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Central Brooklyn: A Not-So-Instant Replay


For More on the Special Elections:

• Staten Island’s North Shore
• Staten’s Island South Shore

Last month, Mathieu Eugene, a Haitian born doctor who runs a youth services agency, seemingly won this City Council seat from Central Brooklyn, capturing about a third of the vote in a field of 10 candidates. He was all set to take his place as the council’s first Haitian member when reports circulated that he lived in Canarsie, far outside the district’s boundaries.

In the comedy of errors that followed, Mathieu Eugene seemed to offer different accounts of when he moved where. Finally, after being certified the winner by the Board of Elections, he himself asked for a new election. Mayor Michael Bloomberg complied, with the vote now scheduled for April 24.

Special elections for City Council are far more open than those for legislature. They are essentially nonpartisan contests, with any candidate who can collect enough signatures getting a place on the ballot. As of last week’s filing deadline, five candidates submitted petitions to run for this open City Council seat: Mathieu Eugene, Harry Schiffman and Wellington Sharpe, who both ran in February’s election, and two newcomers – Darly Brutus and Marie Gina Faustin. While Eugene was the sole Haitian candidate in February’s election, both Faustin and Brutus are reportedly Haitian as well. Little seem to be known about Brutus, but Faustin is a television personality. And in what some could view as a case of dĂ©jĂ  vu all over again, she not does not live in the 40th district. In fact she does not even live in Brooklyn but in Cambria Heights, Queens. Faustin has said her children attend public school in the district and that she will move there by Election Day as the law, generally regarded as rather murky, seems to require.

Wellington Sharpe, a family counselor, is founder and president of a private company, the Nelrak Child Development Center. A member of Community Board 17, he has served on the boards of many community groups and been politically active, including running unsuccessfully for State Senate. Harry Schiffman is director of government and community relations for Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center and has also been active with many community groups.

Whatever happens, the voting is not over for residents of this area in and around Flatbush. Whoever wins next month, assuming he or she actually takes their seat, could face a party primary in September and a general election opponent in November – on what is generally considered Election Day.

 

Staten Island’s North Shore: A Heated Three-Way Contest


For More on the Special Elections:

• Staten’s Island South Shore
• Central Brooklyn

UPDATE: Matthew Titone won the special election, becoming Staten Island's first openly gay public official. According to unofficial returns, in an election marked by low turnout, Titone, an attorney, received 49 percent of the vote, compared to 32 percent for Rose Margarella, the Republican and Conservative Party candidate, and 19 percent for Independence Party candidate Kelvin Alexander, who was seeking to become Staten Island's first black elected public official.

The race to succeed John Lavelle, the longtime member of the Assembly who died this winter, could give Staten Island some political firsts. But in the meantime, the race has developed some nasty undertones.

The contest features three candidates: Democrat Matthew Titone, who also has the Working Families Party endorsement; Republican Rose Margarella, who will also appear on the Conservative Party line; and Kelvin Alexander, the Independence Party candidate.

If elected, Matthew Titone would be the first openly gay legislator from the island; Kelvin Alexander, a retired police sergeant who works as an aide to Brooklyn State Senator Eric Adams, seeks to become the borough’s first black elected official.

Attorney Matthew Titone got the Democratic Party’s nod – highly valued in this Democratic district – after what the Staten Island Advance described as “a contentious six-hour” convention.” While party chair John Gulino trumpeted the event as “the democratic process at work,” an ally of one of the failed candidates termed it “a sad day for democracy.”

The acrimony has not faded.

Kelvin Alexander tried to form a new political party called the Family First Party just for the election. Matthew Titone objected, charging that family was “anti-gay code.” “When did it start happening on Staten Island that being a family man became a bad thing?” Alexander countered. In the face of a challenge from Titone, the Board of Elections threw the Family First Party off the ballot, on the grounds that many of the signatures on Alexander's petition were invalid. Alexander has said this was part of an effort to disenfranchise black voters, and is now running only on the Indpendence Party line.

Republicans hope that all this will give Rose Margarella, a school teacher, the opportunity to pick up the seat.

All three candidates cite transportation congestion as a key concern, with Matthew Titone looking to improve bus service and Rose Margarella saying she would work to get funding for a North Shore rail line. Kelvin Alexander would increase the number of bus routes between Staten Island and New Jersey so the island's commuters could have access to rail service into Manhattan.

Both Rose Margarella and Matthew Titone cite education, including class size and getting a fair share of funds for Staten Island schools, as a key issue. While Margarella supports Governor Eliot Spitzer's plan to give parents who send their children to private or parochial schools $1,000 education tax credit, Titone opposes it, saying it is similar to a voucher. Kelvin Alexander wants a new high school on Staten Island with an emphasis on trade programs for students not going to college.

Matthew Titone and Rose Margarella disagree about gay marriage, with Titone in favor of it and Margarella saying “As your assemblywoman, I will oppose any legislation that threatens the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.”

 

Staten Island's South Shore: Mulia, Tobacco and Tabacco


For More on the Special Elections:

• Staten Island’s North Shore
•Central Brooklyn

UPDATE: Republican Lou Tobacco won the special election with 70 percent of the counted vote. The unofficial returns did not include any votes cast for write-in candidate Todd Tabacco. Turnout was reportd to be low.

Voters on Staten Island’s South Shore may do a double take when they enter the voting both on Tuesday. The same candidate – John Mulia – appears on the Democratic, Conservative and Independence party lines. He is facing Lou Tobacco, who must content himself with one ballot line – the Republican one. But given the generally Republican politics of this district, that one line could be enough.

John Mulia is a registered member of the Conservative Party. But he says that, if elected, he will caucus with the Assembly’s Democratic majority “for the benefit of the people in the district.” The South Shore has had Republicans representing it in the Assembly for 25 years, Mulia said, and because of the way Albany works, has not been able to get its fair share from the state.

Traffic is the issue of biggest concern in the district, according to John Mulia, with residents of the area having among the longest commutes in the nation. He would work to get road improvements and repairs and would like to see another rail line on the island “up and running.”

On other issues, John Mulia is concerned that Staten Island will not get its “fair share” of the increase in state money for education in New York City. He also cited issues involving senior citizens as a priority and said he would work for laws to bring down the cost of medications for older residents.

Lou Tobacco is a pharmaceutical sales representative. If elected, he has said he would try to reduce taxes in the state and get a veterans cemetery built on Staten Island. In an effort to give the outnumbered Republicans in the Assembly a bit more clout, he would work to allow the ranking minority member of an Assembly committee to call hearings. Tobacco wants to see the death penalty restored in New York and would crack down further on sexual predators, including requiring repeat offenders to wear tracking devices.

But beyond concern about education, congestion and crime, the question of where Lou Tobacco has lived has emerged as a campaign issue. He lives in the district now – and was raised on Staten Island – but between January and June 2006, he reportedly lived in Arizona. The state constitution requires legislators to live in their districts for at least a full calendar year before the election. Tobacco, a former president of the Totenville Civic Association, said that he feared being laid off from his job in New York and went to work in Arizona for a while. But he didn't like the Southwest and was "homesick," so returned after several months.

A third candidate – Todd Tabacco (with an a) has entered the race as a write-in candidate. If he wins, Tabacco, who works for a financial firm, would be the first write-in candidate ever elected to the New York State Assembly.

 

Atlantic Yards: A “Done Deal?”


The Atlantic Yards megaproject proposed by Forest City Ratner in Brooklyn had all the appearances of a “done deal” when it was first announced almost three years ago. Brooklyn’s biggest developer boasted solid support from Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. Basketball fans applauded the plan to build an arena for the Nets, the professional team owned by developer Bruce Ratner. And many advocates for affordable housing cheered Forest City Ratner’s pledge that half of the new housing packed into 16 giant towers would be “affordable.”

