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At the "Priced Out" conference, some Atlantic Yards subtext

At the “Priced Out” conference on “addressing the pressures of living in NYC,” sponsored by by the New York City Council Black, Latino and Asian Caucus over the first weekend in November at Pace University, Atlantic Yards popped up several times, sometimes not so flatteringly. And it also led to some public diplomacy from both opponents and proponents.

(Here´s my longer report on the conference in general.)

Opening the conference, Council Member Letitia James, the most prominent opponent of Atlantic Yards, gave Atlantic Yards proponent ACORN a plug, citing the housing group’s 2003 study, “Sweetheart Development,” which pointed to a steady stream of luxury developments in and around Downtown Brooklyn. James didn’t mention either that ACORN’s study singled out Atlantic Yards as an exception or that on the Atlantic Yards issue she’s been opposite ACORN.

During one panel, Michael McKee, treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee, lamented that the city is steadily losing rent-stabilized apartments that rent for less than $1000 a month, “and we are adding them for two and three thousand dollars a month.” He added, “The Atlantic Yards proposal, rent-stabilized apartments are going to rent for five-six-seven thousand dollars a month. That’s ridiculous.” On the same panel, ACORN’s Bertha Lewis glared a bit as she listened, but chose, in her segment, not to rebut it.

McKee’s numbers were not inaccurate, but hardly the whole story. The 2250 affordable units would rent from $620 to $2658 for a four-person household. For the 2250 market-rate units, the rent would be set by the market, but increases in rent would be governed by rent stabilization. Typical two-bedroom units, according to Forest City Ratner projections, would rent for $4087, while some three bedroom units would rent for $7313.

(Click graphic to enlarge)

James in the forefront

An audience member at a panel criticized the failure to discuss small homeowners who face eminent domain. Her example: “someone like Bruce Ratner says, where we live is really not being taken of the way he can do it.”

Again, Lewis passed on a response, while Council Member Melissa Mark Viverito offered a general comment: “Tish James has been strong in her voice about eminent domain.”

At another point, Assembly Housing Chairman Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic leader, reminded the audience how public officials work hard. “Tish [James] could roll over tomorrow; she’d get a lot of chocolates and hugs from Ratner,” he said, praising someone who´s not always been a political ally. “But she’s taken a substantive position.”

A bit later, James popped up. “I love you, despite what they say,” she said impishly. “From time to time, we do have some misunderstandings.” James notably supported Bill de Blasio in the race for Council Speaker, while Lopez’s support helped swing the race for Christine Quinn. James chose not to point out, for example, how Lopez, in the state´s revision of the 421-a tax subsidy, was happy to negotiate the "Atlantic Yards carve-out."

An AY defense

At another panel, Tunisha Walker, the political/legislative director of New York ACORN and also a representative of ACORN housing, offered a strong but somewhat stilted defense of Atlantic Yards. “ACORN stopped up and said, [Ratner] wants to build a stadium and luxury condos and we said no.”

She asserted that Magic Johnson’s nearby development, One Hanson Place, has studios selling for $1.6 million. Not quite—all the units selling for over $1 million contain multiple bedrooms. And the issue is more complicated--Atlantic Yards was not, as she hinted, a response to Johnson's project; the conversion of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank was announced in May 2005, 18 months after the Atlantic Yards plan debuted.

(Then again, it was, in Lewis´s telling, a response to the other luxury development in and around Downtown Brooklyn, as the "Sweetheart Development" report points out. The difference is that the other development is as-of-right, while Atlantic Yards is, essentially, a privately-negotiated rezoning.)

“You have to give them something they can make money off,” Walker suggested, which is certainly true, though it contrasted with earlier criticism from Lewis concerning the government’s decision to let the private sector build housing. “When has a greedy private person ever done the right thing?” Lewis asked rhetorically.

AY: who´s eligible?

Walker claimed that the affordable housing rents were based on “neighborhood income tiers… because the city hasn’t said what affordable is.” (That’s not so; the rents would be based on regional AMI, or Area Median Income.)

To illustrate those eligible for Atlantic Yards affordable housing, Walker chose not to cite the typical four-person household but instead cited the income ranges for single people, from $13,000 to $60,000.

That might have been closer to accurate in the previous iteration of the housing plan, but now the range would be $14,889 to $79,408, as the chart above suggests. For four-person households, the top income would be $113,440. In other words, by choosing to focus on the somewhat unusual example of a single-person household, Walker wasn´t telling the whole story.

AY for the "missing class"?

Indeed, there was a lot of discussion at the conference about how the definition of "affordable" skews too high. While the middle-class faces pressure in New York's real estate market, Lewis at one point declared that "the folks a dollar above the poverty line... are the folks we really need to be putting policies around.” They are, she said, "the missing class," citing sociologist Katherine Newman’s book of that name.

The missing class, according to Newman, are the “near poor,” those with household incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 a year for a family of four. As the chart above shows, only 900 of the 2250 affordable Atlantic Yards units would go to such families. As I pointed out in August 2006, ACORN negotiated an affordable housing deal in which most of the units would not be accessible to the group´s core constituency.

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