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The Black Organizer Blues


When I graduated from college armed with little more than a liberal arts degree and a penchant for fomenting campus protests, I moved back home to Central Brooklyn with visions of homespun revolution dancing through my head. My latest incarnation is that of a journalist, but the array of public identities I’ve traveled over the past 18 years – from political activist, to financial service provider, to economic justice advocate, to self-proclaimed community “organizer” – has always in some way been a pursuit of the idea that black-led social change can be professionalized.

Of course I’m not alone. Across the city there is a small cadre of black people running scrappy, non-profit, community organizing groups rooted in Harlem, the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and other black and Latino neighborhoods, organizations that are trying to sustain modest institutional challenges against targets like slumlords, predatory corporations and government agencies. In most cases these black-led efforts to build social justice institutions under the banner of community organizing, are struggling to meet payroll, find qualified glack organizers or have their phone calls returned by potential funders.

In a city with the largest concentrations of black people in the country, there are literally hundreds of relatively successful black-led organizations that are building housing, providing social services and fulfilling economic development needs. But when you identify the most well-funded and high profile neighborhood-based organizing bodies that operate in black (and Latino) neighborhoods, arguably none are black-led. An obvious question is, why?

Generally speaking, the term “community organizing” has itself proved problematic, if not exclusionary, in the way it is used. It has become a part of a jargon spoken by political activists, foundation program officers and other industry insiders to define a particular kind of social movement strategy. It is not that the concept of building a base of local leaders and using direct confrontation to address local problems and shift power does not have resonance among lay people. It is just that the assumptions made by many community organizers when they use the term – including myself – are not necessarily shared by the average person they are trying to organize. This is ironic, considering how populist the field of community organizing fancies itself to be.

In black neighborhood settings there is an even greater cultural disconnect when you use the term, especially if you invest it with the values and directives that hold sway among many professional community organizers, particularly those who have received formal training in the field. The problem starts with the idea of an organizer as an outside agitator, a benign progressive soul whose contribution to a community is to identify and train locally embedded leadership and help residents realize their own power. The fact that this model is fraught with paternalistic impulses and often carries with it a white middle-class man’s burden does not mean that organizers of color, particularly college-educated ones, are not susceptible to this view of community organizing themselves.

It’s been my experience that predominately black neighborhoods and organizations are steeped in a different activist tradition and sensibility, one that puts a premium on organizers not only living in, but actually having deep roots in and a personal connection to neighborhoods in which they organize. Consequently, black organizations often see “organizers” and “leaders” as being as one and the same.

Monifa Akinwole-Bandele, the co-executive director of the New York Chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), a racial justice organization that focuses on freeing political prisoners and fighting police brutality, observes that the dominant view of community organizing stresses the process and means of social change, as opposed to the end. In other words, some feel that the act of people exercising collective power is more socially transformative than the very cause they have taken up.

In Akinwole-Bandele’s view, this is not only a misguided, but disingenuous notion. The benign outsider-organizer paradigm, she says, claims “that the organizer is objective and that the organizer doesn’t come in with an agenda... But, someone’s agenda is always going to be pushed and just coming together for the sake of coming together does not mean the right road will be taken.”

MXGM occasionally finds itself at philosophical odds with others in community organizing circles, mainly because MXGM is upfront about having a political agenda, one that includes a particular historical perspective, takes a sharply defined ideological position and puts forth a social vision. As Akinwole-Bandele sees it, “To not push an agenda is to keep the status quo.”

Roz Lee, the executive director of the New York Organizing Support Center, an organization that provides training and technical assistance to community organizing groups in New York, echoed Akinwole-Bandele’s sentiments. Although the center itself espouses a fairly specific view of organizing, Lee maintains that community organizing opinion makers in New York often do not give enough attention or respect to things that fall outside a certain formula. “I don’t think that there is enough room given to political education and the healing from wounds from the past, wounds from hundreds of years of being degraded.”

Lee, herself African-American, believes that “black-led community organizing contributes to a different style of organizing where consciousness-raising is valuable and necessary…The times our organizing efforts have faltered are the moments we stopped doing consciousness raising.” If you are a black-led group in a black community, Lee observes, “you are probably doing [political education], particularly in the early stages of organizing, and it’s easy to dismiss this as ‘not organizing’.”

The existence of a dominant model of community organizing is important to recognize if only because it affects the degree to which foundations support black-led community organizing work, a level of support that most people I have talked to feel is unsteady, unpredictable and luke warm at best. What “undergirds” this lack of support, is an “unintended racism”, observes Nia Mason, executive director of the Harlem-based Action for Community Empowerment. Foundation program officers like to support “people who know the same people as they do and speak the same language. They work with people who make them feel more comfortable with their investments.” Mason feels black-led community organizing groups are not aggressive enough in self promotion and that it’s “all in the marketing. Funders judge you on how much press you get. They fund who they’ve heard about. It’s a rare funder who will stick their neck out to fund an unknown”.

Alvin Starks, a black program officer with the Open Society Institute is one of the few funding agents in New York City who many black community organizers feel is sympathetic to their plight. Although Starks contends that funding for community organizing is hard to come by for everyone right now in New York, regardless of race, he acknowledges that black-led groups work at a disadvantage, in part because the socio-economic challenges for black neighborhoods are so multi-dimensional that groups often feel as though they don’t have the luxury to focus exclusively on community organizing as a neighborhood development strategy.

Starks addresses this by taking a broader and more ecumenical view of black-led social change work. Rather than getting caught up in defining community organizing, he said he is more interested in investing in “new voices who have strong community ties, have been nurtured by community ties and operate under some level of community accountability”. His guiding philosophy is to promote in disenfranchised neighborhoods “ social capital”, which he defines as public influence, power, access, and the ability to leverage resources.

The very idea of arming aggressive black community-organizing efforts is an unsettling notion, even to the presumed progressives in the funding world. Who can deny that a black-led protest or campaign, especially one that explicitly challenges what it perceives to be racism, has different political implications than the actions of a non black-led group? The specter of a rising “militant” black organization conjures up a singular kind of fear in the American imagination – even among black people themselves.

If you talk to those who care about the viability of community organizing strategies in black neighborhoods, they will concede that some of the most vexing challenges are closer to home. The social activism of the 1960s and 1970s in black New York gave way to a non-profit, civil society that emphasizes electoral activism, different forms of self-help and services like housing or daycare. Direct confrontation seems to be only popular in times of perceived crisis, such as when neighbors storm the local precinct after an act of police brutality or a community board stops a homeless shelter from opening.

Mason, who moved to New York in 1994, says her organizing work is not always understood, much less embraced in Harlem. “Most black people I meet think this work is too strident. They don’t think it’s the most effective way to get the resources that are needed in the community.”

When we look at the organizations that most shape the popular view of black-led social justice organizing – SCLC, SNCC, the Nation of Islam, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Black Panthers – the image that people are left with is a handful of charismatic figures – mostly men - who courageously lead the masses. The result is that unless there are personalities who commandeer the headlines, the perception is that there is a lack of social change leadership in black communities.

Historically, Lee observes, there is in black communities, a prevailing “ one voice, one leader, one people” paradigm: “There is a reliance on the kind of large scale leadership represented by people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and it gives the impression that there is a homogenous group of black people standing behind these figures and that this is the only activity going on. It’s hard to see other activity under the radar screen.” Even Akinwole-Bandele admits that her organization’s approach to leadership development, which eschews the cult of personality and promotes “platforms, not people” often goes against the expectations of most people in a neighborhood like Bedford-Stuyvesant, the area MXGM considers to be its base.

