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Despite request for retroactive community preference, NYC did not change policy for Atlantic Yards affordable housing

When a new, faster (after delays) 2025 timetable was announced in June 2014 for the Atlantic Yards affordable housing as part of a settlement, one apparent sign of progress was a potential tweak to the city's policy regarding local preference in the affordable housing lottery, in which 50% of the places are reserved for those nearby.

That tweak would've helped those recently displaced from the Community Districts nearest the project. As of now, that hasn't happened, and there's no reason to think it will.

The typical preference and the hoped-for tweak

For affordable housing in New York City, typically half the lottery slots are reserved for residents of the single Community District in which the project is built--a not uncontroversial policy, as I'll describe below.

In this case, because the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park site itself spans three Community Districts, the community preference for initially encompassed residents of Community Districts 2, 6, and 8. Later, then Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries got Community District 3 added, including Bedford-Stuyvesant.

But if affordable housing should help people facing gentrification pressures to stay in their neighborhood, there's an argument for extending that preference to those displaced recently--after a project has been approved but before the lottery opens.

That's the case negotiators for BrooklynSpeaks made, and a June 2014 letter (bottom) from Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen to Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, an affordable housing advocate in Brooklyn and a lead negotiator for BrooklynSpeaks, stated:
With regards to the Atlantic Yards project, the City, consistent with Fair Housing Law, will review the affordable housing lottery preferences and will take into account the surrounding community residents' ties to the neighborhood, including ties of those that were displaced since 2006 when the General Project Plan was first approved.
That seemed like good news for expanding the community preference. As BrooklynSpeaks wrote in a summary of the 2014 settlement terms:
Affordable housing at Atlantic Yards is expected to be awarded by lottery; residents of Brooklyn community districts 2, 3, 6 and 8 are expected to receive preference for 50% of such housing, consistent with federal fair housing law. The NYC Letter expresses the intention of the City of New York to consider former residents of districts 2, 3, 6 and 8 who have been displaced since the time of Atlantic Yards’ 2006 approval as eligible to participate with preference in lotteries for its affordable housing.
(Emphases added)

What happened

But the "intention to consider" did not mean any policy change.

When the lottery was announced for the first Pacific Park affordable building, 461 Dean, there was no reference to any retroactive community preference. Ditto for the lottery for the second building, the "100% affordable" 535 Carlton.

I inquired to the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development and got a statement that didn't quite answer the question:
HDC [NYC Housing Development Corporation] carefully considered the City’s marketing practices, community preference, Fair Housing policies, and commitments made by the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park elected officials when establishing the marketing parameters for Pacific Park. HDC determined that including Community Board 3 as well as Community Boards 2, 6, and 8 in the community preference is the most effective way to recognize displaced residents with ties to the community, as was suggested by the local elected officials and community advocates in recent years.
This administration is deeply concerned about displacement, and has introduced numerous measures to protect low- and moderate-income families who are being priced out of the neighborhoods that they helped to build.
(Emphasis added)

That's perplexing. The ongoing community preference policy might help residents facing the threat of displacement but not ones who have already been displaced. I asked for further clarification, but didn't get it.

I asked de la Uz about the potential retroactive policy; she passed on my query to the Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY), the ACORN successor that is marketing and managing the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park affordable housing. I didn't hear back from them.

Maintaining the current policy

Perhaps the requested policy was a stretch, given that the current community preference is already under enough question, so expanding that preference would be precarious. As the Times reported in an April article headlined Segregation Issue Complicates de Blasio’s Housing Push:
One way the city already tries to ensure that existing residents remain in areas being rezoned is through a “community preferences” policy, which allots as many as half of new lower-cost units to applicants already living in the area where such units are being built.
But a fair-housing group, the Anti-Discrimination Center, challenged that policy in a federal lawsuit last year, contending that it perpetuates segregation. In the case of mostly white districts, the center contended, the preferences deny black and Latino New Yorkers an equal chance for a home in better neighborhoods.
The article quoted de la Uz:
“The issue of community preference cuts both ways and an argument can clearly be made in certain neighborhoods, at varying stages of neighborhood change, that a community preference does in fact promote fair housing,” said Michelle de la Uz, a member of the city’s Planning Commission and executive director of Fifth Avenue Committee, a nonprofit developer in Brooklyn.
The argument against local preference

But not all agree. In an essay in City Limits yesterday,  Building Justice: How Community Preferences Enforce Racial Segregation in NYC, the Anti-Discrimination Center's Craig Gurian made a reasonable case for the challenge:
Each lottery gives preference for 50 percent of the units to people who already live in the community district where the particular housing development is being built. That preference exists even if the applicant has only lived in the community district for 10 minutes and even if the applicant has been living in comfortable circumstances. By contrast, the New Yorker who has been living outside of the community district doubled-up with relatives in a deeply impoverished neighborhood for decades is not permitted to compete for any preference units that a community district resident has applied for.
In other words, there are strong arguments on both sides, with the longstanding local reference seemingly more deserving of preference than the more recent arrival.

Gurian also writes compellingly about the larger issue: "opening all neighborhoods more equally to affordable housing opportunity," including those in the suburbs.

One irony, from an Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park perspective, is that Gurian focuses on households earning from 40% to 60% of area median income (AMI), those categorized as low-income. 

Much affordable housing--70% of the next two all-affordable Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park towers--is not low-income. That won't come close to helping those "doubled-up with relatives."

The bottom line

The rising cost of housing, and the very broad range of "affordable" (which simply means households pay 30% of their income in rent), mean that subsidized housing goes to many far from "deeply impoverished" people.

As Prospect Heights activist Gib Veconi, who also negotiated that BrooklynSpeaks agreement, commented in April on that Times article:
The Atlantic Yards project taught an important lesson about delivering affordable housing through large-scale land use actions (like rezoning). Atlantic Yards was announced more than twelve years ago, but the first affordable apartment has yet to be completed. Meanwhile, escalation of residential and commercial rents began literally the day after the press conference. Since then, Prospect Heights has changed from a majority African American community to a one with a majority of white residents. When the first affordable apartments at Atlantic Yards enter the lottery this spring, their relatively high income targets will make units set aside for community preference most appropriate for tenants who have moved to the neighborhood since the project's announcement, and who themselves are now facing displacement pressure from rising rents.
(Emphasis added)

In response to my query, Veconi confirmed he meant "most appropriate" as "most likely to be occupied, given current demographic statistics" (not the "most deserving").

He added, "I consider the use of affordable housing subsidies to finance apartments intended for people earning multiples of the median income in the district where they are built to be poor public policy."

I agree. That, however, is what the de Blasio administration is happy to produce--and a wide range of advocates have generally accepted, and even applauded.

461 Dean Affordable Lottery, Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park by AYReport on Scribd


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