Tuesday, July 01, 2014

(Updated) Community negotiators got faster affordable housing and new oversight. They didn't know two all-affordable towers would skew toward $100K+ households.

The headlines on the press releases were mostly accurate, just incomplete, leaving out crucial context regarding who would be eligible for the coming Atlantic Yards affordable housing.

BrooklynSpeaks and the Fifth Avenue Committee stated:
Community groups and local residents reach historic accord with New York State and developers of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards Project: Agreement calls for delivery of 2,250 promised units of affordable housing ten years earlier than previously agreed; imposes penalties for failure to meet deadlines; creates tenant protection fund and special oversight subsidiary
Empire State Development stated:
GOVERNOR CUOMO ANNOUNCES COMPREHENSIVE PLAN TO ACCELERATE THE DEVELOPMENT OF ATLANTIC YARDS PROJECT AND ENSURE TIMELY DELIVERY OF PUBLIC BENEFITS: Plan Includes Commitment to Build 2,250 Affordable Apartments by 2025 instead of 2035
Governor Creates Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation [AYCDC], Fourteen Member Board will Monitor and Oversee Atlantic Yards Project and Advise ESD Board
Those represent significant progress compared to the status quo, however much the affordable housing was actually supposed to be delivered by 2019 (ten years after the re-approval of the project), and the new AYCDC will have somewhat less of a community voice than once suggested.

(Updated: As BrooklynSpeaks' Gib Veconi points out, correcting the original version of this post, since 2008 the governance always would have been controlled by the governor.)

In other words, the delivery of housing is actually not ten years early, just ten years ahead of the "outside date."

And there likely will be more family-sized units, though we don't know details.

But the under-examined issue regarded the affordability of new units, news that made a big splash in the Daily News and has provoked critical comments from Daily News columnist Harry Siegel.

100% affordable sounds good, but...

BrooklynSpeaks stated that the agreement "ensures at least 590 units of promised affordable housing are started within the next 12 months." ESD said, "The City of New York, through its Housing Development Corporation (HDC), will provide financial support to ensure the delivery of two 100 percent affordable housing buildings, totaling at least 590 units, and construction will begin by December 2014."

"[T]he community has been crying out for affordable housing now,” Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, told the Times.

Missing was the context: half of the new affordable units would go to households in the highest affordable-income "band," earning more than $141,735 (the 2013 level) for a four-person household.

Only 20% of the affordable units are supposed to go to that cohort, according to the Atlantic Yards Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).

Eligibility for the next two Atlantic Yards towers, based on 2013 Area Median Income (AMI)



A defense of the deal

I got a response today from de la Uz:
The basis for our lawsuit was disparate impact on African Americans related to the delay of the provision of affordable housing. Income levels were not part of our claim and had the suit been filed, the City of New York would not have been a respondent.
Regardless, our research shows that the the impact of the delay occurs across all AMI bands for African Americans.
And to answer your question directly, we were not consulted nor asked to sign off on any aspect of the affordability levels, though they appear to be consistent with the CBA/MOU which allows households up to 160% of AMI (city programs now allow up to 165% of AMI) to receive subsidy. You'd need to ask MHANY and FCRC to disclose if their MOU has been amended in any way.
We continue to believe the AMI levels should be looked at for the project to try to make the units affordable to more Brooklynites.
The affordability "bands" have been stretched somewhat, though that's not beyond the bounds of city policy. That said, the more dramatic change is the distribution of 50% of units in the highest affordable "band."

Yesterday, Veconi, in a Twitter exchange, also answered my question: the negotiators from community groups did not know the income details regarding two all-affordable towers they touted last Friday.

That implies that all who signed on, including the elected officials, were similarly touting "faster affordable housing" without recognizing that the de Blasio administration had changed the configuration of the housing for the next two towers (and possibly more).

Veconi defended the agreement as bringing low-income units faster than previously scheduled, which it does, and noted that the threatened lawsuit, on fair housing issues, addressed the decline in African-American households in the area around the project but did not address the levels of affordability. 