One way or the other, for real ass-kicking, black-led, professional community organizing to flourish in New York City, black organizations will certainly have to craft a model of organizing that resonates even deeper with its constituency and establishes a more mutually supportive relationship with this base. Because at the end of day, if you want to find what is truly driving the agenda of any organization, follow the money.

In that respect, maybe the current foundation climate is as much a time for hope and opportunity as it is a time of hardship. Akinwole-Bandele found that the difficult time she has had in attracting foundation support forced her organization to engage its membership more and raise a greater share of its budget through fundraising events and grassroots fundraising campaigns. “We have become more isolated” with regard to foundations, she says, “but it’s going to make us stronger”.

Mark Winston Griffith, a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Essence and Spin, is also founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership, which organizes people to build economic power.

Rebecca Webber


Over the past month, the state and city legislatures have passed laws, and the courts have issued decisions, on lead paint, rent regulation and homeless shelters that could alter the housing rights of many New Yorkers.

Homeless Shelter Requirements

In 1981, a court decree mandated that New York City provide shelter to anyone who needed it. The city has since sought to define more precisely and, in some ways, to limit this duty. Their efforts have often conflicted with the demands of advocates for the homeless.

On the issue of shelter eligibility requirements for homeless single adults, a state appellate court recently ruled in favor of the city. The court decided that the Department of Homeless Services can ask shelter seekers to submit to financial and psychological assessments and can expect them to cooperate with therapies that will help them become self-sufficient. Homeless adults must also look for and accept placement in permanent housing when possible. Those who do not comply could be evicted from the shelter system.

The court ruled that the city can establish “ reasonable standards to ensure that homeless individuals be required to take steps to achieve self-sufficiency and to reduce their reliance on temporary shelter.”

The city had argued that disruptive and uncooperative behavior made shelters dangerous and scared other eligible adults away. But advocates for the homeless have said that harsh rules would force the most dysfunctional adults out of the shelter system and onto the streets.

Keeping the Regulations, But Not The Rent

Tenants in rent-regulated apartments recently got word that their rents can go up 4.5 percent for one-year leases, or 7.5 percent for two-year leases, for lease renewals on or after October 1.

The city’s Rent Guidelines Board dropped a percentage point apiece off of their preliminary proposal for rent increase allowances of 5.5 and 8.5 percent, to the disappointment of landlords who claimed their costs had been soaring. Tenants had countered that their apartments were becoming unaffordable, and while they were grateful for the board’s decision to lower the proposed increases, they still raged against the highest allowable increases since 1989.

The board also announced the allowable increases for leases of loft tenants and those who occupy single-room occupancy buildings.

Just days after the Rent Guidelines Board reached its decision, the state legislature weighed in on the long-term prospects for rent regulation. The 1997 rent regulations expired on June 15th, and after long nights of negotiation that went nowhere, and a number of short-term extensions of the laws, the legislature agreed to extend the laws without major changes through 2011.

The Republican-led State Senate had the upper hand in the negotiations, forcing the Democrat-heavy State Assembly to either sign onto their bill, or allow rent regulation to evaporate entirely. While (as Gotham Gazette has written) tenant advocates had been hoping for alterations to the 1997 laws that would have saved apartments from deregulation once their maximum allowable rent reached $2000 per month, that provision remained. Tenants decried the decision, and said that it would lead to the deregulation of hundreds of thousands of apartments over the next ten years. Apartments have been leaving regulation, and will continue to do so, due to the high rent vacancy provision, though the exact pace of the change is hard to pin down.

Lead Laws

Tenants finally won one fight, when in early July, the State Court of Appeals invalidated a city law that required the removal of lead paint in apartments housing children aged five or younger. That 1999 law was very controversial (as Gotham Gazette has written), having replaced an earlier law that required lead paint removal if apartments had children aged 6 or younger. The court’s decision reinstated the earlier law, and wider protections for young children in homes filled with lead paint.

Lead from paint can cause numerous health problems in all people, but especially in young children. For them, lead exposure has been linked to damage to the brain and nervous system, behavior and learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems, and headaches.

Other possible legislative changes to housing in New York City will probably not materialize until after a summer hiatus. That is a good thing, because many New Yorkers may need some time to come to terms with the recent alterations to the rules that govern the way we live.

Trade Union/Public Housing Alliance; Reaction to Rezoning Of Brooklyn Waterfront; New Neighborhood Planning


UNLIKELY ALLIANCE WINS APPRENTICESHIPS FOR PUBLIC HOUSING RESIDENTS

After three years, an unlikely alliance of public housing residents and several building trades unions have won a significant victory. The New York City Housing Authority has agreed that $600 million of construction work in public housing over the next three years will be built by union contractors. At present, almost none of the housing authority's work is built with union labor. In exchange, the carpenters, painters, laborers, and plumbers have agreed to hire approximately 220 residents of public housing during each of those years. In addition, the housing authority has increased enforcement of "Section 3" requirements - a section of the Housing & Urban Development Act of 1968 which requires that federal public housing funds be used to hire local residents and subcontractors - for contractors working on public housing.

Like many community activists in African-American and Latino neighborhoods, many public housing resident leaders have had a strong sense of the historic racism in the construction unions. And in neighborhoods like Harlem, there is a significant history of overlap between public housing resident organizing and groups like Harlem Fightback, which led the effort to open up the unions.

But over the past several years, these groups have found common cause, as part of a coalition called TRADES - Trade Unions and Residents for Apprenticeship Development and Economic Success - originally created as part of the Alliance for a Working Economy, and now a campaign housed at New York Jobs With Justice, a labor/community coalition. The trades unions have long been shut out of almost all of the construction paid for by the New York City Housing Authority. Workers on these federally-funded projects are supposed to be paid the "prevailing wage" - locally-calculated wages which are several dollars above minimum wage and which often match the union scale. However, because there is little enforcement on many publicly-subsidized projects, the unions documented pervasive prevailing wage violations on housing authority jobs.

Residents were equally upset about the housing authority's failure to insure the implementation of the Section 3 requirements. At a City Council hearing in 2001, residents documented job after job with no resident employment. Driven by these common interests, union leaders (especially from the Carpenters, Laborers, and Painters Unions) and public housing leaders - including leaders from the NYC Public Housing Residents Alliance and from Public Housing Residents of the Lower East Side (affiliated with the community organization, Good Old Lower East Side) - worked over several years to overcome differences and build a strong alliance. In August of 2001, the groups together led a rally of 2,000 people over the Brooklyn Bridge to a housing authority hearing. After this, the housing authority began meeting with TRADES representatives in 2002, under the new leadership of Chair Tino Hernandez and General Manager Douglas Apple.

The TRADES Coalition is still, in many ways, a fragile one. While the New York City Housing Authority has reached an agreement with the building trades unions for the $600million contract, public housing leaders in the TRADES Coalition remain frustrated that they were not at the table as well. But residents credit the Carpenters for bringing the housing authority's proposal back to the full group, and the unions have agreed to residents' requests for a specific target for public housing residents hired on these jobs. Public housing residents are looking forward to the jobs that will be created. The building trades unions hope this will be a model for other publicly-subsidized construction work which is currently non-union. And Jobs With Justice (TRADES' sponsoring organization) hopes that if alliances can be built between trades unions and public housing residents, many more labor-community partnerships are possible.

