On hyper-local issues, however, upstairs-downstairs divides can become acute—and the symbolic positions that feel good on a national level can turn into real-world decisions that impact people’s lives. Most voters in liberal cities have seen these fights: Upscale parents in Democratic neighborhoods whose liberalism vanishes when it comes to bringing in students from poorer neighborhoods (as on Manhattan’s Upper West Side) or pooling PTA funds between richer and poorer schools (as in Santa Monica, California). This is even more common in the area of housing, and in particular affordable housing, where well-off liberals tend to lose interest in “affordability” the minute it threatens to change their neighborhoods or dent their real-estate values.
This problem played out in Queens as well, in a way that suggests the gulf between insider get-it-done politics and symbolic wins. On 82nd Street, just down the road from Crowley’s district office, developers proposed converting an abandoned movie theater into a 13-story mixed-use project with three stories of affordable units in it. Crowley was in favor of it—it meant permanent jobs at the Target that was going in on the ground floor, union construction jobs in the building of the thing, and more housing, in particular affordable housing.
Ocasio-Cortez opposed it, saying that it would bring gentrification and that the affordable housing wasn’t affordable enough. Politically, it was a winner for her: It gave her a chance to bash Crowley for being in thrall to the real estate industry. The portion of the district where it is slated to go up isn’t so much gentrifying as changing; Latinos are moving away and Asian immigrants are moving in. It has grown less white over the past decade, if anything, but she got a boost from the surrounding, whiter neighborhoods that have helped spearhead the opposition, fearing that the project was out of scale with the neighborhood and would increase vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
Ocasio-Cortez won the election, and three weeks later, the local councilman who supported the project withdrew his support. Neighborhood activists claimed victory—over the real-estate industry, over gentrification, over the old insider system.
Just one thing: The project is still going forward.
Crowley and other local elected officials had been negotiating with the developers to add more affordable housing, but once he lost, any leverage to add it to the project vanished. Legally, the developers can still build 10 stories without any go-ahead from the government—and without bringing any new affordable housing to Queens at all. Which is what the developers have suggested they intend to do.