The Battle in Brooklyn

In June 2004, inside Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, a stage was packed with New York’s most important political, labor, community and religious leaders. One of them, Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN, leaned forward, stretched her arms into a “V” and bellowed to the audience of 1,300, “What do we want?”

“Jobs! Housing! Hoops!” the crowd answered. It was an often-repeated mantra at this rally announcing ACORN’s (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) support for New York-based Forest City Ratner Companies’ (FCRC) Atlantic Yards sports arena and urban development plan.

Bruce Ratner, FCRC chief executive officer and chairman, planned to move his professional basketball team, the New Jersey Nets, to Brooklyn into a new, 19,000-seat arena, the crown jewel of a $2.5 billion development that would include 60-story skyscrapers totaling over 2.4 million square feet of office and retail space, and some housing. The Atlantic Yards development, designed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry, would be situated in an already congested downtown area, affecting at least four neighborhoods of low-rise brownstones, inhabited by an army of 1970s-era urban homesteaders, “old lefties,” ex-hippies and young activists.

Outside Borough Hall, protestors – mostly middle-class activists – accused Ratner of “Manhattanizing” Brooklyn and questioned ACORN’s backing. Why wasn’t ACORN – the leftist, poor people’s organization known for organizing campaigns against corporate abuse and political corruption – outside on the picket lines protesting against political cronyism and developer greed?

ACORN was being accused of “selling out” by supporting a deal that would funnel huge government concessions to a private development that will increase population, burden traffic, alter the Brooklyn skyline and bulldoze many residents through eminent domain condemnations.

Still, Lewis confidently led ACORN into supporting one of the largest and most controversial building projects proposed in New York City in decades.

Let’s Make a Deal
Since the 1960s, numerous attempts have been made to bring a major league sports facility to New York City. Owners of the Mets, the Jets and even the Yankees couldn’t do it. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried and failed. There were too many obstacles to overcome, especially community opposition. The massive arena development would require the condemnation of hundreds of housing units, tax breaks by the city, the purchase of Metropolitan Transportation Authority rail yards and lots of government subsidies. Ratner would also need community support to help him secure the backing of city and state officials.

When Lewis and other ACORN staff heard about this project, their first thought was to oppose it, to stop the rampant gentrification occurring in downtown Brooklyn, especially the displacement of black and brown, low- and moderate-income folks. ACORN’s members were leery of the Nets arena project, but their overwhelming concern was the lack of affordable housing. Their initial opposition turned to irresistible support after ACORN leaders came up with a plan that members couldn’t refuse.

In January 2004, Lewis led about 30 activists into Forest City’s boardroom to propose a partnership that would preserve profits for FCRC and provide major benefits for disadvantaged Brooklynites. ACORN would help sell the Atlantic Yards project to government agencies, community groups and the media. In exchange, ACORN wanted an unprecedented 50 percent of the proposed 4,500 rental units set aside as below-market, affordable apartments – an unusually large share of subsidized housing for a private development. “If we can pull this off,” says Lewis, “it would represent a breakthrough…a model for big city development projects.”

Partnering with ACORN was not a stretch for Ratner; he understood the benefits. Before becoming a developer, he served as New York City’s commissioner of consumer affairs from 1978 to 1982, during Mayor Ed Koch’s administration. And he was director of the Model Cities Program under Mayor John Lindsay’s administration. (His brother Michael heads the Center for Constitutional Rights, the public interest law firm founded by the late radical lawyer, William Kunstler.) At the unveiling of the Atlantic Yards plan, Ratner stated, “Great urban planning incorporates many different uses into a cohesive neighborhood – and truly great urban planning invites the public to participate in the space, whether they work there or live there or they’re drawn there to visit.” But critics charge that this project is far from great urban planning.

In an effort to carve out a place for low-income families in this mammoth development project, ACORN, along with several allies, spent more than a year negotiating a community benefits agreement with FCRC. The agreement was to provide poor and working-class people with more affordable housing, more cultural activities and more jobs. And if ACORN succeeded, it would have triumphed over community opposition and reaffirmed itself as a serious political force in the city. At a press conference on May 19, 2005, ACORN, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Ratner announced that an agreement had been reached.

