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State of the 57th: Jeffries talks housing, skirts AY

In his first "State of the District" address, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who represents Prospect Heights and adjacent neighborhoods, drew an enthusiastic response Wednesday night from a crowd of supporters, even as he mostly ignored the single biggest project in the 57th Assembly District: Atlantic Yards, for which he has offered support tempered by criticism.

Opening the event at the Pratt Institute's Higgins Hall, MC Laurie Cumbo, founder and director of MoCADA, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, announced that the program would "focus on the positive" but acknowledge challenges. A video showed a BCAT profile of Jeffries as he held "office hours" last summer outside some subway stations during the evening commute.

Jeffries, whose prime focus was affordable housing, apparently concluded that Atlantic Yards would either be too much of a hot button or too tough to explain in a limited amount of time. He didn't say anything about the anticipated affordable housing that would be part of Atlantic Yards, including the 200 on-site affordable condos that he helped get Forest City Ratner to announce.

He didn't say anything about anticipated jobs. He talked about the reform of the 421-a tax break but not the "Atlantic Yards carve-out" that he's criticized because it would allow some Atlantic Yards buildings to be eligible for the tax break even though they don't contain affordable units. Nor did he say anything about the project's environmental impact, including the traffic planning that he's criticized.

Against eminent domain, sort of

The only nod to AY was a repeat of Jeffries' careful formulation that he opposes eminent domain to remove residents to build a basketball arena--not eminent domain for the project as a whole--just as he opposes the rumored privatization of public housing.

The audience clapped much harder for his statement about public housing than his mention of eminent domain and Atlantic Yards. (I interviewed him several weeks ago about eminent domain, and conclude his statement is essentially toothless.)

In the community

At several other junctures, he received enthusiastic applause from the mostly-black audience, which was quite comfortable with the church-like aspects of the event. Speaking in cadences shaped by decades of churchgoing, Jeffries got "Amens" when he quoted scripture and "uh-huhs" at certain points from the audience. The evening featured an invocation, a benediction, and a church choir. Jeffries closed by citing his faith in the community and his faith in God.

Among those in the audience and recognized from the podium were Shirley McRae, former chair of Community Board 2 (which criticized Atlantic Yards) and now the Brooklyn representative on the City Planning Commission, and Delia Hunley-Adossa, president of the 88th Precinct Community Council and Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement Executive Committee Chair. Jeffries saluted City Council Member Letitia James, with whom he's worked cordially since his election, even though James backed his rival Bill Batson and strongly opposes Atlantic Yards.

From the address

After some introductory words, Jeffries got to the point:
I think that the single most important challenge facing this community today is the affordable housing crisis... pushing out long-time residents, working families, middle-class folks, senior citizens. It is the single greatest threat to the community that we know today. Residential gentrification, which leads to small business gentrification... which leads to cultural gentrification. You don't even recognize the community that you're living in.

Now this is not a black issue, and it's not a white issue. I think it's all about the color green. We have to define the enemy, in order for us to be able to defeat the enemy. And the enemy, in this case, is greed. Greed, which has led to the luxury condominium explosion all across this community. Greed, which has led to the subprime mortgage crisis and predatory behavior by banks and financial institutions. Greed, which has led landlords to close down rent-stabilized and rent-controlled residences so they can double, triple, or quadruple their profits. The enemy that we must defeat is greed


Jeffries continued:
We began this process with 421-a reform, something that Councilwoman James worked on in the City Councill and a bill that I cosponsored in the Assembly .. 421-a, providing tax breaks to developers to build housing in the outer boroughs without any requirement that that housing be affordable to people who live in the community. It was a law that was first passed in 1971. And after a couple of decades, it had clearly outgrown its usefulness. Because neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights had become attractive to folks from Manhattan and other parts. And the developers, over the last couple of years, began to use 421-a tax breaks to build luxury condominiums all across our community that almost no one from the community could afford to buy. And so we set out to reform this law, from the principle that any development is to receive tax breaks and money from the government, a significant part of the housing that they build must be affordable to people who live in the community.

We set out initially to reform the law on a citywide basis. But the powerful real estate industry and the developers fought back. Although we weren't successful in getting it citywide, each and every neighborhood in the 57th Assembly District is part of 421-a reform.

On July 1, when the law becomes effective... if 421-a tax dollars are used for any of these luxury condominiums, by law, a substantial portion of that housing must be affordable to people who live in the community. By law, 50 percent of that affordable housing must be reserved for folks living in the community right now.

Subprime mortgages

Jeffries continued:
And then we stand to tackle the problem of the subprime mortgage crisis, and the predatory banks that were snatching away people's homes. So very early on, during my time in the Assembly, I met with Priscilla Almodovar, she's the governor's top advisor on this issue. And I said to her, "New York State has to get involved in dealing with this crisis." And as a result of my advocacy and the advocacy of others, and Governor Spitzer's willingness to address this problem, last year we announced the "Keep the Dream" program, a $100 million fund to refinance folks who are in predatory loans, which are unaffordable... so they can stay out of foreclosure, stay in their homes and keep the dream of affordable homeownership alive.