The general feeling among Manhattan-centric urban policy pundits seemed to be that Atlantic Yards was just a harmless piece of Manhattan-like development opposed only by a small group of narrow-minded Brooklyn brownstoners, and that, as Errol Louis of the Daily News has written more than once, the opponents would do best “to accept the reality of the plan.”

Indeed, in the beginning of March, the New York Post, in an article entitled Ratner Readies Wrecking Ball, reported that the developer plans to demolish 12 buildings, on Pacific and Dean Streets, and Flatbush and Vanderbilt Avenues, “as he revs up efforts to being building his $4 billion Atlantic Yards project.”

But a new film, Brooklyn Matters, uncovers a deepening vein of displeasure with the project that spans a wide political spectrum, in Manhattan as well as Brooklyn, among community leaders and urban planners. In addition to the “resignation and bitter apathy” referred to by Brooklyn resident Jennifer Egan in her recent New York Times op-ed essay, there seems to be a warehouse of active resistance and also a minefield of new obstacles. Three new lawsuits against the project will tie the project up for a while. The Spitzer administration is looking closely at this and a host of other Pataki deals that left mushrooming public costs. Critics are attempting to expose the affordable housing package as something of a front for what they say is really a massive luxury project. And now community groups are working on expanding their own plan for the area that sets aside Ratner’s vision.

Brooklyn Matters

The film Brooklyn Matters was produced and directed by independent filmmaker Isabel Hill, who a decade ago produced a documentary entitled Made in Brooklyn, which took a critical look at the city government’s planning and zoning policies that undermine productive industrial areas. For the new documentary, Hill says she had hoped to include spokespeople for Forest City Ratner, but the developer did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. However, Bertha Lewis of ACORN, a housing advocacy group that supports the project, is interviewed in the film, as are other supporters, and many are shown in action at heated public forums. The urban planners and architects who voice their opinions include former city Planning Commissioner Ron Shiffman, architectural critic Paul Goldberger, and me.

Despite the impression that attitudes toward the project split along racial lines -- blacks supporting it and whites opposing it -- the film makes clear there are eloquent people of color in the opposition, from activist Bob Law to Councilmembers Letitia James and Charles Barron.

There are in fact unexpected harmonies among the diverse opposition chorus shown in the film. Julia Vitullo-Martin of the conservative Manhattan Institute (director of its Center for Rethinking Development) lashes out at the enormous density of the project and its failure to connect with the surrounding neighborhoods. Kent Barwick of the liberal Municipal Art Society blasts the use of eminent domain to transfer ownership of viable developed properties to a single large developer. Both left and right now seem to agree that this project is too large and dense (it would be the densest in the city), and that state officials are both abusing the government’s condemnation powers by using them to favor one powerful developer, and overriding the city’s normal public review process.

What this has meant is that the only opportunity for local residents and businesses to comment publicly on the project was through the environmental review process, mandated under state law. But this review was found in a report by the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, a coalition of over 40 local groups, to be “insufficient in both process and substance.” There were only two public hearings – one in October of 2005 on what is called the “Scope of Analysis” for the environmental review (basically the outline of potential project impacts that would have to be analyzed), and one to receive public comments on the “Draft Environmental Impact Statement,” over 4,000 pages of detailed, highly technical analysis, which was held in August of last year, when many residents were on vacation and community boards were in recess. Those who missed that public hearing may find both entertaining and shocking the footage in Brooklyn Matters, in which hordes of hard hats from throughout the region shout down requests by neighborhood leaders for more time to evaluate the project’s impacts, and ACORN’s troops joined the chorus.

Despite many appeals for changes to the plan – including calls by many project supporters for a reduction in size -- this did not happen.

The Disappearing Affordable Housing

For those on the liberal side of the spectrum, the developer’s promise of 50 percent affordable housing was certainly a most compelling one. No private developer has ever made such a huge pledge. It is understandable why ACORN, one of the largest advocates for affordable housing in the nation, would accept the developer’s invitation to sign a contract – a Community Benefits Agreement – that promised its support in exchange for the developer’s commitment.

Michelle de la Uz, director of Fifth Avenue Committee, one of Brooklyn’s largest non-profit affordable housing developers, tells Brooklyn Matters how, within weeks of the announcement of the benefits agreement, the developer added more residential units to their project in a way that reduced the percentage of affordable units to about 30 pecent. Then the developer defined “affordable” so liberally that it included a huge swath of “moderate-income” households that would be making far more than the median income for Brooklyn. In fact, less than 14 percent of the apartments in the proposed development would be affordable to households making less than the median income.

Three Court Cases and the UNITY Workshop

Opposition groups have filed one lawsuit and two more are lined up and ready to go. This may create more problems even should Forest City Ratner eventually prevail in court, since “market timing” may force the developer to alter its plan or postpone its completion indefinitely. Landscape Architect Laurie Olin, who was hired to make the project’s interior courtyards look as if they were public open space, recently told the New York Observer he thought it could be 20 years before the project is completed, twice as long as projected.

Forest City Ratner has requested permits to demolish buildings it owns in the area, even though it cannot build the first phase of the project, including the arena, as long as the project is tied up in court. Demolition might help Forest City Ratner create “facts on the ground” that favor eventual implementation of the project. But the history of giant urban renewal projects like this one is telling. New York City, including downtown Brooklyn, has had many large urban renewal areas that remained vacant eyesores for decades after they were cleared for redevelopment. Forty years after the clearance of the Hoyt-Schermerhorn Urban Renewal Area in Boerum Hill, the vacant sites are just now being built on.

Meanwhile, neighborhood residents are also thinking long-term. The UNITY Plan (which stands for Understanding, Imagining and Transforming the Yards) was developed three years ago as an alternative plan after workshops sponsored by Councilmember Letitia James and coordinated by architect Marshall Brown. Brown, along with Ron Shiffman and I, are convening a series of workshops to update and expand the plan, so that it covers areas that are being blighted as Forest City Ratner buys and vacates properties. To the people attending the UNITY Workshops, Brooklyn matters, and nothing is a done deal until it is done.

Tom Angotti is professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

Housing's Impact: Need For New Research


Four seemingly disconnected announcements made news in housing in February. First, the city announced it would open the waiting list for Section 8 that has been closed for well over a decade. The long lines at housing authority offices for applications reflect the great need for housing help; the 22,000 vouchers will not come close to addressing it. Second, Starrett City, a housing complex in Brooklyn built with financing provided by the state’s Mitchell-Lama program, was sold for $1.3 billion (the sale is not final and requires state and federal approval). That was barely a month after Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, a large complex of mainly rent stabilized apartments set a record for real estate sales when it fetched $5.4 billion. Third, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced she would pursue a tax credit for renters and passage of a new law to allow tenants to sue their landlords in housing court for harassment.

The fourth announcement came from the MacArthur Foundation and sort of links all of these things together: The foundation will commit $25 million over five years to finance housing research – specifically aimed at shifting the debate on housing. The research would help advocates, policymakers, politicians and others develop a larger understanding of why housing is so important –--and, consequently, why public policy on housing requires a new sense of urgency.

Housing Research Gets a Big Boost

In 1968, an advisory panel to then president Richard Nixon recommended creating a housing allowance program that would help low-income families pay their rents. It seemed a risky idea to many people. Among many concerns, one stood out: It would drive up rents – landlords would just raise rents if government helped people pay.

But the Experimental Housing Allowance Program was a success. “There was a lot of debate at the time,” said Ingrid Ellen, director of the Furman Institute for Real Estate at New York University. But research showed “there wasn’t much of an effect on housing prices. That research is probably the best research out there to this day, and it paved the way for the Section 8 program.”

Doing more research is critical to understand just how housing impacts people’s lives and to develop new housing policy. And now is the time to undertake new research, said MacArthur Foundation President Jonathan Fanton when he announced the foundation would spend $25 million to fund research on housing issues over the next five years.

