The working-class neighborhoods of New York do not need a long-term comprehensive plan to solve their housing problem. They need strategic plans focused on housing. Perhaps as many as fifty-nine. Why? Every problem is a housing problem.
There is a slight chance of sustaining existing affordable housing and building a lot more to meet the need, but not without a strategic outlook. There is one big reason, organizers must be encouraged to think and act more tactically. Those served will be displaced if they don’t.RLC
Think of the purpose of castling in chess for a moment. It is a function of timing and real estate. There is not one city that does not have wealth contained in urban centers. The non-wealthy will be found in informal settlements and favelas of various sizes from these centers outward. By 2030, of the six-plus billion people on the earth, about two billion will live in informal settlements throughout the world. Several locations in the world have become the subject of studies (here). The global displacement force of real estate capital is well known to economists. It is not easily controlled, but governments can negotiate for positive effects and mitigate negative impacts. Ideas like rent control and stabilization, fair market returns, inclusion, and regular public housing are well known. All of them are imperfect, but families are saved, their children have a chance to prosper in secure neighborhoods. It is the institutionalization of these locations that should cause concern.
“The demonizing rhetoric of the various international wars on terrorism, drugs, and crime is so much semantic apartheid: they construct epistemological walls around gecekondus, favelas, and chawls that disable any honest debate about the daily violence of economic exclusion.”Mike Davis in Planet of Slums
The fear of ordinary working-class people is being removed from their homes. Data on housing displacement is difficult because it tends to be post-trauma. The measure is the percentage of individuals and families who have been receiving assistance from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS)
Tenant’s rights agencies cannot organize with long-term success while families struggle to maintain their dignity, privacy, and jobs.
In Manhattan (NYC), high rents began moving like a wave into Harlem and are now crashing into Inwood. These areas of Manhattan have a high percentage of rent-stabilized apartments. Displacement does not “just happen.” It is a long battle, and it will not go away.
The strategic investment would be best in organizers to help people understand what is happening and help families protect themselves, their kids, and their neighborhood. One hundred and twenty-five highly trained community organizers (planners with law degrees) are required to connect every community district with the city’s housing development policy with a primary focus on preventing displacement. Why? Because every problem is a housing problem. The anti-displacement strategy would place two people in each community district and have five or six citywide coordinating staff. The cost for this deployment of personnel is about $8 million a year for five years.
Is there $40,000,000 million out there for a project to protect the people? According to Forbes, there are over 100 billionaires in the Greater New York Area. That is just $400,000 from only a hundred of them. So, yeah, the money is there. If this was an actual proposal with legs, the facilitating leverage in public funds would be available, as would support from CBDOs and the District Board offices. An ombudsperson proposal could happen. It will not happen because this is the following view of the housing market by people with the power to keep it this way. Watch twice. I’m serious, twice.
OK, So Now What?
First, have a look at housing as a market that sells square feet. Getting a piece of New York City comes at different prices for a variety of places. Here are some rough 2015 averages. To own a bit of Manhattan, you will need to pay $3,400 per sq. ft. on Central Park South. An 8 by 10-foot closet would cost you $300,000 (furnished, of course). In Inwood, the average cost to get some of that real estate is $430 per sq. ft. Simple question: where would you buy low to sell dear? The same problem is in the outer boroughs with locational differences across New York City’s 325 reasonably distinct neighborhoods and 59 Community Districts. The acquisition cost ranges from $200 to $2,000 per square foot.
Remember the two main points in that video? One of them is on the mark, create conditions to produce lots and lots of housing. The first point is you can make housing affordable by any means necessary. But first, it must exist to do so. The second point is a cop-out, a dodge, and a side step. The government can create a community-owned housing market, and it can control all the margins of development and operation. It can do much more than subsidize market failures.
The architectural design of a castle, like the chess move, is strategic. It protects the kings on the board and their real estate. The action literally puts a chess piece named “the castle” into a position of greater power. However, it is illustrated here for its fun, not the proof, just a worn metaphor to drop into your subconscious.
The idea is that Manhattan with its (1) easily fortified entrances, (2) moat-like rivers (3) and bridges, (4) various wards and internal parks, (5) its many towers. (6) a few prisons, perhaps a donjon, (7) various chapels, and last but not least (8) entertainment sustained in multiple museums, galleries, and theaters. In the eyes of a much older group of world civilizations, nations, and cultures, capturing a piece of Manhattan must undoubtedly have great appeal. It appears as a citadel to the world. It holds fortunes equal to the enormity of its ever-increasing mass, a bastion fortifying cash and personhood with its many offerings.
It could be possible to see those distinct neighborhoods or community districts like little castles in the city’s landscape. There could be a sense of boundary defined by entrances, a tower here and there, some justice adjudication centers, social wards, parks, chapels, entertainment. It is possible to see a democratic process to support a leadership group willing to represent a place with a boundary.
