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Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park infographics: what's built/what's coming/what's missing, who's responsible, + project FAQ/timeline (pinned post)

More hints that future affordable housing might not be too affordable; a look back at mistaken 2005 certainty

This is the second of several articles based on discussion at the 1/22/19 Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Quality of Life meeting. The first concerned timing for the B15 tower, with school, and the B4 tower.

As I've pointed out, the government-subsidized, income-linked, (usually) below-market "affordable housing" in the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project skews toward middle-income households who pay higher rent, rather than a broad range, as promised in the 2005 Memorandum of Understanding original developer Forest City Ratner signed with the advocacy group ACORN (and which was incorporated in the 2005 Community Benefits Agreement).

Now it looks as though the project's developer, as well as the state authority overseeing the project, are prepared for more not-necessarily-affordable housing, as Greenland Forest City Partners--dominated by Greenland USA--must fulfill a requirement to build 2,500 affordable units by 2025, which means 1,468 more units.

Broad latitude

"I'd note that the project’s General Project Plan does not specifically go into detail about affordable housing rents, and AMIs [Area Median Incomes], that’s something dictated by the city," said Tobi Jaiyesimi, who's project director for Empire State Development (ESD), the state authority overseeing/shepherding the project, as well as executive director of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), which is supposed to advise ESD.

"So, we have a requirement of the developer to build a certain number of units by a certain date, but we don't define what the AMI [income] bands are and what the unit size is, or what the housing and family composition is," Jaiyesimi said.

The next four buildings to be built--B4, B15, B12, and B13--all will have an affordable component, at least 25%, though the income levels haven't been set. Given that condos no longer get the 421-a tax break, it may be that all buildings are rentals, and contain some affordable units.

It's not purely "dictated by the city," but the developer has options for different programs. A more rigorously written state contract, or a more binding Community Benefits Agreement, might have ensured more lower-cost apartments.

The MOU as aspiration

Later in the meeting, resident Gib Veconi--recently named to the AY CDC (more on that in another post)--asked if the 2005 Memorandum of Understanding applied to the new developers that will be leasing and then building on sites B12 and B13 (TF Cornerstone) and B15 (The Brodsky Organization).

"The number one affordable commitment is to make sure that we get units built by 2025," replied Scott Solish, project manager for Greenland USA.

"That's the project agreement," Veconi riposted, referring to the developers' 2014 agreement with ESD--part of a settlement with community groups that he helped negotiate--that set that 2025 deadline.

"It's a goal to try and maximize and diversify the affordable [housing] to the greatest extent possible," Solish replied. "A lot of that depends on city, state, and federal subsidies that may or may not be available, and financing programs that are available. So we’re always talking with city and state agencies to see what may or may not be available for a developer at any given time."

He offered a couple of nods to uncertainty, saying "every year their goals change" and "we're competing with the rest of the city and state to try to get their limited amount" of subsidy.

"Would it be fair to say that the affordability levels that were stated in the MOU are right now kind of looked at on a best efforts basis by the folks that are going be doing the development?" Veconi asked.

"It's our hope that we're going to be able to achieve them," Solish said, essentially endorsing Veconi's framing, adding that "we speak with [housing advocate] Ismene [Speliotis] from [ACORN successor] MHANY [Mutual Housing Association of New York] all the time… the goal is to try and figure out a way to be as diverse as possible."

So the bottom line is: we don't know yet.

The 2005 rhetoric: "Ratner agreed to the housing"

Given today's uncertainty, and the shift from the housing promises, it's worth looking back at a 6/9/05 Metro front New York Times article after the death of the West Side Stadium (at the hands of then Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) headlined Unlike Stadium on West Side, an Arena in Brooklyn Is Still a Go.

The article--unwise at the time, ridiculous in retrospect--framed the housing promise as a certainty:
The opposition remained publicly united. But the [Forest City] Ratner group, working closely with [Mayor Mike] Bloomberg's housing aides, worked out a crucial agreement to undercut concerns that the project would drive out poorer long-term residents. Last month, in a boisterous rally at Brooklyn Borough Hall, Mayor Bloomberg, Mr. Ratner and Ms. [Bertha] Lewis [of ACORN] announced an agreement to build thousands of units of low-cost housing.
The agreement was a milestone, and the moment was indicative of the differences between the Brooklyn plan and the West Side effort.
"It's when Ratner agreed to the housing that opportunity turned to support in low-income and working-class parts of the area," said Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, which derives its support largely from housing and labor groups and has its headquarters in Brooklyn.
But Mr. Cantor added: "In Manhattan, community opposition stayed that way because the benefits were too abstract and the downsides were too concrete. In a way, Ratner was a better politician than Doctoroff and the mayor."
(Emphasis added) Well, now. First, as I've written, it was wrong to present Cantor as a neutral analyst rather than an ally of Lewis, whose group was a building block of the Working Families Party.

More importantly, in hindsight, Cantor's pronouncement was overoptimistic. Ratner didn't so much agree to the housing but to a goal of housing and, since then, various circumstances have intervened.

The Memorandum of Understanding was non-binding. The state documents leave lots of leeway. Ratner's company has sold to Greenland, almost completely, and is no longer part of a larger company, as Forest City Enterprises/Forest City Realty Trust has been absorbed by Brookfield.

The income-linked housing has done little to undercut concern about gentrification and displacement.

But the deal served its political purpose.