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Bargaining for Brooklyn: insights into Vito Lopez's influence and how affordable housing lotteries work

As Aaron Short wrote recently, sociologist Nicole Marwell's Bargaining for Brooklyn: Community Organizations in the Entrepreneurial City, a book published in 2007 by the University of Chicago Press, has become surprisingly relevant to observers trying to understand political power in North Brooklyn and beyond, given the role of Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Vito Lopez.

Also, as I describe below, the book offers insight into the not always fair lotteries used to winnow applicants for affordable housing--an issue that should be on the Atlantic Yards radar screen.

In North Brooklyn

Short wrote:
New Kings Democrats members have even been swapping dog-eared copies of the book or faded photocopies of the infamous “Chapter 3,” which focuses on the political activities of St. Barbara’s Catholic Church and the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC).
With the increased interest in the neighborhood surrounding two competitive city council races, the rezoning and future development of the Broadway Triangle, and member items and campaign finance reform, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to invite Marwell back to Bushwick for a talk about non-profits and political engagement.
Over a decade ago, Marwell did field work (or in her words, “hanging around”) in two Catholic Churches (Transfiguration and St. Barbara’s), Beacon School programs (Williamsburg Beacon and Bushwick Beacon), day-care centers (Nuestros NiƱos and New Life), and community development organizations (Los Sures and RBSCC).
For our discussion at the library, we focused more on the community development organizations Ridgewood Bushwick and Los Sures and how they engage with the political system to help their members.
In her introduction, Marwell explained how CBOs became a place for African-Americans and Latinos to join together and organize, and how some elected officials realized they could reprise machine politics through these organizations.
“What was surprising or unexpected in my research was the way some organizations make a choice to build a community organization and the way some make a choice to do organizing,” said Marwell.
For non-profits, this difference in philosophy means everything and it is what separates organizing groups like Make the Road New York and El Puente from organizations like Ridgewood Bushwick and St. Nicholas NPC (and Los Sures to some extent).

The roles of RBSCC

The book notably explains how social worker Vito Lopez (despite his Spanish name, of Italian heritage) transformed RBSCC into an large organization, delivering vital services to mostly poor constituents, and, not coincidentally, a political power. (It has more than 2000 employees.)

Marwell writes:
When public funds flow to a particular CBO [community0based organization], it is able to offer resources to local residents. These include, in addition to the housing, day care, youth development, drug treatment, and other services the CBO has contracted to provide, jobs in the organization itself.

Later, she explains how, in recent years, RBSCC opened a building with supportive housing for seniors,, a nursing home, a legal-assistance program for low-income individuals--all part of a $7 million budget. After that, adding to the budget, the organization began to run a charter school, another senior housing building, and a youth center.

The power of RBSCC

RBSCC serves as a base for Lopez's own position as Assemblyman and Brooklyn Democratic Party chair, with an army of staffers and clients--typically nearly 200-- who regularly take off on Election Day to knock on doors, touting favored candidates. (Other community-based organizations do the same, I'm told.)

Maintaining strict formal separation between work and politics, they don't volunteer for RBSCC but rather down the street at the Bushwick Democratic Club, which, though in the 34th Council District, just happens to also serve as the headquarters for 33rd District candidate Steve Levin, Lopez's Chief of Staff.

That suggests that RBSCC workers will be in (at least parts of) the 33rd District September 15 boosting Levin, as well as the 34th District, closer to home, pitching Maritza Davila, challenging incumbent Council Member Diana Reyna, who's had a falling-out with Lopez.

Marwell describes RBSCC as a latter-day political machine, working works within the political system to gain government contracts, provide services, and build a reliable constituency for the elected officials who steer those contracts.

By contrast, St. Barbara's, part of the federation known as East Brooklyn Congregations, aims to mobilize for systemic political change, a more difficult and amorphous undertaking.

(In April 2008. Marwell was interviewed by Who Walk In Brooklyn's Brian Berger.)

The politics of housing lotteries

Marwell also describes how housing lotteries work--an instructive example for those watching Atlantic Yards, given that, should affordable housing be built, it would be distributed via lottery.

