Monday, February 22, 2010

From the right and the left, critiques of ACORN and its "political cover" for Ratner

The connections between Forest City Ratner and ACORN (whose New York affiliate just relaunched as New York Communities for Change) are worth more coverage and, while the mainstream media have pretty much fallen down, both the right (Glenn Beck) and the left (Regional Labor Review) have taken notice.

And that's important, because ACORN head Bertha Lewis continues to shill for the project, as quoted in a Daily News article last August:
"Bruce Ratner's never wavered," she said. "I never look for anybody else to ensure these guarantees. We look directly to the developer to ensure the guarantees."
As we learned last month, while the developer is still supposed to build the promised 2250 units of affordable housing, the deadline is 25 years, not ten, the penalties for individual building delays are modest, and an Affordable Housing Subsidy Unavailability can be claimed for up to eight one-year periods--all part of what Noticing New York's Michael D.D. White deems a modest option renewal fee.

Moreover, the affordable housing in the first tower would have to conform to one of six possible scenarios--which include several scenarios with no low-income units.

On Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck, the right-wing commentator and entertainer, in an 11/30/09 video (temporarily unavailable), continued his criticism of ACORN by looking at the Atlantic Yards deal:
But Ratner went to the government with a grand plan for a new stadium and luxury apartments and retailers and stuff. And the government is like, "I smell tax revenue."
(Transcript)

Actually, I'm not sure they smelled tax revenue as much as embraced the idea of a major league team and a package deal--without competition, as city officials acknowledged--they didn't vet too closely. All the numbers about new tax revenue are highly dubious.

Beck sardonically asked rhetorically if "ACORN is there to help out the little guy, right?" The answer came in a clip from a video Adrian Kinloch shot for this blog, in which Bertha Lewis, outside a July 29 public hearing in Brooklyn, chants, "Enough is enough. You better build it, and build it now!" The crowd echoes her chant.

The justification

Beck continued with the rhetorical questions:
Why does ACORN support "a developer — a millionaire — I mean, somebody who is kicking little people out of their houses? They hate that, don't they? Answer: ching-ching."
Beck pointed to the 50/50 affordable housing deal, and then Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's observation that there are no designs for the affordable housing. And he noted the need for "major government subsidies."

He continued:
So let me see if I have this right. ACORN is supporting the project for all the affordable housing it will provide with no guarantee of providing affordable housing.
Well, now we know there are some gentle requirements in the Development Agreement. Most likely, Mayor Mike Bloomberg will make sure his agencies steer scarce subsidies to AY. But ACORN has long been in for a dime, in for a dollar.

A private rezoning

The key issue, which Beck couldn't get to in the short segment, is the trade off between density and affordable housing. Essentially ACORN endorsed and helped certify a privately negotiated density bonus for Forest City Ratner.

Such provisions should be the province of elected bodies, which perhaps can analyze whether it's worth it. But ACORN's agreement to support the project means it has continued to bring the troops, no matter how uninformed.

FCR's bailout

Beck then offered more context than has been in the local press:
It is just so lucky that they were there to help Ratner, because, in a completely unrelated item, he was there for them just last year with lots of money, just to help. He's a helper. That's what he does.... The New York Times has written: "Forest City Ratner complied with ACORN's plea for $1.5 million in grants and loans to help restructure after the internal embezzlement scandal involving Dale Rathke, the brother of its founder, Wade Rathke."

So the guy who wants to build the arena gave them a whole bunch of money — completely unrelated, I'm sure.
Interestingly, while Beck quoted the Times on the bailout, he didn't have a chance to point out how the Times treated the bailout as a parenthetical and was months late on the story. The New York Post, in its earlier--but still belated--coverage in September, also treated the bailout as secondary.

Political cover

Beck concluded:
How else does this relationship work? Well, as Bertha Lewis pointed out in an interview with the Regional Labor Review, among other things, ACORN helps Ratner by being, quote: "Political cover. Let's face it," end quote.
A need for a cost-benefit analysis

I critiqued that Regional Labor Review (RLR) interview in July.

The latest issue of the publication contains a response (Jobs, Housing and Urban Development in Brooklyn: The Atlantic Yards Controversy) from Brooklyn resident Lee Zimmerman, an English professor at Hofstra University, which publishes RLR.

Zimmerman, who relies in part on my blog (and misspells my name), tries to be charitable toward ACORN as a whole while offering withering criticism of the AY deal, offering some crucial context:
Both her narrative and the explanatory endnote, briefly introducing the project, present extremely problematic accounts - perpetuating those that have more or less dominated the public sphere. In this, they occlude the degree to which Atlantic Yards represents: an egregious violation of democratic process; the obliteration of vibrant communities through colossally-scaled and instant gentrification; and (continuing the radical redistribution of wealth upward that has accelerated in recent decades) a massive transfer of public wealth to a giant developer far in excess of any putative benefits. Some of these benefits include affordable housing and jobs. Given how seriously housing and jobs were needed even before the recent economic decline has exacerbated the problem, the rhetoric of “we're getting housing and jobs so AY is a good deal” has remained powerful, especially when mobilized by an accomplished leader like Bertha Lewis, speaking for a group that has done so much for disenfranchised communities.

Such rhetoric, though, evades the point. The question isn’t simply “will AY provide some jobs and affordable housing?” but rather “how much benefit, especially housing and jobs, will AY provide relative to the costs - the opportunity costs, of course (the housing that won't get built, the jobs that won't get created, the more appropriately scaled development that won't get built on the site, and the public services that won't get delivered, with the direct and indirect public subsidies that would go to AY), but also the costs to the environment and infrastructure, to public and fiscal health and security, to the urban fabric of Brooklyn neighborhoods, to the fight against the abusive use of eminent domain, and to the democratic process. That is, while Lewis acknowledges that FCR sought a Community Benefits Agreement to provide “political cover” (19), her narrative fails to account for why that cover is needed.
And, of course, no one has done a full and credible cost-benefit analysis, though the New York City Independent Budget Office has come closest.

Such an analysis is surely needed, given that, under the plausible scenario of a project taking 25 years to build at 75% of approved density could result in nearly half the projected revenue.

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