In socialists we trust: Tiffany Cabán and the great housing breakthrough

Council member’s approval of Halletts North mixed-income project is watershed moment

It was the New York equivalent of Nixon in China when Tiffany Cabán came to terms with a developer on a 1,400-apartment project in her Queens district.

The City Council member’s undisputed far-left leadership credentials legitimized the deal, in which Boris Aronov agreed to permanently set aside 25 percent of the units as affordable, build a public esplanade on the water, rent space to community nonprofits for $1 a year, hire union labor and more.

This kind of agreement was once common in the city, albeit with less affordability, but fell out of favor as rising rents, worsening income inequality and rapid gentrification caused many progressives to think that the projects were causing them. That shift led to a painful impasse, one in which the folks most motivated to solve the housing crisis were fighting, rather than advancing, the solutions.

Then came Cabán’s bombshell Tuesday. She described the site where the project will rise as a “a sacrifice zone of shuttered industry and vacant lots,”  and said that shooting down the project would likely usher in a last-mile facility that “would pay our neighbors garbage wages for non-stop, back-breaking work that would clog our neighborhood streets with dangerous, pollution-heavy delivery vehicles.”

Her decision is already rippling across the progressive left.

On Thursday, another socialist elected official, state Sen. Jabari Brisport, issued a most remarkable tweet in which he linked to a Furman Center study showing new housing does not raise a community’s rents.

In today’s American politics, that’s jaw-dropping.

Such a public reversal almost never happens in our ideological, warlike political arena. Not because people on the left or right are afraid of being attacked by their enemies, but because they fear being ostracized by their own side.

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Yes, public officials do occasionally change their positions, but typically only for political expediency. In Brisport’s case, he actually researched the issue.

It’s not a coincidence that his tweet came two days after Cabán’s stunner. She made it safer for fellow socialists and progressives to take a stance that doesn’t perfectly match their ideology, which is that we will never have secure, affordable housing for everyone unless the government builds it.

To many New Yorkers, her choice would seem not brave but obvious. As she explained in a series of tweets, had she refused to vote yes on a rezone, the developer would have built what is allowed at the site, probably an Amazon-style distribution center, self-storage facility and other structures that create few good jobs, increase truck traffic and provide no public waterfront access.

Instead, she will get 350 deeply affordable units at no cost to the city, because they will effectively be subsidized by the market-rate component. And as Brisport acknowledged, that will not push up Astoria residents’ rents, because newcomers will move into the new housing rather than outbid locals for existing homes.

But forget the economics for the moment. They don’t matter unless they are politically helpful to elected officials. As right wingers have demonstrated far more successfully than socialists have, facts are no match for emotionally charged, populist myths and tropes.

People believe what they want to believe, especially if their leaders sell it to them. Anti-development forces, whether they are stopping affordable housing in suburbs or market-rate housing in cities, must be countered by leadership, not pandered to.

To boost his re-election bid, Donald Trump told suburbanites that apartment projects would bring crime to their communities and withdrew federal support for them. But Cabán was not afraid to tell her people that a 75 percent market-rate project can be OK.

Richard Nixon was a staunch anti-Communist, so his deal with China was seen as credible, not a cop-out. The same is true for Cabán’s Astoria deal, which was achievable because she did not grandstand while negotiating, unlike her colleagues Julie Won (who will decide the $2 billion Innovation QNS project), Marjorie Velázquez (deciding two affordable projects in the Bronx) and Kristin Richardson Jordan (slayer of Harlem’s 51 percent affordable One45).

Cabán did assure her fellow lefties that she would continue to pursue their housing goals, even if she could not get them into Halletts North, and she deemed her approval as “harm reduction.” That’s a term applied to things like heroin injection centers for addicts — better than the alternative, but nothing to be celebrated.

What’s important, though, is that she let the project happen. The city will need a lot more like it to alleviate the supply constraints that drive up rents and home prices. If a socialist like Cabán can get to yes, so can the other 50 Council members. She has forged a template for them and developers alike.