Friday, January 30, 2009

At State of the District Address, Jeffries again talks housing, says economy has “slowed down the AY streamroller”

With his preacher’s cadences, lawyer’s acumen, and Brooklyn pol's sense of strategy, 57th District Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries is an elected official worth watching, both for what he says and what he doesn’t say, as he begins his second two-year term in office.

In his second annual State of the District Address, delivered Wednesday night before an enthusiastic audience of more than 150 at the Pratt Institute’s Higgins Hall, he barely mentioned Atlantic Yards--though, compared to his glancing mention last year, he was more critical, an indication that the center of gravity regarding the project has shifted.

And, as I explain lower in this report, he thinks it’s likely that the legislature will hold a hearing on Atlantic Yards.

On video, three issues

Well, after a student musical performance--always good to draw a crowd--we first saw Jeffries on video, speaking eloquently against the repeal of term limits for city officials. Then again, the bill he’s proposing in the legislature wouldn’t impose term limits on entrenched Assemblymembers like Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the fabled "three men in a room."

Then he argued that it’s time to close upstate prisons, challenging the "prison-industrial crisis" and for ending racial profiling. Only the latter has passed the legislature, though the state’s fiscal crisis looks like it will lead to the closing of some prisons and a rethink of past policies.

(The video, with a faux-anchorperson doing the introduction, was more polished than the one last year. Perhaps that indicates help from Jeffries' longtime friend Lupe Todd, now a consultant with George Arzt Communications, who was thanked publicly along with his in-house aides. She's a former staffer for Newark Mayor Cory Booker and, before that, Dan Klores Communications, where, among other things, she worked on the Forest City Ratner account.)

Introduction

Deb Howard of the Pratt Area Community Council introduced Jeffries, praising him for his work on legislation that helped bring a bank to an underserved strip on Fulton Street, and for his work establishing Operation Preserve, which provides legal counseling for those threatened with displacement.

It also includes an effort--always popular in the Assembly, but stymied by the Senate, which was Republican until the last election--to better protect rent-regulated tenants.

The range of issues

Jeffries talked of town halls he’d held on public safety, affordable housing, and mass transit, the latter culminating in additional service on the B38 bus. Unmentioned was his opposition to congestion pricing, which might have done much for his district and the city. (Was he triangulating because a reasonable number of his supporters do have cars?)

Despite the economic crisis, he declared there was reason for hope, “because of the change in occupancy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I’m not usually so happy when someone loses their home,” he said, in one of several lines that generated laughter.

(Jeffries didn't lob any humor at the state legislature itself, nor say the word “dysfunctional,” which is the Brennan Center’s description.)

(Update: As a reader points out, Jeffries should also be credited for efforts to gain tax credits to hire ex-prisoners and for holding "office hours" at subway stations. Even if the latter's something of a gimmick, but he shows up, and a lot of other elected officials don't do it.)

Affordable housing

As he said last year, the most significant issue in the district is affordable housing, a response to the “twin evils of gentrification and displacement.” (Some would call gentrification a mixed bag, certainly benefiting existing homeowners.)

He cited reform of the city’s 421-a law, but didn’t give it nearly as much time as last year, perhaps because--as he didn’t mention--the previous version subsidized much luxury housing but the reform has, with the economic downturn, created very little affordable housing.

He cited Operation Preserve, noting that there are 20,000 rent-stabilized apartment units in the area. He cited the effort by "predatory equity"--a term that has been used too infrequently--to squeeze profits out of such buildings.

The single greatest threat to affordable housing, he said, is vacancy decontrol, which lets landlords deregulate vacant rent-stabilized apartments if the rent reaches $2000--a figure enshrined in 1997 and not adjusted for inflation--a not-so-tough threshold to meet.

“The days of working families being thrown out of their communities are coming to an end,” he declared, to big applause.

Indeed, the single most important legislation for his district may be reform of rent regulation, an achievement dependent less on the Assembly, which has long supported such measures, but the newly-Democratic Senate.

Project Reclaim

Then Jeffries hit the sweet spot of his sermon. “And then when it comes to some of these developments--”

The crowd murmured “uh-huh.”

“--for all these vacant luxury condominium buildings across our community, we’re coming after you too. You can run--but you can’t hide.”

