New Orleans Atlantic Yards was the train yard that became a huge development site over twenty years ago in Brooklyn, New York, at a time then, as now, where affordable housing was at premium. ACORN in New York was involved in constant housing campaigns, as it had been for decades before the project was announced by Forest City Ratner. Our squatting campaigns had won access to housing units during the Ed Koch administration, though in a pique he refused to let us take control of them through anything with the ACORN name attached, so we moved forward under the moniker of the Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY) on the development side. At the same time, we continued direct actions and rallies for more affordable housing, both rental, individual ownership, and mutual housing at every opportunity. The Ratner proposal made a perfect target for us in the first decade of the 21st century, and we threw everything we had at the company.
This is not to say that the campaign was universally popular. As much as our members needed housing to be able to just continue to live in Brooklyn, the relative lower prices of housing in Brooklyn made it a prime target for gentrification. We were being priced out, and others were being priced in, we might say, and many did not want us to stay in their new backyards. Various small efforts popped up to oppose the development of anything of scale at Atlantic Yards. While we knew this project had political and economic legs, so we had to get as much for members as possible, even with some snipping at our heels.
I’m reminded of this campaign reading a piece in Shelterforce entitled “How Atlantic Yards Failed to Deliver Affordable Homeownership (With a Hakeem Jeffries Cameo). Early in the piece, the community benefits agreement we won in 2005 makes an appearance.
Developer Forest City Ratner’s plan to dramatically change the Brooklyn skyline, deploying Frank Gehry designs, provoked resistance and generated kudos. While the developer’s request for public assistance, including the use of eminent domain to assemble the 22-acre site, generated pushback, the promise of 2,250 “affordable” apartments, half of the project’s rentals, won backing from the housing advocacy group New York ACORN, with tens of thousands of members struggling for a more dignified life.
Like any agreement, we didn’t win everything we wanted, not by a mile, but we felt we made the best deal possible with both the commitment of affordable units and the ability to manage the process of families claiming the units.
Most of the piece focuses on what has developed over the last 18 years since that agreement was signed with a particular focus on Hakeem Jeffries, then running successfully in 2006 for the New York Assembly, and now Minority Leader in the US House of Representatives, and the question of homeownership on the footprint of Atlantic Yards. As they report with some degree of hyperbole and snark,
…Forest City’s statements obscured much wiggle room. It hadn’t committed “to build 600 to 1,000 affordable home ownership units,” phrasing taken from a 2005 Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that the developer signed with ACORN. The language was vague: “Developer and ACORN will work on a program to develop affordable for-sale units, which are intended to be in the range of 600 to 1,000 units, over the course of ten (10) years and can be on or off site.” That MOU was soon incorporated into the much-hyped Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), purported to “guarantee” community commitments, but ultimately toothless.
Of course, in any agreement, one has to hope for good faith and be committed to fight to make that so; that’s how teeth work. Furthermore, in truth, our interest was in the maximum number of units, not whether they were on site, next door, or elsewhere in Brooklyn. We felt the part of the agreement that allowed us an ongoing role also kept us at the table. Maybe we were right, maybe wrong, but 20-20 hindsight almost 20 years later might be blind to the reality and context of these negotiations.
The housing meltdown of 2007-8, hit Ratner and his financing, just as it did all developers. Plans changed, designs changed, tax provisions changed, and the incentives of the state, city, and federal governments for the project also made it difficult to maintain the timelines of the agreement. By 2010, New York ACORN has reorganized into the New York Communities for Change, and though MHANY continued forward, our leverage had also decreased. The relationship of Ratner to the New York ACORN affiliate also became complicated as ACORN faced attacks in 2009, perhaps compromising in that period ACORN’s ability to enforce the agreement.
Ratner is no more now. A new company is driving the project on a longer timeline. Maybe Jeffries has some leverage, maybe not. The city and state presumably still have lots of skin in this game. It’s not pretty to follow the twists and curves of this project over time and its prospects of housing low-and-moderate income Brooklyn families. The history is interesting and worth getting right, and ACORN would never shy from taking responsibility for our role in this project, but the main job is still right there in Brooklyn and seeing that as many affordable units are built as promised, and that’s much harder work than just writing about it.