A Community Victory
The centerpiece of the community benefits agreement was the 50 percent set-aside for affordable housing in one of the world’s most expensive cities. The CBA would also provide job opportunities and other services for low-income residents – from hiring to contracting to day care services. Twenty percent of the rental units was earmarked for low-income households and 30 percent for middle-income households (see sidebar below). Rent payments would be subsidized by the New York City Housing Development Corporation, a state public-benefit corporation which plans to use a combination of bonds and reserves from investments to finance the subsidies.

The plan, developed by ACORN’s housing expert, Ismene Speliotis, sets rents at 30 percent of the household’s income. Speliotis even insisted that ACORN be given the responsibility of marketing the units. (Another point of contention for critics.) “Nobody is going to care as much as ACORN that the appropriate people are marketed to, reached and housed,” says Speliotis.

To keep the displacement rate low, the agreement stipulates that displaced property owners will be fairly compensated and that displaced tenants will be given a new, comparable apartment at their existing rent in the new complex. Minority-owned and women-owned construction firms will receive 20 percent and 10 percent (respectively) of the construction contracts, and public housing residents and low-income people from the immediate area would have priority for any jobs.

The seven other signatories of the agreement were Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, the All-Faith Council of Brooklyn, First Atlantic Terminal Housing Committee, Downtown Brooklyn Education Consortium, Public Housing Communities and the New York State Association of Minority Contractors.

ACORN believes this deal will have a domino effect, that the agreement can be used as a model to show other developers that the interests and needs of the local community can be served.

Despite the unprecedented agreement, some wondered whether they had compromised too much. Was this the best agreement ACORN could have gotten? Lewis and other ACORN leaders decided that building affordable housing was worth it. Lewis, speaking to a New York City reporter, said “…that when you take all of it together, this is a net gain for Brooklyn especially, and for New York City.”

Controlling Gentrification
To Lewis the battle is really about who will benefit from accelerated gentrification in Brooklyn. She believes that some degree of gentrification is inevitable, given the housing pressures facing Manhattan and with more professionals putting down roots in the other boroughs.

Moreover, Lewis believes ACORN’s plan will result in a mix of upscale, middle-income and poor people. Neighborhoods that only have the very poor – or what sociologists call “high poverty” areas – have the worst schools and public services, as well as the highest crime rates. The question is whether a neighborhood can be “improved” without its long-term low-income residents being pushed out.

ACORN is betting that by expanding the overall number of both market-rate and subsidized housing units in the area it will help end the tug-of-war between the poor and professional class for the existing housing stock. And by creating 15,000 new jobs that will provide low-income residents with living wages, Atlantic Yards will ultimately help improve the lives of Brooklyn’s poor and working-class residents.

While Brooklyn has become the place of choice for many upscale households, more than 20 percent of its two and half million residents live below the poverty line. In a place where the working poor and middle class are already being driven out by rent gouging and gentrification, arguments from the gentrifying class about its right to preserve its neighborhood are not very compelling.

Pragmatism vs. Radicalism
For 35 years ACORN has tried to mix political pragmatism and radical ideas. Unlike ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum, ACORN knows that the perfect is often the enemy of the good. It understands the art of compromise, but only after pushing the limits by mobilizing its grassroots base through confrontation and protest. “Rather than wait until something happens to us,” says Lewis, “we go out and help shape the results.”

If ACORN had joined the opposition, it was unlikely the Atlantic Yards deal would prevail. Instead, ACORN (the activist, poor people’s organization) and Ratner (the rich developer) found a way to work together for the common good. “We’ve been in that community for 22 years,” Lewis says. It’s ACORN’s mission to protect it.

At the end of 2005, the Atlantic Yards development is a long way from fruition. There’s still the state environmental review, the Public Authorities Control Board approval and, of course, more community opposition. And if Atlantic Yards gets built, ACORN will need all of its muscle to ensure that promises are fulfilled and the poor are protected.


How the Deal Breaks Down

Twenty percent (900 units) would be reserved for families making less than $31,400 a year. Of that group, 136 units would be reserved for families making less than $25,120 a year.

Thirty percent (1,350 units) would be reserved for families with incomes up to $100,480, for a four-person household.

The units will be allocated to five income tiers – very low income, low income, moderate income, low middle and high middle – making them available to families not adequately served by existing subsidy programs.

Most of the middle-income units will be devoted to households earning significantly less than the maximum the city allows and will limit rents to 30 percent of household income.

