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ACORN's Lewis, interviewed unskeptically in journal focused on labor issues, maintains AY deal is a success

An immersion in the Atlantic Yards story can lead to some hard truths about people we consider professionals:

  • Elected officials repeat Forest City Ratner talking points and imaginary numbers ginned up by a paid FCR consultant
  • Elected officials miss the chance to pose tough questions to government officials (though they can recover)
  • Appointed officials actively mislead the public at an oversight hearing
  • A distinguished civil liberties lawyer makes campaign contributions to Brooklyn machine politicians
  • Wall Street analysts fail to ask tough questions about an issue that demands skepticism.
  • Academics avoid scrutinizing an organization that passes an ideological litmus test
The latter is the lesson of an unskeptical interview in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of Regional Labor Review headlined ACORN’s Fair Housing Fight in Working Class Communities: A Conversation with ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis.

The journal is published by the Center for the Study of Labor and Democracy (CLD) , based at Hofstra University on Long Island, which is "a nonprofit research institute that aims to expand public understanding and discussion of important issues facing working people."

The Preview section of the journal promotes the Lewis piece as "one of the first full-length interviews for publication that Ms. Lewis has given since ACORN found itself the target of almost daily Republican criticisms during the 2008 campaign for the White House."

Most of the interview does not concern AY, but a considerable chunk is devoted to the project.

Missing from the discussion

Even though the issues regarding Atlantic Yards were readily apparent when the interview was conducted February 9, 2009, the interviewer, a Ph.D economist, demonstrates no familiarity with:
  • the Atlantic Yards controversy
  • the shifting contours of the affordable housing promises
  • the long delays, should the housing even be built
  • the dubiousness of Forest City Ratner's commitment
  • ACORN's contractual obligation to support the project
  • Forest City Ratner's bailout of ACORN.
The AY section

The section of the interview regarding Atlantic Yards consists of two open-ended questions and long soliloquies by Lewis, with no interpolation for fact-checking.

The problems start with the footnoted description of the project:
iii The Atlantic Avenue Rail Yards in downtown Brooklyn is the site of a $1.2 billion residential and commercial center proposed by developer Bruce Ratner. In a legally binding Community Benefits Agreement with ACORN and other local organizations, Ratner pledged to reserve half of the 4,500 apartments for low- and moderate-income residents. Ten percent of these apartments will be reserved for seniors and residents currently living at the site who will be displaced. The CBA also includes programs that will train locals for construction and retail jobs at the sports arena and a deal to allocate at least 30% of pre- and post-construction contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses.

The project is called Atlantic Yards. The railyard would occupy less than 40% of the site. It was to cost $4 billion, at least according to the official documentation at the time of the interview, though it was once to cost $4.2 billion, a term that persists in press reports (and may have led, via a typo, to the $1.2 billion number).

And while the description of the CBA is not inaccurate, the use of the term "legally binding" obscures the fact that the remedies are hardly guaranteed, and the CBA need not apply to a successor should Forest City Ratner sell the project.

AY as example

Q: Can you say something about the current Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn?

BL: Sure. Atlantic Yards is an example of what’s going on across the country in urban environments, inner-ring suburbs. During the big heyday, when it was all boom, everywhere you looked, big arenas, big stadiums, big luxury housing was everywhere. The use of eminent domain is just everywhere. This has been going on for at least a decade. So what do you do? How do you come at this stuff? In the majority of instances, being unable to stop it, how do you in fact affect it?

Well, it is an example and it isn't. Most of the other projects proceeded according to the applicable zoning, in many cases the product of a rezoning. Most crucially, AY is the product of a state override of zoning, and the affordable housing deal is essentially a privately-negotiated affordable housing bonus.

Lewis, like other signatories of the AY CBA, made the calculation that the benefits were worth the costs--and, most likely, that the institutional benefit to New York ACORN was important, as well. Since then, given FCR's financial bailout of national ACORN, the institutional benefit is clear.

