Nathan Newman

Housing and Progressive NIMBYism

What do we want?! Less housing for poor and working families! So seems to be the chant among some residents of the Peoples Republic of Brooklyn as they seek to block a massive new development that would house thousands of New Yorkers, an event typical of many communities where new housing developments are fought vociferously.

I have a private obsession (okay, as a writer not so private) with the failure of progressives to make affordable housing more of a priority, or worse, progressives becoming the active opponents of it. Housing is rarely treated as a workers' issue, yet labor builds it, workers staffs security and maintenance and landscaping, and whether housing is affordable decides where working families can afford to live.

In the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards fight, this progressive division over housing issues has been overwhelming. Despite a promise to house roughly 10,000 New Yorkers, including thousands of units for affordable housing, the development has faced a storm of local opposition of locals fearing an erosion of the local "quality of life."

The Need for Density: But while I understand the nostalgia for Brooklyn's low-rise housing and it is lovely for those who can continue to live there, the reality is that blocking higher density development there condemns others in the city to homelessness, and condemns the rest of the non-wealthy to increasingly long commutes. And while quaint neighborhoods may be preserved in Brooklyn, it means more people will be driven out into the suburbs to create more strip malls, SUVs, environmental degradation, and Republicans.

The Brooklyn Yards development involves a combination of housing, commercial property and a new basketball stadium for the Nets. As many as 6,000 units of housing will be built and, under an innovative agreement with the community group ACORN, at least 2,250 of those units will be dedicated for low- and moderate-income families. Though 334 people in the area will be displaced, nearly 10,000 people will have housing, much of it more affordable than anything else available in New York City. And over 11,000 permanent office and retail jobs will be created in the new commercial space. And under agreements with the developer, all construction and all future building maintenance will be with union labor.

And the project sits on the third-most-important transit hub in New York City, where nine subway lines and the Long Island Railroad converge -- exactly the kind of spot where high density housing should be.  

Which is why opposition to high density housing at this site is even more perverse. From a perspective of promoting affordable housing, union wage jobs and environmental sanity, this development is about as good as it gets out there. While there are some reasonable critiques of developments like Atlantic Yards -- the level of public subsidies have rightfully been questioned -- the reality is that the main critique of the project is that there is too much new housing density, period.

Yet every single fewer unit in Brooklyn, Manhattan or other easy commute into jobs in the City means more people forced out to long commutes on suburban trains or worse in cars. And it means more construction built with non-union, low-wage labor. And it means more people soaking up resources in suburban sprawl instead of using the nine subway lines that are right near the Atlantic Yards. Just this weekend, I was at a New Jersey suburban barbecue filled with refugees from Brooklyn who could no longer afford to raise their families there.

Thinking Locally, Screwing up Globally: To look at development only from the immediate concerns of local residents -- whether Brooklyn or San Francisco or any other progressive area where urban density is fought in the name of "community" -- is to commit the worse sin of thinking only locally and ignoring global effects. If urban residents want to condemn suburbanites for their SUVs and day labor construction exploitation, they sure should be fighting like hell to create affordable urban housing alternatives built with decent wages.

And for housing affordability, progressives often discount the importance of creating more luxury housing. If new luxury housing isn't available, the wealthy will buy up old housing, gut it and renovate it, decreasing the availability of housing. As Jane Jacobs once pointed out, most affordable housing today is just the new housing of the rich of yesteryear. Gentrified "gut renovation" that is sweeping New York City and many urban centers may leave the quaint building facades in place, but it has the same effect as the mass evictions of older urban renewal.

It's not that progressives should give a blank check to all development: the reason the developer in Brooklyn agreed to the amount of affordable housing he did was because of strong community pressure. And a whole range of aesthetic and urban planning concerns should be in the mix. I love Brooklyn and have spent many weekends just walking the neighborhoods, so I'm all for encouraging a vibrant street life through integrating the street level design of developments into surrounding neighborhoods.

But at the end of the day, where new development is being built, progressives should be in the forefront of arguing for higher density urban housing for both economic justice for the working families who need housing and need jobs, and as an alternative to the environmental sinkhole that are our suburbs.

Nathan Newman is director of Agenda for Justice, an organization that supports progressive policy campaigns, and is a longtime union and community activist. or see

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