“It seems to me that a policy ‘window’ is opening,” Fanton told an avid audience when he announced the new initiative. “It is easier now than at any time in recent memory to imagine that critical financial and regulatory barriers to preserving and improving affordable housing will be overcome.”

More research would help everyone working on housing issues modify existing efforts and design innovative new approaches, Fanton said. It probably was not coincidental that he announced the initiative in New York City, and he pointed to the city’s housing acquisition fund, $200 million raised by the city to help finance affordable housing efforts, as a model new approach. The MacArthur Foundation has committed $5 million to the fund.

But the foundation’s effort is aiming for a more profound shift in how people think about housing.

“We need a new theory about how housing matters, and why it is a critical path toward other individual and community improvements to which we aspire,” Fanton said. “And that new theory must be more than a field of dreams; it must be built on high quality research that yields evidence to persuade across the political spectrum.

“Better and more knowledge about housing as it relates to schools, jobs, health, and economic growth will significantly change attitudes among policymakers and the public at large.”

The foundation’s announcement thrilled researchers.

“That’s outstanding, very exciting news,” said Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania, whose research is frequently cited in housing policy circles. Last year, when the city and state announced the third New York/New York agreement to build supportive housing, Culhane’s research showing that such housing is very cost effective was a persuasive piece.

“Housing is one of the most understudied issues in social policy,” Culhane continued. “It’s primarily an issue of resources. Health care and medicine has the National Institutes of Health, the physical sciences have the National Science Foundation, but the social sciences have very limited resources within NSF.”

Culhane went on to say that although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development finances housing research, most of its research budget is eaten up producing its annual housing vacancy survey.

Research is critical, Ellen said, to not only rethinking housing policy but to making current housing policy efficient and effective.

“Research can only point our policies to be more effective,” she said. “It’s almost irresponsible to spend money on policies that don’t have the effects we think they’ll have.”

The MacArthur Foundation is clearly seeking to push research of the connections between housing and family and community health, broadly speaking, but there are lots of areas ripe for study, a panel including the city’s housing commissioner said after Fanton’s remarks.

“There has been a fundamental shift in the challenge of abandonment to the challenge of affordability,” said Shaun Donovan, the city’s housing commissioner. “The challenge for housing policy has more and more shifted away from this problem of urban revitalization to the fundamental challenge of housing affordability. The more the research can be focused on that, the better.”

“We don’t really know much about the role of housing in the lives of children and families and communities,” said Sandee Newman, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “To put it another way, we don’t really know how improving housing carries with it benefits above and beyond the value of the housing itself.”

Newman divided housing research into five categories:

  • Physical quality of housing
  • Crowding
  • Affordability
  • Subsidized housing
  • Home ownershi

“The good news is that in the last ten to 20 years we’ve started to build that base of knowledge,” she said. “The bad news is we have a long way to go.”

Given the financial means, researchers pointed to a number of areas for new research efforts.

“There are lots of areas where we could use a lot more evidence in ways that we could shape policy,” Ellen said. For example, “we don’t really what drives segregation” in housing.

“We’d like to know if we just provided someone with a voucher with housing location assistance, maybe we can open up new worlds to them…. We have no idea if (location assistance) makes any difference.”

The MacArthur Foundation and many researchers are clearly interested in knowing more about the fundamental impact housing has on families, children and entire communities. How important, for example, is housing to a child’s success at school? Does housing stability affect people’s health?

“That is precisely the direction it should go in because we all know from a common sense perspective that we wouldn’t live just anywhere or have our children randomly assigned to neighborhoods,” Culhane said. “We know intuitively that place matters. But social research has not really figured out how to elucidate those impacts.”

And Culhane said the dramatic impacts on policy that the foundation is seeking are clearly possible.

“Behavior is a function of the person and the environment, but virtually all the research today has been on the person and not the environment,” he said. “And I think that’s partly because the tools and the data we have have been very limited.

“Part of what the challenge will be for this new generation of research will be identifying new types of data, new methods of measurement and things that are longitudinal in nature that show impact over a lifetime.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

 

Bigger Media, Less Local Democracy


“Give me another issue where the American Civil Liberties Union is working with the National Rifle Association; where you get MoveOn.org agreeing with the Christian Coalition,” Eric Klinenberg was saying in his office in the Puck Building. “When you get these extremes of the American political spectrum -- plus everybody in-between -- coming together on an issue, then it’s time to pay attention to it.”

The issue to which he was referring is media consolidation – the gobbling up by big corporations of newspapers, TV stations and radio stations. According to Professor Klinenberg, who teaches sociology at New York University, there is only one group that seems uninterested: “Major media companies do not cover this issue. They have proven incapable of covering themselves.”

Klinenberg focuses on the issue in a new book, “Fighting for Air: The Battle To Control America’s Media,” which seems itself to be getting plenty of attention, from Philadelphia to Chicago, Nashville to Seattle. We thought we would see what he had to say about New York City. An edited transcript follows:

Gotham Gazette: There is a sentence in your book, Fighting for Air, that sums up what it’s about: “Just as Starbucks knocked out independent coffee shops and Wal-Mart killed the corner store, media conglomerates have devastated locally produced newspapers, television stations, and radio programs throughout the country.” You say this threatens both cultural diversity and democracy. How so?

Eric Klinenberg: We’re not getting news about the places where we live and we’re not hearing local voices on the air.

There are newspapers across the country that have pulled out their City Hall reporters; that cut their school board beats or their environmental reporters. It’s not as if our local school boards no longer shape the quality of our children’s education. It’s not as if there are no more polluting corporations. It’s just that we don’t necessarily get the news coverage of them that we need to make informed decisions…

Television newscasts were better 20 years ago. You see more commercials now, more teasers, longer weather reports. One study of more than 4,000 local evening news broadcasts in the month leading up to Election Day in 2004 revealed that a mere eight percent of the broadcasts ran a story about a local political race, including campaigns for the U.S. Congress.

As for diversity, one of the most alarming trends in our broadcast system is the recent decline of minority and female station owners -- people who in many cases got licenses for the explicit purpose of doing cultural and civic affairs programming for communities that large corporations neglected. But they just can't compete with the Clear Channels of the industry, which sell package advertising at deep discounts, own live concert venues, and even own the syndicated programs that more than half of all commercial radio stations play.

Research shows that the larger the owner of a radio station, the less diverse its playlist -- compared to both its programming under the previous owner and to other stations in the same market. Big radio companies operate in top-down fashion. They want national market researchers finding music that appeals to the lowest common denominator, not local DJs selecting music that they like because it's interesting, innovative, and exciting. Local radio DJ’s are struggling everywhere to find jobs.

Big Media And New York City

Gotham Gazette: In New York City, there is no Wal-Mart, and there are still plenty of places to have an over-caloried coffee besides Starbucks (though there are more than 170 Starbucks in the city, and counting.) How is media consolidation affecting New York City in particular?

Klinenberg: Truly local coverage has become a luxury good. So the wealthiest cities are still getting a decent supply of local information. New York is the most competitive media market I know of. People in Los Angeles and Chicago envy New York for the diversity of its local news.

Gotham Gazette: But a lot of New Yorkers, especially community advocates, neighborhood activists, complain all the time about the lack of coverage of local issues.

Klinenberg: Yeah, well, it’s an enormous city. I’m not saying that every community is adequately covered. My point is: As we look across American cities and communities, we find that local information about them has become more of a luxury good.

But New York is not immune from this pressure of consolidation.

Radio Commercials.
The New York City music radio market has changed dramatically in the last ten years.

People here get the same formats and the same kinds of music that are available everywhere else, with the same increase in commercials that have driven many of us off the dial.

Cable Rates.
Probably the most frustrating aspect of consolidation in New York is the cable television industry. Most New Yorkers don’t have a choice about cable; it’s a non-competitive part of the marketplace.

As a result, the cost of cable television has skyrocketed. Rates have gone up higher for Cablevision subscribers than for anyone else. And we are paying for channels we never watch.

