Friday, February 05, 2016

Collusion between gov't, developers and tenant advocacy non profits

By using zoning to limit developable space, and allowing that space to be bought and sold, gov't created property literally out of thin air -- out of the words of the zoning text. By creating a market the raw resource of which was created by the gov't, gov't could exert influence, manipulate and extort from developers. If a developer wanted more space than was available in the zoning, he had to go beg it of gov't, and gov't could grant the additional space for a favor. This market was the beginning of the end of gov't directly building affordable housing and instead drawing the developer into building it for the public.

Housing projects were widely viewed as a failure. A new generation of planners followed Jane Jacobs' broad criticism of tower-in-the-park construction, which she viewed as anti-urban, generating wastelands of non commercial, semi-abandoned and dangerous, isolated space. The reality was more complex. After all Stuyvesant Town is a housing project but no one complains that it's a failure. If anything, it's become to successful, too attractive as its management tries to replace older tenants with tenants eager to pay much higher rents there. But Stuy Town was middle-income, well maintained, with residents who were also well served by gov't and the economy in many ways. The low-income housing projects relied on inadequate gov't funding streams and the community was consistently underserved whether by the education system for its children or the employment opportunities for its parents, health services, sanitation and the maintenance of the grounds. If it failed, it failed because of the lack of social and financial investment in the human capital of the community. But that failure could easily be dressed up instead as a failure of urban and architectural planning and design.

Zoning incentives replaced housing projects. Developers would be given additional space to develop in return for building a modest percent of affordable housing that would be managed by a non profit tenant advocacy group. This model brought together gov't, developers and affordable housing non profits: gov't offered bulk space incentives to the developers while giving the non profits funding to manage the affordable housing. The developers needed to cooperate with both gov't and the non profits. And critically, the tenant advocacy groups were now compelled to work with and for both gov't and developers. 

In order to obtain affordable housing, the tenant advocacy non profits had to sell upzonings to their community, otherwise the non profit wouldn't get the affordable housing or their funding from the gov't. Since the affordable housing brings with it market-rate development, the result is gentrification, investment, opportunity for more investment and a feeding frenzy of tenant harassment. At the end of the day, affordable housing through zoning nets a loss of affordable housing. And since the affordable housing is given to people who are not currently living in the neighborhood, to call this "community preservation" is Orwellian doublespeak. 

Those in the community who are aware of the consequences of the affordable cooptation of the non profits, are placed in the ugly position of having to protest affordable housing. The gov't has effectively driven a wedge between affordable housing advocates and anti-gentrificationists by this Sophie's choice dichotomy of affordable housing (+market-rate housing) or else no development (+no new affordable housing). 

If you go to a City Planning hearing you can see the wedge in living color. The state-funded affordable housing non profits arrive with their employees and clients -- the tenants they work with in their tenant advocacy -- all in bright orange or yellow T-shirts. They don't testify, since they are brought to the hearing to pad the audience. Their leaders testify in favor of the upzoning on the grounds that it will bring affordable housing to the community. The rest of the audience is comprised by ordinary residents dressed all diversely, unorganized and unfunded. They do testify, one by one. They testify against the upzoning, expressing their concern about gentrification and community displacement. The Planning Commission ignores them because the city wants development -- it's revenue for the city. The people lose, and the sham continues. 

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