JANUARY 23, 2020 | BY CAMERON ORR
ALBANY — On Thursday, January 9th, tenants across New York State united in Albany to demand the right to housing. This was the first statewide action taken by members of the Housing Justice for All coalition since the launch of the campaign for a #NYHomesGuarantee.
Tenant activists rode into the state capitol on busses hailing from Buffalo, Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Long Island, New York City, and all across the state.
Gathering at the steps of the “million dollar staircase” in the capitol building, they spoke out on the need to complete the fight for #UniversalRentControl, to tax the rich, eliminate corporate giveaways, and put $10 billion toward public housing, social housing, and the enforcement of rent regulations. Community Voices Heard (CVH) activist Emma Rehac MC’d the speakout.
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams opened up by calling Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address “an hour and a half of smoke and mirrors.”
“I didn’t even hear him mention public housing … We want this Governor to stop taking money from the very same people who are now trying to roll these laws back!”
“You may [be] used to [seeing] on TV what a failure NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] is, but I’m here to tell you that that’s not the whole story,” Barbara Williams, member leader of CVH declared as she spoke to those assembled. “Public housing has worked for me and others. It has allowed my husband and I to raise a family in a gentrified neighborhood and city. NYCHA is the only landlord that adjusts your rent according to your income,” she reminded everyone. “It houses hundreds of thousands of poor and working class people, gets people who are homeless in homes, and provides safety for survivors of domestic violence.”
“Where public housing has failed is because it has been starved of funding that it needs to succeed. … Governor Cuomo, put down the payment of $3 Billion toward that this year, in this year’s budget!” The tenants’ platform would allocate an additional $6 billion for other forms of social housing.
According to an estimate from Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), “NYCHA stands with an astronomical $25 billion backlog in capital improvements, estimated to grow to $32 billion over the next 5 years.”
“There is plenty of money in the state to do this and more,” Williams insisted. “Our electeds just need to have the courage to go into the billionaire pockets and take it back.”
“These [NYCHA residents] are people that work everyday, and things never change,” CVH members Jozette and Ms. D. told People’s World at the action. “All they do is have a patch here, patch here, and they take 3 or 4 months or maybe a year … We got water coming into that building also — every one!” Toxic mold, poor ventilation, and other serious problems abound. “It’s a problem, healthwise — people have asthma.”
Representing PUSH Buffalo, Ángel Rosado also addressed his fellow activists. “I have moved six or seven times since I was 11 years old. I am 22. I have not lived in a house longer than three years in 11 years of my life, and the house I lived in before I moved then, I got lead poisoning from lead paint on windows. … I am diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder, and how can I focus on my mental stability when my housing is not stable?”
The vital link between housing and healthcare have pushed coalitions around these issues closer together. The Campaign for New York Health, the Poor People’s Campaign in New York State, and Housing Justice for All are teaming up to #PassNYHealth, a universal healthcare bill for New York State, as well as to pass the #NYHomesGuarantee.
Others made a powerful connection between housing security and immigration justice. A woman from Make the Road NY held up a sign reading, “HERE TO STAY,” calling to mind ongoing fights against Trump’s repeal of DACA, TPS, and cruel escalation of racist violence at the border, all part of an effort to evict millions of people from the entire country. A real-estate mogul himself, Trump owns properties worth over $2 billion dollars in New York City alone. Together with his father in the 70s, he regularly discriminated against potential Black tenants as a landlord in Queens, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
A number of New York State legislatures stood with tenants on the “million dollar staircase” in the Capitol building, saying that the tenants’ fight would also be their fight. Jessica Ramos, Julia Salazar, Carmen De la Rosa, and Robert Jackson all pointed out that they are also tenants themselves.
Some of the elected officials on the steps that day were put into office in the last election cycle, when tenants and other labor and community groups flipped the New York State Senate from red to blue, while ousting six Republican-aligned Democrats in the State Senate, and replacing them with candidates who promised to fight for a people’s agenda. This was a crucial step in the passage of the Housing Security and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 last June.
“We had a hard fight last session, and we had so many successes, but I want to join you today for us not to rest on our laurels,” Assemblymember Diana Richardson urged. “The opposition is mobilizing, and I want you to remain vigilant.”
“You did amazing things in 2019,” State Senator Michael Gianaris lauded. “What is the result of all that? Evictions down over 25%, eviction actions in court down about 80%, … but we have to do more for people who don’t live in rent stabilized units.”
“Can we imagine a world where all those vacant apartments we have in New York City are actually filled with our brothers and sisters who live on the streets?” Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos asked.