(Actually, there might be multiple lotteries, or parts, given that half of the subsidized units would be reserved for residents of Community Boards, 2, 6, and 8, and ten percent of the total for seniors.)

Marwell writes that lotteries can be gamed somewhat--though, I suspect, given the intense publicity over Atlantic Yards, the chances would be lower.

Still, housing organization ACORN, partner with developer Forest City Ratner, would be under intense pressure from its members--the people who showed up, in many cases clueless and hopeful, at public hearings to tout the projects--to deliver the units to them, or at least to help position them for the best chance at such scarce housing.

Keep in mind that only 900 of the promised 2250 affordable units would be low-income (under 50% of Area Median Income, or about $35,000 for a four-person household), and that only a fraction of those units would be delivered in the first building or two.

Also note that even proponents, like former Empire State Development Corporation CEO Marisa Lago, have said it's highly unlikely that the project would be built a decade, as officially promised, and that there's no evidence that there are sufficient affordable housing subsidies--or that the ESDC can require the timetable to be met.

How lotteries work

Marwell writes, on p. 116:
Ridgewood-Bushwick cultivates reciprocity with its clients in many ways. One example can be seen in the organization's housing development work. Using a combination of federal, state, and city contracts and tax subsidies, Ridgewood-Bushwick develops, builds, and manages subsidized housing for low-income families and senior citizens. All of this government-subsidized housing is required to be distributed to income-eligible renters or buyers based on a lottery: the availability of housing units must be publicly announced (for example, in local newspapers), standards applications filed with a government agency, and winners randomly selected. Even within these bounds, however, there is ample room for Ridgewood-Bushwick to skew the results of the lottery to its own clients. (During the course of my research, informants described how other local housing organizations, including Los Sures and the United Jewish Organizations, engaged in similar practices.)

The lottery process begins with the announcement that a CBO is in the process of constructing new housing, with a certain amount of apartments to be made available. While sophisticated, persistent low-income housing seekers may have learned independently when and where to look for public announcements of new housing, individuals with connections to the particular CBO are much more likely to find out about such developments and to request applications, CBO clients also benefit from assistance in completing the forms. Applications for government-subsidized housing are quite complicated, and those that are incomplete in any way are excluded from the lottery. Assistance from Ridgewood-Bushwick staff helps to increase the number of valid applications submitted by individuals affiliated with the organization. The informational and assistance benefits offered by Ridgewood-Bushwick, and other CBOs, thus ensure that its clients are overrepresented in drawings for any subsidized housing development it builds. The high value of housing resources in New York City's increasingly tight and expensive housing market encourages strong reciprocity toward Ridgewood-Bushwick from residents of its housings developments. Fieldwork repeatedly confirmed that residents of buildings built, managed, or organized by Ridgewood-Bushwick are among the most reliable participants in its organizational activities.


  1. Vito Lopez and his lackey Stephen Levin, who is running for City Council in district 33, both deserve scorn for opposing the NY Child Victims Act. One fifth of all children in the USA are sexually abused, 80% by a family member. However, they are currently blocked from suing or going to the police if they wait until the age of 22 to do so. The CVA would change the law to allow criminal prosecution up to the age of 27 of the victim, and lawsuits up to age 53. Such legislation is necessary because the abuse usually causes trauma, as well as shame or fear, which prevents coming forward. Therefore, there are thousands of child molesters still teaching children today. The only way to combat this is through the CVA. However, Lopez (with Levin's help) is fighting the CVA for the support of Catholic and Jewish groups which fear lawsuits for repeatedly harboring serial pedophiles who abused children in their care. In exchange for opposing the CVA, the Catholic Church and the United Jewish Organizations (UJO) are supporting Vito's Triangle housing development which will benefit him personally. It is all very disgusting. Just be sure not to vote for Stephen Levin tomorrow. All the children of NY state are at risk of sexual abuse and rape because of their cool, calculated political ways. Let us teach them will not get away with this any more, and make sure Levin doesn't get elected. Probably the best choice would be Jo Anne Simon, an attorney and community organizer who has fought for Brooklyn's citizens, especially the disabled, for decades. It's time to throw a wrench in Vito's "machine" and protect NY's children!
    Frederic C. Schultz, Esq.
    Brooklyn, NY


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