Those points are worth making, but as I pointed out, the public relations statements touted the entire affordable housing package. 

"We’re pleased that our tireless efforts to ensure public accountability have paid off, and that we were able to come to an agreement with Forest City and the State to ensure the community finally gets the affordable housing it was promised 10 years ago," said de la Uz, in a news release.

Not quite. For example, in these next two towers, the community is getting a different allotment of affordable housing, with only 30% of the affordable units--as opposed to the promised 40%--for low-income households. Rather than have 20% of the units go to moderate income households, there would be only 5%.

Council Member Laurie Cumbo said, “Affordable housing is one of Brooklyn’s greatest challenges and this agreement addresses it head on." Actually, it doesn't.

The exchange on Twitter

Here's the sequence:
Gib Veconi ‏@GibVeconi 2h
Good job @AYReport explaining role of potential @BklynSpeaks suit 2 accelerate #affordableHousing at #AtlanticYards http://wnyc.org/2CefY
Norman Oder ‏@AYReport 2h
@GibVeconi Agree it played significant role. But still question how much leverage @BklynSpeaks had/used, given housing details that surfaced
Gib Veconi ‏@GibVeconi 1h
@AYReport #FairHousing claims r based on race, not income. Affordability bands in NYC subsidy policy not in potential lawsuit scope.
Norman Oder ‏@AYReport 1h
@GibVeconi Thks4 for clarification, but did u/FAC know of/agree 2 income configuration in 2 all-affordable buildings? Big departure from MOU
Gib Veconi‏@GibVeconi
@AYReport Was not privy to those details, but AYCDC should oversee fulfilling affordability commitments on total 2,250 units going forward.
Norman Oder ‏@AYReport 52m
@GibVeconi OK. AYCDC role is progress. But how do 390/600 $100K+ affordable units address gentrification issues you've eloquently raised?
@AYReport 180 units 4 <= 60% AMI = big acceleration. Yes need more, but getting these now matters 4 ppl facing displacement pressure.
Norman Oder ‏@AYReport 33m
@GibVeconi I hear u, but isn't there big tradeoff if rest of affordable units skew upward? BkSpeaks pr emphasized total aff. housing package
Norman Oder ‏@AYReport 28m
@GibVeconi Also note: low-income units = 40% of total affordable in #AtlanticYards, but only 30% in next two towers. Another tradeoff.
Gib Veconi ‏@GibVeconi 24m
@AYReport same tradeoff if not mistaken. See previous reply re AYCDC.

How much progress?

The two new towers would increase affordability compared to the first tower, now under construction, but the difference is not as dramatic as one might expect between a 50% affordable tower and two 100% affordable ones.

That first tower will have 20% low-income units, 10% moderate income units, 20% middle-income units, and 50% market-rate units. (So, among the affordable units as a whole, there should be 40% low-income, 20% moderate-, and 40% middle-income units, with the low- and middle-income units divided into two "bands.")

The two new towers will have 30% low-income units, 5% moderate-income units, and 65% middle-income units, the latter divided into 50% for the upper band and 15% for the one below it. The middle-income units would be below market rents, but they would be way out of reach for most who hoped to benefit from the affordable units and are facing displacement.

According to a BrooklynSpeaks presentation aiming to explain the challenges of gentrification, all but the low-income units in the first tower, B2, would rent to tenants earning above Community Board 8's median income, thus "mitigating the developer's risk with taxpayer subsidy while gentrifying the community board."


The same argument could apply to the next two towers: all but the 30% low-income units would be "mitigating the developer's risk with taxpayer subsidy while gentrifying the community board."

The shift from 20% to 30% low-income units, and faster delivery of those units, will be meaningful to those 180 households facing displacement pressure, as Veconi stated. And the new Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation should monitor--if not tweak--the affordable housing of the project going forward.

But it's incomplete to describe the 590-600 units in the two new towers simply as more "affordable housing" without explaining how the configuration has shifted.

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