The Ratner Clause

So how bad is the latest handout to Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner? Here’s how bad: Even Bertha Lewis of ACORN, a Ratner ally who is contractually barred from saying anything negative about the project, said that a state tax reform bill that exempted Ratner — and only Ratner — was “bad public policy.”

You know there’s a problem when even one of Ratner’s paid shills complains about what Albany is doing to line the developer’s pocket.

Update (Friday, Jun 29, 5:27 pm): And on Friday, one of Ratner’s most powerful advocates within government — Mayor Bloomberg — denounced the deal.

So how is the latest sweetheart deal different from all the other sugar-fortified handouts?

• It is a handout to only one developer: Ratner. Our state legislators often pass laws to make it easier for real-estate developers to make a profit — but when such a law is passed to benefit just one developer, any illusion of fairness or principal is wiped away. Is it any wonder that its drafter, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, has not responded to repeated calls from this newspaper to explain why he slipped the clause into the bill?

Lopez’s amendment allows Ratner to get the tax break on luxury buildings that contain no affordable units. The City Council bill that Lopez gutted would have given Ratner a generous tax credit for building affordable units — but only on the buildings that actually have affordable units in them!

• It allows Ratner to charge more for units that he designates as affordable. The Council bill said that a family of four making $56,800 would qualify for such an apartment. The Assembly bill lowered the threshold to $42,600 — except at Atlantic Yards, where “affordable housing” tenants must earn $49,700 to qualify.

Brad Lander, a housing expert at the Pratt Center for Community Development, says that clause will let Ratner charge an average of $350 more per month in rent for the “affordable units.”

So now Ratner is not only picking taxpayers’ pockets, he’s making the lower middle class pay more — while the most needy are locked out altogether.

• It reveals the worst excesses of our insider-run, morally corrupt legislature in Albany.

The Assembly was in the midst of crafting a generally positive bill to reform a tax break that allowed developers to get subsidies when they were building just luxury housing — but at the last minute, Lopez tinkered with the bill. No wonder the New York Observer headlined its article this week, “Grinding sausage late at night: Albany reforms 421–a program.” Grinding sausage makes for a pithy headline — but not good public policy.

• It comes on the heels of hundreds of millions of dollars in handouts that line Ratner’s pocket. The city and state have put up $305 million in direct subsidies, plus Ratner will get billions in low-interest loans and other indirect subsidies to save him hundreds of millions more.

Will the government’s bailout of Ratner ever end? Not a chance.

The state Senate is expected to pass the legislation — with Lopez’s amendment — next month. Given the extent of the gift to Ratner, it’s no surprise that people who care about good legislation — both inside and outside the government — are calling for Gov. Spitzer to step in and veto the bill when it hits his desk.

The governor campaigned as a reformer who would break the “three-men-in-a-room” culture of Albany. Here’s a good chance to show that the campaign rhetoric wasn’t just hollow words.

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