Subject to Inspection: Brooklyn Spaces and Issues
Key Conversation in 35th District Council Race: Affordable Housing
A proposed 18 story apartment building at 840 Atlantic Avenue, at the corner of Atlantic and Vanderbilt Avenues, has set off a vigorous debate in Council District 35. At issue, is less about the acceptability of the site for conversion to housing (it is difficult to argue credibly that converting a McDonalds and parking lot into much needed housing at any income level is a bad idea, particularly a project proposing that nearly one in three apartments is set aside as deeply affordable in perpetuity). But the debate seems to be centering on at what height the building should be allowed to go up to, approximately 15 stories or approximately 18 stories. How on earth the everyday pedestrian on Vanderbilt will be able to tell the difference, remains a puzzling question – but the need for more housing in Brooklyn is self-evident as post-pandemic rental activity in Brooklyn have already begun to rise again.
The 35th Council District spanning western Crown Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Prospect Heights has witnessed a fair share of new housing growth over the last decade, like 840 Atlantic, and it has put questions of new development at the center of the race for City Council. In all more than 10 candidates have declared their intention to run for the open council seat being vacated by the term-limited incumbent, City Council Majority Leader, Laurie Cumbo, whose term, was at times controversial, as she balanced the desperate need to increase housing supply across NYC to bring rents down, with the anxiety of constituents who have faced displacement and the NIMBY tendencies of legacy homeowners.
Against this intensifying polarized backdrop, the contest to succeed Cumbo seems to be coming down to a race between Crown Heights tenant activist Michael Hollingsworth and former businessperson turned public servant, Crystal Hudson.
Hollingsworth, a self-described Socialist, has received the full-throated endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and has explicitly eschewed the “progressive” moniker that many of his opponents embrace. He recently tweeted that he is “not a progressive” and his campaign materials highlight that he is a lifelong Brooklynite, tenant organizer, and dedicated fighter for housing justice. He talks often of his efforts in 2016 when he joined with his neighbors who faced eviction to block the conversion of their rent-stabilized building into market-rate condos and states that he’s “taken on some of the worst landlords to win repairs for his neighbors, stopped racist rezonings, and helped secure protections for tenants across the state.”
In his day job, he is a graphic designer. And ironically while he rails against the real estate industry on the campaign trail, according to his LinkedIn profile he works for the country’s “premier real estate listings publisher,” Yale Robbins, whose products support major real estate development deals all over the country.
If elected, Hollingsworth would likely follow in the footsteps of DSA candidates that won elections in 2020 and 2021 for a handful of State offices across Brooklyn, who must balance DSA party priorities with the dynamic needs of local constituents that may not fit neatly into party ideology. Electeds that rely on the organizing prowess and ground support of the DSA to power their campaigns reportedly meet weekly with DSA leadership to discuss strategy and set priorities. Raising some concerns that if elected Hollingsworth may face sustained pressure from the DSA to remain more beholden to party priorities than the specific needs or concerns of District 35.
Crystal Hudson, if elected, would be the Council’s first openly gay Black woman member. Hudson, who has raised the most dollars of all female candidates running for City Council, is running for a seat in a legislative body where just 25 percent of seats are held by women, who comprise more than half of the city’s population.
Hudson has sought to proactively separate herself from other candidates by compiling the most comprehensive and progressive policy platform in the race, going beyond the traditional bromides of city council candidates, and proposing substantive policy solutions. Earlier this year, she released “A Black Agenda for New York City,” a detailed policy platform that aims to refocus the political discussion on the needs of Black New Yorkers on the tails of a pandemic that kills Black people at more than twice the rate of other Americans, resurgent white supremacy, and a multiracial movement to unapologetically defend Black lives. Rather than solely sticking with the oft-repeated calls of defunding the police or securing universal healthcare.
Her policy platform includes recommendations like a paycheck guarantee and baby bonds to put money directly in the hands of Black New Yorkers and a basic income program in zip codes with the highest rates of gun violence. Her website also outlines detailed plans for myriad issues that few council members typically campaign on like seniors, healthcare, and civic engagement.
Unlike Hollingsworth who points to his outsider status as a strength in his candidacy as someone bringing a fresh approach, Hudson points to her experience as a public servant as a key component of her ability to deliver results to District 35 on day one.