The audience laughed.

“Because it makes no sense to have all these vacant empty luxury apartments. You can’t sell ‘em because you’re charging too much in a bad economy. When so many people in our community need housing.

“That’s why we’re launching Project Reclaim,” he said, pledging to work with city, state, and federal agencies, “as well as local developers to figure out a way how we can take some of these vacant luxury apartments and figure out a way we can transform them into affordable housing for our community.”

Applause.

“We’re gonna reclaim them.”

How exactly that might work remains to be explained, but Jeffries and other local elected officials are having some conversations.

Greed and hope

“We have an opportunity to change the culture from “Greed is good” to “It is better to give than it is to receive,” Jeffries declared, getting deeper into his cadences.

“There is hope in the valley. For more than a decade, working families, middle class folks and senior citizens in our community have been under assault, victimized by high rents, abusive landlords, the subprime mortgage crisis, and a real estate market that was spiraling out of control. But the collapse of the economy has actually given us an opportunity to preserve the racial, social-economic, and cultural diversity that we care so much about in our community.”

So, it turns out, there’s a big silver lining.

Jeffries marched toward a conclusion:
“The economy has slowed down the gentrification.
The economy has slowed down the predatory equity.
The economy has slowed down the luxury condominium explosion.
The economy has slowed down the Atlantic Yards steamroller."

There were some murmurs and titters from the crowd, perhaps because Jeffries has been cagey about AY, perhaps because the most prominent AY opponent, his sometimes-ally, sometimes-rival Council Member Letitia James, was in the second row.

“The economy has slowed down the displacement of working families and middle class folks from our community. There is hope in the valley.”

An AY hearing?

After his address, and as the crowd enjoyed some free food--always a good lure for events like these--I asked Jeffries whether an Assembly hearing on Atlantic Yards would ever happen. I reminded him that last May he’d called for a hearing, but it hadn’t happened, perhaps--as I speculate--Speaker Silver, an ally of Forest City Ratner, has looked askance at the idea.

“I do think, since Assemblyman [Jim] Brennan, Assemblywoman [Joan] Millman and Assemblyman [Richard] Brodsky, the chairs of the three relevant committees, have committed to holding a hearing, there still is a good possibility it’s going to happen,” Jeffries said.

(I hadn’t gotten any indication that Brodsky, who’s been focusing on Yankee Stadium, was ready to touch Atlantic Yards. He once indicated that a hearing would encompass the AY arena, but Yankee Stadium was a big enough target. When questioned directly last May, he was noncommittal.)

“I’ve re-raised the issue with them; they’ve given me their commitment that they want to move forward with the hearing,” Jeffries continued, “and collectively we’re going to approach the leadership to raise the possibility of having a hearing sometime in the near future, certainly within the next six months.”

Maybe in the Senate

Given new prominence of State Senator Velmanette Montgomery in a majority-Democratic Senate, a hearing, Jeffries said, might be held in the Senate, or as a joint Senate-Assembly hearing.

“Daniel Squadron chairs the Cities committee, we plan to approach him,” Jeffries said. “I’ve spoken with State Senator Bill Perkins, who chairs the Corporations, Public Authorities committee on the Senate side. He’s interested." (Perkins has been a major critic of eminent domain.)

He concluded, "So I think that the relevant individuals, at the legislative level, in terms of the committee chairs, in both the Senate and the Assembly, are ready to move forward. We just have to be active and vigilant with the leadership, and eventually I’m confident we can persuade leadership to move forward.”

“They’ve had other priorities,” he said of the committees, citing Yankee Stadium and World Trade Center construction. “But I’ve constantly said to them we are just as relevant, as important as those other projects and we also have to shine a spotlight on the Atlantic Yards project to make sure that we have transparency and can get to the bottom of what’s happening now and where we go in the future.”

Jeffries’ call for transparency was no endorsement, but it wasn't out on a limb, either. Similarly, while calling for a hearing, he's been careful not to push too hard. It's the prudent posture of a legislator allied with Brooklyn Democratic machine head Vito Lopez--who’s clashed with James and would support Jeffries for Congress--and not about to derail his career by suicidally challenging kingpins in Albany.

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