By Donna Schaper
It isn’t easy to be virtuous in Gotham today. Maybe it never was. You can be an organization as lofty as Habitat for Humanity and be accused of selling out, destroying gardens and siding with developers. So-called “Haven Green” has given the devil a lot of opportunities to repeat history.
In a meeting with Habitat recently, I learned a few important things. First of all, I should explain. Why would a clergy person meet with a housing organization? Because Habitat’s base for years has been religious congregations and because I have honored and dug their work in Europe and in multiple American cities. That relationship caused me and other members of Judson church to be concerned about their anti-garden, pro-affordability, arm in arm with developers, alliance in “Green Haven/Haven Green.”
In that meeting we learned quite a few interesting things about why Habitat would want to hurt and diminish a thriving garden. They think it is the right thing to do—and that if they are not involved in the development, it will even be worse than it is already going to be. The alternative space, a lot on Hudson Street, is not really on the market or so they say. Apparently, Margaret Chin knows the answer and I hope to hear from her soon. (City Council presidents or “higher-ups rarely interfere with a decision firmly in someone else’s district.). Habitat’s involvement will produce permanently affordable housing—not something that can be flipped. “It gets built and it’s not Habitat watching. That’s the only alternative.” They are also doing a participatory design which will maximize community input; that process is starting now. And they will get ground floor office space in the new set-up and not have to worry about rising rents where they are now.
They are offended to be characterized as a villain, which surely their track record denies. You can find a way to participate in the design of the area by contacting Mathew Dunbar at Habitat, firstname.lastname@example.org.
They are not villains. Instead, like many of us in NYC, they are opportunists. Do you really know a not for profit that doesn’t want a secure rental? One that won’t get its rent raised over and over again? Is grabbing an opportunity as it passes by virtuous? Ask Jane Jacobs. No ask her foe, Robert Moses. Better yet, ask William James. The real religion of America is pragmatism, and everyone knows that. We can hardly all be on the search for a better deal or a new deal or a good deal or a “discount” and be dismayed when not for profits seek the same.
Bricks and Mortals, an organization I helped to found, is also running into one moral difficulty after another in trying to get relief on air rights sales so that congregations don’t have to sell to luxury apartments, breweries or high-end restaurants – as their membership dwindles and their maintenance costs accelerate. Yes, Virginia, landmarked congregations do have air rights. No, Virginia, they can’t sell them without enormous effort and expense – which is what makes great organizations like Union Seminary the victim of developer’s funds. If there could be more flexibility in the sale of air rights, congregations wouldn’t have to depend on the good will of people like George Capsis to do church concerts to stay alive. They could monetize their air rights and develop affordable housing – if there was more flexibility around development. And yes, development yields affordability.
This interest in the survival of religious buildings encounters multiple moral quandaries with preservationists. Preservationists obviously don’t want more development, even if it is holy. They rightly protect the air, the green, the space, the gardens. But without development of new spaces, which air rights properly sold could do, the rents will not only be too damn high today. They will even be higher tomorrow. The haven that is green development is a great example of preservation and green and affordability colliding.
The real problem in Manhattan, as former Mayor Bloomberg was bright enough to tell us, is population explosion. When Occupy (remember Occupy) tried to find a plot of land to move into, it could only find about a dozen available sites anywhere in downtown. There simply is very little land that is not air wronging.
So, what’s a good person to do? Move to Montana? Turn Habitat or preservationists into the demon? Pay the high rents? Win the lottery? Abandon green or old buildings or both in order to pay the rents? Until population growth slows down and fewer people want to live on the same island, these values will all continue on their collision course. Since population is unlikely to stop growing, the next best thing to do is to tax the heaven out of luxury apartments, especially those that are “un-occupied.”
My hunch is that “Haven Green” is already a go and that the train has already left the station. Thus, the pathetic remnant garden will be more and more in the shade. Then again, a little moral imagination by Margaret Chin or the Mayor could liberate the Hudson site and everything is possible. Habitat could get involved with the other potential site, the garden could remain sunny and people could feel good about each other and how we turned a problem into a solution, one good practical thought at a time.