MIXED REACTIONS ON THE BROOKLYN WATERFRONT

Following upon recently approved rezonings for Park Slope and East Harlem, the New York City Department of City Planning released its initial rezoning plans for the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront earlier this month - to a mixed reaction in the community. City Planning's proposal includes an enormous upzoning of the waterfront, currently zoned for manufacturing use with buildings one to three stories tall, to allow for the construction of residential towers up to 30 stories tall. The plan preserves manufacturing or mixed-use zones in many areas, although it reflects a significant reduction of the land reserved for manufacturing. And it would provide for public access to the waterfront and "contextual zoning" -- zoning with height limits and appropriate features to fit into the existing residential communities (see Rezoning the Williamsburg and Greenpoint Waterfronts)

Neighborhood activists - especially those in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg Waterfront Task Force, a coalition of over 70 community organizations - were pleased last month when the Bloomberg administration announced it would oppose the 1,100 megawatt TransGas power plant on the Williamsburg waterfront (although this is not the death knell for the power plant, which could still be sited there despite the City's opposition).

The New York Times reported nearly universal support for the city's plan (City Seeking to Rezone Brooklyn Waterfront, June 19, 2003) and there is certainly support amongst many residents for the outlines of the plan. But community organizations and residents are far more mixed than has been suggested.

Some are opposed to the height limits proposed for the waterfront, believing that 15 - 30 story towers are out of scale with a community where most buildings are four stories are fewer. Other groups, including Neighbors Against Garbage and the New York Industrial Retention Network, are concerned that the plan undermines the viability of manufacturing in the community, despite the carve-outs for many existing manufacturers (see Zoning to Kill Manufacturing, and the Assault on Greenpoint, the May Gotham Gazette Land Use column , and Zoning to Protect Manufacturing).

Perhaps the most common concern is that, despite repeated use of the words "affordable housing" in City Planning's presentation, the rezoning is likely to lead to housing that is far beyond the reach of most community residents. The vast majority of the "upzoning" is along the waterfront, where apartments in residential towers with Manhattan views will fetch prices well over $2,000 per month. City Planning is proposing that developers be allowed to build the large towers "as of right," with no requirements or zoning incentives for affordable housing. They claim developers will choose voluntarily to apply for programs as part of the mayor's "New Marketplace" housing plan. But developers will receive a 15 year tax exemption, even if they build luxury housing. Many community organizations in the area - including St. Nicholas Neighborhood Preservation Corporation, Los Sures, Neighbors Against Garbage, and a clergy coalition led by Neil Sheehan - are calling for more aggressive efforts to ensure that a meaningful portion of the new housing built is affordable to local residents. Local City Councilmember David Yassky has called for "inclusionary zoning," which would allow developers who create affordable housing to build larger buildings than those who don't (see Waterfront Housing for Everyone, by David Yassky, and Inclusionary Zoning, and Tool for Low-Income Housing). Yassky writes:

"Once again, the city is helping developers who will see the value of their property skyrocket. I propose, in the future, requiring these developers to commit to making 20 percent of new residential construction affordable for a typical family in the development neighborhood. Unused manufacturing land represents some of the last stretches of vacant land in the city. Unless the city intervenes, there is no guarantee that any low and moderate income New Yorkers will be able to live in any of the thousands of new apartments developed on these vast tracts. We cannot afford to ignore this opportunity to build affordable housing. The residents of New York City, not just the wealthy ones, deserve a chance to reap the benefits from the development of the Brooklyn waterfront."

City Planning's proposal still has a long road ahead. The Environmental Impact Statement is in the works, and City Planning hopes to certify the plan by the end of the year, after which there is a six month process of hearings before the plan goes to the City Council.

PUTTING NEIGHBORHOOD PLANNING BACK INTO HOUSING

In July, the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) will announce a reorganization, establishing a high-profile Division of Neighborhood Planning as part of its Office of Development. Ironically, it is largely the need to respond to a revitalized real estate market that has led to the need for enhanced neighborhood planning capacity. For the past decade, most of HPD's work in neighborhoods has consisted of turning city-owned, abandoned housing stock (taken by the city for non-payment of taxes) over to for-profit and not-for-profit developers, or to the tenants. This did not generally require a broader look at the neighborhoods, since the department was the primary owner of the buildings being transferred and renovated.

But the city has stopped taking over property through tax foreclosure, and abandonment is down significantly from the 1970s and 1980s. This presents a challenge for the department in implementing Mayor Bloomberg's housing plan, The New Housing Marketplace (in pdf format), which was announced last December. (See Gotham Gazette's critique of the plan.) Land and property to develop as affordable housing has become far more scarce. So Housing Preservation and Development is establishing a new planning unit to work with community organizations and developers to package sites. This involves not only looking at general uses, but in reaching out to many significant landowners, both public (New York City Housing Authority, NYC Department of Education, Health & Hospitals Corporation) and private (Catholic Charities, hospitals, etc). HPD will then work with communities and developers to identify and assemble parcels for the development of affordable housing under the mayor's plan.

Brad Lander is the executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community development organization in Brooklyn.

 

Housing Court As Landlord Collection Agency


For more than six months, Gene Garvin has been wearing earplugs to bed and setting out traps for mice. Like many New Yorkers, he has problems in his apartment, a two-bedroom on Manhattan Avenue near Morningside Park.

With a stack of papers laid out on a table recently, Garvin described his largely fruitless efforts to have his landlord fix the water heater and exterminate the vermin. A list of dates detailed dozens of calls to the landlord that began in October 2002. He complained to the city's department of Housing Preservation and Development. By February, Garvin started holding the rent, a typical tenant response.

"We just couldn't put up with it anymore, and nothing was happening," he explained.

The landlord responded in typical fashion, too: His attorneys filed a non-payment case against Garvin.

Non-payment cases dominate in Housing Court, making up more than 80 percent of the more than 300,000 cases filed every year. But the court was originally established in 1973 to hear cases brought by tenants to force landlords to repair and maintain services in their buildings, so-called Housing Part actions.

A new study shows at least partly why tenants file so few Housing Part actions: Housing Court is too slow in forcing landlords to fix things and the process of filing the cases is too arduous for tenants. Most people just hold the rent, like Garvin.

And the number of cases filed is sure to decline even further,as more and more apartments are deregulated in New York City – a likely consequence of the rent regulation laws passed by the New York State Legislature late last week. When an apartment is covered by the rent regulation laws, landlords are required to offer tenants renewal leases. But landlords are under no obligation to offer a renewal lease to tenants in unregulated or deregulated apartments. Many tenants simply will not file a lawsuit for repairs and services if they think they’ll have to leave -- or be forced to leave -- when their lease is up. Although laws to protect tenants from retaliatory evictions exist, in practice they rarely work for tenants.

"No Rainbow, No Gold: Tenant-Initiated Housing Part Actions in New York City," (in pdf format) the new report on tenant complaints, written by the City Wide Task Force on Housing Court, where I work, reveals that tenants endured substantial delays in getting inspections and resolving cases, that landlords were rarely fined for noncompliance with the city's housing maintenance codes, and that violations were often not repaired even after more than two years had passed.

The city and state must act to correct the problems in Housing Court. These cases are taking months to resolve. Justice delayed is justice denied. The delays, lack of fines and lack of repairs mean thousands of New Yorkers are living in miserable and, above all, unsafe housing.

