What new construction? Where? For whom?

via the Movement To Protect the People

It may be going to far to say there’s a bipartisan consensus, but you certainly see many people from many political backgrounds saying that the solution to America’s housing crisis is more supply. And of course that’s in part because increasing the housing supply is a central part of effectively lowering the cost of housing. In the abstract, “just build more supply” makes sense. But we don’t live in the abstract. We live in the real world, which is full of complications.

Last night I spent my evening at an organizing meeting for opposition to a planned giant new development in Crown Heights. Right off the bat, many would decry this as NIMBYism – if you oppose any particular new construction you’re a NIMBY and part of the problem. Let me lay out why the local community is so opposed to this building.

First, people are still stinging from the Bedford-Union Armory defeat. Against absolutely fierce community opposition, a parcel of public land will be used to develop luxury condos and rentals that very few of the current residents will be able to afford. (There will be “affordable” units, but more on that in a bit.) A variety of counter proposals were put forward by community leaders as alternative plans for the space, and they were ignored. A community already stinging from sudden and rapid gentrification came out and said in no uncertain terms that they rejected this plan and it made no difference. The various layers of civic governance designed to give local people a voice were shown to be useless.

Now: the proposed building will be 38 stories high, without counting the bulkheads or the allowance for more height through the (absurd) Fresh Foods initiative. This in an area dominated by six story midrises. I am not at all opposed to height, although it is really something that the proposed building will be almost twice as tall as the massive Ebbets Fields apartments. However, I am opposed to that kind of height when it’s situated right next to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Prospect Park. Last night we saw expert testimony from academics who specialize in doing shadow and glare analyses. The proposed towers would cast significant portions of the garden and park into hours of darkness daily. Sunlight is kind of important for parks and gardens! As a bonus, in some parts of the year Jackie Robinson playground would be completely shadowed for hours in the early afternoon, precisely when kids are most likely to use a playground.

These are community goods, these green spaces, owned by everyone, and they are at risk of being significantly harmed by new development that will make a few real estate tycoons rich and provide housing for those who already have the resources to live wherever they want. The local community has every right to demand that the project be halted. And you can acknowledge that while still believing that we generally need more supply. “No giant towers directly next to the fucking Botanic Garden” is perfectly consistent with a general desire to build more housing. That’s particularly the case when you consider just how phony the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program is. Inclusionary for whom?

Consider 510 Flatbush Ave, a nearby, recently-approved building with MIH units. You want to guess how much the “affordable” MIH apartments are in that building? Over $2700 a month for a one bedroom. That’s the supposedly-affordable price! The minimum income for rental approval is over $70,000, in a poor neighborhood in a city with a median household income of $55,000! And the maximum income to rent these apartments is over $100,000, meaning that the city government will be paying taxpayer dollars to subsidize rent for people who make twice the median income to live in “affordable housing.” It’s no wonder that the people who are most active in local efforts to oppose this kind of thing are working class people of color.

The MIH program is a fraud. It’s a hoax. It’s a swindle. It gives developers broad latitude to violate local zoning regulations – one of the only means communities have to influence the future of their neighborhoods – in exchange for affordable housing that isn’t. (If you’re someone who doesn’t live in New York but who harbors vaguely positive feelings for Bill De Blasio because he’s a liberal Democrat… you shouldn’t. He’s a disingenuous weenie.) There is zoning rules prohibiting buildings above a certain height next to the BBG, but thanks to the magic of MIH and zoning exceptions the project is pressing forward.

This all strikes me as complicated enough to get out of a false NIMBY/YIMBY binary. There’s a building going up in the Atlantic Yards in Fort Greene that’s as tall as the Chrysler Building and which will cast Fort Greene Park – a jewel of the borough – into hours of darkness a day. If someone from the local community has serious reservations about such a project, should they really be dismissed as a NIMBY?

