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When de Blasio was asked about empty "affordable" units, he claimed "Atlantic Yards was done in a different time and place" (opposite day)

As I wrote yesterday in City Limits, Mayor Bill de Blasio's office, in coordination with developer Greenland Forest City Partners, in June 2017 orchestrated positive coverage of a "100% affordable" apartment building skewed to middle-income households, with consultant BerlinRosen--working for the developer and with a claimed "agents of the city" relationship with the mayor--serving as intermediary. Here's some more context.

In a December 2017 interview with reporters from the then-closed local websites DNAinfo New York and Gothamist (the latter has since reopened), de Blasio was asked (by DNA's Rachel Holliday Smith) about a stark smudge on his affordable housing record: nearly 100 apartments left empty at 535 Carlton, a "100% affordable" tower in the Pacific Park Brooklyn project (formerly Atlantic Yards).

Half the apartments in the 298-unit building are aimed at middle-income households earning up to 165% of Area Median Income (AMI). That means, for example, that families earning at least $111,909 would pay $3,223 for a two-bedroom.

Analyzing the housing lottery results for City Limits last April, I reported how just 2,203 applicants made the first cut for those 148 not-so-affordable units. (For low-income units, the competition was fierce.) After I later reported that developer Greenland Forest City Partners couldn't fill units from the lottery, DNAinfo's Rachel Holliday Smith expanded the story, and New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante shined a larger spotlight, with At $3,700 a Month, ‘Affordable’ Apartments Go Begging.

So it should have been tough for de Blasio to play dumb. Given the housing crisis, he was asked by Smith at the group interview, "How do you justify that band of AMI as affordable housing in a complex like this one?"

"The way that we go about our plan is not that," the mayor responded. "Obviously Atlantic Yards was done in a different time and place. We live by our plan. There’s a chance to re-calibrate and reset that at Atlantic Yards, I would love to do that."

Obviously Atlantic Yards was done in a different time and place? Actually, de Blasio got it backwards. He had said in a press release for the official opening of 535 Carlton--as I wrote yesterday in City Limits--that "Our administration is delivering on the affordable housing this community was promised."

Not so. Had the "different time and place" Atlantic Yards promises been adhered to, that building--and its similar sibling, "100% affordable" 38 Sixth, which is still accepting tenants--would have a more affordable configuration, without half the units aimed at middle-income New Yorkers who have other options.

The backstory

Original project developer Forest City Ratner in 2005 signed a Memorandum of Understanding with advocacy group New York ACORN (then led by Bertha Lewis) for 2,250 income-linked, "affordable" rental apartments, among 4,500 total rentals and 6,430 overall units. The below-market apartments, as of then, were to be all in "50/50" rental buildings containing 50% market-rate units.

Among "affordable" units overall, 900 (40%) would be for low-income households, earning up to 50% of AMI. Three tranches of 450 units (20% each, of the total) would go, respectively, to moderate- and middle-income renters earning up to 100%, 140%, and 160% of AMI. (For the latter group, rents would be set at 150% of AMI.)

Then-Council Member deBlasio cheered that plan. The MOU was incorporated that year into the much-promoted Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement, but it remained aspirational.

It would not be locked into the governing Development Agreement signed in 2010 with Empire State Development, the state authority overseeing/shepherding the project. While that document does require 2,250 below-market apartments, it doesn't prescribe levels of affordability, just that the units fall within city or state regulatory guidelines.

The mayor's 2014 media coup

The mayor seems to have forgotten how his administration finessed a media coup. In 2014, as Atlantic Yards faced delays and Forest City was about to sell a majority share (excluding the Barclays Center arena and the modular tower, 461 Dean) to Greenland USA, a subsidiary of a huge corporation owned significantly by the government of Shanghai, the Mayor's office stared down a threatened fair-housing lawsuit from local advocates.

The lawsuit--which would've argued that delays in the project left affordable units further out of reach of black Brooklynites being displaced--was averted with a new 2025 deadline for the project's overall affordable housing.

In a departure from the long-planned template, there'd be two new "100% affordable" buildings, heralded in a New York Times exclusive, Plan Expedited for Affordable Housing Near Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

So de Blasio declared victory: "And what’s remarkable is that we’ve secured nearly twice as many affordable units”—compared to 461 Dean, the first Atlantic Yards tower, with 50% below-market apartments—"for our city investment.” What he didn't say was that the affordability would differ dramatically from that long promised.

(Also unmentioned: two all-affordable buildings would ultimately be countered by towers with disproportionate market-rate units, since the original plan was for the 4,500 rentals all to be in 50% market/50% below-market buildings.)

Relying on a new, middle-class-focused city housing program--yes, part of "our plan"--called M2, the 535 Carlton tower would have 50% of its units in the highest income "band." The income ceiling is 165% of AMI, with rents set at 160% of AMI. (That's how 535 Carlton contains "affordable" studios at $2,137 and one-bedrooms at $2,680.)

If the administration had followed the original Atlantic Yards promise, only 20% of the building's affordable units would have been in that highest-income band, and with slightly lower income ceilings and rents. Moreover, the income ceiling for low-income units would have remained 50% of AMI, not rising to 60%.

Remembering the history

I've pointed out these discrepancies regularly in my coverage. A few other journalists and housing analysts have ventilated criticisms. It didn't stick.

Because de Blasio, responding at that December interview, continued, "But the essence of what was going on at the time at Atlantic Yards is you have an area that gentrification had essentially saturated, and if you didn’t put in some type of housing affordable to low-income people, working class people, middle-class people or any kind of combination thereof, you would have essentially nothing in the surrounding area—it would all go upper income."

The mayor's not wrong that it's important to have mixed-income housing at such a site, bringing diversity of class (and race) to a gentrifying area. But his argument is essentially a straw man, with de Blasio time-traveling back to restate his general Atlantic Yards support without acknowledging the 2014 affordability switch. Moreover, his description was simplistic.

Sure, it makes sense to require below-market housing in exchange for a vast increase in allowable bulk. But most of the site's 22 acres would not have instantly gentrified, because housing wasn't allowed in a manufacturing zone, and the allowable housing density in residential blocks was significantly capped.

A rezoning--not unlike the plans his administration now pursues--would have been required. So the Atlantic Yards deal was essentially a privately-negotiated rezoning.

"I still think that was the right impulse," the mayor continued in the interview. "If what was done ended up not reaching the income levels it should in today’s terms, let’s see if we can re-calibrate it."

de Blasio sounded like someone erased his memory card. He'd already re-calibrated it. Worse, ever-rising AMI--the calculation of which involves wealthier suburban counties--floats affordable housing even further out of reach of the average Brooklynite.

To counteract that, the city could have designate income bands at lower percentages of AMI--say, 50%, not 60%. But lower rents, which diminish project revenues, surely were resisted by the developer.

The middle-income focus

In the interview, de Blasio stated, not inaccurately, that the middle-income category is "not the core of what we’re doing." Indeed, it represents only 9.5% of his administration's housing goals (yet 13% of the units delivered as of the Housing New York 2.0 reboot in November).

However, he's been celebrating 535 Carlton throughout, from a groundbreaking pageant through the grand opening, coordinating with developer Greenland Forest City Partners and their consultant, BerlinRosen, which also happens to have advised him, formally and informally.

His performance suggests two unflattering explanations. Either de Blasio hasn't bothered to understand a key project or he's chosen to remain obtuse.

Until recently, he's faced limited scrutiny and criticism. If and when he decides to pursue higher office, though, presumably he'll have to answer more critical questions about not-so-affordable "affordable housing."