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

Given how "100% affordable" 535 Carlton turned out, why not ask the Mayor (Q&A with former DNAinfo/Gothamist staff)

So Eric Phillips, press secretary for Mayor Bill de Blasio, has invited former DNAinfo and Gothamist reporters for a " long no-holds-barred roundtable QA session w/ the Mayor."

Several responded with enthusiasm, though Katie Honan, saying "the mayor's office dismissed DNAinfo for years" seemed less than thrilled, as did others.

Given that I'm probably not going to be offered a "no-holds-barred" Q&A with de Blasio--when Borough President candidate de Blasio offered one ten years ago, he didn't sound well-informed--let me suggest some questions regarding Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park and the affordable housing.

Remember, mayoral candidate de Blasio in 2013 promised the affordable housing "that was originally planned," but in 2014 acceded to two "100% affordable" buildings that, rather than designate 20% of the total units for the upper-middle-income cohort, as long promised in the overall affordable housing plan, instead have half their apartments aimed at that cohort. That means two-bedroom units renting for $3,223 and $3,206, for households with incomes starting at $111,909.

I've reported--with DNAinfo's Rachel Holliday Smith expanding the story, which led to a pickup by New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante--that 535 Carlton had numerous upper-middle-income units left empty, despite a huge response in the lottery for the less-expensive units.

The questions:
  • Given that response, does de Blasio have any second thoughts about his steady praise (described below) for that building?
  • Given that the similarly "100% affordable" 38 Sixth Avenue is now renting, with a similarly tiny response to the upper-middle-income units in the lottery, will de Blasio and public officials dial back their enthusiasm going forward?
  • Will his administration be more wary of buildings with so many "affordable" units aimed at that income cohort? 
The groundbreaking

Let's recap. At the 12/15/14 groundbreaking for 535 Carlton, I was among few journalists who expressed skepticism at the unfettered enthusiasm for an affordable housing program vastly different from that long promised by Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park developer Forest City Ratner and its nonprofit housing partner New York ACORN.

“Last summer, we made a promise to this community that we would jumpstart affordable housing here and get shovels in the ground by the end of the year," said de Blasio in the press release. "Today, we’re delivering. We intend to take every opportunity, push every partner, and stretch every dollar further as we take on this affordability crisis." That ignored the change in configuration.

In his remarks (video),  de Blasio began, "There are very few phrases I like better than 100% affordable housing, so this program is off to a good start. [Developer] Bruce [Ratner]--this is someone who truly cares for Brooklyn and for the city."

"In June, we had a series of conversations about the need to move forward, and to move forward rapidly, with this development to get to the original vision and achieve what so many of us hoped for who supported it from the beginning," de Blasio said, as if unmindful of the "original vision."

"This groundbreaking is a symbol of our accelerated commitment to realizing the full dream of this development," he said. "At 535 Carlton, to me this is exactly what we came here to do: 298 units, all affordable. This is a symbol of what we intend to do with our affordable housing plan over and over and over and over."

"The housing wasn't moving fast enough," de Blasio said, acknowledging critics. "[Former ACORN head] Bertha [Lewis] and so many community leaders said, we need this to be done the way it has been outlined."

In the Q&A session (video),  I tried to probe: "You said in your speech that this met the original Atlantic Yards vision. However, 20% of the original affordable housing promise was the highest income band. This building: 50% is the highest income band. So how does that meet the original promise?"

"This is the first of many buildings. This parallels the reality with our affordable housing plan writ large," de Blasio responded vaguely. "In the year 2014, we're on track for over 16,000 new units... as you see the plan progress, neighborhood by neighborhood, you're going to see buildings that are 100% affordable, you're going to see buildings that are a lower percentage, you're going to see buildings that are primarily for folks on the lowest side of the income scale, you're going to see buildings that are mixed."

"Here, the original vision, in terms of tiered income scale, we intend to achieve," he concluded, ignoring the specifies of the tiers. "This building is 100% affordable, it's tiered, but we intend for the whole project to ultimately be fulfilled."

The 535 Carlton opening

Flash forward 2.5 years. From the 6/12/17 mayoral press release for the building's opening:
“Our administration is delivering on the affordable housing this community was promised. For hundreds of families right here in Brooklyn, these homes represent economic security, the chance to save a little every month and get ahead, and the assurance that they’ll be able to afford to stay in the borough they love,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Actually, it's not what the community was promised. Yes, there is a value to rent-stabilized middle-income housing. But it's clearly not where the need is greatest.

The 38 Sixth construction start

From the 6/18/15 press release regarding the second "100% affordable" building, 38 Sixth Avenue:
“The people of this city need affordable housing built in real time. And make no mistake: affordable housing at Pacific Park is on the move. We committed last summer to get two new 100-percent affordable buildings in the ground by this June, and today, we are making good on that promise. Our administration is incredibly proud to have negotiated two buildings that each have double the affordable housing and reach more low-income families as the first buildings to rise at this site, all without increasing costs to the public. We are grateful to all our partners in the community, at Greenland Forest City and at the State who have worked to get these shovels in the ground,” said NYC Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen.
That, of course, was disingenuous, because, as I wrote, the configuration of the project had shifted, with the departure from the 50/50 market/affordable model and the opportunity for 100% affordable and then market-rate towers.

And while the buildings do reach "more low-income families"--again, only because the subsidized housing is being distributed in fewer buildings--that obscures a deeper problem: the affordable housing is far less affordable than originally promised, as I wrote.

The reason it's not "increasing costs to the public" is that the upper-middle-income housing is not eligible for an extra subsidy. So that's about 300 of 600 new below-market "affordable" units.

Tenants have begun to move into 38 Sixth, but no official opening has been announced.

Bonus round: what about the 421-a maneuver?

Questions about the 535 Carlton affordable housing have been percolating for years. But only one article, which I wrote in October for City Limits, has ventilated the astonishing maneuver pursued by the developer of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park to lower taxes drastically at the condo building 550 Vanderbilt by linking it to 535 Carlton through use of a zoning map.

That adds no new affordable housing--purportedly the justification for the 421-a tax break--though it does make some units more affordable. (After all, middle-income units are harder to rent.) The savings will be significant. As I wrote:
When Greenland Forest City Partners in 2015 prepared the Offering Plan for buyers at 550 Vanderbilt, the pending 421-a tax abatement meant an overall yearly tax bill of $1.2 million, a 69 percent discount off the annual property-tax hit that would have occurred without the tax break.
Now, however, owners at the 278-unit luxury building would collectively pay less than $123,000, a 97 percent discount.
But that $1.1 million increase in savings would be just the start. Since the new tax break would last 25 years, not 15 years like the initial one, plus remove an assessed value (AV) cap, owners could save a cumulative $86.5 million over the life of the tax benefit, by City Limits’ calculations. That would be $50 million more than in the earlier projection. (Neither the city nor the developer would address this estimate, which assumes static tax rates and assessments.)
Mayor de Blasio hasn't commented, but his administration seems dismayed:
The 421-a application remains pending. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development responded to City Limits’ queries with a statement: “While approval will be based on whether all of the requirements have been met, this project underscores the reasons we fought so hard to reform 421-a to stop subsidizing luxury condos and incentivize the kind of rental housing our city badly needs.”
Why not ask the mayor about it?