“It was a historic victory, but it was an incomplete victory,” Sen. Julia Salazar from Bushwick, Brooklyn said. “We need to pass good cause eviction.” The bill would give all tenants the right to renew their lease with a limited rent increase, and would prevent landlords from evicting renters without “good cause.”
“It’s cheaper to help people with their rent than put them in shelters,” Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi informed, who is sponsoring a bill for rent supplements. “Why are we letting [homelessness] grow for the eighth year in a row? … The shelter business is a multi-billion dollar business.” Hevesi implicated the Governor. “Andrew Cuomo started a non-profit called HELP USA. … They currently have a contract with the city of New York where they make between $200 million and $400 million.” Another non-profit that provides shelter, which he didn’t identify, gets $1 Billion in city money, he said, adding there are three more that get between $500,000 and $800,000.
“There were people murdered in my district who were living on the street. They wouldn’t have been murdered if they weren’t living on the street,” Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou said. “The biggest reason that people go into shelters [is] domestic violence. … We literally have timelines on whether or not women and children can be in domestic violence shelters, … and then they go into our regular shelter system, unprotected … We at the state level cannot shirk from our duties,” she said. “We need to also make sure that the federal government is also doing their part.”
Woodside on the Move is a tenant association in Queens particularly fired up about MCIs (Major Capital Improvements), and IAIs (Individual Apartment Improvements), a scam landlords use to make tenants pay for investments in their buildings — or be forced out. “The city must [force] the landlord to … use their own resources,” Woodside activist Nilda said. “[The] landlord gets 100 percent benefit — One, improvements for free. Two, increases in rents. Three, higher property value. … It’s like having a huge mortgage.” The #NYHomesGuarantee platform eliminates these types of rent hikes.
“Last year we stood on these steps and we said there was a toolkit to displacement. It was called preferential rents, MCIs, IAIs, and rezonings,”Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa began. “And then what happened? The people spoke and we dismantled that toolkit.” Reminding her audience of the recent victory in Inwood, where a judge struck down a rezoning plan opposed by the community, she went on to insist, “Poverty is not irradicated through good intentions and well wishes. Poverty is irradicated when the policies of the people are made into law for our state.”
“Who we give tax abatements to … should not be individuals who already have the millions of dollars,” Assemblymember Walter Mosley said. “To give them more and more money to build statewide unaffordable housing is unacceptable.” Mosley then led the crowd in a chant: “End 421A Now!”
“Take away luxury tax breaks of people who have condos and coops worth millions of dollars and send the money to NYCHA!” Robert Rodriguez added.
“When it comes to public housing. Why is it easier to get unleaded gas than lead free paint?” Assemblymember Michael Blake of the South Bronx asked. “And last but not least, ‘cause I see the sign,” he said — pointing at a sign held by members of the Communist Party USA which demanded, “Fund Housing, Not War!” — “maybe instead of taking us to war, we should invest in housing!”
After the speakout action, tenants made their way to the legislative office building, where they broke up into groups. One group participated in a teach-in on the #NYHomesGuarantee platform, while others marched passed elected officials’ offices, delivering poster boards with their “2020 New Year Housing Resolutions” to every open door, singing and chanting along the way.
Activists with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) also passed out red envelopes with their Lunar New Year demands, including the right of tenants to “intervene in the sale, demolition, or foreclosure of their building” and “convert it to permanently affordable and community controlled housing.”
Others approached specific elected officials to sign onto the #NYHomesGuarantee Candidate’s Pledge.
Finally, after eating together, the community groups made their way back to their busses to go home.
“We will be back in Albany,” VOCAL-NY leader Celina told those on her bus. “January 21st is “Make Millionaires pay, Tax the Rich! January 22nd — End Aids and HEP C! … February 5th is a huge end homelessness lobbying day! … Then we have February 13. [That] will be the day we come back for public housing, … and February 25th will be the Good Cause Eviction day. … March 3rd is funding for implementation of rent laws. Lastly, March 26 will be an all out throw down when we come out for all of our issues and our platform.”
On Monday, January 20, the Metropolitan Council on Housing celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day with a canvassing day, talking to tenants in Brooklyn and the Bronx about why they need to join the fight for a #NYHomesGuarantee.
VOCAL-NY activist Ms. Flowers highlighted how appropriate this was. “I was at that march in Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King in ‘63. We marched in ‘63 so that in ‘64 we got the Civil Rights Act. In ‘64 we got the Fair Housing Act. We marched for three things: jobs, justice, and fair housing. We’re still fighting!”