What a 100% Affordable Rental Building Looks Like

In Brooklyn's Prospect Heights, a stylish development on Carlton Avenue puts a dent in the city's housing crisis

The main entrance of 535 Carlton, which contains 298 affordably priced apartments (Photo by Max Touhey)

Crystal Patterson was beaming as she stood this morning on a ninth-floor roof terrace of a new rental-apartment building in Prospect Heights. Facing dozens of politicians, real-estate executives and reporters, she spoke of her long journey to landing an apartment in the borough where she was born and raised.  “Wow, this is the fruition of our dreams,” said Patterson, who had secured an apartment in the 100% affordably-priced rental building at 535 Carlton Ave., where she and her son Trey have lived since April. “I hadn’t had a permanent home in two years. I applied for dozens of affordable-housing opportunities and then one day I got an email from 535 Carlton that I should ‘come home,’” she said. “It represents a new way of living.”

Many in the crowd then trooped downstairs for a visit to Patterson’s two-bedroom, one-bath apartment, as if to confirm remarks by several of the speakers who preceded her that the building has first-rate amenities, despite its affordability. Indeed, besides the modern design and sleek appliances in the apartments, the building is equipped with a fitness center, game room, yoga studio, and a cheery children’s playroom.

Inside the kitchen of Crystal Patterson’s affordable-rate apartment (from left): Alicia Glen, Bruce Ratner, Hu Gang, Patterson’s son Trey, Patterson, and Eric Adams (Photo by Steve Koepp)

The ribbon-cutting and celebratory speeches at 535 Carlton represented a milestone in the fulfillment of Mayor de Blasio’s plan to create or preserve 200,000 affordable apartments, and developer Bruce Ratner’s commitment to build 2,250 affordable apartments as part of the Atlantic Yards project, now rebranded as Pacific Park. The 18-story building’s 298 units are a mix of studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. “It’s a place where real people are going to live and raise their families,” said Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development. The city’s Housing Development Corp. provided a $73 million tax-exempt first mortgage for the building.

How affordable is it? Applicants are evaluated across five income bands, ranging from 30%-to-40% of area median income to 146%-to-165% of AMI. The rents range from $548 for a studio households in the lowest income band to $3,716 for a three-bedroom apartment for a household in the top tier, considered middle income. (The current median price of Brooklyn apartments in new developments is about $3,300.) At the ceremonies, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams called the mix of income classes in the building “a cross section of people right in the heart of Brooklyn. You can see families living together, not living in silos.”

The children’s playroom at 535 Carlton (Photo by Max Touhey)

Yet echoes of the question “Affordable for whom?” could be felt as the civic leaders made their remarks. Half the units in the building, or 149 apartments, will go to middle-income households in the higher rent category, which helps make the building economically feasible. But the demand for affordable housing is much greater among lower-income families. Of the nearly 93,000 households who entered the lottery for the apartments, about 72% of the applicant pool aimed at the 90 low-income units, according to analysis by City Limits. Income is not the only factor in the selection process, however. Preferences are given to city employees, disabled people and neighborhood residents.

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Still, while the building makes only a dent in the larger housing-affordability crisis, the dealmakers assembled on the roof terrace found many reasons to call it a victory. The design of the building by New York City architecture firm COOKFOX blends well into the neighborhood, has green-building touches, and interiors flooded with natural light. In constructing the building, the developers used union labor, contributing to a safe process at a time when construction accidents have been on the rise. “Only a handful of affordable buildings are made with 100% union labor,” said Ratner.

When it’s complete, Pacific Park will contain 6,430 housing units (more than one-third affordable), 247,000 sq. ft. of retail space, up to 1.6 million sq. ft. of office space, and eight acres of publicly accessible open space. The project is a partnership between Forest City Ratner and Greenland USA, the American subsidiary of Shanghai-based Greenland Holding Group, which bought a 70% stake in the project in 2014. Earlier this month, Greenland USA CEO Hu Gang said that the developers will likely break ground on one or two more buildings by the end of the year, The Real Deal reported.

The ninth-floor garden terrace at 535 Carlton (Photo by Max Touhey)

The last word at the 535 Carlton building’s opening ceremony was reserved for local minister Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who praised Ratner and Forest City New York CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin for enduring the years of controversy that have surrounded the overall Pacific Park project and its impact on the neighborhood. “People inside the community took a lot of heat, were called a lot of names, to make this come to pass,” he said. Daughtry, who was among those criticized for supporting the project, concluded by asking God to put his blessing on the building.

Steve Koepp is the editor of The Bridge. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time.