New Yorkers rally for affordable housing

NEW YORK — “When I left New York City in the early ’80s, I paid only $150 a month in rent,” said a Jamaican-born cabdriver who participated in last week’s demonstration here against the city’s growing crisis of affordable housing. After living in Florida for 15 years, he recently returned, finding that “the same kind of apartment in the same neighborhood is maybe $1,000.”

Such stories are common in every region of the city, and virtually everyone at the demonstration, which occurred at a large housing complex on Manhattan’s East Side, had their own tale to tell. As the crowd was assembling, buses of additional participants continued to stream into the rally site.

Thousands of people of all ages and races came out May 23 for what was possibly New York’s largest housing rally since the 1930s. Protesters held hands, forming a human ring over a mile in length, completely surrounding the development — actually two contiguous developments treated as a single entity spanning 14th to 23rd streets on the East Side.

Jean, who did not want to give her last name for fear of reprisals from her landlord, told the World that the corporation that owns her apartment on Sixth Avenue had been letting her home deteriorate in hopes that she would move out.

“I’ve been there for years,” she said, “and am under rent control. If I give in and leave, they will make a lot of money.”

Jean’s story is a consequence of “vacancy decontrol,” a policy that removes rent regulations from most apartments once they become vacant. It harms people looking for an apartment, as it forces more of them to pay the market rate. It also gives landlords reason to pressure current tenants, like Jean, to leave.

Although 70 percent of the rentals at Peter Cooper Village-Stuyvesant Town, the site of the rally, are currently rent-regulated, the market rate apartments in the complex start at $3,275 per month.

“It’s horrible,” May Chen, international vice president of the Unite Here union, told the World. “Only very rich people can afford to live in many apartments in New York.”

“I was just talking today to a member who has cancer,” she said. “She lives by herself. She can’t even afford to retire, because her Social Security won’t even pay the rent.”

Chen said that the only way thousands of people are able to pay their rent is to crowd a large number of income earners into the same apartment.

“We need to stand together to end vacancy decontrol, because that’s what allowed this to happen,” said Daniel Garodnick, a city councilmember who lives in the development, told the crowd. He also called for home rule, the term used for the demand that the city be allowed to control its rental laws. Currently that power resides far away in the state capital, Albany.

City Council member Charles Baron (D-Brooklyn) said, “Rents have gone up in the last three years by 9 percent, and salaries have gone down 6 percent. Eleven percent of the affordable units have been lost, and we’re saying now we will not lose another unit.”

Among those represented at the rally were AFSCME District Council 37, representing 125,000 city public workers; the United Federation of Teachers; other municipal unions and the Teamsters. The event was called by the newly formed New York is Our Home coalition, as well as by the Working Families Party and several religious, peace and civil rights organizations.