OPINION: Dear Mr. Mayor
Over the past three years, the city’s affordable housing initiative — Housing New York — has financed 62,506 affordable homes and purports to be ahead of schedule in reaching its goal of creating or preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing in 10 years. However admirable this progress, it is largely based on a model that continues to place power primarily in the hands of for-profit developers at the expense of community input and control.
As we move into this new year, I would urge you to consider housing development models that fully embrace community involvement: specifically land banks and community land trusts. By enacting The New York State Land Bank Act of 2011, the New York state Legislature recognized the need for more nonprofit organizations to be involved in the work of developing vacant, abandoned or foreclosed properties for the communities greater good.
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s Land Bank Community Revitalization Initiative has made significant investments in this promising model, although it is heavily focused on land banks in the Hudson Valley region and upstate New York. New York City residents would benefit from an increased local focus on land banks as a means to increase both the production of affordable housing and community input and control. By definition and charter, nonprofit organizations have a different mission than for-profit developers and several distinct advantages. They generally have long-standing ties to the communities they serve and are governed by board members who reflect the community’s values. Nonprofit land banks and community land trusts deserve a larger voice and additional seats at the city’s affordable housing development table.
New Yorkers can look to other municipalities, where Community Land Trusts (CLT) have emerged as a viable strategy for low-income residents to exert control over the development of city and state owned real estate and abandoned or underused property in their communities. According to the National Community Land Trust Network, “CLTs are nonprofit organizations — governed by a board of community residents and public representatives. CLTs protect community assets, provide permanent affordable housing and create ecologically balanced development with green and recreational spaces.”
CLTs are a collaborative development model where important stakeholders such as residents, other nonprofit organizations and faith institutions have a meaningful voice in the development process. A CLT can promote not only affordable housing but affordable homeownership in a manner that discourages absentee ownership, rampant speculation, resident displacement and racial and economic gentrification.
A CLT can be used to conserve both land and architectural resources which have important and irreplaceable public value, such as the Bedford-Union Armory in Crown Heights. Public debate surrounding the Bedford-Union Armory continues to focus on which for-profit developer is least objectionable to the local community. This debate obscures a larger and more important issue of whether the site should be transferred from public to private ownership, at all. It should not. Instead, ownership of the Bedford-Union Armory must be transferred from the government to a Community Land Trust — the Bedford-Union Community Land Trust.
The Bedford-Union Community Land Trust would take the form of a nonprofit organization which would include representatives of all community stakeholders in a way not possible for for-profit developers to replicate. The use of a CLT as the ownership model for the Bedford-Union Armory is the only legal mechanism that will capture the value of the significant public financial investment that will be needed for the sites development, while ensuring community control and sustained involvement.
Public lands require public accountability. As a democracy, we need to seriously re-consider an approach to development that rewards rich developers at the expense of local resident’s and taxpayers long term interests and needs. At 138,000 square feet, the Bedford-Union Armory is a community treasure and one of the last publicly owned properties in Central Brooklyn. We need to keep it that way.
Sylvia Gail Kinard is an attorney who previously served on Community School Board 13, as a senior legislative attorney for the City Council and as assistant commissioner for the New York state Division of Housing. She presently works at a CUNY Senior College and resides in Brooklyn with her daughter Kellie.
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