Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The rhetoric evolves: Atlantic Yards, once "affordable *and* middle-income housing," is now significantly "affordable middle-income housing"

I write separately how the housing in the next two "100% affordable" towers skews mainly to middle-income households who'd pay more than $2,000 for a studio apartment and more than $3,000 for a two-bedroom unit--and how Mayor Bill de Blasio has fudged the issue.

Do remember this: such obfuscation would be much tougher if Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Brooklyn was discussed using rhetoric that was common through 2006.

For the first few years after Atlantic Yards was announced, the developer and project supporters used a more precise, if less self-serving, locution: "affordable and middle-income housing." Only later was it all generalized as "affordable," which papers over the vast differences in expected rents.

After all, "affordable" technically means only "income linked," in which households spend 30% of their income on rent. The 4,500 rental units would proceed under the 50/30/20 program, with 50% market, 20% low-income, and 30% moderate- and middle-income.

The reticence to use the term "affordable" for below-market but relatively high-priced units likely reflected the understanding that a subsidized, income-linked unit that now rents for more than $3,000--to a household earning nearly $140,000--fits few New Yorkers' notions of "affordable."

Three types of housing, not two
Forest City's presentation, May 2005 City Council hearing

For example, at the December 2003 launch of Atlantic Yards, developer Bruce Ratner said "that housing doesn’t mean only market-rate housing, it means middle income and it means affordable housing."

In a 1/19/04 Gotham Gazette essay, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, the project's biggest booster, said Atlantic Yards would create "affordable and middle-income housing for the Brooklynites who need them."

At a 5/4/04 City Council hearing, then president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation Andrew Alper described plans for "substantial affordable housing, middle-income housing, and market-rate housing."

At that hearing, Forest City point man Jim Stuckey said "we are committed to doing real affordable housing, real working-class family housing, real middle-income housing, and real market housing as well."

"Fifty percent market, that is what the presentation said," Stuckey said during the hearing, adding, "Thirty percent middle-income, 20 percent affordable."

At the hearing, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum reinforced the phrasing: "Forest City Ratner has committed to make affordable and middle-income housing."

Council Member Letitia James challenged Markowitz about how households earning up to $142,000 could be eligible for subsidized housing under city guidelines. "Clearly, Mr. Borough President, that would not be your definition of affordable housing, correct?" she asked.

"Well to me affordable housing, middle-income housing is somewhere in the area of 50 to 80 thousand dollars, affordable housing is below that," Markowitz responded.

(In more than ten years, the upper bound has risen under city guidelines, but the eligibility for Atlantic Yards housing has risen far more than than inflation applied to Markowitz's figures.)

At a second Council hearing, on 5/26/05, Stuckey said "we have agreed to do 4,500 units of affordable, middle income and market rate housing."

In March 2006, Ratner told investors, "When we first announced this project, before any community came to us, I said 50% of rental units will be affordable and middle-income."

In July 2006, Forest City executive Bruce Bender said in a press release that "the affordable and middle-income housing program will be handled via a lottery system as required by City rules."

That month, Stuckey told Brian Lehrer that "we will be creating a significant amount of affordable and middle-income housing."

Diminished rhetoric

Such rhetoric mostly tailed off, likely because the simple notion of "affordable" could be a magic mantra in an ever more expensive city.

At some point, even the term "middle-income" became dicier, such as in this July 2007 quote from Bender: “We said we will do 50 percent of rentals as affordable for low- and moderate-income families, and we will."

But it didn't die completely In July 2011, Forest City issued a somewhat deceptive memo opposing a proposed bill that would allow a state subsidiary to oversee Atlantic Yards. In one phrasing that was not self-serving, Forest City divided the subsidized housing into "affordable" and "middle-income."

In a March 2012 softball interview, Ratner promoted modular housing to the New York Times: "We need to figure out economic ways to build our cities, ways in which we can build affordable housing or middle-income housing.

Atlantic Yards = middle-income housing?

Speaking to the real estate industry in a February 2010 panel, Forest City Ratner CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin was asked about housing for the middle class.

Atlantic Yards, she said, "is the most ambitious middle-income housing project ever undertaken in this city, because of its commitment to produce 2250 units of housing, affordable housing but not just the 20 percent of the 80/20 formula, but actually incomes that range in the 80 to 150 percent of AMI, which is where the middle class sits."

It is not the "most ambitious middle-income housing project," but it is an ambitious program.

And Gilmartin was right to suggest that the middle-class--which incorporates both moderate-income and middle-income housing as officially defined--would get more subsidized units than low-income residents.

In fact, the middle-income housing is growing every more expensive, not merely because of the increase in Area Median Income (AMI) but also because the city has allowed the percentage of AMI assigned to certain affordable "bands" to increase.

So it's all been muddied. The Atlantic Yards "affordable housing" was sold to, and supported by, community groups like ACORN that represent poor and working-class people, not middle-income residents.

It's all "affordable" now."

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