Thursday, June 30, 2011

“Battle For Brooklyn” Deleted Scene: Bertha Lewis’s Non-Response To Low-Income Tenants Kicked Out Of Affordable Housing At The Atlantic Yards Site

In the Noticing New York review of the still in-the-theatersBattle For Brooklyn” (concerning the Atlantic Yards travesty) I wrote, “given the potential breadth of the entire story there is a lot that the film makers’ necessarily left out.” I then gave some examples.

Most of what had to be excised from a 90-minute film, if included, would have been extra damning of the cabal of mega-project supporters Bruce Ratner collected around him while waving cash for those willing to sell out the community for private benefit. One big piece of the story left out of the film is the role of ACORN.

A deleted scene from the movie involving ACORN has been uploaded to the web by Michael Galinsky, one of the film makers of “Battle For Brooklyn.” As a piece that wound up on the cutting room floor, it is a good clue to the superfluity of superb material the film makers amassed and had to make choices about.

The scene is a three-minute drama involving an exchange between ACORN’s Bertha Lewis and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s Daniel Goldstein following a press conference in Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. In the clip Goldstein is trying to get Ms. Lewis to appreciate and understand that developer Forest City Ratner’s plan is resulting in the low-income tenants living in property being acquired for the project getting kicked out of their affordable housing, something that was directly contrary to what, minutes before, Ms. Lewis told a gaggle of reporters. She'd told them this wasn’t happening. Ms. Lewis is imperiously dismissive of Mr. Goldtein's concern, reflexively going out of her way to disclaim the obvious connection between what Goldstein is describing and Forest City Ratner. (See the clip below, also covered in Brownstoner: Bertha Lewis and Daniel Goldstein Exchange Words, By Gabby, 06/28/2011.)

Bertha Lewis - ACORN scene from BfB from rumur on Vimeo.

That was May of 2005. It is now June, soon to be July, of 2011. Since the Ratner mega-monopoly got underway, it has resulted in the loss of all of the housing units previously at the Atlantic Yards site with low-income tenants being kicked out of many affordable units just as Goldstein was describing to Ms. Lewis. The destroyed units haven’t been replaced. At the moment there are no clear plans as to how or when new housing or affordable units will ever be built at the site although the Ratner/Prokhorov/Barclays basketball arena is underway. The dismal dearth of low income units is in spite of the fact that the press conference in the clip segment was “a media event staged” so that Ms. Lewis could assist Bruce Ratner and Mayor Michael Bloomberg in making a big thing about announcing that lots of affordable housing was coming. This was the press conference where Ms. Lewis gave Mr. Bloomberg a big kiss on the lips. (See: May 28, 2005, SEALED WITH A KISS Ratner, mayor, ACORN, agree on housing plan, by Jess Wisloski, The Brooklyn Paper.)

You may want to watch the clip more than once. There is perhaps more to explain Ms. Lewis’ resolutely loyal and obtuse reflexiveness in defending Mr. Ratner than immediately meets the eye. The 2005 exchange occurred on May 19th. That means it was two days after the May 17th date of a “Memorandum of Understanding” that Ms. Lewis had already signed with Mr. Ratner. Noticing New York has covered this MOU before: Saturday, June 28, 2008, Selling out the Community for Beans (A Giant Wrong). Essentially that MOU limited Ms. Lewis’s options. One might even say it contractually obligated Ms. Lewis to be so obtuse.

The MOU:
• Contractually obligated ACORN and Ms. Lewis to unconditionally support the Ratner Megadevelopment: “ACORN will . . . appear with the Project Developer before government agencies, community organizations and the media as part of a coordinated effort to realize and advance the Project.” As stated in the prior NNY coverage, “If they think the developer has prioritized his arena over `affordable’ housing, they must remain silent and support the project.”

• Contains a confidentiality provision that prevented ACORN and Ms. Lewis from sharing negative information about the mega-project that they might have had (but the rest of the public might not). If Ms. Lewis had insider information that what Mr. Goldstein was saying was correct she was not at liberty to admit it.

• The confidentially provision ensuring a mute Ms. Lewis/ACORN was the only thing “specifically enforceable” under the MOU terms.

• The MOU also contained a provision that looked forward to Forest City Ratner making ACORN its real estate partner. (Ms. Lewis was the Executive Director of New York ACORN,) The agreement spoke of the developer and ACORN working on a program to develop affordable for-sale units, which were intended to be in the range of 600 to 1000 units, over the course of ten (10) years and could be on or off the Atlantic Yards site. (It was contemplated that a majority of the affordable for-sale units would be sold to families in the upper affordable income tiers.)
That all makes a close watching of the video worthwhile. Others may conclude that none of the above was specifically on Ms. Lewis’ mind as she forcefully tells Mr. Goldstein that his concerns don’t bother her. It may have been as simple as she had decided she had teamed up with Ratner and that was that.

But here is something else. In May of 2005 ACORN was, unbeknown to others at the time, covering up an internal embezzlement scandal (it lasted for eight years) involving its top management. (See: Thursday, July 24, 2008, Falling Acorn! How Far from the Tree?) Concealment of the embezzlement by senior ACORN executives lasted until it was revealed by a whistleblower in May of 2008. Forest City Ratner then bailed ACORN out with $1.5 million in August of 2008.

What is most important is that ACORN was failing to negotiate benefit for the community in almost all other respects at the time of this Goldstein-Lewis exchange. Rounding up some points though they have been covered before:
• At the May 19th press conference Lewis was promoting a 50/50 deal where 50% of the mega-project’s units were ostensibly to be subject to affordability restrictions, that was not the case. For starters, all the contemplated condominium units in the megadevelopment were luxury units not subject to affordability restrictions.

• With respect to the remaining rental units there was no real commitment to provide affordable housing. Anyone who earned an annual income from $38,407 to $46,086 (HUD family of four standard) was not going to be provided with affordable housing, by virtue of their specific exclusion under the MOU terms. That was a clue to the benefit ACORN wasn't negotiating. ACORN cannot be said to have negotiated to have any affordable units included in the project for families with lower income than that because such units would automatically be provided by the federal tax code. Then skipping over the units ($38,407 to $46,086) that were not being provided, one finds that one is dealing with units that are renting for $3,000 a month, $2,300 a month, $1,500 a month: Units that the market would be providing anyway. In other words, ACORN basically negotiated that Forest City Ratner would provide absolutely nothing in terms of affordable housing.

(Above chart shows the minor portion of units in Atlantic Yards referred to as "affordable." Click to enlarge.)

• ACORN’s agreement permitted minuscule units and therefore rental of “affordable apartments” at higher per square foot rents than the market-rate apartments.
We won't go on . . .

As you can gather by now, had the film makers decided to include the unused scenes about ACORN in their film they would have been faced by a daunting chore in how much there was to communicate to the audience about ACORN, the devil being in quite a few ignominious details.

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