Skip to main content

Featured Post

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

No "poor door" but "poor-er floors"? At "100% affordable" tower, lowest incomes on 3 lowest floors, document says (but developer says no)

Will apartments for poorest 15 households
all be below green line in 535 Carlton?
It seems another lessening of the egalitarian promises in the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park affordable housing: call it the "poor-er floor."

In the 100% affordable, 18-story 535 Carlton tower, slated to start opening this month or next, the 15 neediest households, paying $589 for a one-bedroom and $713 for a two-bedroom, are assigned to the three lowest floors (2-4), according to a document filed with the city. See green line in annotated graphic at left.

These households are at 30%-40% of Area Median Income (AMI), for a single person starting at $20,126 and a four-person household with income up to $36,240.

The other 75 low-income units--for households at 41%-60% of AMI-- are distributed more extensively, but not randomly: 59 of these apartments are on floors 2 through 8, according to a 12/15/14 sublease filed with the city's ACRIS database, published at bottom, and excerpted below right.

The developers disagree. A spokesman for Greenland Forest City Partners took issue with my conclusions, telling me, upon being sent the sublease, "The units will not be isolated on floors 2, 3 and 4."

What that means is unclear--one unit will be/has been moved? more?--because he refused to supply any documentation. No successor sublease is available on ACRIS. Without evidence, I'll rely on the sublease for now.

535 Carlton: lowest-income households
above green line (click to enlarge)
What it looks like

There'd be no majority "poor floor," but some floors would have a disproportionate number of low-income households, while higher floors house more of the 207 moderate- and middle-income units, deemed "affordable" but closer to market rates, according to the sublease.

On the first four residential floors, above the ground-floor lobby and retail spaces, 13 of 26 apartments, or 50%, will be occupied by low-income households. A random distribution would be 30%.

The higher floors look different, according to the sublease. On floors 10 through 16, with 14 apartments per floor, there'd be only two low-income units each (14.3%) on six of the floors, with none on floor 13. Floors 17 and 18 would have five apartments each, none low-income.

That means those paying the most--top rents are $2,137 for a studio, $2,680 for a 1-bedroom, $3,223 for a two-bedroom, and $3,716 for a three-bedroom--likely will get better views.

That's not out of line for market-rate buildings, of course. But representatives of developer Greenland Forest City Partners have publicly said the units would be distributed randomly.

So did Bertha Lewis, who as head of New York ACORN had signed an Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Forest City Ratner in 2005 and in a July 2006 City Limits op-ed wrote:
More than anything, in an era of increasing housing segregation, Atlantic Yards will be one of the only neighborhoods in Brooklyn where families of all backgrounds will be able to really live and grow together. That’s because ACORN insisted, and Forest City Ratner agreed, that the affordable units be spread throughout every rental building at random on every floor. 
(Emphasis added)

That agreement was never memorialized in any official document, as far as I know, nor in that MOU, which described aspirations rather than enforced a contract.

Below is a chart of the building's units, which are disproportionately aimed at middle-income households.
535 Carlton rents
Note on the data

My analysis of both 535 Carlton and 38 Sixth is based on subleases regarding the low-income units, to new LLCs, as well as  Occupancy & Use documents that delineate the number of units per floor.  All are at bottom. In both the sublease and the graphics, I have partially obscured the specific unit numbers, in the interest of privacy, but left the first digit visible to indicate the floor.

No answers

On Thursday, I queried Lewis, now head of The Black Institute, as well as Ismene Speliotis, who heads the Mutual Housing Association of New York, who helped devise the affordable housing plan at ACORN and has been managing outreach for the affordable units. Neither responded. (It has been a busy week, I recognize.)
535 Carlton, remaining low-income units;
click to enlarge

I also queried Michelle de la Uz, of the Fifth Avenue Committee, who as a representative of BrooklynSpeaks was once highly critical of the affordability of units, but whose rhetoric became more optimistic in 2014, after getting a new 2025 deadline for the affordable housing. (That gained ten years from the previously extended "outside date" of 2035, but did not lock in affordability.)

Update: she responded Monday, saying she was unaware of the plan, adding that it wouldn't be clear if this was consistent with city policy without checking the regulatory agreement (and concurring with my observation that this departed from rhetoric when the project was first approved).

And I queried Greenland Forest City, sending the relevant documents, getting the response noted above.

Earlier, at a 9/13/16 community meeting, I asked if the different income levels were "distributed randomly" in 535 Carlton.

"Yes," replied Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton. Added Greenland USA executive Scott Solish, "They're mixed throughout the building,"

Perhaps they'll be asked questions about this at today's meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation.

