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July 27, 2005

Housing and Working Families

Cross posted at House of Labor

I have a private obsession (okay, as a blogger not so private) with the failure of progressives to make affordable housing more of a priority, or worse, progressives becoming the active opponents of it.   Housing is rarely treated as a workers' issue, yet labor builds it, workers staffs security and maintenance and landscaping, and whether housing is affordable decides where working families can afford to live.

The current debates in New York City over recently proposed megadevelopments on the Manhattan West Side and Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards highlight this progressive division over housing issues.  At House of Labor, commentators declared labor outside the progressive coalition because they favor these developments.  And at my personal blog, reaction was vociferous when I criticized the opposition to the Brooklyn development.

But while I understand the nostalgia for Brooklyn's low-rise housing and it is lovely for those who can continue to live there, the reality is that blocking higher density there condemns others to homelessness and the rest to increasingly long commutes.  And while quaint neighborhoods are preserved in Brooklyn, it means more people will be driven out into the suburbs to create more strip malls, SUVs, environmental degradation, and Republicans.

These are the facts of Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards proposal (facts taken from report by project critic Pratt Institute CCED, who I have great respect for, along with a few other sources):

  • At least 4500 units of housing, with up to 1500 additional ones to be built.
  • 2250 of the units will be dedicated for low- and moderate- income families in an innovative agreement with the community group, ACORN.
  • Where only 334 people have housing currently, at least 9810 people will have housing with the new development.
  • 11,175 permanent office and retail jobs in the commercial space created.
  • All contruction and all future building maintenance will be with union labor.

And the project sits on the third most important transit hub in New York City, where nine subway lines and the Long Island Railroad converge -- exactly the kind of spot where high density housing should be. 

Which is why opposition to high density housing at this site is even more perverse.  While there are many reasonable critiques of the plans for Atlantic Yards (the public financing, making sure street-level retail integrates into the community, and so on), it still remains that a pervasive critique is too much new housing, period.   As sterling a progressive as Chris Owens, who is running for Congress in the district of his father Major Owens, argued in comments:

Yes, Brooklyn needs housing -- as does the rest of New York City. Yes, affordable housing is needed throughout the City. But, Nathan, the real answer to that problem is not simply building more units.

Except it is.  Every single fewer unit in Brooklyn, Manhattan or other easy commute into jobs in the City means more people forced out to long commutes on suburban trains or worse in cars.  And it means more construction built with non-union, low-wage labor.   And it means more people soaking up resources in suburban sprawl instead of using the nine subway lines that are right near the Atlantic Yards.   Just this weekend, I was at a New Jersey suburban barbecue filled with refugees from Brooklyn who could no longer afford to raise their families there.

To look at development only from the immediate concerns of local residents-- whether Brooklyn or San Francisco or any other progressive area where urban density is fought in the name of "community" -- is to commit the worse sin of thinking only locally and ignoring global effects.   If urban residents want to condemn suburbanites for their SUVs and day labor construction exploitation, they sure should be fighting like hell to create affordable urban housing alternatives built with decent wages.  

And for affordability in the overall City, progressives discount the importance of creating more luxury housing, which is also part of the Atlantic Yards development.  If new luxury housing isn't available, the wealthy will buy up old housing, gut it and renovate it, decreasing the availability of housing.   As Jane Jacobs once pointed out, most affordable housing today is just the new housing of the rich of yesteryear.  But the gentrified gut renovation that is sweeping New York City may leave the quaint building facades in place, but it's has the same effect as the mass evictions of older urban renewal.

It's not that progressives should give a blank check to all development: the reason Ratner agreed to the amount of affordable housing he did was because of strong community pressure.  And a whole range of aesthetic and urban planning concerns should be in the mix.  I love Brooklyn and have spent many weekends (including this past one) just walking the neighborhoods, so I'm all for encouraging a vibrant street life.

But at the end of the day, where new development is being built, progressives should be in the forefront of arguing for higher density urban housing for both economic justice for the working families who need housing and need jobs, and as an alternative to the enivronmental sinkhole that are our suburbs.

Posted by Nathan at July 27, 2005 09:58 AM