The national housing and advocacy group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) has been in the news for covering up (for eight years) an embezzlement by the founder’s brother, and while that doesn’t necessarily put a cloud over New York ACORN, the state affiliate, some defenses of ACORN deserve challenge.
Lawyer and activist John Atlas, who’s writing a book on ACORN, wrote on The Huffington Post that ACORN has been subject to “vicious attacks from business lobbyists, conservative politicians, and right-wing media.” He later added, “It also has critics on the Left, some of whom are jealous of ACORN's success and others of whom disagree with ACORN's tactics or its willingness to forge compromises in order to win victories for its members.”
Well, some on the left, such as this former organizer, point out that ACORN does not always practice what it preaches, especially in regard to its employees. Indeed, the organization's "listening" sounds somewhat like the "listening" New York ACORN claimed led to the Atlantic Yards affordable housing deal.
In Brooklyn, ACORN’s uncritical—gagged, actually—support for Atlantic Yards has generated criticism from people around the political spectrum, including affordable housing activists. And City Council Member Letitia James, the project’s leading political opponent, was elected on the line of the Working Families Party, co-founded by ACORN.
Debating with ACORN
Here's my response to Atlas's earlier defense of the Atlantic Yards deal, pointing out some gaps in his arguments.
ACORN founder Wade Rathke wrote 3/1/07 on his blog about AY:
Surprisingly, we found ourselves on the opposite side of the divide among the Park Slope liberals and others who were unwilling to join us in making the diversity of the community the core issue.
The impression many have, for example as framed in a 2/28/06 debate between ACORN's Lewis (right) and DDDB's Candace Carponter, is that the tension is between "equity" and "livability." But you could have that same debate if the government itself were building a large project. With Atlantic Yards, there are additional factors: a deeply flawed public process and a developer willing to play hardball to achieve what is, essentially, a private rezoning (with a privately negotiated bonus for affordable housing).
A stadium deal in 2000
Maybe some ACORN critics fall into the categories listed by Atlas, but some have looked closely at ACORN’s tactics and found them questionable. And ACORN New York Executive Director Bertha Lewis, lionized by Atlas as “widely respected,” is an energetic advocate whose focus on delivering a deal (for members? for the organization?--since it would benefit from an administrative role) sacrifices the organization's voice on other aspects of the AY debate.
Lewis appears in the July 2000 issue of Here magazine, in a long piece by deMause headlined The Battle of Brooklyn, about effort to put a minor league baseball stadium on the Parade Grounds below Prospect Park. The plan would have displaced half the fields (baseball, soccer, football) for two years but promised renovated facilities in the end, and some long-suffering users of the fields backed it. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, calling the stadium a temporary structure, attempted to exploit a loophole to avoid the city’s land use review process.
ACORN entered the fray, leading the Save the Parade Grounds Coalition. Both ACORN and then-Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden filed lawsuits against the stadium project. (Golden didn’t oppose a stadium, but wanted an unaffiliated team rather than the single-A minor-league team promised by the Mets.)
Then, unbeknownst to some coalition partners, ACORN announced a settlement. Wrote deMause:
The on-field parking is gone, the size of the ballpark has been scaled back, and the Mets have agreed to employ local residents and bring players and coaches to talk at a local public school. "Everything we asked for, they consented," says an ACORN member. "This Mets stadium coming here is a blessing in disguise."
But Golden persisted in the lawsuit, the city caved, and the stadium moved to private land in Queens on the campus of St. John’s University, outside of any land use review. And Golden allocated $10.3 million from his capital budget to restore the Parade Grounds.
And what about ACORN? deMause wrote:
(Bertha Lewis, who had publicly declared that there was no way to get renovation without the Mets ballpark, is unrepentant, insisting that "there's no way Golden would have come up with the money if we hadn't been pressuring him," and pointing to the loss of the 40 jobs that had been promised to accompany the new ballpark.)
A journalist becomes more skeptical
I asked deMause about that episode, which he initially covered for the Village Voice.
Q. That experience seemed to make you rather cynical about ACORN.
A. It was Bertha [Lewis] and this guy, George [Dames, from the North Flatbush Youth and Community Coalition], who was a local guy from Flatbush, who were sort of pushing the opposition to the Mets, this temporary stadium in the Parade Grounds. Everything was going pretty well for the opposition, they had this court case going, suddenly, Bertha calls me and says, Come to the press conference, we cut a deal, and George and a lot of these folks weren’t at the press conference, because they didn’t know about it.
And they had struck this deal: the Mets were basically going to give money to pet projects of ACORN, or give it to community stuff, but Bertha would be the rainmaker for it.… and Howard Golden, the borough president, was not on board with the deal: I’m still suing.
The Mets finally gave up, played at St. John’s for a year or two, and wound up in Coney Island permanently. Bertha’s deal never wound up going anywhere, Golden finally came up with money to do the renovations of the parade grounds. Bertha said: it’ll never happen any other way, at least we’ll get it renovated, we have to let the Mets in--and then it happened. It wasn’t a ton of money.
As everyone now knows the City Council and Borough President can find $10 million if they need to. So it was remarkable seeing her as this firebrand, I’m going to tell the Mets to go to hell, they will never set foot in the Parade Grounds and then do this complete sudden turnabout and she said, OK, fine, I’m on board with it.
The AY contrast
Q. Was there a parallel with the Atlantic Yards affordable housing agreement signed by ACORN?
A. It just happened much earlier in the Nets deal. She sold out or bought in, depending on how you want to put it, very early. Ok, fine, if you’re going to give me what I want, then I’ll go for it. There are arguments for doing CBAs [Community Benefits Agreements] where, if developer does do enough things for the community, then that’s OK, people buy in.
The problem of course is that Bertha didn’t get together with everybody in the community and say, OK, let’s figure out what the community wants, and let’s present a list of demands to Ratner and, until you make us all happy, we’re not going to go along with it. It’s that I’m going to cut a deal for myself and everybody else is then the enemy.
So, yeah, speaking of people who’ve lost credibility. I mean, ACORN’s done a lot of good things, and I’m sure Bertha has done good things in her time, but she definitely has this capacity for selling her support for projects based more on narrow self-interest of her and the organization rather than what’s good for community or the city. That’s disappointing, to say the least.