 

The Death Of Alt?
The other dramatic story has to do with the transformation of the alt weeklies. The Village Voice is now managed by two libertarians from Phoenix, Arizona. They merged New Times with Village Voice Media, they took the name, Village Voice Media, but the controlling party are these two from Phoenix. They came to town, they fired veterans, they imposed conditions that were so difficult for others that they resigned, they lost an editor. In the view of many veterans at the Voice, they crushed the spirits of the newspaper and tried to impose a style whose fit for the city remains open to question. For example, many people at the Voice were concerned that there was a political purge, that [co-owner] Michael Lacey wanted to take the progressive voice out of the Village Voice. The Village Voice long ago lost its tight connection to Greenwich Village. It became a New York institution and somewhat of a national institution as well, but it’s always had this distinctly alternative voice, and the voice of Michael Lacey and the new Village Voice management is alternative only insofar as frat boy contrarianism of the kind that we associate with the party that’s in power right now is an alternative; in my view that’s not very alternative at all.

Gotham Gazette: This is on the basis of your reading the issues since the new owners took over?

Klinenberg: I think we’re still watching the Village Voice change. I’ve been reading the New Times publications for years, and I’ve had countless conversations with former New Times employees, current New Times employees, as well as those with other alternative weeklies, about the way that company does business. The standard operating style of the New Times weekly papers was to pare down the editorial staff so that they had fewer full-time reporters than papers like the Village Voice used to have. In the cultural coverage, they have a number of movie reviewers, music reviewers, who do content for all of the Village Voice media chain papers; that means a smaller number of perspectives.

Gotham Gazette: You are talking about what the chain was like before it merged with the Village Voice Media, and you are also talking about what has happened in other cities. I wondered if there is evidence that this has happened here.

Klinenberg: The jury is still out. I haven’t seen the Village Voice replace all the people who resigned or were fired.

Gotham Gazette: I have seen stories though that say they are hiring.

Klinenberg: I see ads.

Gotham Gazette: So, you don’t know for sure yet.

Klinenberg: I’m pretty certain they have not exceeded the number of employees they used to have. The style of management in this company is that you have smaller newsrooms. They have quotas; reporters have to get work out more quickly. Some of the reporters I spoke with [in other Village Voice Media newspapers] complained that when you have to produce reported stories quickly, you’re more likely to go after public companies or non-profits, whose financial information is more readily available, than do deep investigations into the private sector.

Gotham Gazette: So, to sum up: The effects of consolidation have been most dramatic nationally with radio and newspapers. In New York City, the effects are most seen in radio as well…

Klinenberg: They’re heard in radio.

Gotham Gazette: Yes, heard in radio. The other effects locally are in the cost of cable TV and possibly in the alternative newspaper, by which you mean the Village Voice.

Klinenberg: Yes, but I would add one thing: The mainstream newspaper industry has not been unaffected. I’m sure you follow the story of the Tribune company’s management of the Daily News, sorry, Newsday.

Gotham Gazette: The Tribune company actually owned the Daily News in the past.

Klinenberg: Which is why sometimes I make that slip. But they fired more than 100 reporters at Newsday. The staff recently wrote collectively a letter to the Tribune company, saying that you’re destroying the quality of journalism that made this paper important. So newspaper reporters in New York are experiencing a version of what’s happened to reporters in Los Angeles, just on a smaller scale.

Is Big Necessarily Bad?

Gotham Gazette: I want to show you what’s written on a soda cup from a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant: “Chipotle, Unchained

“According to various media reports, Chipotle is now a ‘chain.’ (We thought we were just a burrito joint.) It simply means we have a lot of restaurants. But we’re aware of the negative connotation of that word…and we’re intent on disproving it by acting un-chain-like. Because big can be good…Because of our size, we can influence for the better how livestock is raised….We also buy organic pinto and black beans…because we’re buying so many, we’re helping to increase the supply. All that means better food for you. So, size does matter.”

I should point out that the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain is owned by McDonald’s, so they are being a little coy here, if not outright misleading.

But still, what about their argument -- what’s so bad about big?

Klinenberg: What I’m most concerned about is uncompetitive media marketplaces. Big might not be bad, if by big you meant big journalistic staffs, big studios filled with all the live djs and reporters. But what we are seeing is big companies downsizing -- reducing the number of live local human beings producing original content. So in my view we’re getting big companies, small journalism… We once considered local news and information to be necessary for democracy in this country; we have a profoundly local political system.

Fragmented, And Neglected

Gotham Gazette: Is there an argument that just as in Europe , we’re becoming more one culture where regional differences are smoothing out and there is such a thing as an American or national culture and society? Is it actually making us more united as a people when the people in Atlanta are reading the same statements from Barack Obama as the people in Chicago?

Klinenberg: I have the reverse interpretation -- that the era of the mass society in the United States is actually in decline; that culturally, we’re fragmented….

In the last 25 years there has been a political shift in this country that involves more political power delegated to state governments. The corporate communities have figured that out, which is why they have made unprecedented investment in lobbying at the state level. If you go to any state capital in this country today, you can see the whole landscape has transformed with fancy hotels, big chain restaurants; it’s an elite scene now.

At the same time the corporate community and lobbyists raced to the state house, the newspaper industry and the radio reporters were going out the other side of the revolving door. Media companies pulled out their investment in this kind of state coverage. And here we have this incredible paradox. There are more significant political decisions taking place in the state capitals, and we have fewer journalists covering that information.

A Change In The Culture?

Gotham Gazette: In the book you attribute a lot of the problems to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. How much can you blame on that single law, and how much is it a change in the culture, and in technology?

Klinenberg: It depends on the industry.

Until 1996 it was illegal for any company to own more than four radio stations in a single market and it was illegal for any company to own more than 40 radio stations nationally. And that meant that by definition, this was a relatively small business. The radio industry was dominated by mom and pop players. There were some big companies that had big radio stations, but it was a highly competitive industry. After 1996, the Telecommunications Act raised the local ownership cap to eight in the largest markets, and eliminated the cap altogether nationally. What happened is that in the next two years, 40 percent of America’s commercial radio stations changed hands. That’s a staggering number. And a small number of companies (basically three) emerged as the true giants of the field, including Clear Channel, which went from 40 stations to more than 1200 in four years.

Radio changed as a result, for the worse.

Gotham Gazette: What about the argument that the large companies have actually saved some local newspapers from going under – and that the cutbacks are about survival in a changed environment?

Klinenberg: These businesses are tremendously profitable. Newspapers have profit margins that dwarf other companies. Typical Fortune 500 companies have profit margins of six percent. Newspapers typically have 30 percent. You’ll have a hard time persuading me to feel sorry for the owners of newspapers.

Media companies are arguing that they’re losing audience because of changes in technology. I’m arguing they’re also losing audience because of their business model – to get rid of local content. Radio broadcasters turned off a generation of radio listeners, who may now not go back.

Countertrends

Gotham Gazette: You talk about counter-trends to the homogenization of media, such as so-called pirate radio stations – whose motto is “Low Power to the People” – and the Internet. Do these leave you hopeful?

Klinenberg: There’s no doubt we have access to more information. But all the evidence shows that there is not more information available on the local level. You can read about South Africa on your computer. That won’t help you make decisions in your neighborhood, in the city, or in the state. No matter how cosmopolitan we are, no matter how global we aspire to be, in my view we all live, ultimately, local lives. When our schools are bad, our children suffer. When our hospitals are bad, it affects our health.

Gotham Gazette: What about hyperlocal media, or what’s being called citizen journalism?

At this point, I would like to do what Kurt Anderson does in New York Magazine and give a full disclosure notice that’s actually an exercise in self-promotion. Your book devotes several complimentary pages to Gotham Gazette as the example of “innovative Internet journalistic projects”, calling it “a remarkably rich publication” and Jonathan Mandell its “tireless editor.”