More than half of all rental apartments in the city have at least one violation of the city's Housing Maintenance Code, according to the Census Bureau's Housing Vacancy Survey. But that number is likely higher because the Census Bureau's survey does not ask about every type of violation.

Every year, tenants file about 10,000 cases in the city's Housing Court to force landlords to make necessary repairs. Broken locks, leaking pipes, peeling paint, exposed wiring-the problems run the gamut from mundane to life threatening. Even for violations deemed hazardous - violations that landlords must rectify within 24 hours - we found that tenants waited up to two weeks before the court heard the case.

A Housing Part action also automatically makes Department of Housing Preservation and Development a party to the case that a tenant files. But the agency's attorneys only get involved if the landlord has repeatedly violated the Housing Maintenance Code.

In our report, we recommend that the court reduce the time necessary for court-ordered inspections, particularly in cases where tenants allege hazardous conditions. The report also recommends that landlords face fines more frequently. Landlords faced fines in just two percent of cases initiated by tenants.

Tenants and their advocates have long complained that the court does little to enforce the city's Housing Maintenance Code and instead acts as a collection service for landlords seeking overdue rent.

In Gene Garvin's case, that seemed to be the case. Lately, he said, he's been trying peanut butter on the mousetraps and thinking about putting a wall around his water heater himself - an improvement Judge Ernest Cavallo ordered his landlord to do three months ago.

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

 

"As-of-Right" Development: An Invitation to Ethical Breaches?


To many, the real estate industry is the most important industry in the city. We're always reading about how we need more office space and housing, whether it's Trump City or West Midtown. The real estate industry's major players are consistent advocates for new development through powerful organizations like the Real Estate Board of New York. Developers are often critical of the city's many complex planning and building regulations. They want regulations that are clear, simple and require minimal public review.

New York City's massive Zoning Resolution, the major document governing land use in the city, is by no means clear and simple. This is not so much because the city's planning department has ignored the real estate industry. It's mostly due to the fact that this is a very large and complex city that's already developed, and every time anyone wants to change anything it ends up in a new set of zoning rules that takes into account the myriad needs and interests in neighborhoods. That is why the dream of radical deregulation--having a one-size-fits-all zoning code--is unrealistic in such a large and diverse city.

It is also unrealistic to expect that most new development must occur without review by the public, including residents and businesses in the city's diverse neighborhoods. For too long that has been the objective of developers and, unfortunately, the city's planning agency. "As-of-right" development does not mandate review by community boards, the City Planning Commission or City Council. No public hearings are required. Usually the developer just needs to get a building permit or go through another administrative process. This often frustrates efforts by communities to influence the design of new projects in a way that makes them compatible with existing development and the community's visions for the future of the neighborhood.

The Zoning Resolution is filled with lots of loopholes that allow developers to build their projects (some of them very large-scale projects) as-of-right, without any sort of public review. It's understandable why some developers want as-of-right rules. They make things a lot simpler, avoid what could be a messy review process, and avoid having to make changes in their plans. Some developers, however, would rather have a public process with clear boundaries so they can avoid costly delays and litigation by community groups.

As-of-Right and Planning Ethics in a Brooklyn Neighborhood

Does as-of-right zoning encourage the city's administrators to ignore or evade community input and become too cozy with developers? This is the question at the heart of a recent as-of-right project in Brooklyn that involves charges of ethical malpractice.

A professional planner assigned to the Brooklyn Office of City Planning recently resigned in protest against her agency. In a letter she sent to the Chairman and District Manager of Brooklyn's Community Board 18, Laurel Brandstetter charged that:

Developers are proposing to construct a new big box home improvement store, movie theatre, parking garage and surface parking lot. I was instructed to participate in a process that would specifically avoid community involvement. While participating in meetings with the project developers, their attorneys, and City Planning staff, I witnessed our own staff utilize the zoning code to assist the developers in designing an as-of-right project in order to avoid community engagement.

After reading Brandstetter's letter, Dorothy Turano, District Manager of Community Board 18, said "I'm not at all surprised. We don't doubt it and we're deeply concerned. All City Planning ever does is look at a map and they don't care about the community." She said the developer hadn't approached the community board with a proposal and that about eight years ago the community board successfully defeated another proposal for commercial development of the same site. The site is in the Kings Plaza Shopping Center and is located on a waterfront parcel.

Regina Meyers, director of the Brooklyn Office of the Department of City Planning, dismissed the charges by Brandstetter. She said that the office wasn't required to involve the community board because it was an as-of-right development. At issue was the design of waterfront access required by the Zoning Resolution. In this case, she said, review was strictly an administrative procedure involving City Planning and the project applicant. Under this procedure the agency and developer are not required to go before the community board or hold a public hearing.

Was City Planning just doing its job or was it being unethical in skirting community input? Did they purposely conspire with the developer or were they just going along with them? Unlike doctors and lawyers, people who function as planners don't have to be licensed, pass a test, or be held accountable to a professional code of ethics. They don't even have to be trained in city planning. The American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) does have a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, but it applies only to its members and membership is voluntary. The AICP Code states that the planner has a responsibility to the public. This includes, among other things, the mandate that "a planner must strive to give citizens the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the development of plans and programs."

While a strict interpretation of the city's Zoning Resolution might exonerate City Planning, a strict interpretation of the professional code of ethics might well find the agency's planners in violation of their obligation to give the public a say. Anyone vaguely familiar with the area in question knows that the issue of waterfront access is of primary concern to the community. Turano points out how the Home Depot now in Kings Plaza is in technical compliance with the waterfront access rules but the area that is set aside for public access is poorly maintained, used for truck parking, and "not really accessible to the public." Will technical compliance in the new development produce the same result? She also notes that traffic in the area has been a chronic problem for years, despite multiple studies by the city and very little action. Will technical compliance with the city's parking regulations only make traffic worse?

Could it be said that the community board is just being exclusionary, following the dreaded not-in-my-backyard philosophy? Does this neighborhood of suburban-style small homes just want to keep people out? Alas, the only way to confront exclusionary tendencies -- they're everywhere, including within government agencies -- is to get them out in the open. There is also nothing wrong with wanting to exclude ugly development, traffic congestion, and bad design. And a careful study of the city's own zoning practices will show how exclusionary they can be (for example, City Planning continues to fight tooth-and-nail against inclusionary zoning that would encourage affordable housing).

As-of-right zoning leaves important decisions to be made by developers and bureaucrats behind closed doors. It is common practice in suburban planning that every new development must go through some kind of public review, including detailed design review. Why this free-for-all here in New York City? Does it have something to do with the political power of the real estate industry and the weakness of neighborhood governance? Are the planners in Brooklyn unable to overlook the fact that the developer of the Kings Plaza site is also developer of the mayor's new business headquarters in Manhattan, and has a major interest in the city's plan for the growth of West Midtown? Does as-of-right development leave questions like these unanswered?

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

The Fate Of Rent Regulation


With the current rent laws set to expire this month, the New York State legislature will soon decide the immediate future of rent regulation. Albany's decision -- on whether and how to extend the laws enacted in 1997 -- coincides with the recent release of a report on the city’s rent stabilized housing stock.

The Rent Guidelines Board has published “Changes to the Rent Stabilized Housing Stock in New York City, 1994-2002” (in pdf format) which shows a net decrease of almost 43,000 rent stabilized apartments in New York City. Over 24,000 apartments lost regulation because of vacancy decontrol, a provision which deregulates a rent stabilized apartment if, when vacated, the allowable rent for the new tenant reaches $2000.

