real estate market distorted by subsidies for luxury housing, ACORN agreed to support an out-of-scale project, in which the Empire State Development Corporation would override local zoning and bypass the scrutiny of local elected officials. (Earlier this year, ACORN forcefully criticized the subsidies.)

In City Limits, ACORN's Lewis called Atlantic Yards "the best deal" available, and history will be the judge. But there are alternatives. The inclusionary zoning model, as demonstrated in the rezoning last year of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront, allows for greater density if affordable housing is added. That rezoning was negotiated by the City Council, while the Atlantic Yards density is what I've called a privately-negotiated affordable housing bonus.

The waterfront rezoning has been criticized for its scale and allowing off-site affordable housing. But the affordable housing would be permanent, rather than the guaranteed 30 years at the Atlantic Yards project.

And the income range reaches down to 20 percent of AMI, encompassing more ACORN members than the 30 percent figure for Atlantic Yards. And the income cap is 125 percent of AMI, not 160 percent, as would be with Atlantic Yards.

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