I had the privilege of speaking on February 5 to a public meeting organized by Fight for NYCHA, an organization for public housing tenants in New York City. A video of my remarks is in this post and a write-up of the talk is here.
Fight for NYCHA is the only significant group fighting the privatization of public housing in New York City under the so-called progressive mayor, Democrat Bill de Blasio. The program began under the Obama administration in 2012 and continues under the Trump administration. Instead of full public funding for public housing, RAD seeks to raise private funding for public housing by giving private investors profit opportunities in public housing. They call it a “public/private partnership” instead of the unpopular term “privatization,” but what public/private really means is public funding of private profits.
NYCHA is the New York City Housing Authority, the agency in charge of the nation’s largest public housing authority by far. 326 projects with 175,000 units are officially home to 400,000 people. Most estimate the actual number to be about 600,000 people living in the housing because many family and extended-family members are not on the leases and officially counted.
Rent goes up with more people in the apartment. So many struggling families don’t report additional tenants in order to keep their rents down so they can pay for other essential needs. If these 200,000 people who are not counted on NYCHA leases were not living in the housing, they would be out on the streets and in the homeless shelters and tripling the 70,000 New Yorkers who are already homeless.
Fight for NYCHA is the kind of independent movement Greens should be organizing. By independent, I mean independent of the nonprofit/industrial complex, which is fully integrated into the Democratic Party machine in New York City. Funded by grants from Democratic governments and from the foundations of the super-rich who also fund the Democratic politicians’ campaigns, the “funded nonprofits” will not cross the policies of the Democratic politicians and nonprofit board members that fund them.
In the case of Fight for NYCHA, it is Greens who are lead organizers. Louis Flores worked to get votes from public housing tenants for my 2018 New York Green gubernatorial candidacy. Marni Halasa was a Green candidate in 2017 for New York city council and will be a Green-inspired independent Eco Justice candidate in 2021. Michael Sussman, the Green Party candidate for New York Attorney General, is Fight for NYCHA’s legal counsel. Fight for NYCHA’s long-term strategy for funding is to be independently funded by tenants themselves through a dues-paying tenants union.
The big nonprofits have neglected public housing tenant organizing because it is difficult and it would upset the Democratic machine that funds them. It is difficult because tenants are vulnerable if they protest conditions because the housing holds the threat of eviction over them. It would upset Democratic machine politics because organized public housing tenants would be a threat to the banking and real estate interests that finance the Democratic political machine. Public housing privatization under RAD has become a profit opportunity for these interests just like public school privatization through charter schools has become.
NYCHA reported in 2018 that it needed $32 billion in additional funding to mitigate lead, mold, leaky roofs, disabled elevators, and broken boilers. 80% of tenants were without heat for some period during the winter of 2017. 80% of NYCHA units are impacted by at least one of these problems at any given point in time.
Taking on the Democratic Party Real Estate Machine
Fight for NYCHA stepped into this political vacuum by stepping up to organize NYCHA tenants. Fight for NYCHA organized a series of demonstrations of public housing tenants to demand that New York City and New York State fully fund repair budget. They got the politicians’ and funded nonprofits’ attention. This year the funded nonprofits are lobbying the state legislature for some of the needed funding. But the funded nonprofits won’t touch the problem of privatization of public housing under HUD’s Rental Assistance (RAD) program because they don’t want to bite the Democratic Party hands that feed them.
A few months after NYCHA announced its $32 billion repair budget needs in 2018, instead of fighting for public funding, de Blasio paid back his real estate donors with a privatization plan. de Blasio announced that 62,000 public housing units, one-third of all such units, would be transferred to private management under the RAD program.
The super-liberal West Side Democratic city council and state legislature members are on the working group implementing RAD in west side public housing projects. Fight for NYCHA members have not been permitted into the working group meetings, although they have tried and been threatened with arrest. The de Blasio administration had its people monitoring this public meeting in PS 33, but they were not asked to leave.
With his so-called affordable housing plan, de Blasio has already accelerated the gentrification and displacement in the private housing market. The affordable housing plan actually helps affluent middle-class people while neglecting poor and working-class people. The new housing will be produced by private developers whose profits are guaranteed with public tax breaks and subsidies. The 55% of units produced targeted for “low-income” people is really for people with middle-class incomes. For example, to qualify for low-income housing under this plan, a three-person household must have an income of between $43,000 and $69,000. That excludes more than half of black and Latino households who are too poor to qualify for this so-called affordable housing for low income people. The median black household earns just under $43,000 and the median Latino household earns under $38,000. The program does help the young urban professionals, who are disproportionately white and displacing working class people from their neighborhoods. The white median income in New York City is about $80,000.
