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NYT columnist notes 535 Carlton "affordable" units "go begging"; missing: previous skepticism amid boosterism

So, "New York Times Big City" columnist Ginia Bellafante, who writes weekly in the Metropolitan section, today offers At $3,700 a Month, ‘Affordable’ Apartments Go Begging, describing how the mayor's ambitious affordable housing plan has been criticized for offering too many below-market apartments to those between "51 to 165 percent of the median income for the metropolitan area, or from $43,000 to upward of $141,000 for a family of three. "

(Let's pause for a moment and acknowledge the vast difference even within that scale, since those in lower half of that cohort find far more trouble on the private housing market.)

Her target is a building that's been in the news. She writes:
The fate of a building at 535 Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn, would suggest that they are right. The building was developed with all 300 of its units designated as affordable and available to prospective tenants through a city housing lottery. Half the apartments, though, were slated for middle-income occupants, and although the lottery received more than 93,000 applications, an inadequate number of qualified tenants in the highest income brackets has left 80 apartments empty. The developer, Greenland Forest City Partners, is now advertising them via StreetEasy, social media and so on.
Well, it's good that she's writing about this, but disappointing she doesn't link to any coverage, notably my analysis of the housing lottery, my coverage of the configurationgroundbreaking, or opening; my coverage of the StreetEasy advertising; or Rachel Holliday Smith's coverage of the empty apartments (which spawned several derivative articles, including one tweeted by Congressional candidate Adem Bunkeddeko, who's the only person quoted in the story).

Thing is, the New York Times has not covered the affordable housing at 535 Carlton since it announced, in a sunny June 2014 scoop, that such housing had been accelerated, without mentioning the affordability of the units.

So Bellafante doesn't mention the disconnect between the promises of Atlantic Yards affordable housing, with far fewer apartments aimed at upper middle-income renters, and the configuration delivered in 535 Carlton and the similar 38 Sixth Avenue. (In fact, neither Atlantic Yards nor Pacific Park get mentioned in this article.)

A voice of criticism

The column's closing quote is powerful, but shouldn't be a revelation:
As a member of Community Board 8’s housing committee, [Bunkeddeko] has listened to people bemoan the structuring of 535 Carlton. “The main gripe is ‘this is absurd; who is this affordable for?’” he said. “Even the folks who came in as the first wave of gentrifiers can’t swing it.”
The fact is, few officials have actually said that. (Bellafante has previously written about Bunkeddeko, so that may be how she learned about this issue.)

The collective "Year of the Sheep" mentality, as I've noted (citing official press releases in links above), includes ritual praise for the building from public officials including Mayor Bill de Blasio, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (who Bunkeddeko is challenging), housing advocate Ismene Speliotis (who has also expressed dismay about the middle-income bent), housing advocate Bertha Lewis, Council Member Laurie Cumbo, and Assembly Member Walter Mosley.

The developer has puffed and puffed this building, often generating unskeptical coverage.

The real numbers

With a little more research, Bellafante might have learned that, as I wrote, 92,743 households (not  "more than 93,000") entered the lottery for the “100 percent affordable” 535 Carlton tower, but only 2,203 made the first cut for the 148 middle-income apartments.

What's affordable?

After noting the pleasant aspects of the building--including extra-fee amenities like a gym--Bellafante notes:
To qualify for a currently available three-bedroom apartment — the rent for which is $3,716 a month — a family of five would have to have a household income of between $129,000 and $170,000.
This, by the way, led some to assume that that rent represented the available apartments, while actually there are far more smaller units. Here's the building breakdown, with the number of middle-income units in parentheses:
  • studio=$2,137 (36)
  • 1-BR=$2,680 (61)
  • 2-BR=$3,223 (44)
  • 3-BR=$3,716 (7)
What to do

Bellafante notes, understandably, that to fill the units, the prices might be lowered. But that doesn't work when public private partnerships are structured in which higher-income affordable units are part of the cross-subsidy for lower-income ones.

Fact is, construction is expensive. How to lower that cost, and/or how to focus affordability on the more needy, requires a larger conversation, new strategies (more supply, better transportation, etc.) and more subsidies from the city, which understandably might rather amass unit count to reach its goals rather than focus on the neediest.

We should start, though, with more candor, so this flawed column is welcome. I just hope that that criticisms like those from Bellafante and Bunkeddeko acknowledge the past skepticism that has been raised, amid the sea of self-congratulation.

Also note coverage on WPIX 11, with a quote from Bunkeddeko, a quote from a happy renter (presumably paying less rent than that for the unclaimed apartments), and a vague statement from the developer:
Greenland Forest City Partners released the following statement: "We are incredibly proud of 535 Carlton, a beautifully-designed building that will provide subsidized, rent-stabilized homes to nearly 300 low- and middle-income New York families and is already a huge hit with its residents.”
A huge hit with its residents? Well, the ones not paying those high rents, at least.

New topics for discussion: 38 Sixth, and the 421-a tax maneuver

I hope that those looking for more information on Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park affordable housing also look at my coverage of the similarly configured 38 Sixth Avenue, where 89,704 households vied for 303 below-market units, but only 1,876 made the preliminary income qualifications for the 152 upper middle-income units.

Also, I recently reported that the 535 Carlton lower-income affordable units are being used to leverage a huge tax break for the nearby--but clearly not adjacent--550 Vanderbilt condo building, with no additional affordable units added, in an apparently legal maneuver that provoked dismay from city officials.

Comments on the New York Times article

Here's my comment, which points out all the missing back story. Here's one from Gib Veconi:
535 Carlton is part of the Atlantic Yards project, a giant public/private partnership that was announced in 2003, but whose first affordable units were not offered through lottery until 2016. By then, pressure on housing cost from the expectation of redevelopment had caused perhaps one third of the population of Prospect Heights to be displaced. The high rents agreed to by the de Blasio administration at buildings like 535 add insult to injury.
Mr. Bunkeddeko is right. It is important to understand that when the Mayor talks about upzoning a neighborhood to create affordable housing, he is not addressing our current housing crisis. He is instead planning for the new future housing crisis that will be caused by his rezoning.


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