Fighting gentrification

Lewis's answer continues:
We started in Brooklyn 27 years ago. Downtown Brooklyn actually was a vast wasteland. It was the Wild West. People that lived on the periphery, in Crown Heights, what they now call Prospect Heights, but it was always Crown Heights. Once they start changing the name of a neighborhood, that’s when you know gentrification is coming. But the marching prior to gentrification was coming. And our neighborhoods and people always were left out. And since there was no built-in commitment to affordable housing and no commitment to jobs or to hiring from the neighborhood, politicians would make their deals and run. Developers would come in, do what they wanted, and they would run away. And the next thing you know, thousands and thousands of people are displaced.

Lewis ignores the fact that ACORN was AWOL on the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning it now decries.

Lewis's answer continues:
So when the Atlantic Yards project first came up, it was a notion. And we’re always doing stuff 24/7. So then people began to talk about the idea of this thing happening. They were like, “Whoa. What the hell?” And here we were, once again. We’ve been doing housing campaigns since our first breath of existence, back in Little Rock, Arkansas, where we started in 1970. And housing has always been a basic plank of ours, affordable housing.

So you fight these battles, and we have been crying about gentrification of our neighborhoods, developers not dealing with the community. So this was nothing new to us. So now we see this Atlantic Yards coming up, and this guy is saying he’s going to build 4,500 units of luxury housing and an arena and shopping and all the basic grab bag of these developers.

This account ignores the fact that, when announced, AY was to have mixed-income housing. The deal was cut before anyone publicly backed the plan.

Promises vs. guarantees

Lewis's answer continues:
So we said, “You know what? We’re just sick of this.” But we had no illusions, either, because other development had been going on in downtown Brooklyn. We had been talking about all of the development that was going on in downtown Brooklyn, but nobody seemed to pay any attention to us. We kept pointing the finger. You know, “This project, that project.” We kept doing actions on these developers, and eminent domain was being used. “They’re tearing down public housing.” And we tried to save a whole public housing complex in downtown Brooklyn. Nobody wanted to pay any attention.

But in comes sexy, sexy, sexy Atlantic Yards. But we’re saying Atlantic Yards is the same as any other development. We had met with developers, and they would laugh in our face. Basically, they said, “It’s not about us losing money, but if we make one penny less in profit than we could make, we don’t want to hear anything. We don’t have to do it. We can do the absolute minimum. The government’s on our side. Back up, community group. Back up, crazy ACORN. We don’t have to listen to you. Get out of our face. Can’t you see that capitalism and the market is what reigns?

As noted, it was not the same. And no one, including ACORN, has ever stated whether there would've been enough housing bonds to build the 2250 subsidized units at the promised ten-year project buildout.

Now the Empire State Development Corporation is essentially promising one building. Only 300 subsidized units are required in Phase 1, which the developer has up to 12 years (after the close of litigation and the delivery of property via eminent domain) to complete.

Talking to the members

Lewis's answer continues:
So we were expecting disappointment. But the one thing about us is this: We are developers also. We’ve built and rehabbed over 1,000 units of housing. So we know how this stuff works. We’re not just advocates who say what should happen. We can actually show people how to make it happen. So when we went, we did -- the first thing we did was we talked to our members, and we have about 30,000 members here in New York, in the city, and we have about 20,000 here in Brooklyn alone. So we said, “What have you heard about this thing? What do you think about it?” Some people liked the idea, some people thought the idea was horrible. So first we told the members, “What do you think?” Then we said to the members, “What should they be doing?” I mean, right off the bat, “Housing, housing, housing. Why aren’t they building housing for us? Housing, housing, housing.”

So then we sat down and said, “What, if you made a demand and you did a campaign, what would you demand?” “We demand 50% of the housing that’s being built be low and moderate income and affordable. We demand that there will be a community benefits agreement, where there will actually be real jobs, a real system.”

As noted, the CBA is in question. More importantly, most of ACORN's constituency couldn't afford at least 40% of the subsidized housing. In other words, they endorsed "affordable housing" without understanding the full spectrum of income ranges.

As I wrote in August 2006, members were asked about "set[ing] aside at least half the units for affordable housing," a ratio that later changed, with affordable housing limited to the rentals. (Here's further analysis of the bait-and-switch.)

