Affordability and Development

Two articles I wrote are up at City & State and Gotham Gazette. 

First, Defining Affordability Down: 

Who opposes affordable housing? For Democratic candidates, supporting affordable housing is like coming out for better schools or equal rights for women: It is so uncontroversial and obvious that it is almost beside the point. But what does affordability really mean in a city as obsessed and driven by real estate as New York?

Read the rest here

Second, Development and Its Discontents: 

Manhattan’s 3rd City Council District, covering the West Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, has been altered immeasurably in the last decade. Depending on your perspective, the last 12 years under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the district’s current representative, have either destroyed the area, or remade it into a fabulously exciting international destination. Or both. 

Read the rest here

Brad Lander on REBNY and Margaret Chin: "Hard to Know What the Relationship is"

After my last post about Margaret Chin and her acceptance of Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) support, I started wondering about what it means in New York for an elected Democrat to label herself as “progressive.”

By the standards of legislative bodies in this country, after all, the New York City Council as a whole is about as far to the left as you could go.  The Speaker, hewing to her agenda, has prevented most legislation from proceeding to the floor for a vote, but if the Council were a more democratic institution then New York would find itself, in certain respects, in Pyongyang.

Consider, for example, the fact that the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the Council already constitutes an absolute majority of the entire body.  If minority representation is a proxy for a leftish, social justice style agenda, then surely the Council is already “progressive” enough, no? 

It is when we look, as Chris Bragg did in Crain’s recently, at the precise political history of the members of the Progressive Caucus, that we understand that the Caucus represents the high water mark of the Working Families Party, circa 2009, before the implosion of Data and Field Services.  The Caucus was organized as an elected vanguard to further the WFP union-left agenda.  It is more of a Montagnard clique representing a strategic tendency, than it is an ideological movement of visionaries or particularly committed liberals.

I spoke this week to Council Member Brad Lander, Co-Chair of the Progressive Caucus, about what it means to be on the caucus, and what it would take to be thrown out of it, and whether Margaret Chin is in danger of such exile.

The always affable and somewhat verbose Lander, of District 39 representing Park Slope and environs, told me about the loose requirements for joining the Caucus.  “People send a letter saying they would like to consider joining,” Lander said, “and then we have a conversation, and there is the matter of dues, we do have rather heavy dues…and then we take a vote, though we have never rejected anyone.  I believe we do have a clause pertaining to expulsion based on ethical misconduct, much as the Council itself….”

I explained that I was less interested in the mechanics of the Progressive Caucus than in what would constitute political grounds for expelling someone.  I asked Lander what he made of the independent expenditures that REBNY has made, through their Jobs for New York PAC, on behalf of Council Member (and fellow Progressive) Margaret Chin, and if that violated the Progressive Caucus’ stated principles on affordable housing.

Defending Chin, Lander said, “I don’t think Margaret Chin has signed on to the REBNY platform…it is hard to know what the relationship is.  I don’t think that Mark Levine has signed on to the REBNY platform, and I don’t think that Ritchie Torres has signed on the REBNY platform either.”  

Mark Levine (running in CD 7) and Ritchie Torres (candidate in CD 15) are both WFP candidates, and presumably prospective Progressive Caucus members, though neither of them has received any help from Jobs for New York. In fact, so far, the only elected Council Member who has received substantial help from Jobs for New York is Margaret Chin, avowed fighter for affordable housing.

(Correction: Mark Levine and Ritchie Torres have been endorsed by Jobs for New York.  Levine has disavowed the support, while Torres, according to Tenents PAC, has issued ambivalent statements regarding Jobs for New York.)

I pointed this out to Lander, who grew defensive of his fellow Progressive.  “I am not going to criticize Margaret Chin’s campaign,” he said.  “There are several races where Jobs for New York has supported the front-running candidates in hopes that they will be grateful later.  There is no way to solicit or refuse the help, so who is to say whether Margaret Chin even wanted it…”

The notion that the people at REBNY, who comprise some of the savviest investors in the world, are making random political contributions, either in befuddlement or out of earnest good will, seemed so ridiculous that I was forced to interrupt the council member to say so.  I asked him, If you will not draw lines against an organization such as REBNY, whose position is anathema to that of the Progressive Caucus, then what does it mean for there to be a Progressive Caucus?

CM Lander softened his tone: “I share the concern implied in your question. I am against large independent expenditures, and many of the battles I have fought for affordable housing and inclusionary zoning--I am sure that REBNY would be on the other side of them.

“But at the same time we have not discussed REBNY.  There is no set of specific questions and criteria that we have developed about them.  There is not a defined agenda regarding REBNY, as there is for Students First.”  