A lot of bad things happen in the world. One of the worst of them is when the king fails to protect the people. Manhattan is not the enemy, nor is it an enemy of the people. Nevertheless, the working people of New York have every right to fight the global real estate force it represents. They have a right to do so with everything they can think of to protect themselves. People also want the many protections of a fortress. Being cast into the wilderness is one thing to fight. If the city does not serve this protection function, perhaps seeing a neighborhood more like a castle is the strategy required.
Build Your Castle
The citywide examples of defense against displacement are not doing well. The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing law that requires a percentage of all new housing units will be maintained as permanently affordable is reasonable. Still, hey, “The Rent is Too Damn High.” Why? The private market-rate housing market drives the process. The process requires big, tall buildings that seem to pop up wherever there used to be regular working-class jobs. It now represents a failure in distributing income from work to in-kind-redistribution systems such as means-tested vouchers. These are failures. The government could be a competitive producer of housing.
The law uses NYC’s zoning power to trade additional square feet for a few affordable apartments at rents many neighborhood residents consider extortion. When the City Council passed the law (2016), the members were euphoric. However, when introduced to the 59 Community Boards who function as advisors to the Department of City Planning, fifty-two disapproved. It was called a massive giveaway to real estate developers bypassing local zoning rules. Leadership acquiesced with statements like, “only game in town,” but too few said a “bad bargain is worse than no bargain.” Far fewer stepped forward to build the progressive coalition of labor and CBDOs needed. The reasons for this are many.
First, the inclusion program occurs because the national government is weak on housing for people in cities. The lack of a federal role in resolving the national housing issue was solidified in one persuasive economist viewpoint. There is plenty of affordable housing in the United States. It just happens that it is in the wrong place.
Second, the “wrong places” happen to be dense urban cities. The economist’s equilibrium argument (forced displacement for many) is that people will find it eventually. The lack of reinvestment in federally financed public housing has led to disrepair. It is used to thwart discussion of a new national public housing program. What else could be used to create a stronghold neighborhood?
Type the word exaction into the search engine NYU Furman Center to reveal just one 2010 research paper with the following tags: Employment; Affordable & Subsidized Housing; Land Use; Zoning; Neighborhood Conditions; Economic Development.
The report is entitled, Community Benefits Agreements: A New Local Government Tool or Another Variation on the Exactions Theme? (PDF: 164 KB) The basics are all here in the CBA paper. I recommend reading and questioning the content. One other resource is the larger world of economic argument in the nation. Here: The Economic Implications of Housing Supply by Ed Glaeser and Joe Gyourko Zell/Lurie z Working Paper#802 craft of January 4, 2017. It has more recent data. There is no doubt regarding the accuracy of these examinations. They describe the trouble we are in and remain bereft of little more than Woulda Coulda Shoulda (psych). Why? They are the explainers, not strategists for the pawns displaced. Read them for the language, use that narrative to find actions on the street to support their philosophy. It might work. The style needed for successful strategic resistance to the status quo to establish leverage for exactions, not reasons for “a benefit.”
An exaction is a concept in US real property law well-known to New York housing advocates. A set of conditions for development is imposed by the city’s power to zone and its regulatory agencies to scrutinize and evaluate. Examples are its departments of buildings, finance, and environment. Other conditions include knowing the effect of a specific development project on citywide or local needs.
The purpose of itemizing existing conditions in a community is to determine what to provide during periods of relatively rapid change periods. What specific material goods and services are needed to alleviate anticipated impacts. This can range from fear to employment assistance and public education on rights and needs. The community’s rights could be protected with legal services help (evictions, capital improvement investigations, health, and welfare safety nets). The community’s needs can be identified and defined in planning partnerships. Each partnership would be established to meet those needs with a combination of resources drawn from the proposed development conditions and all those that continue to remain unmet in specific, measurable terms.
What should be expected in the strategically organized community? It is a highly accurate evaluation of what and who we are and how to change what needs to be changed. These are rightfully organized as long-term issues. To make them precise, well defined, and renewable, they must be dealt with daily, annually, and carefully measured. There are many practical examples. Groups of young people by age can become the number kept thriving and healthy. The number who enter higher education with dreams or just good pay trade can be known. Failures are confirmed, success is celebrated. Interventions to act on goals are implemented and tested, but not by some abstract agency. Community-based organizations know it is not about the rent. It is about the work. They are paid to develop responsible action for their community. They are willing to be accountable for results, no matter what they are, and without blame for one primary reason. It is incredibly complicated.
The rationale for imposing the exaction in the short term is to offset the costs, defined broadly in economic terms, of the neighborhood’s development. However, exactions can also be established as long-term impact fees. Direct payments to local governments can also be paid for negotiated periods and included with the stated development conditions.