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

Getting the deal

Lewis's answer continues:
So the membership came up with demands: a real CBA with a lot of different components. But for ACORN, our main thing was housing. So we said, “Okay, we’re going to go in there and we’re going to see if we can meet with this guy and see what he says.” We fully expected to be rebuffed. You know, you’re so used to getting kicked that, the first time we sat down and met with these folks, and they said, “Well, let’s talk about it,” we didn’t really hear it. We just kept wailing. They’re like, “No. Let’s talk about it. Show us how to do this.” And it was amazing.
Now, politically, we are who we are. We’ve built up a reputation. You know, we’re strong, we’re a political group, we’re a housing group, and people pay attention to us. I mean, these folks wanted to not have us as their enemy. But we came in and actually got a CBA, got a 50/50 housing deal, were able to shape the affordable piece of the housing. I was able to show these folks who had never done affordable housing. They didn’t have a clue about how to do it and brought in other folks to deal with this. Tied it down by having subsidies for the whole project tied to making certain deliverables in the community as well as housing.

The deliverables and subsidies are rather loosely tied. As noted, only 300 affordable units are required to be built in Phase 1. There's no timetable for Phase 2.

And ACORN is obligated to support the project, which it does, sending representatives to dutifully testify at public meetings like the ones held by the ESDC and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. No one mentioned Forest City Ratner's bailout of ACORN.

Strategy for cities

Lewis's answer continues:
We believe nationally that the community benefits agreement movement and strategy is a way for small cities, especially small cities and inner-ring suburbs and other groups to actually be able to wring something out of these developers. And other cities have -- You know, there is a CBA movement, as small as it may be, in the country, and are using CBAs to wrest concessions and not have the government negotiate for you.

It's an important issue, deserving more analysis. Consider that Good Jobs New York, part of the national movement for CBAs, criticized this one. And that longtime community planner Ron Shiffman, a board member of AY opponent Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, thinks such guarantees should be governmental, part of a level playing field.

The AY story

Lewis's answer continues:
So that’s the Atlantic Yards story. They brought their bean counters. We brought our bean counters. They brought their lawyers, we brought our lawyers. It took about a year to hammer out a CBA and an agreement around the affordable housing.

That is only part of the Atlantic Yards story.

Why it "worked"

Q: Bottom line, why do you think it worked?

BL: I think it worked because, one, we were very clear on what we wanted and we had solutions to what we wanted. We had a way to show this developer by spreadsheets and other stuff, we spoke development language. We actually understood what we were talking about, and we had a concrete proposal. Two, we were value-added:one, in expertise; two, in political cover – let’s face it – and political might and our ability to fight them.

Indeed, that's how the deal got done, but whether it worked remains in question. The MTA, for example, no longer calls the housing "critically needed," perhaps because it's unlikely it will be delivered quickly.

Gaining an ally

Lewis's answer continues:
You know, you make an analysis as if you’re going to lose. But we would have put up a hell of a fight, and they didn’t want to fight with us. So you have to be big enough, deep enough, have the expertise, have a real plan. You can’t come to these folks with vagaries. You know, “We want affordable housing.” “When do you want it?” “Now.” “What does it look like?” “We don’t know. You figure it out.” You can’t do that. You really have to know your shit.

For Forest City Ratner, $1.5 million for ACORN is a lot easier to come up with than funding for affordable housing.

Lewis's answer continues:
So that’s why I think it worked. I think we were the right group at the right time with the right stuff in the right place, and finally you have to have a willing partner. As I said, we’ve met with developers for 30 years, and they just have contempt. I’m going to give the devil his due. Forest City was willing to sit down, like I say, bring their bean counters, bring their lawyers, bring their experts and actually sit at the table with us and not talk to us like we were children, actually have real conversations. They wanted to find a way to do this.

If you don’t have a willing partner, if you have people who only do it begrudgingly or because they’re forced to or they’re put into a shotgun relationship, it never works. But you have to have that willing partner, and you need to be big enough and have the strength and have enough expertise and be able to bring the political capital to the table.

Forest City Ratner concluded that it did need ACORN's political capital. Now, essentially, it owns ACORN's support.


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