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”?