After spending 25 years fighting with developers for affordable housing in Brooklyn, on the eve of ACORN’s 25th anniversary in April, Executive Director Bertha Lewis is feeling pretty good about how things are going with the Atlantic Yards Development. As a partner in the Community Benefits Agreement and with the first housing slated for phase one, and the “commitment to minority firms” in place, Ms. Lewis says she’s glad to see the process moving forward and “what we wanted from the CBA is coming to fruition.”
“I’m happy that going forward, Black folks will be in downtown Brooklyn and not be pushed out.”
We asked Ms. Lewis how dealing with forest City Ratner differed from working with other developers in the city. “It’s been night and day,” she replied. “Every other developer, including Magic Johnson, didn’t want to hear about affordable housing. They did not even want to sit down and look at the numbers on how they could include affordable housing and still make a profit. Forest City Ratner recognized our expertise, they sat down with us, they respected us,” saying, in effect, “Let’s let your bean counters talk to our bean counters, your lawyers talk to our lawyers.” Lewis said that as the Ratner team looked at the proposal, they realized, “This will work.”
Ms. Lewis looks around Brooklyn today and sees a “resegregation.” If we had not done this program with them, there would be no room for low-income, middle-income, working-class people in downtown Brooklyn. We’re trying to keep people of color in downtown Brooklyn and none of these other developers, not one of them even wanted to talk to us. They laughed in our faces. Here’s a quote from one of them. “If I make one penny less. One penny less than what I could make with luxury, I’m not interested.”
With prices for apartments being uttered in disbelief and with the question “Where are people supposed to live?” on lips all over the borough, Lewis says, “Brooklyn is losing anything that looks affordable every day. We are in a housing crisis and I don’t think we can build our way out of it. We’ve got to come up with ways to address it. If every other developer in this city would just follow Forest City’s model they would see they’re not going to lose money.”
Lewis says that every new housing development should have an affordable housing component, but they keep coming up against developers like the Magic Johnson Group and the Williamsburg Bank Building Project. “We said to the company, we know you’re doing over two hundred condos, could you do just one that could be affordable'” You know what they said, “Not one. We said to Magic Johnson and his partners, ‘working people for years made you what you are. They spent their pennies, and you mean to tell me you couldn’t even put one demonstration unit?’ This is the attitude that ACORN has been getting for over 25-years, until Ratner came. People can say what they want, but I know what is true.”
Lewis says, that Ratner was a ‘willing partner’ and to hear her tell it, willing partners in affordable housing are exceedingly rare in the hypercharged housing market in New York.