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Spin city #2: Lewis says AY would be "totally luxury" without ACORN

Update: evidence shows that Forest City was considering 80/20 housing as of October 2003, well before the project was publicly announced, but changed that to a mixed-income project when the project was announced in December 2003.

Interviewed yesterday on WBAI radio's CityWatch, ACORN New York Executive Director Bertha Lewis, probably the chief grassroots supporter of the Atlantic Yards plan, made the astounding assertion that, without the intervention of her group, the project would have included no affordable housing.

Lewis was comparing Atlantic Yards to a plethora of other developments around Downtown Brooklyn, which mostly do not include affordable housing. However, such developments are as-of-right, requiring no rezoning or an override of zoning, because of the city's failure to reform programs that subsidize such development.

Developer Forest City Ratner could not build the Atlantic Yards without a state override of city zoning and the state's exercise of eminent domain; the affordable housing has been included in part to generate political support for the project and represents what I've called a privately-negotiated zoning bonus.

Siding with the project?

Interviewer Bill DiFazio, professor of sociology at St. John's University, who called Lewis "old friend," asked her about the political will to support affordable housing programs, then (at about 22:00) asked:
What about Atlantic Yards? Atlantic Yards seems to be part of the problem, and ACORN has sided there with the project, I wouldn’t say with Ratner, but with the project?

Certainly ACORN has supported the project, as required as part of the housing Memorandum of Understanding, but Lewis has also sided with the developer, for example MCing a press event on the day of the Atlantic Yards public hearing last August.

(Note: another WBAI host, Scott Sommer, last July called Atlantic Yards “a project that should be condemned and destroyed.")

Larger context

Lewis, as she has done previously, put Atlantic Yards in the context of other projects:
We saw a resegregation of Downtown Brooklyn. Besides Atlantic Yards, there’s a bigger problem out here and we put out a study, called “Sweetheart Deals, the Resegregation of Brooklyn.”
(The report is called "Sweetheart Development.")

We see the declining population of African-Americans in Downtown Brooklyn, there’s 86 developments with over 7000 units of housing that are going on around Atlantic Yards that no one was paying any attention to, and maybe 300 of those units could possibly be called affordable.

(Her numbers were slightly off. The report stated:
The 87 new developments researched for this report contain 5,934 housing units. Only 201 units – 3% of the total – are affordable to moderate-income people, while only 266 – 4% of all new units – can be afforded by low-income families.)

However, Lewis and ACORN, as the New York Observer reported last May, sat out the debate about whether the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning should have included affordable housing. The rezoning aimed to foster the development of larger office buildings but instead led to more luxury condos.

Though ACORN's forceful report issued last March took aim at the 421-a subsidy program, when it came time for an Atlantic Yards affordable housing information session last July, there was no discussion of public policy, just this project.

No affordable plans

Lewis continued:
It was a tidal wave that’s been coming in here, and we’ve seen it, for 25 years we’ve been working on this. And again, here you go, with this market rate, people are building condos everywhere.

And when Atlantic Yards came up, we stepped in and we said, “Whoa, wait a minute, if this tide is going to wash over us, we’ve got to be able to affect it.” There was no plan to do anything affordable in that project, whatsoever.


While it's possible that when the developer began conceiving of Atlantic Yards there was no plan for affordable housing, affordable housing was a component of the project plan when first unveiled on 12/10/03.

The developer and ACORN did not sign the affordable housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for 17 months, until 5/17/05.

50/50 deal?

Lewis continued:
Now the other projects that are going on around here, we went to all of those developers, like David Walentas and [Shaya] Boymelgreen and a host of others, they laughed in our faces, they said “We’re going to build, because we can build, We don’t have to worry about affordability, and we don’t care about it.”

And Atlantic Yards was the only ones where we said, “50/50, let us show you how to do this.” [Ratner] said, “Okay, we’re going to do this.”


As I've pointed out, the 50/50 affordable housing plan applied only to the rentals, and shortly after the MOU was signed, the developer added 2800 market-rate condos (since reduced to 1930).

Totally luxury?

Lewis continued:
Our purpose is to stop one iota of gentrification. Our purpose is to have people of color, poor people, moderate income folks, and middle-income people share in this big boom that’s going on down here. If we hadn’t stepped in and said, “Let us do everything we can to modify this plan,” it would all be totally luxury.

And people overloook what’s been going on in Downtown Brooklyn, because no one else, of all of these developers, have any notion that they should in any way do affordability.

So again, we had to use everything we had as an organization to force Mr. Ratner to include affordability in Atlantic Yards, but we’re saying, my god, we can’t—he can’t do it all, the goverment has to step in and force all of these other people to do it too.


Instant gentrification?

Lewis has a point—but only a partial one. No for-profit developer includes affordable housing out of charity, but rather considers it as part of a strategy.

Also, there's strong evidence that, however much Atlantic Yards would represent mixed-income housing in one development, it would foster gentrification and displacement in surrounding neighborhoods.

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