As Gotham Gazette has explained (“The Battle Over Rent Regulation”) tenant advocates would like the state legislature to remove this provision this year. “Tenants understand that without the repeal of vacancy decontrol, the rent regulation system will be lost in ten to fifteen years,” said Jenny Laurie, director of the Met Council on Housing, a tenants’ rights organization.

Met Council, like most other tenant organizations, supports a bill that has been passed by the State Assembly, though not by the Senate, which repeals vacancy decontrol and adds other tenant-friendly provisions. The bill would lower the allowable rent increase upon vacancy from 20 percent to 10 percent; tighten up the landlord’s personal use allowance, and ensure that apartments leaving other subsidy programs, such as Mitchell Lama and Section 8, would become rent stabilized.

The bill, said Laurie, “would preserve the stock of affordable housing that we have right now. It’s not going to add to it, but at least it is going to stop the hemorrhaging of affordable housing.”

It seems unlikely, however, that the legislators will pass that bill. Both Governor George Pataki and State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno have recently said they would like to see the 1997 laws renewed without changes. Their position seems closely aligned to that of the real estate lobby.

“Important reforms were enacted in 1997,” said Marilyn Davenport, senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents the interests of real estate professionals to the city, state, and federal governments. “They are not something you need to do every time you enact the laws.”

Still, Republican state senators from New York City, where about half of all renters are protected by rent laws, are hoping to convince Bruno of the need for at least a few pro-tenant alterations.

Most importantly, the senators, Olga Mendez, Martin Golden, Frank Padavan, Guy Velella, Serphin Maltese, and John Marchi would like to raise the vacancy decontrol threshold from $2,000 to $2,500. While tenant advocates would welcome that change, they want more.

“I support the way the law worked before the changes were made in the 90s,” said Laurie, of Met Council on Housing. “I would like to see expanded rent regulation and the preservation of housing that is affordable to the bulk of the city’s median households.”

Landlord groups, of course, would oppose more rent laws. “We’d love to see them abolished,” said Davenport. “We feel they harm the housing market and the overall supply. But this is not something we are actively pushing for in this legislative session because it probably isn’t realistic this year.”

Insiders believe that the continuation of the 1997 laws is the most likely outcome when the legislature finally addresses the issue. “From what I’m hearing, my feeling is that the laws will stay as they are now,” said Mike Nieves, director of state legislation for the City Council in Albany. “Tenants are saying, ‘Don’t make it worse than 1997.’ I don’t think they are going to make it worse.”

Rebecca Webber is a journalist who has covered housing issues for Gotham Gazette since July 2000.

A Downtown Cultural District Takes Shape


After piles of research and hours of discussion, concrete steps are now being taken to lay the groundwork for a downtown cultural district. Arts advocates and city planners are hoping that Lower Manhattan’s cultural resources will lure visitors and businesses to the area and help to catalyze the local economy -- and reshape the financial district into the mixed-use, 24-hour neighborhood that so many New Yorkers say they want.

Ambitious plans aside, however, many cultural groups need immediate help. They have experienced prolonged gaps in ticket sales and other earned income since 9/11, and now face precipitous drops in city, state, and philanthropic giving. The best hope for them in the short term may be the “take-it-to-the-streets” strategy put forth by DowntownNYC!, a grassroots coalition of arts groups and small businesses located below 14th Street.

This summer, DowntownNYC! will roll out the ArtsVan, a retrofitted film location vehicle that will circulate around Manhattan’s parks and public squares, offering discounted tickets for cultural events and serving as a mobile hospitality unit for Lower Manhattan. The coalition hopes eventually to have several vans in action.

The idea came from the group’s first meeting, in November 2001, when it was noted that Lower Manhattan lacked a visitor’s center. One of the many ripple effects of the terrorist attacks was the loss of the TKTS booth that had been housed at 2 World Trade Center since 1983. While mainly focused on Broadway, the booth had also promoted downtown events, attracting the many tourists and workers that streamed through the tower’s lobby. ArtsVan will be the first district-wide campaign to lure visitors to downtown’s many theaters, dance performances, galleries, museums, and other cultural attractions. Notably, the van will also offer tickets for small and off-off-Broadway productions, which are not generally sold at Duffy Square or the new South Street Seaport TKTS.

According to project director Jonathan Slaff, the ArtsVan will serve as “a soft-core concierge service for downtown.” A February 2002 DowntownNYC! survey revealed that only 10 percent of visitors to downtown cultural events were tourists. By contrast, well over half of Broadway audiences come from out of town, drawn by mass market advertising and the tourist-friendly infrastructure of Times Square. Taking a more targeted approach, the ArtsVan will promote downtown culture as a form of experimentation -- one that, compared with Broadway, can be considerably easier on the wallet.

Rather than trying to market the sprawling area as a single destination, Ă  la Times Square, the promotions will emphasize the unique assets of Lower Manhattan’s neighborhoods, such as Chinatown’s jewelry district or the East Village’s Indian restaurants. It will offer package discounts between arts groups and nearby businesses, and provide maps, guides, and announcements about walking tours or special events.

ArtsVan’s bootstrap operation may eventually get help from city planners, many of whom have embraced the notion of a downtown cultural district. City Councilmember Alan Gerson of District 1 (which includes parts of Greenwich Village and SoHo, as well as the Lower East Side, Chinatown, and the financial district) is advocating for a comprehensive municipal arts policy for Lower Manhattan, “with new and forward-thinking initiatives that will stabilize the entire sector citywide and create long-term sustainability for our institutions.” Citing reports by arts advocacy groups, he calls for policies to preserve affordable space, build public–private partnerships, and foster civic involvement.

Such policies may be enabled by a bill currently in the state legislature that would allow local governments to designate “culture zones” in order to help local arts. The legislation cites Richard Florida’s report, “The Creative Engine,” which argues that strong arts communities attract creative thinkers in all industries. The bill would provide tax incentives to encourage the development of studios, galleries, and performance facilities, so that artists can work cheek by jowl with bankers. It would also provide tax incentives to landlords who offer below-market rents to arts tenants and organizations that make philanthropic donations to cultural groups.

Corporations are also playing a role in the emerging downtown arts district. American Express will be the headline sponsor of this summer’s second-annual downtown arts festival. The company has also signed on to support a Museum of Freedom, planned as part of Daniel Libeskind’s vision for the World Trade Center site. The museum would tell the story of the terrorist attacks and explore the notion of freedom from local, national, and international perspectives. The Museum of the City of New York and the New-York Historical Society, which have been discussing merger plans for some time, have expressed their interest in being part of the planned downtown museum.

Martha Hostetter writes for American Theatre magazine.

Bickering May Lose Us Bucks


The life that has returned to New York City waters has swollen old grudges stemming from turf and tactics. It is not the Sharks and the Jets (not yet, at least), but the tension is undermining the city’s ability to compete with other harbor cities at a very critical time.

Tens of millions of dollars in federal funds are at stake, with the federal transportation bill known as TEA-21 (Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century) set to lapse this fall. Recently the Bush administration released its $247 billion nationwide vision for transportation infrastructure, construction and repair over the next six years. (Click for a copy of the new bill, which the administration is calling SAFETEA). New York may miss an important opportunity to upgrade and repair its decaying waterfront piers and improve air emissions from ferries, as rival harbors such as Seattle and San Francisco (in pdf format) have been doing in recent years.

