Fighting the ravages of luxury towers

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — In most of the country, the housing boom is past. Not in New York City. Apartments, office towers, hotels, luxury entertainment facilities and mixed-use complexes rise to 70 stories. In recent years, housing costs were 30 percent of family income, but now in Manhattan they are 50 percent for many families.

The drive to privatize public housing, which affects close to 1 million people, has accelerated. So has the drive to complete the privatization of what was the Mitchell-Lama cooperative housing. The largest city complexes constructed with substantial public financing, but already owned privately, have been sold. Or many are in the process that would end rent stabilization for tenants and turn them into luxury complexes. These include Stuyvesant Town and Starrett City. Efforts are under way, against major resistance from tenants, to privatize the 50,000-resident Coop City.

Multibillion-dollar transnational development corporations have been the driving force. These corporations are closely associated with finance capital and Wall Street, which provide the needed capital for their luxury projects. Among the major social consequences of these developments is the driving of the poorer sections of the population out of the city.

Among the poorer sections of the population, African Americans are especially heavily represented. The result is a decline in the African American population of Harlem and central Brooklyn and in the Puerto Rican, Dominican and Latino populations in nearby communities. Also poorer whites are being forced to move out of Manhattan to areas of Brooklyn that are somewhat less expensive.

The Bloomberg administration, led by billionaires like the mayor, has been doing everything to promote this boom with huge tax concessions and subsidies. There are additional subsidies from the state and federal levels. The wealthy are being encouraged to move back into the city into luxury housing. These demographic changes have the potential for changing the politics of the city from Democratic to Republican.

Billionaire developer Bruce Ratner plans to build the Atlantic Yards Project at the busiest intersection in Brooklyn. It would bring 17 towers, some up to 60 stories high, for housing, offices, a hotel and a basketball arena for 19,000. It would be the most densely populated complex in the United States.

A large community movement against it, supported by several African American progressive public officials, has fought for the last three years. As a result, 30 percent “affordable housing” (but possibly offsite) was promised. There would be 225 units available for those with incomes below the area median income of $28,800 for a family of four. But 3,000 families are expected to be displaced from the community as a result of the project, driving up rents and real estate taxes. The rest of the “affordable housing” goes up to $113, 400.

Since the state approval of the project, 13 home owners, renters and small businesses filed a suit that will likely go to the state Supreme Court claiming violation of the Constitution’s eminent domain clause, as there is no “public taking” but simply an attempt to provide private profit to a developer. A second suit, joined by 26 community organizations, claims violation of state law in approving the project.

It will likely take two years to conclude these suits. The developer is tearing down houses it bought previously to convince the public it is useless to fight. The opposition, led by Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, continues to publicize its stand through a documentary film, “Brooklyn Matters,” that is shown several times a week. The group has joined with others in circulating a petition to Gov. Spitzer against the project and for the demands of public housing tenants in the area.

Angry opposition to the developers has been growing rapidly all over the city. Now the Working Families Party has taken the initiative in bringing together many of the neighborhood and citywide organizations engaged in these struggles, along with some labor unions, into a coalition called “New York Is Our Home.” It is calling for changes in laws and regulations — some modest and some more far-reaching — to protect those in public housing and in rent stabilized apartments from the ravages of the developer-inspired boom and inflation of housing costs.

Among the activities in support of these demands was a citywide rally surrounding the Stuyvesant Town housing complex on May 23. The coalition is a force that cannot be ignored.