Monday, October 22, 2007

Nicked on Affordable Housing

In last week's Spectator, there was an article on the CB9 rejection of Nick Sprayregen's re-zoning proposal. A number of reasons were given for the unusually close 16-12 vote, but what caught our eye was the Board's concern with affordable housing: "After much debate over the resolution's wording, CB9 rejected the proposal in a close and contentious vote. The resolution set forth conditions that the plan would need to meet for board approval, including making at least 50 percent of residential units affordable housing and defining affordable housing within CB9’s average mean income."

What's fascinating here is the way in which the community is holding Nick to the same standards that it is holding Columbia to-the insistence that an affordable housing piece be included as a term for any community board approval. Of course at this early stage, and with no zoning approval, there's no way that Sprayregen could promulgate an affordable housing plan with any specificity-the community has a better beef with area elected officials who have had lockjaw on the affordable housing issue.

The pols should be lined up in concert to demand that the city, state and university put forward such a plan for the area as a precondition for any Columbia expansion. In the absence of such principled action, Sprayregen becomes a convenient scapegoat for the community's frustration.

The Spectator also speculates that the defeat of the Sprayregen rezoning can be partially attributed to the ill-will spread by Columbia consultant Bill Lynch: "But some of the dissent may have come out of doubts over Sprayregen’s credibility and allegations that he cares more about the money in his pocket than the well-being of the neighborhood. Much of the criticism can be traced to former deputy mayor Bill Lynch, whose firm, Bill Lynch Associates, was hired by Columbia in April 2006 to lobby for its expansion plans."

We're less sure about this. The more likely source is the over all sense of powerlessness-and the frustrating lack of political leadership, underscored by the pusillanimous actions of the Manhattan BP and the failure of the West Harlem LDC to generate any sense of sanguinity over the prospects of a worthwhile CBA.

In another Spectator piece about the community board's discouragement with the LDC, one of the members of the negotiating group demurred: "Maritta Dunn, a former board member and member of the LDC, the body negotiating a community benefits agreement with Columbia, responded to board members’ accusations that politicians have co-opted the LDC and that CB9 representatives have not fought to be heard since the group’s creation. “The LDC is the only game in town,” Dunn said, adding that it only helps Columbia when board members are divided over the LDC. “We need to stop knocking it,” she added."

Maybe so, but many others remain unconvinced about the LDC's bona fides: “I never have blind faith,” community board member Norma Ramos said. “I’m never going to surrender my right to raise any issues and I‘ve been consistently raising the issue of the lack of Latino representation on the LDC and I’m not going to be silenced about that by being told that I am against the interest of the community.”

So it seems to us that Nick Sprayregen is really a victim of circumstances on all of this, and as much as we'd like to blame Bill Lynch, the real blame lies with the university and its political enablers. The real issue in the expansion debate is residential displacement and the concomitant need for affordable housing. The fact that the city and area electeds have allowed a newly-created West Harlem LDC to bear the burden of community concerns over these matters is a sorry example of buck passing.

What needs to be done now is for the university to become proactive on the affordable housing issue. Sprayregen has put an interesting and creative land swap concept on the table, one that could lead to the significant increase of affordable housing in the neighborhood. Is it enough? Probably not; but it's the first positive step in the right direction, and we're hopeful here that Columbia will see it as such.