Klinenberg: I love the Gotham Gazette. I read it every morning. Gotham Gazette would be a sliver of itself were it not for all the local news organizations full of professional reporters, on whom it relies daily for its information.

I love Gothamist too. The co-founder of that blog told me that if they didn’t have the local press, the whole Gothamist model would fall apart.

Gotham Gazette: But this is the first generation of Internet journalism. When Time Magazine first started, it was basically just a rewrite of the articles in the New York Times. Of course now, they have their own massive independent news operation (despite recent layoffs). If Web sites are starting to make money covering local news, why couldn’t they start sponsoring original reporting?

Klinenberg: In theory, that could happen. But I’m not prepared to say that as newspapers fire reporters, bloggers will make up for it. Are bloggers going to replace investigative reporters? Are bloggers going to report on issues that require technical knowledge of a field? Journalism is a profession that took generations to develop. What they do is not always wanted by powerful people, whether they’re public or private.

Gotham Gazette: It’s not always wanted by regular people either.

Klinenberg: The demand for newspaper journalism is at an unprecedented high, if you include the Web versions of the newspapers.

Gotham Gazette: But do readers really miss the investigative pieces, or are they satisfied with the latest escapade of Paris Hilton? What about the argument that publications and stations are giving their subscribers what they want?

Klinenberg: There are many of us who are not getting what we want. If you’re a radio listener, is what you want 20 minutes of commercials every hour? Do television viewers really want extreme political invective rather than local coverage?

Gotham Gazette: How optimistic are you about the future of local media?

Klinenberg: It depends on whether the major telecommunications companies get their way with Congress, and take control of the Internet, so they can offer faster access to their own sites as well as to those sites that can afford to pay a premium for high-speed delivery. This would mean that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation could pay to make it fast and easy for you to get to one of its Web sites – and could make it impossible for you to get to Gotham Gazette or Gothamist or any other site unable to pay.

If we preserve network neutrality on the Internet, I’ll be much more optimistic. A healthy media is necessary for a healthy democracy.

 

It’s the Development, Stupid, on Staten Island


It would be hard to imagine two political contests more diametrically opposed than the two Special Election races in New York City on February 20. While the Brooklyn race has captured the most press attention with its unwieldy crowd of candidates, complicated ethnic calculations, and laundry list of issues, the Staten Island contest is fairly straightforward.

The election to fill the council seat in the 51st district presents only two candidates – one Democrat and one Republican, even though under city law, the ballot for the special election will not identify either candidate as such. And both candidates agree that one issue – overdevelopment and its effects on the area – overshadows any and all other topics.

In many respects, the 51st represents an anomaly in New York. It is overwhelmingly white, resembles the suburbs more than the city and is one of only three City Council districts represented by a Republican.

Vincent Ignizio hopes to continue that tradition. Currently a member of the State Assembly, he previously worked as chief of staff to Andrew Lanza and has held other staff positions at Staten Island. He said he wants to continue in the tradition of other Staten Island Republicans, such as City Council Minority Leader James Oddo and U.S. Representative Vito Fossella. His opponent, Manny Innamorato, thinks it is time for a change.

EFFECTS OF THE BOOM

Each of the two candidates argues that he is best equipped to deal with the problems created by the area’s population and building boom. Both offer a number of proposals to deal with it. Manny Innamorato would like to see the establishment of a Staten Island Planning Commission that “would be more sensitive and more focused” than the city planning commission. He would seek a number of changes in the way the city issues building permits and questions the granting of some variances that have allowed for new constructions, some of its in inappropriate places or not in keeping with the surrounding community.

Vincent Ignizio points to his work on down zoning as a City Council aide. Zoning for less density, he said, is “a major initiative for curbing overdevelopment” that has sharply reduced the umber of new housing permits issued on Staten Island.

Traffic is inextricably linked with all the new housing. “My commuters have the longest commute in the country for the shortest distance,” Vincent Ignizio said. To provide some relief, he would work for the city and state to arrange ferry service between the South Shore and lower Manhattan. Manny Innamorato would like to see the area’s street completed; much of the planned street grid he says has never been built.

Crowding in schools is also a byproduct of all the new homes, Vincent Ignizio said. He is working with Mayor Michael Bloomberg to develop a new school complex, with grades kindergarten through 12 , on the South Shore.

While development remains at the core of his campaign, Manny Innamorato has also been expressing concern about property taxes. For years, the city property tax rate for homeowners was reasonable, but he said “we’re starting to see that our numbers are creeping up.” If that continues, he worries that people will start to leave the city for New Jersey” and, Innamorato said, that’s the last thing we want to see.”

NAME GAME

Aside from the development debate, one of the biggest controversies in the race has been Emanuele Innamorato’s name. The candidate sought to appear on the ballot as Manny Innamorato, the name by which he says he has been known since high school. When the Board of Elections rebuffed his bid, the candidate took the issue to court. There a state Supreme Court judge ruled in his favor, declaring the ballot should be changed. The Staten Island Advance reported, it will cost the Board of Election $35,000 to make the switch.

THE RACE

In his campaign, Ignizio points to his accomplishments as a City Council aide, helping to bring, preserve open space and limit new construction on Staten Island. He said that as a council aide he worked on the first applications for down zoning and will continue to pursue such policies as a council member.

Innamorato is skeptical. During 30 years of Republican leadership, he said, “overdevelopment has gotten worse. Traffic has gotten worse.” Republicans only acted, he said, when problems reached a “fever pitch.”

So far both candidates have lined up endorsements from members of their party, with Michael Bloomberg and Staten Island Republicans backing Ignizio and Senator Charles Schumer supporting Innamorato. The Independence Party and Working Families Party also support the Democrat. With more than $58,000, Ignizio has raised three times the amount that Manny Innamorato has.

CHANGING PLACES

Vincent Ignizio’s campaign surprises some who question why a politicians would want to give up a seat in the State Assembly – which, dysfunctional or not, is virtually a lifetime tenure -- for a term-limited seat on City Council. Ignizio said he thinks he could do more for his community on the City Council. Being a minority member of the City Council, even when the margin is 48 Democrats to three Republicans, is not the same as being a Republican in the State Assembly, according to Ignizio. “The City Council is a much more progressive body and a much more bipartisan body that the State Assembly,” he said.

A victory by Vincent Ignizio would have an interesting ripple effect. If he wins, there will almost certainly be yet another special election, that one to fill his seat in the legislature.

• • • • •

Vincent Ignizio: A longtime resident of Staten Island’s south shore, Ignizio worked for City Council and served as chief of staff for Andrew Lanza, whose seat he now hopes to fill. He has been a member of the New York State Assembly since 2005. He also serves as chair of Richmond County Republican Party.

Emanuele “Manny” Innamorato: A lifelong resident of Staten Island Inamorato formerly worked for the New York City Department of Transportation. He is now director of technology for the city of Yonkers. Innamorato ran against Vincent Ignizio for the State Assembly in 2004.

 

 

Plan NYC 2030


When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a plan for New York City in the year 2030, he said it was needed because the city will be getting much bigger, the infrastructure will be getting older, and the environment will be at risk. Plan NYC 2030 (or, the way the Office of the Mayor actually writes it, plaNYC) is based on the prediction that in the coming decades there will be a million new residents requiring some 265,000 new housing units.

Only once before has there been something similar – a master plan known as The Plan For New York City, in 1969 – but it was never approved. For the first time in the city’s history, City Hall is focusing on:

• the long-term environmental and health effects of growth (both past and present)
• how the city’s energy and transportation systems can sustain quality of life and new growth
• the potential impacts of global warming.

It remains to be seen, however, whether this unique planning effort is itself sustainable, and will lead to policy changes that last beyond 2008, when voters will elect a new mayor. That will depend on the extent to which the process can include and engage people in the city’s diverse neighborhoods and reflect their needs and aspirations.

Focus on Growth: What If NYC…Shrinks?