Bollards and fender piles are the nuts and bolts of water transit, as seen here at Bear Mountain

While New York has largely come together since September 11, 2001, the family of waterway users is becoming estranged. A recent New York City Council hearing showed just how frustrated people are with each other, as speaker after speaker ganged up on ferry giant New York Waterway for the volume and size of wakes that their ad hoc fleet is throwing off as they run back and forth across the Hudson.

Some of the worst offenders seem to be the fishing vessels that have chartered for some of the runs in the last 20 months. “We’ve got to get those fishing boats out of town,” said Tom Fox, president of New York Water Taxi, a 10-month-old upstart operation that just took on the Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan route that NY Waterway dropped when the Federal Emergency Management Agency stopped paying to subsidize it,

New York Waterway came well equipped to defend itself, as company president Arthur Imperatore , Jr. and three other representatives delivered a powerpoint presentation showing how much money the company is investing in a tracking system being developed by Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken so that the route and speed of every vessel in their fleet could be monitored in real time. “No one is spending more money than we are on trying to solve the problem,” Imperatore said.

But this did not satisfy others at the hearing. “I’ve never seen such a blatant case of blaming the victim in my life,” said one vessel captain.

This David versus Goliath story has been playing out for years, and costing New York as well. The last round of the federal transportation funds included special set asides for the states of Washington (in pdf format), Alaska and New Jersey totaling nearly $100 million. New York got no such set aside, and outside the considerable Staten Island Ferry investment ongoing, the other three boroughs have spent the last six years cobbling a ferry network together with the capital budget equivalent of krazy glue and duct tape: funds from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and, since 9/11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For a city that grew up from the shore, we have a real landlubber’s perspective on transportation. Looking around, California (in pdf format) is already hoping to add themselves to the gang of three to be eligible for the Ferryboat funding. And just when other transportation players around the country are lining up together to grab their share of the federal pie, New York Harbor interests are undercutting each other. Wake up, people, the boat is leaving the dock!

Zoning To Kill Manufacturing, and the Assault on Greenpoint


The NYC Department of City Planning (DCP) is on the brink of what could be a great urban planning disaster. It is preparing to rezone huge chunks of industrial land to promote housing development. This could result in a massive displacement of industry on a scale similar to the hundreds of thousands of residents displaced by urban renewal programs of the 1960s. Decades from now planners may wake up and ask how they can get back the 250,000 industrial jobs they lost (see last month's Land Use columnon zoning and industrial retention by Adam Friedman).

Industrial zoning (that is, land within the city's "M" zoning districts) keeps land prices in industrial areas low because property owners can't, for the most part, use their land for housing or other high-rent purposes. This in turn keeps rents low enough for manufacturing and other industries so that they can afford to operate in the city. One of the main reasons the city has lost almost a million manufacturing jobs in the last 50 years is that its small industries can't afford to pay higher rents, and so move to the suburbs. To be sure, industry has declined in most U.S. cities due to global restructuring, but New York City lost proportionately more jobs than the rest of the region. It is in fact one of the biggest losers in the country. As a result, the city has high unemployment and poverty rates.

The Department of City Planning's rezoning campaign began in the early 1990s, when the agency released a study that created a gloomy outlook for industry in the city. The study traced the downward trend of industrial jobs since the early part of the 20th century and, without any analysis of current trends, assumed that the decline would continue. This then became a self-fulfilling prophecy as the agency proceeded to eat away at industry's zoning protections. At the same time, government continued to shower benefits on the finance and real estate sectors. During the Giuliani administration, over $5 billion in tax incentives were given away to corporate and financial giants while the city had no coherent policy to hold on to manufacturers.

The city planning department's assault on industrial zoning is part of its strategic plan, which calls for the rezoning of "unproductive manufacturing areas" in Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Hudson Square, Morrisania, and Bruckner Boulevard. The first victim of the agency's war on industry was Long Island City, which was rezoned in 2002 to make way for new office and residential development. Industrial zoning was preserved in a portion of the neighborhood, but property owners there will now face the temptation to speculate with their land and hold out for a future conversion to residential uses, when land values shoot up high enough and the political climate is ripe, that will wipe out the remnants of industrial zoning. The planning agency is now preparing a second assault on Long Island City.

The agency's crusade against industry got a big boost when Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued his $5 billion plan to create 65,000 new units of housing. The plan explicitly mentioned utilizing the city's industrially-zoned waterfront land for new housing sites. What the planning agency forgot to tell the mayor is that the majority of the city's vacant industrially-zoned land is in Staten Island, much of the industrially-zoned waterfront is in active industrial use, and many of the vacant waterfront sites are vacant because property owners have been sitting on the land, speculating on the likelihood that the city would rezone it so they could make windfall profits on residential development.

Mixed Use Magic

A few years ago, embarrassed over its partisan anti-industrial policy, the Department of City Planning invented a new weapon. It's called mixed use zoning. While there already existed a number of small zoning districts scattered around the city that allowed limited residential and manufacturing in the same area, the agency created a mechanism that would let it institute mixed use zoning districts anywhere in the city. The new "MX" zoning district permits, under certain conditions, both residential and industrial development side-by-side and in the same building.

The city's Zoning Resolution lists as objectives of MX zoning: to encourage investment, recognize existing mixed use neighborhoods and enhance their vitality, shorten the distance between home and workplace, and promote the "most desirable land use" in accordance with "a well-considered plan." In theory, MX allows industries already in these zones to continue indefinitely. In practice, by introducing and legalizing residential uses, which generally bring higher land prices and rents, MX can force industry out. Conversions of industrial buildings to residential use are allowed, with some restrictions, in MX zones. MX zoning might not be bad for industry if the zoning were to be used as an instrument in a broader policy of protecting industry while encouraging new housing development. Instead, it is being used as a "back-door" rezoning from industrial to residential.

To preserve and develop mixed use communities, zoning should be based on a plan, as the Zoning Resolution states. The plan should identify an array of city policies to preserve and develop industry, including incentives, infrastructure and amenities. It should involve local industries and residents in a process where they can work together as partners. This can preserve industry and housing. Zoning alone can't preserve industry - indeed, zoning by itself doesn't guarantee anything - but it certainly can kill industry if there's no plan to save it.

Going After Greenpoint

The planning department's current target for rezoning is Greenpoint in Brooklyn. This mixed industrial-residential neighborhood of some 60,000 people is located along the East River and bordered by Newtown Creek and Long Island City, Queens to the north. Recently agency staff presented a conceptual approach to rezoning in Greenpoint. It includes rezoning several small industrial areas for residential use, several large areas for mixed use, and maintaining a few small areas as exclusively industrial zones. Almost the entire waterfront would be rezoned, most likely for residential development.

But wait, Greenpoint has a plan! Greenpoint residents and businesses collaborated on a community plan that called for maintenance of the mixed use character of the neighborhood and revitalization of the community's waterfront. The plan was recently approved by the City Planning Commission and City Council. The Department of City Planning maintains that the Greenpoint plan provides the context for their proposed rezoning.

The Greenpoint plan proposes maintenance of the mixed use character of the neighborhood. The city planning agency proposes MX zoning as a means to accomplish this goal. The Greenpoint plan proposes public access to the community's industrial waterfront. The agency proposes residential and commercial development on the waterfront which, under the city's waterfront zoning, requires that private owners build and maintain waterfront promenades. (When waterfront zoning was created over a decade ago, the agency purposely declined to require industries to provide public access, thereby creating an incentive for communities to welcome the conversion from industry to residential development.)

