Fifty protesters from ACORN crashed an open house at 85 Adams Street (nearing completion today at right) in DUMBO yesterday to protest the city’s 421(a) tax abatement program designed to encourage residential construction. That program was started in the 1970s at a time when nobody wanted to build in New York City, the population was plumetting and the Bronx was burning. But now, opponents say it is transferring wealth to already-rich developers who would build in the city anyway, and leading to the creation of a city inhabitable only by the wealthy. Curbed and Brownstoner had interesting debates on the protest. Many of the commenters seemed to disagree with ACORN, including Curbed’s 3rd, apostrophe-averse commenter, who wrote:
How come people dont protest the affordability of Beverly Hills or Malibu or Miami Beach or Nob Hill? I mean, I certainly dont like the fact that things are so expensive but at the same time, I dont feel that it is my right to live here. If I can afford it, fine but if i cant, then i look else where…. why do other people feel that this is a right and privildge rather than a sacrifice and financial decision. [Ellipsis in original]
Echoing that sentiment, the 18th commenter wrote:
It’s funny how some people want to live in a particular place (in this case, Brooklyn) but pay less than the market price. If they need affordable housing so bad, why not move to North Carolina or Florida or Texas or any other place in this fine country where one can buy a spacious inexpensive house for the price of a small condo in Dumbo?
My initial gut reaction is to agree with these thoughts. For all its riches, New York City, like American cities generally, bears more than its fare share of people who don’t earn a lot of money relative to the suburbs. This leads to a decline of city services, not the least of which is public education. Declining city services and attendant rise in local tax levels, lead people of means to flee the city for the suburbs, where they can fund their great schools and roads and live their lives in blissful ignorance that poor people exist. It is a self-perpetuating, vicious cycle.
|Expensive apartment towers are merely a symptom of the problem. The real enemy of affordable housing is downzoning.|
From that perspective, I would rather see housing advocates go out to Greenwich, Conn., or Scarsdale or Locust Valley and protest the suburban towns across the country that practice the type of exclusionary zoning that keeps building too expensive to allow for affordable housing. As a result of the Mount Laurel decisions, New Jersey is the only state in the nation that requires that each municipality take on its fair share of affordable housing, which helps to alleviate underclass ghettos in cities like Newark and Camden. That was an enormous victory for the affordable or inclusionary housing movement. Let’s not forget that Brooklyn is still home to East New York and Bushwick and NYCHA-owned housing projects from Williamsburg to Sheepshead Bay. That’s where you’re going to protest lack of affordable housing?
But on the other hand, I wouldn’t want to live here if everyone but the affluent moved to North Carolina or Florida or Texas. Beverly Hills and Nob Hill and Greenwich, despite their splendor, are pretty dull places to live. A place where everyone has the same income tends toward sterility and social alienation. Segregation by income, after all, is one of the top knocks against the suburbs. But the focus of housing advocates ought to be opening up the suburbs and exurbs to affordable housing, not on prohibiting cities from developing housing for the wealthy.
Income inequality is the scourge of capitalism and indeed if it gets wide enough, a threat to society. But as long as we must accept it as an unfortunate given, a city that embraces people at all levels will exert an energy and attraction not found elsewhere. There is a scene in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street where Master of the Universe Gordon Gekko and his protege Bud Fox are sharing a limo ride on Park Avenue. Gekko points through the rain-streaked window to a guy in a suit and a guy sifting through garbage (pictured), and asks what separates one from the other. The answer looks to be about four feet of sidewalk. That scene, two guys at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum sharing the same space, could be set in this country just about nowhere except New York. The city remains such a magnet for people around the world in part because it is home to rich and poor alike, and in fiction and in reality, they rub shoulders on a daily basis. There is a kind of subtle creative energy that pulsates through the city because of that. It’s not just the rich and poor comingling here. Heightening that is the fact that people here tend to be from every race, ethnicity, national origin, religion and sexual orientation that exists. David Brooks thinks you can find that kind of diversity in exurbia. But you can’t, except perhaps in the most cursory, drive-by-and-gawk-at-the-immigrants-through-the-windshield kind of way.
The city needs the rich and the poor if it is to continue as a unique place in America, and it needs housing for them all — rich and poor and everyone in between. Startsandfits.com supports every effort to build housing (and create jobs) for anybody and everybody in New York City. If the developers are going to build in the city anyway, the 421a program should be scrapped and the money saved spent on improved city services, better education and low-income housing. But if there are marginal projects where developers decide to build only because of the tax abatement, maybe it should be kept. In any event the real problem is income inequality that creates a class of super-rich who can parachute in anywhere and price-out everyone else no matter what the supply of housing looks like. Housing advocates would do better to support whatever public policy stimulates housing construction at every level, bringing down the prices for everyone. The most effective way to do this in New York City is to rally against the downzonings that are cementing low-density development patterns in neighborhoods across the outer boroughs.
Curbed’s 16th commenter summarized a lot of my thoughts nicely:
People forget that less than 10 years ago, nobody was building any market rate housing in Dumbo, Williamsburg, or anywhere in Brooklyn, really. These tax abatements last about 10 years. That isn’t terribly long. Why kill the goose that’s laying golden eggs? Brooklyn is, in the long term, being helped by all this new housing. … the solution to that is to actually build MORE housing, not to stifle it, by removing tax breaks, extreme downzoning, NIMBY-ism etc. [Ellipsis added.]
Postscript: I admit that when I went to Downtown Brooklyn last month and got all excited about the vitality and new building going on there, one of the construction images I had in my mind was the above-pictured 85 Adams. Upon visiting DUMBO this afternoon I was excited to see other new construction. A block away is this building rising at Jay and York Streets.
And beyond that, a rooftop addition is being built atop some older urban fabric.
– 85 Adams Makes Everyone’s Brains Explode [Curbed]
– ACORN Protesters Storm The Beacon Tower [Brownstoner]
– Activists: ‘We can’t live in New York City’ [Metro]
– Report says luxury developers benefit from tax program [Downtown Express]
– Cooperative and Condominium Abatement [NYC.gov]
– Mount Laurel Doctrine [Wikipedia]
– REVIEW: David Brooks, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense [TNAC]
– Downtown Brooklyn’s Pedestrian-Only Corner [S&F]