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Equity vs. livability: the false choice

At the panel on affordable housing discussion last Tuesday, moderator Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, divided the opponents into “equity advocates,” as represented by ACORN, and “livability advocates,” as represented by Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB).

The distinctions, as Lander acknowledged, aren’t rigid; ACORN in the past has expressed much concern about “livability” issues like parks--though ACORN’s Bertha Lewis resisted any “livability” questions regarding the Atlantic Yards plan. Also, whatever DDDB’s concerns about scale and traffic, the group also sponsored the UNITY plan for both development and affordable housing over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA) Vanderbilt Yard, though at a scale that would provide less housing than the Ratner project, which would also encompass adjacent blocks.

Too narrow a debate

Lander’s terms were defensible as shorthand, but they define the debate too narrowly—otherwise, anyone questioning or opposing the Atlantic Yards plan could be painted as a foe of equity. To project supporters, equity means a significant supply of affordable housing (a goal of 50%, though it's not yet been met), and promises of some number of jobs. Equity advocates, presumably, would endorse ever taller towers as long as they contained more affordable housing.

But development has its costs. An equity advocate looking at the big picture might wonder about the costs of mitigating the project’s impact on traffic and transit, for example. As noted, when density becomes congestion, the quality of life declines--and mitigating that can be costly.

Moreover, given the public subsidies and public costs of the Atlantic Yards plan, the project may not be equitable use of public resources. We still don’t know the fiscal impact of the project, but we do know the developer’s projections are very questionable. Is this a good and cost-efficient way to provide affordable housing and jobs? That's a debate we haven't had.

An equity advocate looking at the big picture might worry about the inequity of the process, as well. Did the MTA act fairly in sending out an RFP in May 2005, 18 months after the Atlantic Yards project was announced? Did the MTA do the right thing in accepting the lower cash bid for the railyards, which was less than half of the value set by its own appraiser?

(A reader points out that ACORN, while advocating for equity, also likely will have a stake in managing and marketing the affordable housing. So there's some self-interested involved, as well.)

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