People Without Homes, Homes Without People

Three years ago at the first US Social Forum in Atlanta, residents of cities around the country met and found they shared a common goal: Make sure that city life stays accessible to everyone. They formed the Right to the City Alliance, a coalition uniting urban rights groups to allies in their own cities and across the country, from Los Angeles to Boston to New Orleans. The members share the belief that urban dwellers not only have the right not to be priced out of their communities, but to help shape and design them.

The New York City groups who came together, many of whose members were grappling with homelessness, life in shelters or on public assistance, and the loss of affordable housing options, were particularly energized.

“At that point, I didn’t know what gentrification was,” said Nora Strachan, a member of Mothers on the Move, part of the Right to the City-NYC alliance, who was living in public housing at the time. “Then they tried to privatize my building, and I found out quick.”

The struggle hasn’t gotten easier in the last three years. Just this month, due to budget cuts, thousands of New York families will lose their Section 8 housing vouchers, sending many of them onto the streets or into the city’s overburdened shelter system. Meanwhile, housing prices (not to mention the median income numbers used to determine what’s considered affordable housing) are going up.

For the people who attended Right to the City-NYC’s workshop at this year’s Social Forum—many of them low-income New Yorkers active with Picture the Homeless, Mothers on the Move, and other member organizations of Right to the City—gentrification isn’t an abstract idea, but a direct threat to their neighborhoods and their ability to stay in them.

“How do you know when gentrification is coming?” asked Diego Quiñones, an organizer in Harlem with Community Voices Heard, one of Right to the City’s member organizations. “What does it look like?”

The answers were forceful: More police harassment. Suddenly, you need a permit to barbecue, to use public parks, or to hold a street party; sometimes you can’t get a permit at all. Neighborhood names get changed: Alphabet City becomes the East Village, Spanish Harlem turns into SpaHa. “You can’t even stand in front of your property without the police coming by,” said one participant. “Bike lanes!” shouted another. “We asked for bike lanes for many, many years—now suddenly we’re getting some.”

But there’s one sign that stands out, clear evidence you’re in danger of getting priced out of your community: the arrival of luxury condos, some of them built where affordable housing units used to be.

Following the financial crash, the condos got harder to sell and became especially noticeable: new buildings with enormous price tags standing empty in low-income neighborhoods. It was, said Rogers of Picture the Homeless, an “ugly image of people without homes and homes without people.”

And so, when Right to the City sat down to prioritize its first projects (following a year spent in community dialogues crafting an in-depth policy platform, which calls for recognition of the rights to community decision-making power; quality, low-income housing; federal stimulus funds; jobs; public space; environmental justice and public health), condos were key.

In the most comprehensive count of its kind, 150 residents and advocates walked the City’s streets and combed its records, producing a report detailing just how many luxury condos were sitting empty in a city with record homelessness and an affordable housing crisis.

In six low-income neighborhoods, they found 4,092 empty housing units, offered for an average price of $2 million, some of which had been on the market for years. Collectively, the buildings were $3.8 million delinquent in back taxes.

Members of Right to the City are now meeting with the City Council and other City departments about what to do with the information they’ve gathered. “We surprised City officials,” said Quiñones. “They didn’t expect us to be so organized.”

Right to the City is now pushing for New York City to acquire the delinquent buildings through tax foreclosure so that they can become permanent affordable housing for low-income New Yorkers (a pilot project of 400 converted units began in 2009); they’re also proposing that tax breaks for condo developers be suspended. Civil disobedience in the form of condo takeovers and squatting is also under consideration, Quiñones said.

“I am nervous. I am afraid. But I’ll be damned if I sit down and let them take my city just like that,” said DeBoRh Dickerson, part of Picture the Homeless. “We’ve got a voice in this.”

Right to the City is also supporting Housing Not Warehousing—a bill before the City Council, now with 28-cosponsors, which would require the City to officially replicate their count of vacant properties every year—and lobbying for “affordable housing” to be calculated according to local, neighborhood income rather than median income for the area, which is skewed by affluent residents of Manhattan and Westchester County.

“This is part of the move towards human needs and away from the profit motive,” said Rogers. “It’s why we need the Social Forum. It’s bold, but this is the place to make bold statements.”