But in many ways the Greenpoint Plan is just a cover for the agency's narrow approach based exclusively on zoning changes and nothing else. The Greenpoint plan is a general policy document. It has many good ideas for preserving and revitalizing Greenpoint as a mixed use community. It was the result of years of hard work by community volunteers. The agency fought every attempt to make it a plan that the city would promise to implement through concrete projects and budget allocations. After the agency took over two years to approve the plan, it was promptly filed away by city government.

At a recent community meeting in Greenpoint, planning staff denied that their rezoning would force any industry to move because of the "grandfather clause." Industries whose land is rezoned for residential use can legally remain forever as long as they don't cease operations for more than two years. But this "right" is worth nothing when landowners are faced with the enticements of converting their property to more profitable residential use. It appears that the agency is more interested in rezoning to encourage residential investment than mixed use communities. Richard Barth, the agency's executive director, told Crain's (May 12, 2003), "There are developers out there anxious for rezoning."

Planning agency staff also claim they would rezone only industrial areas where they found industrial employment had declined. However, Isabel Hill, a former planner for the agency, was quick to challenge the city's use of Department of Labor employment data to analyze job losses, noting that there are many errors when this data is used at such a small scale. Also, slated for rezoning are areas with obvious industrial successes. This includes the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, an award-winning consortium of small businesses that renovated five industrial buildings in an area the city writes off as declining.

One of the objectives of the Greenpoint plan is to develop new housing that is affordable and consistent with the scale and character of Greenpoint's low- and mid-rise housing. Greenpoint has a large low-income population, many renters receiving some form of public assistance. But rents have doubled over the last five years as gentrification pressures mount. Greenpoint civic groups have proposed that the Department of City Planning's new zoning should mandate or include incentives for low- and moderate-income housing. "Inclusionary zoning" like this is only an option in portions of Manhattan. However, the agency just fought and won a battle against any kind of inclusionary principle in the rezoning of a 110-block area of Park Slope, Brooklyn.

They will do the same in Greenpoint. The agency maintains that only high density, high profit housing on the waterfront will attract developers that are willing to provide waterfront access. To require developers to keep housing units affordable, they believe, won't work. However, these are bold statements offered with no proof. Experienced developers know that with current incentives and programs they can usually make more by building affordable housing. The speculators who have bought up pieces of the Greenpoint waterfront will, of course, continue to resist any efforts by the city or community to tell them what they can do. They want to make a windfall on a rezoning that will multiply the value of their property overnight. The prospect of such a windfall makes the developers shun "normal" development, profitable as it may be.

Unless the city's housing agency gets deeply involved in planning for the Greenpoint waterfront, we are likely to see rows of high rises there. The neighborhood's population could increase by 50 percent and tens of thousands of working families could be forced out. That is not a scenario consistent with the Greenpoint plan or the objectives of mixed use zoning.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legislating NIMBY


Two very different projects, in communities half a mile apart, together offer a single lesson.

In Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood with a housing shortage and one of the highest HIV infection rates in the country, a proposed supportive housing project for people living with HIV and AIDS barely survived a lawsuit filed by residents from the surrounding area. Developed by Pratt Area Community Council, a local community-based organization, in part with public monies (including State tax credits), the Gibbs Mansion at 218 Gates Avenue is considered by some to be a model of quality, affordable housing. Two thirds of the units are designated for formerly homeless and HIV-infected people. These residents are seamlessly integrated into a dignified and comfortable living environment with the other one-third of the residents whose only occupancy requirement is income-based.

Half a mile away, on the corner of Clermont and Park, under the shadows of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, neighbors were at first excited to see what they thought to be the development of condos. Then they noticed beds being moved in under the cloak of night. After all was said and done, a private developer had, in spite of existing code violations, successfully established a somewhat dubious hotel that was being subsidized by the New York State Department of Homeless Services for up to $95 a day per unit.

These two state-supported projects differ in many obvious ways, and in one way not so obvious but very signficant: People in the surrounding neighborhood learned of the Gates Avenue project before it broke ground. In the case of Clermont and Park, people learned of the developer's project after it was too late to do anything about it.

All around the city there are neighborhood skirmishes and feelings of deep resentment flaring up between community residents and those who seek to develop facilities that address social needs. And in the New York State legislature there is an attempt underway to meet the public's growing demand that neighborhood residents and public officials be given ample opportunity to weigh in on whether these facilities that claim to serve the public interest can set up in their collective back yards, particularly when public funds are used.

The Community Notification and Empowerment Act would require community notification and review of proposed state financed facilities in New York City. Senate Bill S71 and Assembly Bill 4795 propose that the local community board, borough president, state and city elected officials have the opportunity to submit their written recommendations, along with those of the New York City Planning Commission, to the lead state agency,

The bill, sponsored by State Senator Serphin R. Maltese and Assemblyman Scott Stringer, makes the argument that state funded facilities should undergo a review process similar to the City Charter Fair Share process, and that currently state funded projects are not required to undergo the same rigorous review as city projects. City residents, the legislation claims, are often uninformed and powerless with regard to the siting of state financed facilities, since there are no provisions requiring community notification and review of state financed facilities.

As fair minded as this may sound, this legislation has placed ordinarily populist-minded allies at odds with one another. Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a highly respected leader in Central Brooklyn whose voting record is consistent for the most part with Scott Stringer, for instance, strongly opposes this legislation. Her position is also shared by two highly prominent and influential not-for-profit policy forces, the Coalition for the Homeless and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

Senator Montgomery's beef with this bill is that it could embolden misguided strains of the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) movement, which in New York City at least has come to refer to a growing chorus of community board leaders, parochial-minded activists and others who assert power mainly by stopping neighborhood projects they feel threaten them or their property values. This can include anything from the dumping of toxic waste, a commercial chain that threatens a family business, or a facility for the mentally ill that represents, for some, a nest of undesirables. In Montgomery's opinion, worthy projects that function as a safety net in her district would be constantly thwarted and discouraged under this bill. In an incident that suggests her rather principled stance on this legislation may put some of her own political capital at risk, Montgomery's relationship with the powerful chair of Community Board #3, Sherronie Perry, was severely strained as a result of Montgomery's support of the 218 Gates Avenue project.

Assemblyman Stringer, who maintains that he and his senate colleague want the same thing -- a responsible and practical way for neighborhood people to decide what kind of social service infrastructure their neighborhood can support -- says "This is about fair share and the public's right to know two terms which have become legitimate rallying cries for social justice advocates." Stringer plays down the impact this bill will have and even asserts it is weak in the sense that it does not have the power to stop projects from being assigned to neighborhood sites. It is the lack of notification, he says, which prompts people to object to the building of certain facilities. Stringer believes that once the public knows what is being proposed, this will foster cooperation between facilities and neighborhoods. The best way, Stinger advises, to support worthwhile neighborhood-based projects is by educating people in the surrounding neighborhood.

Others are not buying it. Shelly Nortz, the Deputy Director for Policy for the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocate for the kind of supported homeless housing that is typically attacked by NIMBY forces, accuses this legislation as being disingenuous and wolf in sheep's clothing, warning that it is meant to turn the community development process into knots. Nortz says this legislation stands in the way of developing solutions to homelessness and poverty and recounts countless moments when supportive housing facilities have been doomed because community boards have been misinformed about the nature and details of the project.

