Gotham Gazette

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Pacific Park Developer's Deceptive Affordable Housing Spin

535 carlton pacific park

Part of the 535 Carlton Pacific Park lottery ad

Ashley Cotton's June 22 Gotham Gazette op-ed “Tackling New York’s Housing Affordability Crisis” is deeply deceptive, part of the long-running spin from the developer of the Pacific Park (formerly Atlantic Yards) project.

It's on par with the misleading mayoral press release June 13 for the "100% affordable" 535 Carlton, which I analyzed in City & State.

Cotton, the External Affairs Executive VP for Forest City New York (and thus the spokesperson for the joint venture Greenland Forest City Partners), writes of that new building, "It’s 100 percent affordable, and proof positive that our public-private affordable housing model delivers great results."

Really? Half of 535 Carlton is dedicated to middle-income households earning up to 165% of Area Median Income, or AMI. Translation: studios cost $2,137, one-bedrooms $2,680; two-bedrooms $3,223, and three-bedrooms $3,716.

While those dip below market rates, they hardly supply housing to those who need it most. According to the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development's Affordable Housing "Cheat Sheet," only 7.4% of New York households even fall within 140% and 170% of AMI, above which is clearly market rate.

I recall the 2009 public hearing, where a member of the housing group ACORN urged approval of Atlantic Yards because "[t]he people in my building cannot afford $2,000 a month rent." They still can't.

The word "affordable" sounds good, but vagueness about actual affordability obscures how affordability differs significantly from that originally promised, which got advocates like ACORN on board.

Cotton writes, "We committed to delivering 2,250 units of below market-rate housing by 2025." Yes, but that obscures how the developer, with compliant public officials and cowed advocates, has delivered apartments for households in the top quartile of city incomes.

The 2005 ACORN agreement was supposed to deliver 2,250 units of affordable housing, with only 20% of them -- 450 total -- going to the best-off middle-income cohort. Not only has AMI floated up significantly, this building has 50% of the units assigned to the best-off cohort.

No wonder that I discovered, after analyzing the raw spreadsheet of applicants for City Limits, that while 92,743 households applied for 297 lottery units, only 2,203 applicants even fell within income eligibility for the 148 middle-income apartments among them.

"For lottery winners, these units are life-changing," Cotton writes. Sure, for the woman Cotton features in her essay, who had been trying desperately to get good housing, and luckily won the lottery.

For the relatively small number of those seeking the middle-income units, as well as the significant number of middle-income households who've actually turned down the housing after winning the lottery, it's not so life-changing.

"Pacific Park Brooklyn," writes Cotton, "is already proof that putting affordability first can reap great rewards for the citizens of New York." Actually, it's proof that "affordability" is a great selling point when few look closely.

The unfortunate but deeply important lesson of Atlantic Yards -- 13-plus years in -- is that the developer is always spinning.

Those of us with long memories recall past deceptive essays by the developer. In May 2008, Bruce Ratner, CEO of Forest City Ratner (since renamed Forest City New York), penned an op-ed for the Daily News, contending, "for the first time, I am offering an updated construction timetable for the project...We anticipate finishing all of Atlantic Yards by 2018."

Well, we know how that turned out. The timetable stretched to 2035, and then was said to be 2025, at least for the affordable housing, though officials at Ratner's parent company now hint at well past 2030.

"We're still building the iconic Miss Brooklyn tower," Ratner wrote, regarding the Frank Gehry-designed flagship building at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, which would loom over the Barclays Center and contain an atrium in which arena attendees could gather.

Now, of course, Gehry is long gone, and the Greenland Forest City joint venture -- surely wary of construction over a regularly used arena -- now plans to seek state permission to shift the bulk of Miss Brooklyn across the street. That would transform an already large approved tower -- replacing the current big-box stores Modell's and P.C. Richard -- into an enormous two-tower project.

Consider the Feb 2010 op-ed from Ratner's deputy, MaryAnne Gilmartin, in the Commercial Observer. Atlantic Yards, Gilmartin wrote, "has been about jobs and housing and an historic community-benefits agreement that ensures that the project’s economic and social benefits help the folks who live here and need it most."

Well, it's clear today that much of the "affordable housing," not to mention the market-rate housing, doesn't help those who need it most.

What about that much-ballyhooed Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA? It was a huge part of project promotion, earning a press release from Mayor Bloomberg's office when it was signed in 2005.

One significant part of the CBA, a pre-apprenticeship training program that was supposed to vault struggling Brooklynites into coveted union jobs, dissolved, leading to a bitter lawsuit. Other elements remained vague, unenforceable aspirations.

Who oversees the CBA? Because it's not a government document -- Bloomberg was just a witness -- it's left up to the compromised signatories, which had neither the expertise nor the incentive to challenge the developer. As a consultant Forest City itself hired to evaluate the CBA concluded, the developer financially compensated the organizations for their potential to secure community support for the project, but not for their capacity to fulfill the CBA's programmatic goals.

The CBA required an independent monitor. "Atlantic Yards is setting a new standard," Ratner asserted in March 2007, "and the ICM [Independent Compliance Monitor] will be everyone's watchdog to ensure we reach all of the goals and benefits we have agreed to." The monitor was never hired, despite a Request for Proposals. The developer saved at least $100,000 a year, and the CBA evaded scrutiny.

I remember a November 2004 public meeting in which Forest City's initial Atlantic Yards point man Jim Stuckey, asked how the project would be overseen, replied, "The CBA we have in negotiation calls for an independent officer. Probably more than one." He even told the New York Times in July 2005 that the full project -- which was supposed to take 10 years when announced in 2003 -- might be completed as soon as 2011.

That's the developer's record. Their statements, including claims of "Tackling New York’s Housing Affordability Crisis," always deserve skepticism.

Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the daily blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report and is working on a book about the project. On Twitter @AYReport.

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