Monday, September 19, 2016

Former state overseer: not-so-affordable Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park "affordable housing" builds distrust

It's notable how many advocates and elected officials have applauded the not-so-affordable subsidized housing that's part of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, calling it, for example, "a model for the shared vision of a New York that works for all."
From the Daily News

By contrast, expert analyst Tom Waters of the Community Service Society said, “Those apartments aren’t meeting the most serious needs of the city, at all.” (And the Daily News, anomalously, produced a tough headline, right, at the groundbreaking of 535 Carlton.)

Waters doesn't have a dog in this fight, unlike organizations associated with ACORN, which signed the Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding with original developer Forest City Ratner.

Former state overseer gets harsh

A particularly powerful--and previously unknown--criticism comes from a very unexpected source, Arana Hankin, the former project director for Empire State Development.

(As I describe in more detail separately, in the 2013-14 academic year, she pursued a Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and reflected critically on the project she previously defended.)

Consider her comments in the video below, a 9/9/13 presentation Hankin made to her new academic colleagues. The "very complicated" methodology behind affordable housing, she observed, "just adds to the community's distrust."

Most people, she said, assume that affordable housing is below the Area Median Income (AMI), she said.  (The term “income-linked" would be more precise, since "affordable" merely means that rents aim at 30% of household income.)

According to the chart, the maximum income, at 160% of AMI,
was $132,800 for a four-person household. Now it's $144,960.
In the first Atlantic Yards residential tower, aka B2 (or 461 Dean Street), 40% of the affordable units go to households with incomes above 100% of AMI, Hankin noted.

Despite a promise of family-sized units, this first tower, flanking the Barclays Center, has no three-bedroom apartments, but many studios. (See my coverage of the compromises.)

"So it just continues to build the distrust, and there's misshapen expectations because of the ways in which the project was essentially sold to the community," Hankin said. As she wrote separately in an article:
Private developers’ use of the CBA [Community Benefits Agreement] and government’s insistence on taking a backseat role has continually marginalized low-income communities and stoked destructive infighting for limited resources. Local leaders who have signed these CBAs no longer are able to publically oppose these projects as a condition of benefit delivery, yet, because the developer has the upper hand during negotiations, these agreements are typically not legally enforceable and many of the benefits are never realized.
Or, those benefits are diminished, as noted below.

More context
It's actually worse than Hankin discussed. First, the New York City AMI--now an astounding $90,600 for a four-person household and $81,600 for three people--is inflated because it includes wealthy suburban counties. That makes a poor fit for Brooklyn, where the Census Bureau reports median income at $46,958 (for households of 2.74 people).

The largest chunk of two-bedroom affordable apartments in that first tower, 461 Dean--built from modular components--will rent for $3,012. In "100% affordable" 535 Carlton, two-bedroom affordable units can cost $3,223.

Those levels well exceed the $2,700 threshold at which vacant rent-regulated apartments can leave rent-stabilization, though these Pacific Park units will be considered "rent-stabilized" since annual increases will be tied to annual Rent Guidelines Board decisions.

Hankin did not mention that, after 2009 renegotiations, ESD gave Forest City 25 years—rather than the long-promised ten years—to build out the project. Since her lecture and paper, renegotiations in 2014, coupled with a threatened lawsuit and a new majority investor (Greenland bought 70% of the project, minus the arena and one tower), produced a new timetable with a 2025 deadline for the affordable units.

Expensive "affordable housing"

Undermining that progress, 65% of 535 Carlton and 38 Sixth, two "fully affordable" buildings, will go to households earning above 100% of AMI.

Half the units are aimed at households earning between 145% and 165% of AMI. That’s drawn no criticism from government agencies or elected officials, though only 20% of the project's subsidized units were supposed to go to that middle-income cohort.

Mayor Bill de Blasio even called one building a model, though such middle-income housing aims at a tiny fraction of New Yorkers and departs from his focus on low-income affordable housing.

I have to think that Hankin, were she liberated again to speak candidly, would agree that it's no model.

Perhaps the discourse in New York could accommodate academics David Madden and Peter Marcuse, who in their new book, In Defense of Housing, write:
When so-called affordable housing programs are producing apartments priced at levels virtually identical to what developers would demand without the affordability requirement,  it is clear that the term "affordable" is not so much descriptive as much as ideological.
That's not precisely the case here, as even a $3,000 two-bedroom apartment may be below-market. But such units are far too costly for the vast majority of those desperately seeking--and, in some cases, having cheered for--"affordable housing." 

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