The basic premise of PlanNYC2030 is the prediction that there will be another one million residents by the year 2030. Who says so? How do we know? Well, demographers at the NYC Department of City Planning (DCP) say so. How did they figure it out? They did a pretty good job of detailing the way the population changed in recent census periods, breaking it down by age group and borough. They calculated birth, death and migration rates. But to establish the baseline trends – the rates of population change – they used the trends from 1980 to 2005. It just so happens that this period is one of relatively high growth rates, compared to prior decades for example. But they could have gotten the same result by taking a ruler and drawing a straight line on a graph; actually any one of us can do that.

 

Source: PlanNYC2030

DCP’s demographers may be right in projecting continuing growth at the same rate. Or they may be wrong. Global, national and regional trends could shift in unforeseen ways as they have in the past. Migration trends are the most subject to variation. But even if the city’s demographers are right, this is a questionable way of using population projections to do planning.

In the January 2007 issue of Planning Magazine, a publication of the American Planning Association, Chris Williamson notes, “A projection that assumes past development rates will stay on course is really a policy recommendation to continue developing at past rates….If a city plans to a projection, is it also implicitly recommending growth policies for future city councils?”

There is nothing wrong with doing plans to meet projected growth, but the public should know from the start not only what assumptions are made in doing the projections but that the projections would be different under other assumptions. For that reason many planning offices prefer to run several scenarios using different assumptions. Williamson notes, “Planners and others who create and use projections should be aware of the implied assumptions and should prominently list and discuss them rather than let them remain unstated or buried in a technical appendix.” The assumptions for NYC2030 are indeed buried in a technical report prepared by DCP.

The city’s growth scenario will appeal to the economic sectors that thrive on growth – real estate, finance, construction, and some services. By starting with this scenario and not exploring other possible scenarios, NYC2030 is silently making a major policy decision that favors what some have called “the growth machine.”

What if the population remains stable? This question would force planners to focus on the improvement of life in the city as we know it, and away from the task of accommodating new construction. Is it unthinkable that the population could even decline a bit? While the thought of a shrinking population base conjures up images of widespread neighborhood abandonment during the 1970s, that doesn’t have to happen in the 21st Century. Many European cities, for example, have lost population or remained stable without suffering abandonment. It all depends on public policy.

NYC2030’s projected growth rates by borough are also based on implicit policy decisions. The Bronx is projected to grow at the slowest rate and Staten Island the fastest. Staten Island, the borough with the most available land for development, would absorb much less growth than it could. That’s a decision that continues, without further discussion, a city-wide land use policy that concentrates density around a small number of downtown centers instead of building centers for neighborhood living throughout the city.

Focus on Sustainability

The Mayor’s decision to focus NYC2030 on sustainability is both unprecedented and bold. Other cities like Boston, Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles are ahead of New York, but it’s never too late to raise the basic sustainability question as defined by the United Nations: how can we meet current needs without compromising the needs of future generations?

NYC2030 starts with reasonable assumptions that with or without growth the city faces ten daunting challenges:

1. affordable housing
2. traffic congestion
3. lack of open space
4. the need to maintain the existing water infrastructure…
5.…transportation infrastructure
6.…power infrastructure
7. the need to reduce greenhouse emissions
8. air quality improvement
9. brownfields reclamation
10. improved waterways.

Goals are proposed for each of these areas.

Noticeably missing from the list, however, are things like education, city services (especially sanitation), public health, noise, and neighborhood preservation -- items that typically appear on the top of the lists of complaint by New Yorkers.

However, NYC2030 does put on the agenda issues that are of crucial concern to many community, advocacy and environmental justice groups but have often been left out of high-level policy discussions. These include the asthma epidemic, brownfields reclamation, power plant siting, and the lack of open space, all of which are of special concern to low-income communities.

The Role of Neighborhoods and Community Boards: Whatever Happened to the City Charter?

The mayor’s office has launched a series of meetings for community leaders and civic groups in each of the five boroughs to discuss the plan. However, it is not at all clear whether this will lead to any changes in the plan, and if so who will make those decisions. NYC2030’s website makes it all sound like a harmonious process in which we all join arms and march into the future. New Yorkers can submit their comments on the website, but how do these get digested and acted upon?

This leads us to a bigger question of how the plan gets approved and implemented. Will it get submitted to the City Planning Commission, City Council, or the voters for approval? Will the plan be anything more than the Mayor’s swan song before he moves on to his next job? Will the next mayor care? Where is the city’s capital and expense budget process in all this? And the city’s 59 community boards?

NYC2030 evades entirely the mechanisms set up in Section 197-a of the City Charter to produce and approve plans. City Hall may not like those mechanisms but they are the only ones we have. Without them the Mayor’s plan could become just one chief executive’s boardroom strategy that provides some guidance but has no teeth.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

Tax Breaks For Affordable Housing


Every two weeks the New York City Council holds its "Stated Meeting" to introduce and pass legislation. As a regular feature, Gotham Gazette covers these meetings.

The debate over how to reform a tax incentive program for developers, which once seemed likely to sharply divide the City Council, came to a relatively peaceful conclusion on December 20. In its final stated meeting of the year, the council overwhelmingly passed a compromise measure to reform this plan, called 421-a. The changes are intended to shift the plan away from simply encouraging real estate development –- as was its original intention –- and toward the creation of affordable housing.

Under the measure approved by the council, developers in many parts of Manhattan and the Brooklyn would get the property tax exemption only if one fifth of the apartments in a new project are affordable. It would also create a fund to finance affordable housing.

But the debate over 421-a has not ended. In order to remain in existence, the program, with or without changes, must be approved by the state legislature by the end of 2007. Assemblymember Vito Lopez, chair of the assembly housing committee, has indicated that he wants tighter restrictions on 421-a.

421-A: INCENTIVES FOR DEVELOPMENT

During a housing crisis in 1971, city officials worried that developers would not build in New York. To spark residential development, the city started the 421-a program, which offered property tax exemptions to those willing to construct apartment buildings. As the real estate market in certain neighborhoods heated up starting in the mid-1980s, the city began to tweak the program. The focus shifted away from encouraging all development, toward the need for affordable housing.

In 1985 the city decided that in much of Manhattan – the so-called exclusion zone – developers would have to build a certain amount of affordable housing in order to qualify for the tax benefit. More recently, this zone has been slightly expanded, and now includes Manhattan between Houston Street and 96th Street, as well as a small part of Brooklyn. Developers working inside the exclusion zone can meet the affordable housing requirement by either designating 20 percent of the new project as affordable housing, or by building a corresponding amount of affordable housing in other areas in the city.

Buildings elsewhere in the city – including all of Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island – have remained eligible for the original incentives, affordable housing or no.

The measure approved by council would expand the exclusion zone to upper and lower Manhattan, as well as to such Brooklyn neighborhoods as Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

The City Council bill would also:

  • Set up a commission, appointed by the mayor and the City Council, to review the boundaries of the exclusionary zone every two years.
  • Require developers to create the affordable housing on the site of the rest of development for which they receive the abatement. Now, they can build the lower priced apartments in another building, or even another borough.
  • Target some of the affordable units to lower income families
  • Create a $400 million fund to create affordable housing, particularly in the city’s poorest neighborhood. The changes in the 421-a system are expected to save the city money, because fewer developers will be eligible, and this money will go toward the affordable housing fund. The fund replaces another program that encouraged such development but which council believes benefited developers more than the city’s lower income residents.
  • Set a cap on the subsidies for building out the exclusion zone to limit the tax breaks for luxury buildings.

And the council will also urge the state government to create a similar plan top encourage development of affordable one, two and three family homes and to create ways to ensure that buildings remain affordable for many years into the future.

A FIRST STEP

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who negotiated the council plan, called it “fair and balanced.” “It recognizes you can create housing through an abatement but you have to make that abatement something that developers will want to take,” she told council.