In addition, de Blasio is pushing rezoning of neighborhoods to accommodate gentrification and displacement by developers and landlords. Michael Sussman recently won a landmark case defeating a rezoning plan in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood because the plan didn’t conduct a proper review of environmental and social impacts.
De Blasio has branded himself as a progressive but he has been a creature of real estate interests his whole political career. Gloria Mattera, now a national co-chair of the Green Party, ran against de Blasio in 2001 and 2003 for a Park Slope, Brooklyn council seat, with de Blasio touting the $6 billion Atlantic Yards/Barclay Center development and Mattera opposing it. Mattera received 10% in 2001 and 19% in 2003, coming in second ahead of the Republican. The Atlantic Yards development, now called Pacific Park, has led to skyrocketing rents and the displacement of working-class people in the surrounding neighborhoods of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, and Park Slope.
The results of the so-called affordable housing plan for New York City can be seen in this advertisement for “affordable housing” in central Harlem. A studio apartment for one person starts at $2,367 a month and one has to earn between $80,812 and $97,100 to qualify. Rent does not include electricity.
With those kinds of rents in the private market for “affordable housing,” public housing tenants are anxious to keep their tenancy in public housing. But under RAD, many people are being evicted because they don’t have everyone in their household on the lease when the private manager takes over, or housing has not given them a lease for years.
The public meeting took place in the auditorium of Public School 33, a pre-K to 5th grade elementary school adjacent to the Chelsea public housing projects on Manhattan’s west side. Tenants in projects facing RAD spoke up the meeting told about their frstrations trying to get a lease for years or get additional family members on their lease. They talked about facing physical threats from housing officials or tenant association leaders controlled by the machine for trying to get their lease fixed or get apartments repaired. One tenant, who also had a job with NYCHA, described theft and crooked deals she had witnessed and sexual harassment she had received from supervisors.
Joe Gonzalez, a 30-year public housing tenant now in the Fulton Houses also in Chelsea ten blocks from PS 33, described how the city has cut back on the housing police and the police stations in projects since Mayor Rudy Giuliani merged NYCHA’s independent police force into the NYPD in 1995. 3,200 NYCHA police patrolled the projects before the cuts started, which continued under mayors Michael Bloomberg and de Blasio. Many of the police stations in the projects were closed. Today, only 1,800 members of the NYPD patrol the housing. They don’t have the same familiarity with tenants that the independent NYCHA police had. The relationship between tenants and NYPD is now fraught. Tenants are often arrested for trespassing in their own projects because the officers don’t know who the tenants are any more. The Giuliani and Bloomberg years of stop and frisk targeted young black and Latino men in the projects. Despite a steady reduction of crime in the city over the last 25 years, property and violent crimes have increased in public housing. 44 were murdered last year on NYCHA properties. Gonzalez concluded with an impassioned plea for NYCHA tenants to form a tenants union.
Sussman told the tenants the meeting that they need to document their mistreatment by NYCHA and RAD private managers so they will have a record to bring to court to get relief. The tenants’ testimony made it clear why many tenants are afraid to fight back against poor conditions and RAD privatization. It showed why NYCHA’s top-down bureaucracy, with a board appointed by the mayor, needs to be replaced with a democratic tenant- and worker-controlled governing structure.
Housing Is a Human Right
The RAD program was initiated by the “lesser-evil” Democrats and continues with “greater-evil” federal Republicans in partnership with city Democrats. Meanwhile, in the private housing market, city Democrats are presiding over a misnamed “affordable housing” plan for the gentrification and displacement by high rents that is driving the working class out of New York City. The Democrats are hand in glove with the banker, developer, and landlord real estate industry, as was Donald Trump with the Democratic machine in New York City before he ran for president as a Republican.
The bipartisan policies that have spawned the housing affordability and homelessness crisis is another example of why we need the Green Party. As part of the Economic Bill of Rights in my Ecosocialist Green New Deal, I am calling for a 10-year, $2.5 trillion dollar federal program to build 25 million units of public housing that will make affordable decent housing a realized human right.
This kind of crash program, as both a jobs and housing program, was central to the Economic Bill of Rights demanded by the civil rights movement in the 1960s as it moved to tackle poverty and economic deprivation from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. The Democrats have had more than 50 years to respond to these demands. It is time for the Green Party pick these demands up and make the government respond.