This is the question I would ask of those who are ready to call others NIMBYs at the drop of a hat, and I would love to see someone actually answer. Suppose you’re a long term resident of Crown Heights. For much of your life your community has been neglected and ignored. Finally some development comes. Only it’s not development for you, but for the affluent white people who want to come in and enjoy the local amenities while disrupting the local community. You or your mom or your friends or your neighbors will be displaced by new construction. The park and gardens you have loved your whole life are threatened by it. The local businesses you have grown up with will be pushed out as rents are driven higher and higher. In their place will be coffee that’s too expensive to drink and clothing that’s too expensive to wear and places where you will never be made to feel comfortable. You will never be able to afford to live in the new construction, and as you struggle to pay your own rent some of the affluent new arrivals will be getting publicly subsidized housing even as they make six figures. Throughout the entire process the democratic institutions meant to protect your interests are subverted. Now: what are you supposed to say, according to the generically pro-development crowd, in response to all this?

“Thank god for new construction”?

a great demo

This past Thursday evening I participated in a demonstration with my tenants union and the housing justice coalition that I spend a lot of time on. We were there to protest Andrew Cuomo and his terrible record on housing – the thousands of lost rent stabilized apartments, the skyrocketing rents, the ever-growing power of developers, the scandalous state of NYCHA, the horrifying increase in homelessness in his tenure. Many of the biggest housing groups in the city came out, along with some upstate organizations eager to show solidarity and express their own frustrations. I have no official count but there’s no doubt there was several thousand people.

We started with a brief event at the steps of the New York City Public Library, where a representative of Cynthia Nixon spoke, along with Linda Sarsour and others. We then marched to a location where Cuomo was receiving an award to show our displeasure. (I can’t confirm this but I was told that the group giving the award was a “workers” group that’s actually anti-union, which is too perfect.) To my delight, we ended up taking the street; people kept spilling out of the sidewalk until we ended up marching down the center of Park Avenue with no official permission to be there. The cops were trying in vain to stop us. They even had this robot voice on a loop telling us we would soon be arrested. Finally, after four blocks or so, they corralled us back onto the sidewalk, but by then we were just about at our destination.

When we got to the venue we completely surrounded the building and chanted in unison. There’s no doubt in my mind that the occupants could hear us. Finally Cuomo emerged, head cast down, hustling as fast as he could to get into a car. It was a sight to see. Of course, no media that I can find seem to have covered the event.

One note I’ll add – I hesitate to say so, as most of them probably don’t want my praise. But I have to say that DSA continues to represent themselves well. There were dozens of them at this event, which isn’t unusual. I go to a lot of demos and organizing meetings in the city, and I almost always see DSA people. I can only speak for New York but DSA appears to be really doing it. Their growth in official membership has been much ballyhooed, but personally I put far more stock in people actually showing up for things, and from my perspective they’re doing an admirable job of that.

back to things

Recently I caught the 2 train at 96th Street heading south on my way home to Brooklyn. It’s about an hour long ride. I was sitting next to two men, professional-looking types who appeared to be in their early 30s. They were talking about a small shoe brand, recently trendy, very animatedly. Or perhaps they were not talking about the shoes.

They engaged in a kind of rhetoric that I imagine would be recognizable to anyone who spends too much time on the internet. While ostensibly discussing shoes, they were really discussing the social and cultural signifiers that attach to everything we have and are like barnacles. To wear those shoes was not to purchase and use a practical thing but to place oneself in a complex social and cultural web, to make an existential statement about yourself and your place in the economic, political, and interpersonal world. A $100 pair of sneakers, to hear them tell it, conveyed one’s deepest personal meaning, particularly as it pertained to position within the social hierarchies of the educated caste. There appeared to be no way to own and wear these shoes without sending these messages. And yet the men speaking seemed to think that they were only discussing the quality of the sneakers themselves.

In the world of politics, particularly left politics, we see a similar dynamic among those who can conceive of the political only as a way to define the self, as a tool not to create change but as a system for sorting all of us into tiers of enlightenment, as something you are rather than something you do.

Recently we have seen a lot of critical discourse on the internet and its consequences, which is good. Digital technologies have dramatically expanded the amount and scope of writing that overthinks the minutiae of life and ascribes to it cultural connotations of great importance. We are living in a world of What X Says About Y.  We have, to put it bluntly, too much culture. We have too many ideas. We have too many symbols. Our associations  about things have overwhelmed our apprehension of the things themselves. Wallace Stevens said that the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.  For myself I would say that the battle now is to live in a world outside of the web of other people’s tangled pathologies about how every minor detail of our consumption and behavior aligns us in a social hierarchy many of us never asked to join. The fight is to return to a world of things. To let a shoe be a shoe.