OPINION: Affordability could fly at Bennett Field

BY LYNN ELLSWORTH | There are many weaknesses to Mayor de Blasio’s trickle-down approach to affordable housing. One is that it abandons direct provision of housing at the low end of the market and ignores the need to make housing permanently affordable.

Just as bad, every city initiative related to housing has become a partnership with a big-shot developer, with all the cost and profit biases, the distorted set of winners and losers, and all the negative social costs that such a partnership with Big Real Estate entails. If de Blasio really cared about housing supply, he would be much more aggressive about building 100 percent permanently affordable units on public land using the land trust model.

The writer proposes Floyd Bennett Field, a former airfield on federal land, above, in Marine Park, Brooklyn, as a site for 100 percent affordable housing.

By foot-dragging on the public land trust approach, de Blasio and his team are leaving amazing housing opportunities on the table without a fight. I see three examples of public land that de Blasio has not fought for, where an excellent case can be made that the properties should be given over to a public land trust for permanently affordable housing — namely, two sites at the World Trade Center complex and the entirety of Floyd Bennett Field.

World Trade Center Site 5 is the site of the former Deutsche Bank. Strangely, the Port Authority and Lower Manhattan Development Corporation have recently decided they want to sell that site off to the highest private-sector bidder for roughly $300 million. The governor is apparently gung-ho for the idea, if his release of a request for proposals, or R.F.P., for the site is an indicator of his thinking.

It all means that the World Trade Center site will see yet another glass tower with a mix of luxury office and luxury retail, instead of what we need down there, which is either low-income housing or a park that isn’t for tourists. The mayor ought to be fighting for these sites, battling the questionable theory of “highest and best use” for the disposition of public land.

The other public land on the W.T.C. complex that is bizarrely not devoted to housing is the site that is supposedly slated for a boondoggle of a performing arts center — a glassy box designed by Frank Gehry, for which the funding has not yet been found. That funding is utterly dependent on private philanthropy — much like “Diller Island,” off of W. 14th St., a billionaire’s private project. What a silly diversion of private philanthropic money which ought to be better allocated to the renovation of the public Delacorte Theater in Central Park, an actual theater in desperate need of funding!

Meanwhile, Floyd Bennett Field has about 1,000 acres under federal control. Given that Trump is a real estate developer and dislikes the E.P.A., isn’t it worth trying to get the airfield back under municipal control for housing? The place is not “nature” but an abandoned airfield with a lot of asphalt. Think what 1,000 acres could do if it was in a public land trust devoted to affordable housing on a human (say, R6 residential zoning) scale!

Clearly, one of the problems is that de Blasio and his affordable housing team have self-limited themselves to finding affordable housing opportunities only when they profit big real estate.

The point of these examples is to illustrate the dangers of relying on “public private partnerships” to build affordable housing: The approach blinds us to the 100-percent public opportunities staring us in the face. We clearly need a new policy that builds up our land assets for affordable housing rather than sells public land off to developers.

It is timely to raise the issue since the next election cycle is coming up. So who among the mayoral contenders will embrace a different approach to housing that is not de Blasio 2.0?

Ellsworth is co-founder, Human-scale NYC, and chairperson, Tribeca Trust

11 Responses to OPINION: Affordability could fly at Bennett Field

  1. On the flip side, would Ellsworth want to live in the public housing we have now? Public housing in NYC has turned into an utter, abject failure. We should be selling it off and tearing it down, not building more

    • Public housing was never supposed to be luxury living. People are supposed to move out of public housing, because they found something better. Better should not be hard to find. You've got it all wrong…. again. ugh.

      • That might have been the intent. But that's not how it's worked out. They turned out to be the worst slums in the city. And you want more?

        Who's wrong here. Everything the government has touched in terms of housing in NYC has turned out to be a huge mistake.

        • Never said I wanted more. Actually, I have friends who live in public housing where it's better than my place, so I know for a fact that you're wrong about them being the worst slums in the City. My point is that they need to be less accommodating, so that people don't want to stay. But homeless shelters are not the answer, and neither is putting families out on the street. So, it's not the worst and it's not the best, but baselessly claiming that government is the huge problem is just a worn out trope that people who don't understand nuance will never give up on. typically sad, really.

          • How about paying to relocate them to cities where housing is 1/3 the cost of NYC? NYC is one of if not THE most expensive cities in the country (maybe SF is a little higher.) If people can't afford to live here, they should leave. If they don't have the resources to do that, may that should be funded (at vastly less expense then trying to build them housing here.)

          • I'd be careful about saying who should stay and who should go, very Trumpian, but what you're suggesting is already being done. Other cities don't like it at all. Maybe you should know what you're talking about before talking out of your butt. https://www.wnyc.org/story/newark-mayor-objects-p

      • Actually, when public housing programs started in the mid-20th century, they were not supposed to be a temporary thing that people moved out of. It was supposed to provide poor and working-class people with a comfortable, middle-class life. Only later did people–and governments–start treating public housing as temporary warehouses for poor people. Funding for upkeep got drastically cut.

        And of course better housing is hard to find–there’s a major affordable housing shortage in huge swaths of the country.

  2. Chelsea Resident

    SSSS sounds like a typical self-centered flack for some private real estate power. This person has no empathy, no concern for smashing up (non-white) communities, the only idea worth anything is for predatory profit for himself.

    Here in Chelsea, the private powers are absolutely slobbering drool and urinating in their pants for the dozen blocks occupied by public housing. Where were they in 1995? They let the art world lead the way as usual, followed by the "Friends of the High Line" who no doubt profited marvelously off this narrow corridor. "Friends" to themselves, to each other, and to real estate developers, if "friends" to no one else.

  3. I agree 100% with the writer of the op-ed. The issue as I see it is this administration and the one
    that preceded it (Bloomberg) doesn’t want to, or can’t, do the hard work that is needed to utilize existing
    sites and creatively develop them at reasonable expense for those NYC residents who really need them – not
    the middle, upper-middle and upper classes, but those who are now paying more than half their
    income in rent and are one missed paycheck or medical emergency away from being homeless. It’s much easier to just hand sites over to a private developer who will provide minimal truly affordable housing in exchange
    for a great deal of market rate housing.

  4. Katherine O'Sullivan

    Well said Lynn Ellsworth. I agree, it seems community land trusts may be the best option for truly affordable (low income) housing.

  5. Affordable housing should be a right. DeBlasio is in bed with the big real estate developers and is finishing off what Guliani and Bloomberg started in killing the culture of NYC. What a shame.

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