Monday, August 27, 2012

From City Limits: How the first Atlantic Yards tower got more $2,700/mo. subsidized apartments (but nobody told the public)

I have an in-depth article in City Limits today about the first housing tower planned for Atlantic Yards, headlined Agency, Developer Wrestle Over Atlantic Yards Affordability.

The subtitle: "Documents reveal tense negotiations between city housing officials and Forest City Ratner over the kind of affordable housing the first Atlantic Yards residential tower will provide. Turns out it's different from what the developer promised."

The gist: though it was not made public, the additional subsidized two-bedroom units will mainly rent for more than $2700 a month.

Not much transparency

Though no one said so publicly at the one public hearing regarding the tower, not only does the number of family-sized units fall behind Forest City's promises in the Housing Memorandum of Understanding and Community Benefits Agreement that 50% of the units, in square footage, be two- or three-bedroom apartments.

Also, the only way the total (20% of subsidized units) was achieved was to skew the units toward households earning six figures.

The documentation I discovered, via Freedom of Information Law request to the New York City Housing Development Corporation (NYC HDC), offers insight into the otherwise oblique public comments by Forest City Ratner executive Jane Marshall last March at a meeting of the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet.

As I reported, responding to criticism of Forest City's announced plans to include only 20 of 175  affordable units as larger (two-bedroom) apartments. Marshall said "we have succeeded" in increasing the number of two-bedroom units to 35. (Now the total would be 36, of 181 subsidized units, though nothing's set in stone yet.)

Who was in charge?

"You're not going larger than two [bedrooms]?" asked Council Member Letitia James, who had challenged Forest City on that issue in January.

"Right now that's what we are focusing on, because that's what everybody was focusing on," Marshall responded.

I had pointed out that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that Forest City signed with New York ACORN, which is incorporated into the Community Benefits Agreement, says that 50% of the affordable units, in square footage, would be larger (two-bedroom and three-bedroom) units.

But that's not what "everybody" was focusing on.

They were focusing on the NYC HDC's rejection of Forest City's plan for 11% two-bedroom units and request for 20% two-bedroom units--a request with which Forest City complied, albeit by requesting a configuration without the most expensive affordable units.

No one mentioned that publicly, not at the District Service Cabinet meetings or at the NYC HDC hearing in July.

Fudging the pledge

In the future, Forest City may come closer to meeting its pledge, but note that it's not incorporated into the official project documentation and is thus unenforceable, unless ACORN's successors go to court.

The official documentation is the Development Agreement signed by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) in 2009, which leaves things vague, as my article explains,

The pledge was repeated in the ESDC's November 2006 Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement, Chapter 1, Project Description, which stated:
Affordable units would be reserved for households making between 30 percent and 160 percent of citywide Area Median Income (AMI) and 50 percent of these units (on a square foot basis) would be two- and three-bedroom units.
Forest City and its partners have previously fudged that pledge, focusing on units, not square footage. (For 50% of the square footage devoted to larger units, there would be a larger total of smaller units.)

Lewis wrote in a 7/31/06 City Limits op-ed that "Half of all affordable rental units will be two- and three-bedroom units."

And, as seen in the graphic at right, the pledge was claimed by Forest City, on its previous website, as 50% of the units.

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