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Flashback: four years ago, ACORN's Lewis scoffed at getting paid by Forest City Ratner

While many people are looking forward, AYR today offers a couple of flashbacks.

A little more than four years ago, Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), scoffed when a questioner wondered if the organization was being paid by Forest City Ratner for its support of the developer's Atlantic Yards project.

Today, Lewis is the chief organizer of national ACORN, as it recovers from an embezzlement scandal, and Forest City Ratner has bailed out the organization with a grant and loan worth $1.5 million.

The situation is not exactly analogous: national ACORN is the beneficiary, not New York ACORN, and the Atlantic Yards project is no longer pending approval but has gained state approval.

But Lewis's outrage at the question is belied by the organization's current dependency on the developer.

Flashback to the meeting

The issue came up at an 11/29/04 public meeting on the Atlantic Yards plan, organized by Community Boards 2, 6, & 8 and featuring Forest City Ratner point man Jim Stuckey. (The Brooklyn Downtown Star called it The Plucky Jim Show.)

The Brooklyn Paper, in a follow-up article headlined POWER BROKERS, reported on questions posed regarding whether both ACORN and the fledgling job-development group BUILD ((Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development) were getting paid:
Stuckey balked, and refused to answer the question, instead saying, “Why don’t you ask them yourself?”

A chorus of boos came from the ACORN and BUILD activists who largely packed the audience. Afterwards, Stuckey told The Brooklyn Papers he didn’t answer the question because, “It was insulting. Of course, BUILD and ACORN are not getting paid.”

Bertha Lewis, Brooklyn director for ACORN, called the accusation ridiculous.

“We’ve built housing for over a million people. I raise two to three million dollars a year,” Lewis told The Papers. “It just says to me, ‘This is exactly why people think stuff boils down to race and class.’ It’s like, how dare you?

“We got paid? We got paid with the biggest housing program that has our name on it that you can imagine. We’re gonna be famous!” she said, referring to the 50 percent affordable housing, compared to the typical 20 percent found in most modern developments with an affordability incentive, that Ratner has agreed to include in Atlantic Yards.

However, Lewis sacrificed any larger evaluation of the project, as she later acknowledged--"I can't do environment," she said at a memorable debate--trading off the housing pledge for the density the developer chose.

And, of course, the Housing Memorandum of Understanding signed 5/17/05, requires ACORN to publicly support the project.

Getting paid, then and now

In the Brooklyn Paper article, project opponent Patti Hagan suggested that, if the groups were being paid, "it compromises them as free agents in negotiating a community benefits agreement.”

Well, both ACORN and BUILD stood to benefit in the future, given that they would be in line for management contracts for the affordable housing and job training.

BUILD, it later emerged, had told the Internal Revenue Service it expected $5 million from Forest City Ratner. While that was an erroneous estimate, BUILD representatives were shown to have lied when they denied in August 2005 that BUILD had been paid by the developer.

In the generous phrasing of the New York Times, a 10/14/05 article reported that spokespeople for FCR and BUILD "revised that account."

(That phrasing appeared in the notorious "modern blueprint" story, in which the Times, apparently attached to a story line about the developer's capacity to reap community support, saw fit to bury a scoop--catching the developer and its CBA partner in baldfaced lies. It is, to my mind, the second-worst example of New York Times Atlantic Yards coverage, trailing the phantom scaleback article only because the latter appeared on the front page.)

So the distinction between current payments and expectation of future payments might be seen as a bit murky.

ACORN in a jam

More importantly, national ACORN's fortunes have fallen, as the revelation of a scandal--the brother of founder Wade Rathke embezzled nearly $1 million in 2000 and senior executives kept mum--led foundations that previously supported the organization to back off, jeopardizing ACORN's ability to pay back taxes.

Enter Forest City Ratner, which has no history of corporate support for ACORN.

Lewis had scoffed at the "race and class" aspects of the accusation that New York ACORN was getting paid.

Now, however, one of ACORN's few friends with deep pockets is a developer that has no particular interest in ACORN's overall agenda but very much needs "race and class" grassroots support for its stalled project in Brooklyn.

Indeed, while ACORN should face questions about whether the money from Forest City Ratner compromises ACORN's capacity to represent the community regarding AY, parent company Forest City Enterprises should face questions from shareholders, not just about the rationale for the grant/loan to ACORN, but whether this will become a standard practice in development deals.