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The "housing will go to those that need it the most"? A closer look

So what's "affordable housing," anyway? It means that people pay 30 percent of their income in rent, according to the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.

Affordable housing can serve a variety of groups: low-income, moderate-income and middle-income, even though supporters of the Atlantic Yards project, like Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, have argued, "The jobs and the housing will go to those that need it the most."

The affordable housing plan for the Atlantic Yards project would provide 2250 affordable rentals (of 4500 rentals, plus 2360 market-rate condos), but only about 1125 apartments, half the affordable rentals, would serve those currently waiting for public housing or Section 8 vouchers. That's 16.4 percent of 6860 units.

That's because the plan is better described as a 50/30/20 mixed-income program, with 50 percent of the rentals at market rates, 30 percent for middle- and moderate-income renters, and 20 percent for low-income renters. After all, some 900 of the affordable units would rent for more than $2000 for a four-person family.

"Affordable"=low-income?

Indeed, the term "affordable" was initially used to describe only the lower-income housing, as noted in the accompanying graphic published in a 2/3/06 article from Courier-Life chain. (The graphic, apparently from Forest City Ratner, is obsolete, because it refers to only 4,500 total units, and also because it uses the seemingly-retired "Jobs, Housing, & Hoops" slogan.) The three categories track the city Housing Development Corporation’s 50/30/20 Mixed-Income program, from which the Atlantic Yards project would gain subsidies.

Indeed, at a 5/4/04 City Council hearing, FCR VP Jim Stuckey described the planned project as “50% market, 30% middle-income, 20% affordable.” Now he and others are using the term "affordable" more broadly. It's not inaccurate, but many people don't realize the range that the concept encompasses.

Affordable under $50,000?

At the 5/4/04 hearing of the City Council Economic Development Committee, there seemed to be agreement that affordable housing--meaning lower-income housing--should go to families earning below $50,000. (Click on Forest City Ratner's recently-issued rent chart to enlarge.)

James Sanders, chair of the Council's Economic Development Committee, said:
I would think a lot of us would agree, you are talking 20, 30, 40 thousand in annual income for a family, that is genuinely what we are looking for in the way of affordable housing. And if you are talking about moderate-income, you know, perhaps 50, 60, 70 something like that.

Borough President Marty Markowitz, a former tenant advocate, said:
Well to me affordable housing, middle-income housing is somewhere in the area of 50 to 80 thousand dollars, affordable housing is below that.

Housing cap should be lower

What should be the maximum income for a family eligible for subsidized housing in the Atlantic Yards project? At City Council hearings, Forest City Ratner and ACORN representatives contrasted the Atlantic Yards cap, which then was about $100,000 for a family of four, with affordable housing programs that have income limits as high as $140,000. (Note that the AY cap, according to the graphic at top, now would be above $113,000.)

But the appropriate contrast is the city’s 50/30/20 program, which then had a typical cap of about $110,000. In other words, Atlantic Yards plan offered only a slight improvement in terms of the cap.

When asked for ballpark figures regarding the income limit for affordable housing, however, politicians didn't think the cap should be as high as that eventually negotiated. At a City Council hearing, Markowitz suggested $80,000, while Sanders suggested $90,000.

Stuckey points lower

Council Member Bill DeBlasio noted:
And someone said that that figure could be upwards of 150,000 as an annual income for a family, on the high end of your moderate figure. I have a problem with that…

FCR’s Stuckey responded:
[I]f you are earning $140,000 that that is not considered to be an affordable housing unit or that you created. But if you have created a unit where somebody could, or a family could be earning 30, 40, or 50 thousand dollars, that that is very well an affordable unit.

Stuckey was leaving out a large percentage of the affordable units, but this was before the time that Forest City Ratner was consistently terming all the subsidized rentals "affordable." As initially projected, only a small majority (60% of 2,250, or 1,350) of the subsidized apartments would have been available to families earning $50,000 or less. Now, as I recently pointed out, fewer than half the units would be available to those families.

Actually, an improvement

Quizzed by City Council Member Charles Barron, FCR’s Stuckey tried to explain modifications of the subsidized component of the 50/30/20 program:
I think that we have an opportunity here today to create housing that goes beyond the program that exists today, so that we can reach deeper in to where the housing is really needed.

Stuckey seemed to be pointing to not only a lower cap but a broader range of incomes within the category of subsidized housing. Indeed, many affordable housing programs target only the poor or the relatively well-off, leaving a gap for those families earning 50%-100% of the Area Median Income, or AMI.

In the Atlantic Yards project, originally 900 of the 2250 affordable apartments were targeted to moderate-income people earning 50%-100% of the AMI.

That number has shrunk and, while the effort to reach moderate-income people still represents progress, the distribution of affordable rentals has skewed somewhat toward those better off. Now, only 450 units would go to people in that moderate-income category, with 450 additional units going to those earning above the AMI. Thus, some 40% of the units in the affordable allotment would have relatively high rent; a family of four would pay more than than $2000 a month.

Barron grills Markowitz

At the 5/26/05 hearing of the City Council Economic Development Committee, held a week after the Housing MOU was announced, City Council Member Charles Barron (right) grilled Markowitz. Barron argued that the project was not truly affordable, would foster gentrification, and was not as good as could have been negotiated with proper oversight.

Barron: The housing. Fifty percent is luxury, correct?

Markowitz: Market rate.

Barron: Market rate. That we can't afford.

Markowitz: Right. That's correct.

Barron: That we can't afford.

Markowitz: Yours truly as well.

Barron: That's right. Truly. Truly. Thirty percent moderate, right?

Markowitz: Moderate middle.

Barron: Moderate middle. Most of us can't afford that either.

Markowitz: That's not true.

Barron: Most of us can't. You can say not that's true all you want.

Markowitz (right): I know you can afford it.

Instant gentrification?

Barron: That's 80 percent. Eighty percent. Eighty percent. It's not about me and it's not about you, it's about the people. Eighty percent of our people who are in low-income brackets cannot afford this housing coming in. Twenty percent will be able to afford it. That's the reality. So, when you all say 50 percent affordable housing, that's not true. It is 20 percent low-income, and 80 percent is moderate to high. It's a market rate, cute little term. But 80 percent we can't afford. This is going to be instant gentrification. That community has already been gentrified. And with this proposal it will be instant gentrification. But you don't care about that because the Nets are coming. You gotta play ball. And let me tell you something else, and I'll let you --

Markowitz: I'll wait until you ask me a question, Councilman.

Was this the best way?

Barron: Yes. So those...You know we will, once you say jobs and affordable housing to us, the process goes out the window, and that's my concern here, that I think we could have gotten, even though you got a sweetheart deal you might think from Ratner, we could have done better if he had proper oversight, if we had the power over remapping, rezoning, upzoning, if he had to come through a body with power, that we would do better than what is happening now.

Markowitz: By the way, Council member, as much as those that need housing that make $20,000 a year and $30,000 a year, let me tell you also there are people that have worked for the City of New York that are teachers, firefighters, cops, regular civil service workers, that may earn 45, 50,000 dollars a year that are in dire need of housing too…. The jobs and the housing will go to those that need it the most.
(Emphasis added)

As noted, fewer than half of the affordable rental units would go to families earning $50,000 a year or less. A family with two wage-earning civil servants, with a total income over $100,000, would qualify near the top of the affordable housing category.

In New York these days, such families still face money struggles. But no one at the City Council hearings seemed eager to support subsidies for families with six-figure incomes.

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