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Video touts "how the community won accountability" for Atlantic Yards affordable housing, acknowledges need to make future units more affordable

At event: Comp. Scott Stringer and Council
Member Laurie Cumbo, via NYC Politics
On the eve of the celebration for "Brooklyn's win in the fight for affordable housing at Atlantic Yards," held last night by BrooklynSpeaks and the Fifth Avenue Committee, BrooklynSpeaks released a video, below, described in a tweet as "How the community won accountability for #affordableHousing at #AtlanticYards, and what's next."

However, as I explained in a long article yesterday for BKLYNR, the affordable housing in the next two towers diverges significantly from previous promises and from the configuration--at least in income bands--in the first tower.

As I wrote last week, FAC and BrooklynSpeaks can celebrate success, notably the new 2025 deadline and penalties for delays in the housing.

But even if the actual affordability was outside the scope of negotiations--secret negotiations, the results announced as a fait accompli--it's both off-key and misleading to proclaim triumph without caveats.

So the video, which does acknowledge a few caveats, is worth a close look at the framing. The issue of affordability is downplayed--though addressed more squarely than previously--and the need for future change is acknowledged.

Framing the issue

As noted below, Gib Veconi of BrooklynSpeaks says in the video, "Nearly a third of the next 590 affordable apartments to be built at Atlantic Yards, will be offered to residents earning 60% of AMI [Area Median Income] or less." That's approximately the average income in Brooklyn.

"That obviously leaves an opportunity for deeper affordability through changes in city subsidy policy for the next 1480 units to come," states Veconi. 

That's one way of putting it. Another way would be to say "through adherence to the original promise," in which affordable units are not skewed toward the upper middle-income band.

After all, once ground for the first Atlantic Yards  tower was announced, BrooklynSpeaks and other civic groups "expressed outrage over Forest City Ratner Companies’ (FCRC) intention to use New York City Housing Development Corporation bonds to subsidize apartments too small for working families, and too expensive for the majority of Brooklynites."

Yes, the skewing in the first tower toward smaller units has been remedied in the next two towers. And the press release did focus on the fact that the two-bedroom affordable units were skewed toward the upper middle-income band.

But the same general criticism--that the units are "too expensive for the majority of Brooklynites" and skewed (in all unit sizes) to the upper middle-income band--surely applies to the next two towers, since half the units would go to a cohort paying $1,967 for a studio, $2,470 a one-bedroom, $2,972 for a two-bedroom, and $3,430 for a three-bedroom.

The video

Leading off

The video begins with the Rev. Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church talking about the importance of affordable housing, and resident Benita Clark expressing a common, if very general, understanding: "I was really excited because they said they were going to have affordable apartments."

The professional--professional-sounding narrator explains that contracts signed after the 2009 re-approval allowed delay until 2035, though the project was long supposed to take ten years.

"Until now, the Atlantic Yards project has really been the worst of both worlds," says Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue committee. "We've had a multi-billion dollar project that has really fueled speculation, gentrification, and displacement. At the same time, the affordable housing that was supposed to mitigate those gentrification and displacement pressures has been delayed."

Each year affordable housing units are delayed, fewer African-American residents will be eligible to receive community preference in the lottery, the narrator explains, and attorneys elaborate on the concept of "disparate impact."

"After we completed our legal research, we met separately with Forest City Ratner and Empire State Development," states Veconi. "They concluded that it was preferable to agree to accelerate affordable housing than to risk the potential of a civil rights lawsuit."

Unmentioned is the pressure on Forest City to get the pending deal done to sell 70% of the project going forward to the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group, and the increasing attractiveness of Brooklyn real estate, as well as the benefit to the pending partnership of producing affordable housing that would get higher rents.

The reasons to celebrate

Though the new timetable doesn't mean the housing is ten "ten years ahead of the current schedule"--as framed in a TV clip in the video--Marjona Jones of the Brown Community Development Corporation says, more accurately, "it does give us access to affordable housing sooner."

de la Uz notes that the promises are now part of a government agreement, not a side agreement, and that liquidated damages will be deposited in the New York City Housing Trust Fund, which serves low-income families (see page 2 of this letter).

Getting to affordability

At about 7:25 of a video lasting 10:40, the narrator addresses affordability, noting that federal AMI is far higher than Brooklyn income.

After Veconi's quotes, de la Uz points to the importance of the timetable, because federal AMI increases three times faster than local AMI. (I'm not sure about that, because HUD AMI was actually dialed back for 2014.)

The narrator says the agreement did not address affordability, as the lawsuit did not have a basis to challenge city subsidy policy.

Well, that's a question mark. It may not have been part of the lawsuit, but they didn't have to give the agreement their blessing. They had some leverage. Without a peek inside the negotiations--remember, Public Advocate Letitia James said, "To negotiate this deal behind my back is totally unacceptable"--we can't be certain.

Going forward, learning lessons

de la Uz states, "There really is an ongoing need for advocacy to make the affordable units at Atlantic Yards affordable to Brooklyn's families."

That's a question for the yet-to-be established Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation. But the groups involved, by downplaying or ignoring the levels of affordability as they announced the settlement, already missed an opportunity.

The narrator notes that rezonings, even with affordable housing, tend to accelerate gentrification, so "the accountability of such projects must be insured so promised affordable housing is delivered on a timely basis to meet the needs of populations threatened with displacement."

"The Atlantic Yards settlement represents the culmination of seven years of advocacy by community groups and local elected officials to achieve accountability at a major development project," states Veconi.

"I think it's very important for people to realize the extent that the groups and the individual plaintiffs were willing to go to to demand that they were heard, by the developer and by our elected officials," Jones says.

"This is really critical, because more and more affordable housing is expected to be provided by public-private partnerships," Veconi continues. "We have to show that the community can fight for accountability to hold developers to hold developers to the promises they make."

As noted, they haven't done that regarding affordability in the next towers.

Renee Mintz, a resident of Community District 3, says, generally, "I feel really good about being a part of this, because what it says to me is that anybody can get together and make sure that their story is told and that the people are heard."

Developers and government have an obligation to help mitigate the effects of gentrification and displacement in the communities in which projects are allowed to develop," the narrator concludes. "Although continued vigilance will still be required, the Atlantic Yards settlement shows that coalitions of civic organizations, affordable housing advocates and elected officials who are strategic and stay the course can be successful in impacting public policy, and in ensuring accountability."

Only at the end is there mention of Greenland buying a stake in Atlantic Yards, and the renaming of the project to Pacific Park.


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