“You’re Finally Seeing Cracks in the NIMBY Armor”

“You’re Finally Seeing Cracks in the NIMBY Armor”

New York real estate developers Vivian Liao and Tucker Reed of TOTEM want you to want affordable housing in your neighborhood.
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In America, nearly all below-market housing that gets built is the work of private developers. Wedged between the profit imperative and the public good, it’s a peculiar space for any would-be real-estate entrepreneur to occupy—but for Vivian Liao and Tucker Reed, it feels like the right place to make change happen. The business partners met while working in the nonprofit world (Reed was president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a 501(c)(3) development outfit; Liao was the group’s chief of staff) and came to the almost simultaneous conclusion that they could get more done in the private sector. In 2017, the two co-founded the Brooklyn-based affordable housing company TOTEM, committed to the same kind of community-building as before but with a very different toolbox. To date, their efforts have been concentrated on pushing a number of low-cost housing projects slowly toward the finish line, while also consulting on planning and economic strategy for local neighborhood groups around the borough. It hasn’t always been easy, but in a challenging (and increasingly contentious) national housing climate, the TOTEM team says their approach can work. They explained how to Dwell. 

The development business is a tough one for almost anybody. How do you keep your heads above water while simultaneously trying to create housing people can actually afford to live in?

TUCKER REED: We’re really on the frontline of where community and private real estate meet. The way we work is to look for properties where we think we can add value and add density. For the most part, our development projects so far have come from mandatory inclusionary housing—MIH—in places that oftentimes have gone through rezoning, where the city has said we can give you, the developer, more density, in exchange for providing the community with more low-cost housing. That means collaborating with community-based organizations, some of which have significant real estate holdings, and through that work we’ve also come on as advisors, helping these groups maximize the value of their holdings in keeping with their core values. That part of our business model, the consulting, represents 20 percent, and the rest is development.

VIVIAN LIAO: When you look at all our projects, consulting and development both, you can see we focus on four pillars: affordability, economic stability (providing jobs both near term and long term), regenerative design (with sustainability just being the baseline), and then partnerships with community-based organizations. We try to go above and beyond with that last one especially. To look at just one case, one of the groups we’ve teamed up with is the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, one of the nation’s oldest community developers. We’ve been working with them for the last two years, representing them to outside organizations and helping them think through the design of the whole area they’re active in; all that has morphed into covering programmatic stuff, tech pilot programs and more. And that, for us, is our whole approach, working with communities and looking for all the ways we can craft additive projects for those neighborhoods.

Walk us through how this process works with a ground-up, low-cost housing project.

TUCKER: We’re just now going through predevelopment on a project in Bed-Stuy, 1045 Atlantic Avenue, on a large underutilized stretch of the area with a lot of vacant warehouses. How we started there was by engaging the local community board, asking them simply: What do you want to see happen here? The overwhelming response was as much affordable housing as possible. We then worked with city planning to craft a rezoning proposal that balanced the community’s desire for affordability with additional height intensity to allow us to do it, trying to get housing that’s priced for the lowest possible range of the area median income—not just for the overall citywide average, but for the specific neighborhood, so that a working mom in Bed-Stuy can afford to live in one of those apartments. By doing things like that, using hyperlocal data and keeping the conversation going with all the stakeholders, you can create projects that longtime area residents not only tolerate but are genuinely happy about. We ended up with unanimous approval for the Atlantic Avenue one. That’s really emblematic of our approach.  

So you’re coming into these communities, and you have to somehow persuade them that you, a for-profit company, are building for their long-term interest. How do you bring them around?  

VIVIAN: I mean there’s certainly an understandable degree of suspicion, right? I think generally the discourse around development is so fraught and so charged that it’s only natural that communities would have a healthy distrust of private developers coming in. But what we’ve found is that the best way to address these issues is just to be open, to listen, and to not be afraid to have difficult conversations. Maybe the most important thing we’ve discovered is how important it is to get involved as early as possible in these projects, not to swoop in at the very end, but to start collaborating with communities as soon as the land-use discussions start happening.  

You mentioned how fraught the discourse at the moment. What is it that frustrates each of you most about the whole housing conversation today? 

TUCKER: What I would say is that we, as a nation, have forgotten how to do math. The simple concept of supply and demand is completely lost. And it’s come to a crisis point. The New York City population grew by 650,000 people from the last census, and the number of units we’ve built per year can’t address a fraction of that. But the worst part is that obviously, when you’re having this conversation, anyone in the real estate industry has ulterior motives, so everyone’s suspicious of supply-based arguments. They’re right to be: there are lots of bad actors who don’t want to see supply expand, because then the value of their assets go down. But the rest of us, those who want to see more housing, are still the least effective at guiding the dialogue. The good news, I think, is you’re finally starting to see cracks in the NIMBY armor, with younger people advocating for more construction. Ten years ago we were having these neighborhood dialogues by ourselves. 

VIVIAN: Tucker stole my line! But I’ll pull at another thread. I think one of the things that can also help—and this is something we’ve forgotten how to do in the social media era—is just learning how to have conversations with each other. We don’t all have to agree! It’s just too easy to criticize ideas in 280-character tweets. You can go a long way by having real back-and-forth, and that goes for both sides: the real estate industry has resisted these tough dialogues, as have some of those in the housing community who may have a rational distrust of the private sector. But before you can do anything, you have to have a willingness on both sides to engage.     

Top Photo Courtesy of TOTEM.

Related Reading:

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Ian Volner
Writer and critic Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture and design to New York Magazine, Architect, The Paris Review, and Interior Design, among other publications. He lives in Manhattan.


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