Earlier Annabel Palma and 22 other council members introduced had introduced a competing bill that would have put much more aggressive requirements on affordable housing. It called for requiring all developers throughout the city – not just in certain parts of it -- to build affordable housing in order to qualify for the 421-a benefit. The bill would have required that 30 percent of all units, not 20 percent, be affordable if developers were to qualify for the exemption.

Council members Alan Gerson, Letitia James, and Rosie Mendez proposed a separate bill that would require developers to set aside 35 percent of a development be for affordable housing in order to qualify for 421-a benefits.

But following long negotiations, many of these opponents accepted Quinn’s plans. “We need to look at this piece of legislations and look at the significant improvements,” Palma said. And David Yassky, who had cosponsored the Palma bill, said the measure approved by council “will result in more affordable housing and in eliminating some of the most egregious disparities in the property tax.”

But not all council members agreed.

Councilmember Charles Barron and Hiram Monserrate expressed concern that the affordable units would not be affordable enough for many New Yorkers. “The mayor and the council may be able to live with this bill, but poor and working class New Yorkers are not going to be able to live in New York City,” Barron said.

While saying the bill was indeed an improvement, Rosie Mendez said, “I still believe the bill could be better yet.” In particular, she said, developers should have to make 30 percent of the apartments in any development affordable.

Tony Avella faulted the whole notion of giving developers tax benefits in New York‘s booming real estate market. “I find troubling the fact that we are gong to give huge tax abatements to luxury developers who are making millions of dollars off each project,” he said.

OVERHAULING 421-A

Avella’s comments echo those of other critics of the 421-a system, who argue that developers don’t need expensive incentives to build in New York these days. The program costs the city money, they say, and benefits building owners and developers of luxury apartments far more than it encourages affordable housing.

According to a report released in April by Habitat for Humanity-New York City and the Pratt Center for Community Development:
• The program will cost the city $320 million in 2006, up from $130 million in 2002.
• The program has given tax breaks to more than 100,000 housing units since it began, but as of 2003, only about 8 percent are affordable housing.
• Developers only put a fraction of the money they saved on taxes toward affordable housing sites, which are mostly in the Bronx.

MAKING COMPROMISES

In response to criticisms of the incentive program and as part of a broader campaign to create affordable housing, Bloomberg created a task force in February to evaluate 421-a. It called for expanding the exclusion zone to include more of Lower Manhattan, parts of Harlem up to 110th Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights, and more of the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront.

Many members of the City Council criticized Bloomberg’s plan, asking for more sweeping reform. Quinn developed her own plan, which she introduced, with 28 other council members as co-sponsors. Bloomberg endorsed the compromise.

Supporters of the competing plans spent weeks negotiating over specifics.

During the stated meeting, many council members praised the negotiations as a victory for democracy, applauding the speaker, various administration officials, council members and staff for long hours of consultation that derailed plans for Christmas shopping and watching football games.

They congratulated themselves themselves for disagreeing on an issue and working it out. Saying debate on substantive matters was laudable, Bill de Blasio said, “This is a very positive day…. A lot has been accomplished in these past weeks.”

Quinn herself acknowledged how unusual such debate was. “Some people commented that it was a little odd that there was more than one bill on this topic in City Council,” she said. “That indicated these has not been enough significant debate in the past on important topics.”

But debate or not, the final vote was lopsided, with 44 council members voting for Quinn’s housing measure and 5 (Barron, Avella, Monserrate, Mendez and Darlene Mealy) opposed.

 

 

New Bills -- The 421-a and Affordable Housing Debate


At each of the City Council's stated meetings, council members introduce bills, most of which will never become laws (for the process by which bills become laws, click here). As a regular feature, Gotham Gazette discusses some of the legislation proposed at each meeting.

City Hall is in the midst of a debate over how to reform a tax incentive program for developers. Members introduced competing bills to reform this plan – called 421-a – at the council's last stated meeting. The goal of the reform is to shift the plan away from simply encouraging real estate development – as was its original intention – and towards the creation of affordable housing. The Bloomberg administration recently released its own recommendations. Legislation concerning the bills is expected to come up for a vote on Wednesday, December 20.

421-A: INCENTIVES FOR DEVELOPMENT

During a housing crisis in 1971, city officials worried that developers would not build in New York. To spark residential development, the city started the 421-a program, which offered property tax exemptions to those willing to construct apartment buildings. As the real estate market in certain neighborhoods heated up starting in the mid-1980s, the city began to tweak the program. The focus shifted away from encouraging all development, toward the need for affordable housing.

In 1985 the city decided that in much of Manhattan – the so-called exclusion zone – developers would have to build a certain amount of affordable housing in order to qualify for the tax benefit. More recently, this zone has been slightly expanded, and now includes Manhattan between Houston Street and 96th Street, as well as a small part of Brooklyn. Developers working inside the exclusion zone can meet the affordable housing requirement by either designating 20 percent of the new project as affordable housing, or by building a corresponding amount of affordable housing in other areas in the city.

Elsewhere in the city – including all of Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island -- anyone building is still eligible for the original incentives, affordable housing or no. Also, developers building in certain neighborhoods with historically dire housing problems – known as“neighborhood preservation” areas -- qualify for extra incentives.

Critics have called for reform of the 421-a system, arguing that developers don’t need expensive incentives to build in New York's red-hot housing market. The program costs the city money, they say, and benefits building owners and developers of luxury apartments far more than it encourages affordable housing.

According to a report released in April by Habitat for Humanity-New York City and the Pratt Center for Community Development:
• The program will cost the city $320 million in 2006, up from $130 million in 2002.
• The program has given tax breaks to more than 100,000 housing units since it began, but as of 2003, only about 8 percent are affordable housing.
• Developers only put a fraction of the money they saved on taxes toward affordable housing sites, which are mostly in the Bronx.

The prospect of a overhaul concerns the real estate industry, which says too drastic of a change will stymie construction in certain areas.

Several plans have been floated that would increase the size of the exclusion zone, cap the total value of the incentives, and force developers to build affordable housing on the site of the development for which they are receiving the tax rebate. These changes are expected to save the city money, because fewer developers will be eligible, and both the mayor and the council want to use the savings to start an affordable housing fund.

BLOOMBERG’S PLAN

In response to criticisms of the incentive program and as part of a broader campaign to create affordable housing, Mayor Michael Bloomberg created a task force in February to evaluate 421-a. In October, after several months in which administration officials consulted with the real estate community and advocacy groups, Bloomberg announced the recommendations of the task force.

It called for Expanding the exclusion zone. The new area would include more of Lower Manhattan, parts of Harlem up to 110th Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights, and more of the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront.

The task force also wants to eliminate the special benefit that enables developers to qualify for the incentives without building affordable housing in the neighborhood preservation zones in historically underdeveloped areas. With many of the markets now recovering, this benefit would be reduced to the standard incentive in areas such as Williamsburg, Jackson Heights, and Kingsbridge.

QUINN’S PLAN

Many members of the City Council criticized Bloomberg’s plan, asking for more sweeping reform. Speaker Christine Quinn developed her own plan, which she introduced on December 6. At the last stated meeting, Quinn introduced it as a bill to be considered by the council, with 28 other council members as co-sponsors.

Quinn said the bill, which is scheduled to come up for a vote on December 20, “strikes the right balance” and “reflects input from just about every member of the City Council.”

“This bill will create more affordable housing and encourage development, while also protecting our public dollars from over-subsidizing new luxury development,” Quinn said.

Bloomberg has endorsed the compromise.

The plan (Intro 486 ) proposes an even greater expansion of the exclusion zone. The new area would include Manhattan up to 136th Street on the West Side and 117th Street on the East Side, as well as many more areas in Brooklyn.

The bill also calls for a review every two years of the zone's borders in order to account for changes in the market.

Quinn’s bill would also effectively eliminate the program that allows developers inside the designated area to provide affordable housing at a separate location; those qualifying for the benefit would have to build 20 percent affordable housing on-site.