After a few years cutting her teeth in public service in Cumbo’s office, she teamed up with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams after he won a special election in April 2019 and became the First Deputy Public Advocate for Community Engagement. In that role, she created a team of community organizers in the public advocate’s office who focus on issues ranging from housing to policing to environmental justice. And launched her neighborhood’s local mutual aid group at the onset of the pandemic to ensure her neighbors had vital resources like food and medicine to get them through the worst days of the pandemic.
Hollingsworth has regularly criticized the current machinations of City government, and is calling for radical, sweeping change, with laudable language around creating “housing that is resident-controlled, committed to social equality, and deeply and permanently affordable”, but with little details on how to pay for it other than leaving cash strapped government to foot the bill in perpetuity.
While publicly claiming to support affordable housing growth, Hollingsworth vehemently criticizes one of the few tools City government has to create affordable housing in NYC, the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program. Including false statements that the program allows developers to “determine how many units are going to be affordable” and “we let them [developers] pick the affordability levels”. Even though the program strictly prescribes affordability levels (an average of 60-80 percent of Area Median Income) and an overall percentage of the building (25-30 percent). What little leeway the MIH program does offer in these ranges is meant to empower Councilmembers and Community Boards to customize the program to the affordability needs of their communities. And developers are smart to follow the will of the community they hope to work in if they expect to get their projects approved in this long overdue era of grassroots empowerment. But false statements about esoteric public policy, like Hollingsworth’s regular commentary on MIH, can serve to disempower and misinform community members, who are presented with a false choice between 100 percent affordable housing development or nothing at all.
That there is no program today that straddles MIH and the City’s 100 percent affordable programs is a missed public policy opportunity. And a fair criticism of the City’s affordable housing programs, that candidates for public office should be making regularly this cycle. MIH is subsidy-free and requires no public dollars to bring affordable housing online. The City’s 100% affordable programs are deeply subsidized, and the waiting list to access these dollars is vast and growing.
Hudson has called for a rethinking of MIH as well, with a focus on how to address low-income levels not currently served by the program as part of a broad strokes housing agenda that ranges from upzoning to increase housing supply in wealthy neighborhoods, to Community Land Trusts to take public ownership of derelict private property, to a Green New Deal for NYCHA. She talks about convening a “community conversation” on questions of development in District 35, but when the immediate demands of the housing crisis fall at her feet how that “conversation” unfolds remains to be seen.
Both candidates can point to a wide swath of endorsements. And this race is being viewed as a key bellwether of Brooklyn’s traditional progressive politics and the rise of a more radicalized and forceful socialist politics.
Hudson’s list of endorsements, reads like a who’s who of the left in New York City. She’s been endorsed by progressive darlings like Senator Jessica Ramos, State Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, Councilmember Carlina Rivera, Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, and Council Member Brad Lander, to name a few. She also has the backing of progressive civic groups — like Black Lives Caucus, People’s Action, Community Voices Heard Power!, Make the Road Action, and Run for Something Action Fund — and major labor unions, like 32BJ SEIU, 1199 SEIU, UFT, and the New York State Nurses Association.
Hollingsworth has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), as well as leading Leftists advocates like Cynthia Nixon, Zephyr Teachout, and State Senator Julia Salazar. And national advocacy organizations like the Sierra Club and the Sunrise Movement.
Of concern is that national organizations like the DSA’s top down, purity-test politics leaves little room for melding to hyper-local circumstances and concerns. And recently, prominent Brooklyn politicians have been raising concerns about this dictatorial culture as the DSA attempts to rise in prominence. And it remains to be seen if Hollingsworth would put the needs of the DSA above his district — a model that is antithetical to movement- and people-based progressive politics.
For her part, Laurie Cumbo has pointed to the impact of white gentrification in traditional enclaves of black residents as part of the driver of the recent progressive vs. socialist divergence. “Many folks do not see what is happening but the recent local election results in Brooklyn demonstrate the power of the gentrification movement,” Cumbo wrote on Facebook in July of last year following the victories of Jabari Brisport and Phara Souffrant Forrest. “The ability to elect unknown candidates of color with the backing of a super majority of white organizational support, with no proven leadership in the community…signifies the end of an era in Brooklyn.” The race to succeed her will be a key indicator of where politics, and housing policy, may be headed in Central Brooklyn.
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