Potential explanation: it's business

Surely there's a business reason to concentrate lower-rent units on lower floors. After all, it may be tougher to fill "affordable" units that, while below market, are hardly cheap, so those views help.

If, as I reported, after some 30 years, those middle-income affordable units could go condo while low-income units remain under rent stabilization, surely higher-floor units would command higher prices. If Greenland Forest City wants to sell the building, this configuration offers advantages over a more random one.

Different views

Will residents complain? Maybe not. Perhaps those lucky enough to win the long odds of the low-income lottery might not complain much about the non-random location of their spanking new apartment, or even the noise of construction as the building above them is finished up.

As one apartment-seeker wrote on a forum for those seeking units in another Pacific Park building with affordable units, 461 Dean, "I don't even care if I get a unit on the ground floor with no view, i'll be happy as a clam."

Also, it's likely that, given the plan to open the building on a rolling basis, those living in the lower-floor apartments might move in a few weeks or months ahead of those on higher floors. It just doesn't match the rhetoric.

No "poor door," no requirement, but meets 80/20 standard

Indeed, there's no "poor door"--which original Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner has righteously condemned. And it's not uncommon for 80/20 buildings, with 80% market-rate units and 20% low-income apartments, skewing the latter to lower floors.

I couldn't find if there's any rule regarding the distribution of low-income units in a "100% affordable" building. When it comes to buildings with a fraction of affordable housing, the city requires that low-income units must be spread on 65% of the floors. In 535 Carlton, that standard has been met, as the low-income units--at least the ones not for the poorest--are sprinkled throughout the tower, albeit unevenly.

That 65% figure was in jeopardy regarding one of Mayor Bill de Blasio's initiatives. Manhattan Community Board 4, in a November 2015 letter (p. 6) commenting on Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), criticized the then-plan to decrease "the requirement for distribution of the affordable housing from 65% to 50% of the floors in a building."

CB 4 called for 80% of the floors to contain affordable housing, warning, "Segregating and or relegating affordable units to lower floors creates, not a Poor Door, but a Poor Floor."

The City Planning Commission three months later defended the 50% plan: "Elements that increase the cost of providing affordable housing or diminish the revenues that can be realized from market-rate housing erode the ability to provide the required affordable housing without the need for public subsidy."

In March, the City Council approved de Blasio's MIH plan, with the 65% requirement.

Similar plans at 38 Sixth Avenue

38 Sixth; lowest-income units above
green line; click to enlarge
In the second "100% affordable" building, the under-construction 38 Sixth Avenue, the configuration also seems skewed, though not as glaringly.

In the 23-story building, ten of the 14 poorest families would be assigned to the three lowest floors, floors 2, 3, and 4, according to the sublease regarding the 91 low-income units, excerpted at right. (I've similarly obscured the actual unit numbers involved.)

Those 91 low-income units are divided among 14 apartments for households earning up to 40% of AMI, and 77 units for households earning up to 60% of AMI.

The other 77 low-income units, according to the 6/17/15 sublease, are distributed somewhat more randomly, but also are disproportionally on the lower floors: 70 of these apartments are on floors 2 through 13. That would mean 11 floors with 50% low-income units.

The other seven low-income units would be on floors 14 through 18, representing 10.1% of the total 69 units on those floors, while floors 19 through 23, with 65 total apartments, would have no low-income units.

If that remains accurate, the configuration again seems aimed to justify higher "affordable" rents on the higher floors, and to position the building for a future conversion.

A spokesman for the developers did not answer questions about 38 Sixth, which I sent after asking for elucidation of the response regarding 535 Carlton. But it's reasonable to assume that Greenland Forest City takes issue with the analysis--but won't supply evidence to contradict it.

A history of diminished affordability

38 Sixth, remaining low-income units;
click to enlarge
The affordability of the Atlantic Yards housing has diminished in several ways over the years.

First, the much-promoted 50/50 program--50% market-rate/50% affordable--was actually 50/30/20, with 20% of the units low-income, the rest moderate- or middle-income.

Then the 50/50 program was attenuated by the addition of 1,930 condos, perhaps 200 of them below market (but oriented to households earning six figures).

Then the plan for all the rental towers to be 50/50 was altered, after the new timetable was achieved in 2014, by the creation of two "100% affordable" towers, said to speed below-market housing but also creating two 100% market-rate towers.

Then, within those "100% affordable" towers, the configuration does not represent that long promised in the Atlantic Yards Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in 2005, with 40% low-income units and 40% middle-income ones, but rather with far more middle-income units.

In those two buildings, the middle-income units and low-income units, both divided into two "bands," skew toward the more expensive bands compared to what was long promised. And the ceiling for both the low-income and middle-income units has been raised.

The documents