Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Post 14: Anti-gentrificationist vs affordable housing non profits and the city's strategy that divides them

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

Housing activism divides between anti-displacement, the attempt to keep residents in their affordable homes, and affordable housing creation that provides new homes for those who cannot afford housing the market offers. Displacement is difficult to quantify. Did Sally leave her affordable apartment because the landlord effectively evicted her by raising her rent beyond her means or did she leave because she found a cheaper place or because she chose to move to her parents' home to care for them? It's not obvious why residents leave. There are statistical generalizations, but the account does not provide the individual specifics with any kind of certainty. Affordable housing creation, by contrast, is eminently quantifiable, down to the number of units of housing, even the square footage of total creation, and even the names and income levels of those who obtain the housing.

This structural difference between the quantifiable and unquantifiable entails that elected officials and non profit organizations focus on affordable housing creation, non profits because they must account for every penny of their funding, elected official because only the quantifiable can be listed on their accomplishments and their public spending. The number of new affordable units is a prominent boast and advertisement of every New York City administration. There is no such number of residents who were protected from displacement.

On the other hand, displacement is an immediate concern for residents. They don't need to look at numbers to know when their landlord is harassing them by withholding services or filing "capricious" (legalese for "phony") eviction proceedings. New affordable housing doesn't help much, since there are always long wait lists for new housing, with no guarantee that someone evicted from one apartment will have access to a new one. And, as has often been observed, the new affordable housing usually isn't affordable to the long-term residents of that community.

Affordable housing creation could be called an 'invasion of the body snatchers' model of community preservation. It replaces the original residents of a community with new residents similar to the original with respect to income, but they are not the same people. And not even exactly the same in income. So affordable housing creation is not a means of community preservation. It's just another form of displacement, one more palatable because it provides an important service to the city overall.

Worse still, affordable housing in NYC is not created by the government directly. Instead, the city relies on the real estate industry to build the units through zoning manipulations. Bloomberg, for example, designated specific zones where a developer could build above the space alotted to that zone if the developer would include affordable units. In other words, no new affordable units could be built unless it was accompanied by market-rate units as well. The ratio of market-rate to affordable units was usually 4:1. Such a model is a recipe for gentrification, which itself has the consequence of raising the rental value of every unit in the neighborhood and so adds to the pressure on landlords to evict low renters since high renters are now eager to replace them.

The city's model of affordable housing, in short, is one of displacement and upscale transformation with no guarantee of community preservation. Michael Jackson's "They don't care about us" applies exactly. But because it is quantifiable, it is enthusiastically endorsed and promoted by elected officials and non profits with their funding streams, their literature, their connections, their organizing resources, their employees.

The local residents under pressure already, and seeing the future of displacement from the city's displacement modus operandi, have no funding stream, no employees, no connections or organizing resources except themselves. They are left on their own to argue against this so-called progressive movement of affordable housing creation that is not created for them, and which adds pressure to their displacement. Go to any DCP hearing and you will see the difference. The audience will be filled with the bright T-shirts of the non profit members who are there, not to speak -- it's likely they don't really know what's going on at all and wouldn't know what to say. They are there to pad the auditorium, to give the impression of great numbers of support for the city's so-called affordable housing program. Without uniform T-shirts you will see the ordinary residents, individually appearing with the statements they themselves wrote for and about themselves and their community.

It is a bitter irony that the members of the non profits look askance at the local residents, call them NIMBY conservative obstacles to progress, when the only progress in sight is the displacement and gentrification that the non profits are implementing for the sake of development and their own bottom line, while the elected officials stick the quantified units as a pretty feather in their hat band, the latest enhancement of their resume as they climb toward whatever grandiose office to which they aspire.

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