In 1982, ACORN opened its first office on the third floor of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene. Our commitment and our philosophy, then as now, was to organize and build power for poor people to fight to improve the quality of our neighborhoods.
When we began, a tidal wave of abandonment and arson was sweeping away our neighborhoods, leaving homelessness in its wake. In response, ACORN members came together in East New York and Brownsville and fought back. Through squatting, direct action and sheer tenaciousness, we pushed then-Mayor Ed Koch to turn over a group of abandoned buildings to us to run as low-income co-operatives for ACORN members.
Today more than 1,000 low-income New Yorkers live in homes owned or managed by ACORN’s Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY).
Twenty-five years later, the crisis of abandonment and arson is largely behind us. Low-income black and Latino families invested their life savings and their sweat in rebuilding neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn, setting the stage for the current Brooklyn boom.
But now our neighborhoods are faced with a different crisis, one that threatens to price our members out of Brooklyn entirely. There is simply not enough housing in Brooklyn.
In 2005, the rental vacancy rate in Brooklyn was 2.8 percent. New York City’s population is projected to jump 16 percent over the next 25 years, reaching 9.5 million people by 2030. Brooklyn and the Bronx are projected to surpass their mid-20th century population peaks.
The housing crunch is creating an affordability crisis. Between 2002 and 2005, real median income fell 6.3 percent for New Yorkers, yet monthly rents increased by more than 8 percent. Over a quarter of a million families are on waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers and public housing.
We need more housing and it needs to be affordable.
In late 2003, ACORN learned that Forest City Ratner was planning a major mixed-use development above the Long Island Rail Road’s Vanderbilt Storage Yard and an MTA storage yard for inactive buses. ACORN approached Forest City Ratner and began a spirited dialogue about its plans.
Thousands of ACORN members came together in borough-wide and neighborhood meetings to learn about the project, discuss demands and develop our position.
Our bottom line was simple: any development had to have an unprecedented commitment to affordability and provide real housing opportunities for a range of low-income and middle-income families and seniors.
Like many people who oppose Atlantic Yards, we were concerned about the amount of public resources that would need to be invested to bring the project to fruition, and the attendant costs to the surrounding community.
We came to the table with the skepticism of organizers and a history of tangling with developers, including Forest City Ratner, over the future of downtown Brooklyn. Through months of negotiations we arrived at New York City’s first legally binding Community Benefits Agreement and a groundbreaking Memorandum of Understanding between ACORN and Forest City Ratner about the housing component of the project.
Under our agreement with Forest City Ratner, 50 percent of the 4,500 rental units in the project will be affordable to low-, moderate- and middle-income families. Rents will be set at an average of 30 percent of the middle of each income band. And unlike many affordable housing projects in New York City, units will be available for a range of household sizes from one to six people. Half of all affordable rental units will be two- and three-bedroom units.
Beyond building new affordable units, all 4,500 rental units at Atlantic Yards will be rent-stabilized -- no small victory in an era where thousands of rent stabilized units return to the free market every year. Ten percent of the affordable units will be for senior citizens, providing much-needed housing to a population that is radically underserved by existing public and private programs.
In addition to the affordable rental housing, Atlantic Yards will mean 600-1000 affordable condo units either on or off the project site – a significant increase in the number of for-sale units available to working families in Brooklyn.
More than anything, in an era of increasing housing segregation, Atlantic Yards will be one of the only neighborhoods in Brooklyn where families of all backgrounds will be able to really live and grow together. That’s because ACORN insisted, and Forest City Ratner agreed, that the affordable units be spread throughout every rental building at random on every floor. In Atlantic Yards, if the elevator works for the rich folks, it will work for the poor folks. For the first time in a project like this, low-, middle- and upper-income people will live -- literally -- together. And unless you put your pay stub on your front door, your neighbor will never know whether your unit is market price or below.
Critics of this project and of ACORN’s support suggest that the housing could be even more affordable or that the public dollars being invested in Atlantic Yards could be put to better use elsewhere. Those critics fail to understand both the economic reality and the context in which ACORN negotiated this agreement.
The cost of acquiring the MTA land, moving the rail yard, doing environmental remediation and building infrastructure combine to make this an extraordinarily expensive development site. These costs would need to be borne by any developer, even a nonprofit or public entity that sought to develop the site.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Forest City Ratner is not the United Way. They are looking to make a profit. You can make money building affordable housing only two ways: through direct subsidy to reduce the extraordinary cost of this project, to any developer who chose to undertake it, or cross-subsidy from the market-rate rentals and condominiums.
Any developer who built on this site would need both subsidy and cross-subsidy to make the amount of affordable housing units included in the project financially viable. None of the so-called alternative plans advanced for the site adequately address this fundamental economic reality.
That also leads to the other bogeyman of the Atlantic Yards debate: density. In order to make the cross-subsidy between market rate and affordable units work in this project, you either need to allow the developer to build more, which means taller buildings, or to replace the cross-subsidy from market-rate units with more direct subsidy from government. Currently there is no other existing model for building affordable housing in New York City.
Let’s get real. All around Atlantic Yards developers are building luxury condominiums without a lick of affordable housing. In March, ACORN examined 87 new development projects in various stages of development in downtown Brooklyn, containing 5,934 housing units. Our report found that only 201 units, or 3 percent of the total, are affordable to moderate-income people. Only 266 units, or 4 percent of the total, are affordable to low-income families. In almost all of those projects, city tax dollars are being used to subsidize luxury development in the form of 421a and J-51 tax abatements for purchasers of luxury housing. The result: between 1990 and 2000, the African-American population of Community Board 2 (including downtown, Fort Greene, Brooklyn Heights and Boerum Hill) decreased by 17.2 percent.
Advocates and activists who oppose the project will point to its flaws, but present only false solutions. They have the luxury to demand the impossible, to oppose something because, in an ideal world, it’s not how things should be.
We don’t have the luxury of the word “should.” Being an organizing group made of nearly 40,000 low-income families in neighborhoods across this city means dealing with the world as it is and the needs of real people. It means fighting like hell every day to get the best deal you can to move the ball forward for working families. It means knowing a victory when it’s staring you in the face and having the maturity to take yes for an answer. Ultimately, when you get right down to it, that’s what the Atlantic Yards debate is all about.
Bertha Lewis is executive director of NY ACORN. ACORN is the nation's largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, working together for social justice and stronger communities. www.acorn.org