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Bertha Lewis on Brian Lehrer: "just my opinion" that de Blasio's "even more committed" to Atlantic Yards affordable housing

Last Tuesday, 1/21/14, Bertha Lewis, president of The Black Institute, was on The Brian Lehrer Show to discuss Black Americans and Immigration, but at 17:46 a caller brought up Atlantic Yards affordable housing.

And Lewis got her talking points in without much skepticism.

"I live in Brooklyn along Atlantic," said Jed in Brooklyn. "I live just down the road from Barclays, I love that it's there, at first I was really upset, because I was a Freddy's Backroom guy. I'm calling because  the affordable housing issue , people don't seem to be talking about it that much any more."

(He's obviously just far enough away for the arena not to impact his block. But that kind of comment is sure to warm Marty Markowitz's heart.)

"And that's why you supported it," Lehrer said to his guest.


"So the question is: what happened?"

Mayoral support

"And I'm glad you asked," Lewis responded. "Because the first tower, right now, as we speak, is going up. I'm very happy to engage the new de Blasio administration, because we have 13 more to go up."

"de Blasio supported it too, by the way," chimed in Lehrer.

"Because of the affordable housing component," continued Lewis.

That's true, but that leaves out his political debt to Lewis, ACORN, and the Working Families Party, as well as his failure to offer any criticism of the Community Benefits Agreement he supported.

"And it's just my opinion," Lewis added, "but I think the de Blasio administration is even more committed to making sure the affordable units are there."

That's not just an opinion. Lewis is part of the mayor's circle of power. Forest City Ratner CEO MaryAnee Gilmartin was on his transition team.

"But the first tower going up," she said. "This time next year people will be moving in, and construction will have started on Tower 3, 4, 5."

Really? I expect one more tower to start within the next year, but not three. And certainly only on the arena block, not Tower 5, which would be built on railyard land east of Sixth Avenue that Forest City Ratner--nor its future joint venture partner, the Greenland Group--has not yet acquired.

"And, as we go on, I am thrilled that we're finally out of this deadlock and we're moving forward with the housing," Lewis continued.

That's skating over a few details, like the announced, but not yet approved, joint venture, and the incomplete Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for Phase 2 (the project east of Sixth Avenue) required by a court order.

The mayor's leverage

"Is there something that Mayor de Blasio, as someone with an obvious commitment to seeing the affordabe housing, can do?" asked Lehrer. "Is there a lever of power that he can operate that Mayor Bloomberg maybe wouldn't have been inclined to push as hard on? I don't know if the pressure point is there, or if it's outside the city's enforcement."

"That pressure point is there," Lewis responded. "I mean, HPD, the housing agency, plays a huge role in this, in making sure we get the affordable housing."

She didn't dwell on what that could mean, but that could mean additional subsidies for the units, or an agreement that the configuration of family-sized units--as in the first tower--is skewed toward upper-income affordable households. These numbers are flexible.

Lewis then moved to the general issue. "Mayor de Blasio has said he intends--which I don't think is enough--to do over 200,000 units," she said. "And so, since we're already on this path, let's start here. Let's make sure that other mega-developers do more than 20% in any housing project. Instead of 80/20, which is 80% market, 20% affordable, I'd flip it, let's do 20/80, 20% market, 80% affordable."

That's nice rhetoric, but Lewis knows, as she's written, that it's not that simple.

"Let's change the way we dish out subsidies to reward people for doing truly affordable housing," she said.

"Of course, you may never get 20/80," countered Lehrer, "because then the incentives wouldn't be there for the developers to build, or don't you agree with that?"

"I do not agree with that," Lewis maintained. "We've been in housing development. We don't want this to be philanthropy, you can make money... and also, how you use tax breaks and subsidies can be an incentive."

"Your answer to the caller: the affordable housing units are going up at Atlantic Yards--"

Yes!" interjected Lewis.

"--and the Nets are 8 and 1 this month."

And they left it at that.

A comment

Michael D. D. White from Brooklyn Heights
No, no matter what Bertha Lewis says or how interviewer Lehrer summarizes it, the affordable housing units are NOT going up at the Atlantic Yards site.

Yes, we need to change the way we do things, but not in the way Ms. Lewis suggests.

More affordable units (and units that were more affordable) were torn down within the Atlantic Yards demolition footprint than have been replaced and units at that level of affordability are not being replaced.

What are the problems with the way things happened? Ms. Lewis used the term “mega-developer”- One problem is that we treated Forest City Ratner as a “mega-developer” who the government could rightly entitle to own a mega-monpoloy thus ensuring we had NO negotiating power with the developer going forward. Unfortunately, Ms. Lewis played into the hands of power and privilege by endorsing this arrangement.

Next, Ms. Lewis and her ACORN group did not negotiate for the provision of any units that would be truly additional affordable units, units other than the tax code, existing subsidy programs and the market would provide. She specifically endorsed excluding an income band just above what the tax code would require from any benefit.

Further, as the Fifth Avenue Committee and Pratt Institute [sic; it was actually Pratt Area Community Council] testified at the supplemental environmental impact statement hearings concerning why the mega-project should be broken up, the mega-project will likely (and permissibly) be built over 25, perhaps 40 years (according to ESDC’s Lago) and that means with shifting median income and affordability levels even the affordability once spoken of is largely a mirage.

Rather than Ms. Lewis’s cavalierly grand suggestion that we invert our procedures and requirements to require a greater percentage of affordable units in the future, what we should do is require that, in the future, we at least replace the affordable we induce to be destroyed with schemes like Atlantic Yards and that we not let affordable housing be destroyed until equivalent or better units are in place.

BTW: Notwithstanding that de Blasio is now on the scene, the proper answer is NOT to construct units at the Ratner/Prokorov/Chinese Investors site by diverting much needed subsidy from other projects into a Ratner bailout.

See: Wednesday, February 27, 2013, Noticing New York's Testimony at Tonight's Hearing on the Draft Scope of Work for the DSEIS for Forest City Ratner Atlantic Yards Mega-monpoly