We also need to deal with the issue of preserving the affordable housing that presently exists in the community. So I've introduced several piecese of legislation and cosponsored other bills designed to protect the interests of rent-stabilized, Mitchell-Lama, NYCHA, Section 8, HUD-subsidized residents who are facing displacement. But as these bills work their way through the legislative process, I recognize that folks need protection--right now. So I'm pleased that in last year's budget, we were able to secure a legislative grant to establish a housing clinic in the 57th Assembly District to provide working families and middle-class folks and senior citizens with free legal represenation whenever they're facing displacement.

We recognize that there are certain folks who make too much to qualify for civil legal services. But they don't make enough to afford a private attorney without it having a devastating impact on their family's budget. But these are folks who still need legal representation. They deserve legal representation. And as the result of this housing clinic in the 57th Assembly District, they will get legal representation.

I asked yesterday for more details, and Chief of Staff Daisy James responded, "Assemblymembers Jeffries and [Adriano] Espaillat secured a legislative grant of $100,000 in the 2007-2008 budget to establish a housing clinic in their respective districts that would be administered by the CUNY School of Law Community Legal Resource Network. The City University of New York has also agreed to match the $100,000 grant.

We are in negotiation with the Hanson Place United Methodist Church to rent space, and hope to finalize an agreement next month. The funding will permit the clinic to hire two attorneys for this calendar year to provide legal representation to community residents in housing court. The attorneys will be available to meet with constituents twice weekly, and thereafter provide legal representation after the initial consultation."

They also will try to get additional money to extend the clinic.

New state spending

Jeffries continued:
But I know that more needs to be done. More needs to be done. And the governor just announced his intention for New York State to spend $400 million on the creation of affordable housing, $300 million of which is scheduled to be spent downstate. And you have my commitment that, over the next few months, and the next year, I will struggle to make sure that as much of that $300 million as possible will be spent right here in Central Brooklyn, where we need it and where we deserve it.

The state has long lagged behind city efforts to invest in affordable housing.

Kids & youth

Jeffries went to talk about the importance of increased state funding for schools, and cited his "most difficult" experience, attending the funeral of a 19-year-old "gunned down on the streets of Clinton Hill." (Here's coverage by Errol Louis in his Save Brooklyn Now blog.)

He said that "we must provide constructive alternatives' announced plans in tandem with Council Members James and Al Vann, and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery to turn a vacant building at 1024 Fulton Street into a "state-of-the-art youth center."

That's still in process. Chief of Staff James explained, "The NYS Office of Children and Families currently holds title to 1024 Fulton Street, and Assemblymember Jeffries, Senator Montgomery, and Councilmember Vann have reached a tentative agreement with the Spitzer administration to transform the building into a state of the art youth center. The initial step will be to secure city funding for a feasibility study in this year's budget, which will be spearheaded by Councilmember Vann.

Thereafter, Assemblymember Jeffries, Senator Montgomery and Councilmember Vann will launch the campaign to secure public funding and private philanthropic money to get the youth center built. The feasibility study will dictate the timetable."

Tale of two cities

Jeffries managed to work in a reference to Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" and--thanks to his rhetorical skills--make it sound not-so-cliched:
I believe that the greatness of a society is not determined by its wealth or by its military power but how we treat the least of those among us. Charles Dickens wrote once about "A Tale of Two Cities," that "it was the best of times and it was the worst of times." And though he was writing about a European city centuries ago, there are some times when I think he could've been writing about our community. Because I've often been struck by the fact that you could go to Fort Greene Park, and if you decided to walk a few hundred feet in one direction toward DeKalb Avenue, you'd find yourself in a midst of half-a-million-dollar condominiums, multi-million-dollar brownstones. The best of times.

But if you went back to Fort Greene Park and you decided to walk a few hundred feet in the other direction, toward Myrtle Avenue, you'd be at Ingersoll, Whitman, and Farragut, where hard-working people are struggling every day just to provide a decent way of life for themselves and for their families.

And it's all happening in the shadows of billions of dollars worth of development in Downtown Brooklyn. And so I look forward to working with Joe Chan [of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership] to make sure that everybody in the community can benefit from that development.

There were hearty claps. Jeffries last month said he wanted downtown developers to ensure community participation, suggesting a contrast with the obligations Forest City Ratner agreed to regarding Atlantic Yards. (Of course, as I pointed out, FCR got a zoning override in exchange.)

AY mention

Jeffries segued into his Atlantic Yards mention:
Just as I oppose the use of eminent domain to displace any resident simply to build a basketball arena, I continue to stand up for Whitman and for Ingersoll and for Farragut, and for Lafayette Gardens.

He went on to cite rumors that such public housing projects would be sold--"not my watch"-- and that NYCHA Chairman Tino Hernandez had told him last year that that would not happen. (City officials have long denied such plans.) But Jeffries wanted verification and had just received it in writing--another applause line, before he closed on an upbeat note.


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