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Two Atlantic Yards cameos in latest de Blasio affordable housing victory lap (plus: what's "affordable"?)

There was a bit of a deja vu quality to Mayor Bill de Blasio's announcement on Thursday, presaged by a New York Times exclusive, touting a record number of affordable housing units built or preserved.

After all, the mayoral announcement regarding calendar year 2016 was not unlike last July's announcement regarding fiscal year 2016 (as Rosa Goldensohn of Crain's pointed out).

But there were a couple of Atlantic Yards cameos, with de Blasio stubbornly resisting evidence.

Screenshot from NY1 interview with Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen
The Times article, New York Secures the Most Affordable Housing Units in 27 Years, was headlined in print as "City Gains More Affordable Housing, but Critics Say It's Not Enough."

The city counts 21,963 total units, including 6,844 new apartments. Market Urbanism blogger Stephen Smith noted that the mayor "pledged to build, on average, 10,000 new below-market apts each year."

And while nearly 20% of the units--well above the 8% goal set in 2014--were aimed at low income households with incomes below 25,000, that still doesn't come close to meeting the demand.

It didn't help that the Times generously phrased the administration's record of having "provided financing for projects that built or preserved a total of 62,506 apartments that are affordable to poor and working-class tenants. As seems obvious, those earning six figures aren't "working-class," and rents of $3,206 per month for a 2 BR (as at 38 Sixth) are well out of reach.

The Daily News quoted a critic:
“At a time of record homelessness in the city, Mayor de Blasio’s self-congratulatory victory lap on affordable housing is offensive and wrong,” said Katie Goldstein of the group Real Affordability for All, who said the city is not creating enough homes for “homeless or low-income New Yorkers who are most in need of deeply affordable housing.”
Also see City Limits coverage. The New York Post snarked that "Subsidized housing hasn’t even cut the ranks of the homeless, as promised. The shelter census is at 60,200, a record high."

At the press conference

Atlantic Yards came up twice during de Blasio's press event/press conference (transcript). At about 1:05, a questioner suggested that the advent of market-rate housing from a recozning could price people out. (Mayoral aide Wiley Norvell tweeted, "I've heard @NYCMayor talk about affordable housing 100 times. Never as cogent/thoughtful as he is here at 1:06:00.")



"Here’s how I would describe the fork in the road; there is a strategy you could choose," de Blasio responded, "which is essentially a status quo strategy, where you say we’re not going to do rezonings because we fear any intensification of development and we’d rather leave the status quo in place even though we won’t get new affordable housing built, we still think it nets out better. You can make that argument, right? Because the cost won’t go up in the neighborhood or there won’t be this place and etcetera."

He doesn't agree. "[E]verything I do I do because of the conversations I have had with every day New Yorkers, because of what I have seen in neighborhoods," he said. "And as a Brooklynite I tell the story of what I saw happen in neighborhoods where there were no rezonings – the story of Bushwick, the story of Bed-Stuy, the story of Prospect Heights I can go through many, many examples.:

"And what – even to the point when I was a councilman in my neighborhood in Brooklyn and we had to make a decision about Atlantic Yards my – and everyone knows that project has not completed anywhere near the timeline we wanted it to, but the original logic still holds."

The original logic still holds? It doesn't, not in the slightest. The "affordable housing" is much less affordable.

He went on to talk about how neighborhoods like Park Slope have become unaffordable.

What if affordable nears market rate?

Daily News reporter Erin Durkin noted that, while affordable housing is officially 30 percent of income, most people "probably think of it more colloquially." Some East Harlem apartments cost well over the median rent and some studios in Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park will "rent for a few dollars more than the market-rate ones in that same project."

So, she asked, what's the benefit? And "how do you define what you can really consider affordable?"

"I think the big difference between a market and something done by the government is the government has an obligation to provide a guarantee to people," de Blasio said. And relatively few units will cost that much. (True, but why then did de Blasio call it a model?)

He added that the rent levels were locked in, while the "market does not offer any such guarantee. So what you’re describing today in five years might be a very different situation where the affordable housing unit is in a very different and lower price range compared to what the market around it is doing."

True, the rent stabilization that governs annual rent increases does offer a guarantee. But the issue is also that people who marched for that affordable housing can't afford it. As for five years from now, let's revisit the market-affordable gap in 2022.

What's affordable?

de Blasio talked about a couple he knew, a nurse and a firefighter, who said they couldn't find a home they could afford in Brooklyn. "Well, I think those folks deserve a chance to be here too. So that’s the theory of the case." (OK, but I wonder if they wanted a house--and the city's not building too many of them.)

Then he kind of danced around the issue. "So the question of what is affordable – this is like, I get the question all the time – it’s a very fair question," he said. "Affordable is – it’s a question for every family, what their situation is, what they can afford. We’re trying to match it with a whole range of families.... But if the thing – if I was able to say to you – affordable means every apartment in New York City is $1,000 a month and all, that would be a beautiful world. It would be an impossible world, but it would be a beautiful world. The real world is affordable is trying to find that sweet spot for a family that they can still afford to be here, and that’s very different depending on what family you’re dealing with."

Yes, HPD Commissioner Vicki Been added that higher-income households help subsidize units for lower-income ones. But de Blasio left a lot of latitude.

Let's put it this way: he's no longer saying, as he did in 2007, that some would cut it off at $80,000, but he wasn't sure.

Should those earning six figures, he was asked at the time, get subsidized housing?

“Definitely below six figures,” he responded. “Absolutely below six figures. Over eighty [thousand] I don’t think is what I’m thinking about, although there may be some exceptions.” 

Not any more. Thing is, costs have gone up. So has the Area Median Income (AMI), which is calculated to include wealthier suburban counties. So affordable rents go up. But for many in the city, incomes have been stagnant.

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