Usually, the city’s New Housing Opportunity Program apartments are open to renters earning up to 175 percent of area median income or, averaging for household size, about $94,500. According to the agreement, the cap was lowered to 160 percent, and possibly as low as 140 percent, depending on project financing and market conditions.

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Facing the Opposition

Since the 1940s New Yorkers, especially minorities and the poor, have watched politically connected developers and public officials tear down neighborhoods to build cultural centers, office complexes, luxury apartments, public housing and superhighways. Therefore, it is not surprising that the ACORN-Ratner alliance still has to face many area residents, advocates and elected officials who, for a variety of reasons, oppose Ratner’s plan. They cite environmental concerns, traffic gridlock, displacement, wasteful government spending and the abuse of eminent domain as good reasons why the project should not proceed.

Among the most vocal opponents is Leticia James, a city councilwoman who represents two of the affected neighborhoods – Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. James won an overwhelming 77 percent of the vote on the pro-jobs, union-backed Working Families Party ticket – the party created in part by ACORN and whose co-chair is Bertha Lewis, a major proponent of the project.

James describes her district as a tapestry. “Low-, moderate- and middle-income families are what constitute [this] district. We’ve got million dollar brownstones, African Americans, Caribbean, a large Orthodox community, Hispanic community, white community, gay, straight, old, young, everybody.” While she praises the agreement with ACORN in theory, she opposes the project because it’s too large to be in the middle of a low-rise, brownstone community. “Organizations involved with affordable housing,” says James, “do not build high-rise apartment buildings anymore. They realize that people want housing on a human scale where children can play in a yard and neighbors can look out for each other.”

Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), another vocal opponent of the Atlantic Yards project, agrees that the size of the project is too massive for this community. A member of DDDB, Jon Crow, told The New York Times, “Office towers, high-rise towers, sports arenas, that’s not a community. Brooklyn doesn’t want to be Manhattan. If we wanted Manhattan, we’d live there.”

City councilman Charles Barron is more concerned about the proposed rent formula. He complains that rents will be too high because the formulas used to set the rent levels are based on median income statistics for the New York City region, which are much higher than the incomes of most Brooklynites. The effect, says Barron, is that too many of the below market units will go to households with high incomes.

Then there is the issue of eminent domain and displacement. While Ratner originally announced that only a hundred people would have their homes taken by eminent domain, DDDB conducted a door-to-door survey that found the number to be closer to 850. Salvatore Perry, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years, believes the use of eminent domain is unfair. “This is an abuse of eminent domain. If they can take my home under these pretenses, they can anyone’s,” he says. Perry and fellow homeowners say there is no excuse for government to take their property just so a big time developer who makes large campaign contributions can run roughshod over their property rights.

In the midst of the battle over Atlantic Yards, on July 23, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that local governments may force property owners to sell, to make way for private economic development, when city officials decide it would benefit the public, even if the property is not blighted and the new project’s success is not guaranteed. The 5 to 4 ruling gave state and local governments wide latitude for using eminent domain for urban revitalization and as a result condo owners and others facing displacement are not likely to prevail if they sue Ratner and the city.

Opponents of the project are not waiting quietly. DDDB monitors the activity and progress of the project and provides regular updates on its website, www.developdontdestroy.org. Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development in Brooklyn, which opposes certain aspects of the project, conducted a preliminary planning assessment of the project that analyzed the overall impact on the community – including housing, jobs, schools, traffic and safety. (www.prattcenter.net/pubs/bay-report.pdf.)

The Atlantic Yards project is constantly changing. New developments with the design, or even the number of housing units, leave one to wonder what the end result will be. Whatever it is, ACORN, with its long history of winning victories on behalf of Brooklyn’s poor, will play a role in shaping the outcome. It has the advantage of being the only local Brooklyn group linked with and supported by an effective and successful national organization. It also has an enduring base of local dues paying members and a long history of winning victories on behalf of Brooklyn’s poor. As Lewis said, “It seems to me that a lot of organizations have come and gone. Our mission in life and who we are is about protecting that community.” Lewis promised more demonstrations of community support in the future.

J.A.

John Atlas is a found of Shelterforce and board chair emeritus. He is the producer of ACORN and the Firestorm, a film directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard and author of SEEDS OF CHANGE: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. He is also the former executive director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society.

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