Students First is a pro-charter school PAC founded by Michelle Rhee, which the Progressive Caucus has specifically drawn a line on.  Any endorsement of or by Students First, it appears, will sink endorsement from the Progressive Caucus/WFP front.

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  The UFT opposes anyone who doesn’t take the position that the only way to be pro-student is to be pro-teacher, and that the only way to be pro-teacher is to salute the UFT.  The UFT has a lot of money, and highly disciplined voters as members.  On the other hand, REBNY, while an unsavory type of organization for people who call themselves progressives to be associated with, has no organized opposition worth fearing.  OK, there is Tenants PAC, but Tenants PAC has given away in total about $130,000, ever.  That is, a little more than one percent of what Jobs for New York is planning to disburse this summer.

So the Progressive Caucus may see Margaret Chin’s refusal to denounce REBNY’s support for her campaign as an embarrassment, but not a significant one.   It isn’t as though she offended anyone important, like Michael Mulgrew or Lillian Roberts.  And as Co-Chairman Brad Lander told me, “I am sure that Margaret Chin will continue to be a committed member of the Progressive Caucus.”


Margaret Chin, Progressively Awful

A hundred years ago being a Progressive meant you were in favor of civil service reform, eugenics, and the referendum.  Nowadays being a Progressive means being in favor of social and economic justice and against stop-and-frisk…I guess. It isn’t entirely clear what the label means.  But whatever it is, if it includes Margaret Chin, Council Member for CD 1, it doesn’t mean much of anything at all.

CM Chin, a member of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, represents Lower Manhattan, including Chinatown.  She got her start in politics as a housing advocate and was a founding member of Asian Americans for Equality, which originated as a front group for the Communist Workers Party.  She appears to have pedaled back from her Maoist commitments since then, and even from the rather less stringent doctrines of the Progressive Caucus. 

Signing on with Jobs for New York, the political action committee of the Real Estate Board of New York, Margaret Chin has endorsed the platform of the most pro-developer, anti-tenant organization in the city.  REBNY has promised to spend $10 million in 2013 to defeat candidates opposed to its agenda.  So far this season, Jobs for New York has spent more than $80,000 on Chin’s mailers, one of which calls her “Maragret.”  Coming from a soi-disant “passionate advocate for tenants’ rights,” Chin's evident doublethink is dizzying.

Chin’s record in her district on development issues is terrible.  When she took office, the oldest building on the Bowery was a circa-1817 Federal Era wood framed structure at 135 Bowery.  First American International Bank, a local company, owned the building, which was designated as a landmark in June 2011 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Under Council tradition, local Members direct their colleagues how to vote on most land use proposals, and Chin urged removal of the landmark designation, allowing the owner to destroy the historic property, which was in fact torn down. 

Executives and employees of the First American International Bank then contributed $5,910 to Chin’s re-election campaign.

Council Member Chin, who had originally claimed to support the landmarking of 135 Bowery, argued that, “there is opportunity on the site to build commercial space that is so needed in the Chinatown community for the small businesses.”  She claimed repeatedly that the commercial space would provide “affordable office space,” that would be below market-rate.

Here we see the shibboleth “affordable” brought out like a fetish to dispel criticism of real estate development.  Affordable housing is always promised, but at least that is an actual thing, which can be given to people with low incomes.  But how would “affordable office space” be allocated?  To businesses that need more money?  To non-profits run by her supporters?  It is totally absurd and fantastically cynical for Chin to make such a promise. 

In another case where Margaret Chin set aside Progressive principles of transparency and open government, we find that 183 East Broadway, owned by Ching Sun “Norman” Wong, was built in contravention of building code.  It was too tall and violated the “sliver law.”  It did not have enough open space.  Demolition and structural work caused neighboring buildings to crack.  Its scaffold fell on and hurt a pedestrian.  The city halted construction.

Wong’s lawyer pled to the community board that his client, who owns a real estate company, is “in the noodle business…doesn’t know much about real estate.”  He also said that Wong gave the community “$150,000 in grants and donations” (unspecified), and wanted help to finish building the structure without having to follow the law.

The board voted to support Wong, and the Bureau of Standards and Appeals went along with the board.  Presumably Council Member Chin could have stepped in at any time, but why should she?  Norman Wong gave her campaign $2,750.

When I interviewed Margaret Chin in 2009, I asked her about NYU’s plans for expanding its footprint through the lower Village.  Chin said forcefully, “NYU needs to be reined in, and made to understand that lower Manhattan is not a college town.”  Once elected however, Council Member Chin went along with the Speaker, and approved NYU’s plans to continue devouring downtown.

Assuming Margaret Chin is re-elected, it will be interesting to see what happens next term when the Progressive Caucus reconstitutes itself.  Will Chin, a “proud member,” remain as such?  Or will the Caucus expel this running dog from its midst?