OTHER PLANS

Annabel Palma and 22 other council members introduced a competing bill that would make much more aggressive requirement on affordable housing. Intro 490 calls for completely eliminating the area in which developers must build affordable housing in order to qualify for the 421-a benefit, instead making the requirement citywide. The bill would also raise the affordable housing requirement to 30 percent for developers to be eligible for the exemptions.

“A lot has changed since we had to give developers tax breaks to build here,” Palma said. “With the hundreds of millions of dollars the developers entering this program are saving, asking 30 percent is not too much.”

The bill also calls for the affordable housing units to be comparable in size to market-rate units and for them to remain affordable after the tax-break expires.

Council members Alan Gerson, Leitita James, and Rosie Mendez proposed a separate bill that would require developers to set aside 35 percent of a development be for affordable housing in order to qualify for 421-a benefits.

THE COUNCIL VOTE AND BEYOND

Supporters of the competing plans have spent the last two weeks negotiating over specifics. Quinn says her bill now has the support of over half of the council. Palma's office said its bill will probably not come up for a vote on December 20, but that its supporters are negotiating to get Quinn's bill to call for even more affordable housing.

But the action at City Hall is not seen as the end of the issue. Palma has said her bill was intended to influence the state legislature, which has the final say. Assembly Housing Chair Vito Lopez is preparing to take up the issue, from a point of view closer to Palma's than to Quinn's.

“I would assume that the bill that passes is going to be the Christine Quinn bill,” he told the New York Times. “That improves on the mayor’s bill, and the mayor’s bill improved on the law. I believe it does not go far enough."

 

Housing And The Feds


New York City is not alone in facing a housing crisis. It is a national problem, manifested in a range of problems, from the lack of affordable housing to predatory lending to discrimination. And a national problem deserves a federal solution.

That was the conclusion of some 20 housing policy experts and advocates at a recent roundtable discussion on housing problems in the city, organized by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez . They agreed that the timing is right to bring the federal government back into the business of affordable housing: Democrats, who are considered more responsive to housing issues, will soon control both houses of Congress.

But it’s going to be tough, Velazquez said. There have been 12 years of “disinvestment” in affordable housing. “There is the will, the drive, the commitment and the passion. But these aren’t the only factors.”

Other factors include:

  • A disconnect between local people working on housing issues and Washington, D.C.
  • the federal deficit and the limits it places on new spending programs
  • the bipartisan effort necessary to enact legislation.

 

The Disconnect

“A national organizing effort – that’s the missing key,” said Irene Baldwin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “You’ve seen organizing efforts have a real impact on city housing policy and you’ve seen it affect state housing policy.

“You can do what you can locally, but the problem is in Washington. You need strong national networks that I don’t see out there.”

“That’s an understatement,” agreed Barbara Sard, the director of housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “And it’s not just New York. There are many places where there’s real concern on the local level about affordable housing but it doesn’t translate to Washington.”

Grassroots support is critical if housing is to become a priority, Velazquez said, recalling her previous work to prevent cuts to other programs.

“We were able to activate groups nationwide to block” Bush administration cuts to other programs, she explained. “That’s what we need to do to this. We need to activate all the big advocates nationwide, so they talk to their members of Congress.

“We need to develop this list of emails, telephone numbers and fax numbers from the bottom up. The reality is affordable housing is an issue that is impacting every corner of America.”

Representative-elect Yvette Clarke agreed: “Every other interest group has found a way to communicate, to organize their folks effectively.”

While housing organizers and grassroots activists may be disconnected, however, networks of housing policy experts do exist, noted Victor Bach of the Community Service Society.

“The housing community is together, it has been together for years,” Bach said. “There has been a very strong group of advocates, but they have had little success.”

He listed a variety of groups that work on national housing policy: The National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

What is lacking, Bach said, is the will.

“The will to act on housing compared to other key issues needs to be intensified,” he said. “The question is how to get more capital and commitment to housing. Someone’s got to put it all together and say, ‘Look, we have a national commitment here and we’ve been eroding it for decades.’”

That person, to many, is Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. Already, Sard said, Frank has been speaking frequently about the affordable housing problems facing communities around the country. As the new chair of the House Financial Services Committee, which drafts housing policy legislation, Frank is set to turn his words into action.

But any effort will need people at the grassroots to push it, advocates said. To that end, housing policy groups are welcoming new voices calling for action on affordable housing.

“We would love to get more state partners involved, that’s part of our agenda,” said Nicole Letourneau, communication director at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “We’re always looking to make more connections.”

Advocates and organizers are already coming together, Baldwin said, even if only slowly: “That’s the missing piece. We can all do our separate piece but we really need a national organizing platform to move it forward.”

The affordable housing crisis is evoking more and more anger and frustration in neighborhoods around New York City. At a recent series of town hall meetings organized by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, New Yorkers made that plain. The trick for advocates is translating that frustration into pressure on Congress to draft comprehensive affordable housing legislation.

The Federal Deficit

When organizers and advocates do come together and if they convince Congress that affordable housing is a top priority, they would still face a major obstacle: The federal deficit. It effectively limits the extent of any affordable housing programs Congress members might suggest, Bach said.

“Unless Congress is able to roll back the tax cuts and deal with the deficit, it’s going to be hard for the most powerful voices to address housing,” he said. “The deficit is a major negative in the picture.”

“It is definitely true that the overall budget is going to be a big constraint,” said Sard. “So the challenge then becomes can you find money in some ways that aren’t going to count.”

One way Congress could avoid having to deal with those budget issues is by establishing a national low-income housing trust fund using 5 percent of the profits from the congressionally chartered mortgage lending giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

(The city is also looking at setting up a $300 million affordable housing trust fund in legislation proposed as a compromise on the 421-a property tax exemption program. The Housing First! coalition said $300 million was too little and is pushing for a city trust fund of $1 billion.)

For a national program, advocates said about $5 billion would be needed to develop about 1.5 million affordable housing units, Letourneau said.

“We’ve been pushing for several years for a national housing trust fund that would create a dedicated source of revenue” for affordable housing development, she said. “We think the time is right for this to finally move forward.”

Rep. Frank will introduce the bill in the new Congress, she said./p>

A Bipartisan Approach

When delegates for the Republican National Convention were helping to build a house at a Habitat for Humanity site, protestors showed up, reminding them, “Habitat is great, we still need Section 8!”

“But inside the message was basically the same, we need Section 8,” said Roland Lewis, executive director of Habitat for Humanity and co-chair of the Housing First! coalition that advocates for more affordable housing.

“It really brought home the point that housing is and can be a common ground issue that can cut across party lines and ideological lines,” Lewis said. “If you’re a Republican governor in New Hampshire and you can’t find places for your workforce to live – the teachers and police and firefighters – it’s the same problem we have here in New York City.”

Indeed, when the Bush administration has contemplated cutting Section 8, the federal rent subsidy program, the proposals have provoked an outcry across the country. Mayors – Democrats and Republicans alike – have urged the administration to leave Section 8 alone and the administration has backed down.

Nevertheless, bipartisan efforts often mean forging compromises, Velazquez reminded housing advocates at the roundtable discussion.

“We’re going to be in control, but also we are going to have to work in a bipartisan way,” Velazquez said. “We have to reach out to moderate Republicans.”

Lewis echoed that sentiment, saying affordable housing appeals to interests that cross party and ideological lines.

“You can appeal to people who believe in social justice … and to folks who want better and more business for the companies that drive our economy,” he said. “That’s how it’s a common ground issue.

“It’s not a Republican idea or a Democratic idea that people who play by the rules and work hard should have a decent place to live,” he continued. “That appeals to people across the aisles.”

“For the first time in a long time, the strong but small minority of members of Congress who were setting the agenda is now being replaced by some leadership where decisions will be made by a majority of the members,” Letournea said. “We sort of see this as a new day. That being said any affordable housing initiative that have move forward in the past have always been a bipartisan effort and that will continue.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

 



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