One of the more popular tools that community boards use to flex their power, for example, is ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Process), which grants community boards authority in zoning changes and the disposition of city property. Sometimes the opposition to proposed projects can be reasonable and more than justified. But community boards, which are made up of mostly grassroot political appointees, some of whom have obviously too much time on their hands, often take their gate-keeping positions a little too seriously. Some community boards have reputations for being arbitrary, tyrannical and sometimes just plain self defeating, such as in the case of one board representing a predominately poor area that opposed the placing of a fruit and vegetable garden in a neighborhood park.

These issues cut to the heart of the distribution of power within neighborhood settings and test the claims of democratic action. They also force us to confront our values as a civilized society.

Shouldn't there always be a place for our elderly, our mentally ill, ex offenders, or anyone else who lives at the margins of our culture? At the same time, are facilities that ghettoize and stigmatize members of our community always solutions to poverty? And who can deny the claims of air share advocates who rightfully question why low-income and of-color neighborhoods routinely get dumped on and are expected to shoulder a higher social burden? Neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, the area that Scott Stringer represents, or say, Bay Ridge, don't have to contend with racist or class-based policy making. These areas also flex the kind of political and economic power and have the kind of resources that virtually pre-empts them from having to confront whether a facility housing recovering addicts, for instance, is welcomed in their area.

But Shelly Nortz rejects the idea that this bill even calls these kinds of questions, mainly because, according to the Coalition's Memorandum in Opposition, the bill applies to any entity that receives more than $80,000 annually in state compensation or those that receive more than half their operating revenue from the state. In her opinion, this bill does not operate on a level playing field because it singles out organizations that receive often small amounts of state funding. Organizations that do not rely on state funding are not subject to this notification process. We can not call it an issue of democracy or fairness until we start from a place where the same rules are applied to everyone.

One would even have a hard time claiming that democracy is exercised by community boards, whose members are not elected by the neighborhood constituencies they claim to represent. As one community advocate I talked to said, "This bill, by referring to community notification and empowerment uses the language that many activists speak and support, and few would argue against, but it makes assumptions about what constitutes community notification and fair share. These terms mean different things to different people."

Nonetheless, the momentum that NIMBY thinking has gained throughout the city may be reflected in this legislation. Unlike the past couple of years, when this bill has passed in the Assembly with an almost unwritten understanding that it would be defeated in the Senate, it recently passed the Senate finance committee. It still has a long way to go -- votes on both floors of the legislature and, if it gets past there, a trip before the governor -- but pass or fail, right or wrong, this bill frames and serves as a flashpoint for what will certainly be an on-going debate in New York.

Mark Winston Griffith, a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Essence and Spin, is also founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership, which organizes people to build economic power.

Are Higher Rent Increases Justified By Rising Costs


The Rent Guidelines Boardgave preliminary approval for the highest allowable increases for rent-stabilized leases since 1990. If approved in the final vote to be held on June 19, one-year leases will rise 5.5 percent, and two-year leases by 8.5 percent, beginning October 1, 2003.

The board’s justification for the large increases lies heavily in one of the reports they issue annually – the Price Index of Operating Costs(pdf format). That report looks at the costs for a market basket of goods and services needed to operate and maintain rent-stabilized apartments in New York City.

The 2003 price index jumped 16.9 percent, largely due to sharp increases in fuel costs, insurance premiums, utility prices, and taxes. Labor costs, contractor services, administrative costs, parts and supplies and replacement costs showed more modest increases. It was the second highest price index increase in the 35-year history of the report.

Landlord representatives argued that higher prices proved the need for higher than usual rent increases, while tenant advocates discounted the price index entirely.

The 2003 Price Index of Operating Costs

A handful of factors came together over the past year to cause the spike in the price index.

Fuel Costs – Up 66.9 percent

The price of heating oil (chart) began rising last November, just as cold weather set in. Those higher prices and a colder-than-usual winter combined for an unprecedented one-year increase in the cost of heating a typical rent-stabilized apartment.

The cold weather accounted for about 40 percent of the cost increase. The remainder came from the rising price of crude oil, which made itself known at gas stations and beyond, as it neared $40 per barrel.

Insurance Premiums – Up 40.5 percent

It wasn’t just the losses of 9/11 or the fears of more terrorist attacks that boosted insurance premiums for city landlords last year. Wall Street’s poor performance played a big role. Just like hopeful retirees across the country, insurance companies watched their reserves deplete as the stock market dropped and scrambled to refill them with higher premiums.

But 9/11 did cost insurers $ 40.2 billionand made them more reluctant to stay in the New York City market. And owners who increased the insured value of their properties, or added terrorism coverage faced premium increases of almost 50 percent.

Utility Prices – Up 21.7 percent

Natural gas and electricity costs rose by more than 40 percent over the past year. They both correlate to rising crude oil prices. Natural gas can be used as a substitute for heating oil, and high oil prices increased demand and price of natural gas. And both oil and natural gas are common feedstocks in the production of electricity.

While water and sewer costs rose minimally over the past year, the New York City Water Boardrecently passed a price increase of 5.5 percent, effective July 1, 2003.

Taxes – Up 14.8 percent

The strong housing market has meant that assessments of property value have gone up. Furthermore, the city’s 18.5 percent property tax increase was implemented in January. Property owners are now paying more and hoping to pass along the increase to renters.

While these numbers would seem to support the need for higher than usual rent increases, tenant advocates caution that they are not the whole story. First, they say, the price index only looks at changes in prices, not at actual landlord expenditures. Previous Rent Guidelines Board studies have noted a difference, since landlords find ways to economize when prices spike.

Secondly, “It only looks at one side of the profit equation and ignores income,” said Michael McKee, associate director of New York State Tenants & Neighbors, a statewide tenant organization. While the Rent Guidelines Board does consider income and expense studies(pdf format), they use data which is outdated by the time the board makes its annual decisions on rent increases. Landlords should be required to submit real-time income and expense reports for the Rent Guidelines Board to consider in its calculations, tenant advocates say.

“We reject the price index methodology entirely,” said McKee. “It is fundamentally one-sided.” In support of this notion, a bill was recently introduced in the City Council to bar the use of the price index in the determination of rent increases. For this year, however, “we are hoping we can persuade a majority of the [Rent Guidelines] Board to lower the number for the final vote,” said McKee.

Half a percentage point or a percentage point could make a big difference for tenants. Even the relatively modest 2 and 4 percent increases that were adopted last year resulted in a citywide rent increase of $174 million in the first year. “That’s a transfer from a million-plus tenants to 25,000 landlords who include some of the wealthiest people on the planet,” said McKee.

But landlord advocates are also hoping to persuade the board to alter the numbers before the final vote. They would like to see bigger increases than the current proposals.

“It’s totally inadequate, given the extraordinary increases in costs that owners have experienced in the last year,” said Frank Ricci, director of governmental affairs of the Rent Stabilization Association, the city’s largest residential landlord group.

Landlords have greater faith in the accuracy of the Price Index of Operating Costs, although, they point out, the numbers always lag a year behind rent increases. They had asked for rent increases of 9 and 15 percent for one and two-year leases respectively and were disappointed by the lower numbers the Board voted through.

“For a certain segment of property owners, it’s going to be extremely difficult,” said Ricci.

Rebecca Webber is a journalist who has covered housing issues for Gotham Gazette since July 2000.



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