There was love amid the cherry blossoms of City Hall Park on April 19. Affordable housing advocates have been spending a lot of time there lately, but it was a particularly sweet success that brought them and Mayor Bloomberg together for a warm and raucous press conference. After three decades of inaction, promises, misappropriation and a near-detour to the West Side redevelopment money pit, Mayor Bloomberg and Comptroller William Thompson struck an agreement to use $130 million in Battery Park City revenues to create a new fund subsidizing affordable housing. Thus begins the process of fulfilling a pledge first made in the 1960s and codified in the 1980s: The lower Manhattan project would generate low-cost as well as luxury homes.
Members of community and citywide housing organizations cheered the mayor, exclaimed “Hallelujah,” and thrust a baby into Bloomberg’s arms. This was the fun part. What preceded the celebration was more than a year of careful organizing work, election-season strategizing and a lot of luck. And the work is far from over.
The money was there all along. In 1989, New York City and the state-controlled Battery Park City Authority reached an agreement: The authority, which leases the site from the city, would give the city $600 million in its revenues–money paid by major tenants in lieu of taxes–to be spent on affordable housing.
It wasn’t. A year ago, the city’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) determined that “little if any of the $600 million was used for housing programs, and was instead used for general budget purposes.” Total spent on housing: $143 million. A clause in the agreement allowed the funds to be redirected if City Hall needed them to “maintain fiscal stability”–and according to the Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, that was always the case.
Over the decades, watchdogs–notably Glenn Pasanen of City Project–kept the heat on City Hall to fulfill the pledge. Mayor Bloomberg even mentioned the funds in his 2001 campaign. But it wasn’t until last year that a window of opportunity opened, and an organized network of affordable housing advocates kept it propped open.
The new Battery Park City deal is a side effect of the administration’s West Side redevelopment mania. In March 2004, the mayor and governor announced an agreement to finance the expansion of the Javits Center, a plan that counted on using $350 million in Battery Park City revenues. That use of the funds was shot down by State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and the city never pursued it further. (The Bloomberg administration has since moved to create a special “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILOT, fund, over which the mayor has exclusive control.)
But the Javits flap was a wake-up call to affordable housing advocates: The Battery Park City money was once again in play. The Battery Park City Authority had restructured its debt, freeing $1.1 billion in proceeds and generating its final payment to the city under the 1989 agreement. The slate was clean. And a new alignment of advocacy organizations stepped up to bring the pledge back from the dead.
Joe Weisbord, consultant to the financial-institution-backed Housing First! coalition, worked with the IBO to determine what money was there and what needed to be done to get it. Any deal would have to be approved by the governor, the mayor and the comptroller. So Weisbord set out to find partners who could help persuade the comptroller to get on board.
ACORN was an obvious choice. It has a housing development corporation, an organizing network that can turn out throngs to rallies, and a leadership role in the Working Families Party, which endorsed Thompson. Bertha Lewis and Jon Kest of ACORN had a series of meetings with Thompson last summer and fall. The comptroller eventually went to meet with the mayor.
ACORN was soon joined by the Initiative for Neighborhood and City Wide Organizing (INCO), a new project coordinated by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. INCO funds organizers at community development groups around the city, who were deployed to convince their local members that they had a stake in what was happening in lower Manhattan. It wasn’t hard, say organizers. “People are overcrowded. We hear these stories every time we have a meeting: A family is growing but it can’t move because they can’t afford the rent,” says Hilda Chavis, cochair of the housing committee at the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Now she was able to tell them they could do something about it. “Everyone knows it’s an election year for the mayor,” say Chavis. “It didn’t take long for people to see the connection. If we were going to get housing on the agenda, we would have to be vocal–we would have to be seen.”
Working together as the Housing Here and Now Coalition, ACORN, INCO, and tenant, homelessness and labor groups brought about 7,000 people to a City Hall demonstration on a winter afternoon. They rallied around five demands, with the Battery Park City funds at the top of the list. “The rally on February 2 was the housing community coming together and prioritizing a few issues,” says Julie Miles, lead organizer of Housing Here and Now. “They may not have been the priorities of individual organizations, but it came from asking, ‘What can we win if we work together?’”
That was followed by a March 15 mock “move-in” to Battery Park City, at which demonstrators were clad in pajamas and bathrobes. In the meantime, City Council members, including Speaker (and mayoral candidate) Gifford Miller, were picking up the issue. By early April, the comptroller’s people notified the mayor’s office that Thompson had scheduled a press conference announcing his support for a housing trust fund. The administration quickly agreed to join in a deal.
Battery Park City funding “is not a good political issue magically,” says Brad Lander, executive director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development. It was Lander who held the dinner-cum-summit in early 2004 that first brought many of the coalition members together. “It’s a good political issue if organizing has made it an issue for communities.”
The groups that pushed the Battery Park City deal shared a conviction that the mayor’s New Marketplace development plan–aiming to build or preserve 65,000 units by 2008–doesn’t go deep enough. “If there’s any criticism that can be leveled at the mayor’s plan, it’s that it doesn’t do enough for the neediest households, especially homeless and very low income people,” says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless and a strategic advisor to Housing Here and Now. “The trust fund addresses the needs of some of the poorest families in New York.”
Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Shaun Donovan reportedly advocated within city government for a Battery Park City trust fund. He knew that there had been a particularly acute lack of subsidies not only for the very poorest but also for
moderate-income people making too much to qualify for apartments built under the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. Additionally Donovan needed a way to finance his ambitious scheme to have HPD acquire mortgages on distressed federally subsidized apartment buildings.
Some of the new funds will be tapped to buy sites outright, creating a “land bank” for future construction. HPD has already been working with the Enterprise Foundation and philanthropic partners to pave the way for such acquisitions, under the New Ventures Incentive Program.
Could the city have done even more? Perhaps. The commitment is limited to four years. “I don’t know that we can bind future administrations,” explained the mayor upon announcing the fund. Some Battery Park City revenues remain untapped, including a $45 million “special fund” that is expected to grow in coming years. And as of mid-May, there was still that little matter of securing the governor’s support.
But advocates involved consider it a huge success. Housing Here and Now also prevailed on two other demands that the Bloomberg administration had previously resisted: inclusionary zoning in Greenpoint/Wiliamsburg and the Hudson Yards, and permanent housing for people with AIDS.
Still, getting Battery Park City was especially satisfying. “Battery Park City had been the holy grail of the affordable housing community for quite a long time,” notes David Greenberg, policy director of ANHD. “With it I think there has been a vision, in part realized through this announcement, that economic development as promoted by the city can be done in a way where benefits really come back to low-income communities.”