Thursday, February 22, 2007

Beyond "Brooklyn Matters": compounding and complicating the indictment

The documentary film Brooklyn Matters (click for future showings) doesn't claim to be comprehensive; rather, it's a powerful indictment . Still, upon another viewing of the film at Bishop Loughlin High School last night, I was reminded of two missing strands; one would have compounded the indictment, while the other would have complicated it.

Had Isabel Hill's camera captured the affordable housing information session held by Forest City Ratner and ACORN on 7/11/06, viewers might have seen a large crowd of working-class New Yorkers, mainly minorities, eager to gain access to subsidized housing, but dismayed that most would be either unaffordable to them and/or not available until the second phase, officially scheduled from 2010 through 2016.

Also, had a camera captured ACORN New York Executive Director Bertha Lewis at the housing debate held nearly a year ago, or in an interview longer than that in the film, Lewis might have made the point that Atlantic Yards promises more affordable housing than other developments in and around Downtown Brooklyn.

AY in and out of context

Indeed, under construction now are new luxury high-rises enabled by a Downtown Brooklyn rezoning that did not require affordable housing--a debate ACORN sat out.

Of course, the tradeoff is that the Atlantic Yards affordable housing was used to gain political support for a project that even architect Frank Gehry admits is out of scale. Had Lewis and ACORN protested the Atlantic Yards plan and called for inclusionary zoning, undoubtedly any development at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard would have required affordable housing.

Would it have provided as much? Not on paper, because the 8.5-acre railyard isn't 22 acres and a rezoning of the adjacent blocks might require affordable housing but not permit the scale of the Atlantic Yards project.

However, even project supporters and landscape architect Laurie Olin have said that construction might last 20 years, not ten. At the post-film discussion last night, Ron Shiffman, founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development, pointed out that 2250 affordable housing units over 20 years would produce fewer than 120 apartments a year--and that an alternative project involving just the Vanderbilt Yard and a redistribution of subsidies might produce more units faster.

(More than 200 people attended the film, sponsored by the Fort Greene Association and the Society for Clinton Hill. Update: An organizer says the school rep estimated 300; the Brooklyn Paper reported some incidents in which posters were torn down.)

Would ACORN have been designated to manage the affordable housing? Certainly not all of it. So Lewis and ACORN made a choice that reflected the organization's mission but also some institutional self-interest.

Singleminded ACORN


Lewis, at a housing debate 2/28/06 defended ACORN's role as a pragmatic response to the situation in Brooklyn: "I can't kick ass on environment, just can't. Can't do it on density, just can't. It’s reality. Of all the things that are happening in central, downtown Brooklyn, throughout Brooklyn--this is like a goddamn tsunami. It’s for real, this shit is coming. So, if I could stop one iota of gentrification, I’ll do it. I can't do environment. I can’t do traffic. But we're not just singleminded and coldhearted."

However, at the 8/23/06 hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, ACORN members did appear singleminded, often disparaging those who tried to discuss the project's environmental impact, and cheering for those who talked about housing and jobs.

Now Lewis provides revisionist views of the project's history, suggesting that, without ACORN, the project would've contained no affordable housing.

The "tsunami" continues

Still, Lewis's "tsunami" comment can't be dismissed; it's a reminder that public officials have not moved quickly enough in response to the distended housing market.

Indeed, her choice of language was echoed, interestingly enough, by Rabbi David Niederman, a Hasidic community organizer in Williamsburg, in the Washington Post yesterday. The newspaper reported on the astonishing changes in Williamsburg, as new condo towers born of a recent rezoning are harbingers of change and displacement.

But it's hardly the free market; Williamsburg, after deindustrialization, became attractive to artists and hipsters--the first wave of change--only after significant city investment in stabilizing the existing housing stock.

The Post reproted:
But dislocation looms. The median family in Williamsburg earns $27,466 and spends 45 percent of its income on rent. The three-piece-suited newcomer hails from the financial sector, where the average salary is $195,857. "How do we compete with this tsunami?" Niederman asks. "Our insularity is no match for this money."
(Emphasis added)

Where does it end? One person in the article says he's leaving for Pennsylvania. City University anthropologist Neil Smith offers an interesting quote:
"We are witnessing the corporate and geographical restructuring of cities -- the wealthy are suburbanizing the center and pushing the poor to the fringes, and it's turbocharged," Smith says. "Artists are disposable -- developers just toss them out in hopes they'll colonize the next 'hot' neighborhood."

Bargaining with developers

And then there's an observation quote that seems quite relevant to the Atlantic Yards debate:
"Clearly the city didn't drive a hard enough bargain," says Martin Dunn, a developer of low-income housing. "What was wrong with holding developers to a mere 500 percent profit?"

How much would Forest City Ratner earn for the Atlantic Yards project? We don't know, but New York magazine estimated $1 billion, based on a slightly larger design. The city sat out the bargaining. Did the Empire State Development Corporation and the MTA drive a hard enough bargain?

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