Private developers punch holes in New York “sanctuary state”
Protesters wearing Community Voices Heard buttons chanted slogans such as "NYCHA, NYCHA, can't you see? All this mold is killing me!" | Community Voices Heard

NEW YORK — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo have each promised to make New York a sanctuary from the racist agenda of landlord-in-chief Donald Trump. Trump has promised to cut funding to sanctuary cities and states. Federal funds from Housing and Urban Development to New York City will not be forthcoming.

To protect tenants, especially those in Black and Brown communities which Trump has threatened, members of Community Voices Heard (CVH) and their allies held a rally at City Hall February 15. They called upon for Mayor Bill de Blasio to double down on his promises to protect New Yorkers from developer-in-chief Donald Trump. They are fighting to establish healthy conditions in NYCHA apartments.

CVH is a multi-racial and multi-issue statewide organization led by low-income people, principally by women of color. Its members include residents of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and tenants of private developments.

There are at least 300,000 NYCHA residents. The nation’s largest stock of public housing has been suffering for many years from lack of funding and is falling into disrepair. NYCHA residents are suffering from asthma and other ailments as a result of toxic mold, poor ventilation, asbestos, failing elevators, crumbling pipes, and leaky roofs in their buildings. Daily gas outages have left tenants without heat and unable to cook their food, even on Thanksgiving Day this year.

CVH is fighting to get the billion dollars NYCHA needs each year for these repairs.

They launched a #PeoplesNYCHAPlan on December 1. Since then the mayor has made a step forward by including a billion dollars over ten years to fund repairs. Tenants are grateful for this down payment, but residents can’t wait ten years to get their roofs fixed.

These organized tenants are also calling for the creation of an Independent Oversight Council to ensure residents have control and to keep NYCHA accountable.

Lack of funds to NYCHA has let the door wide open for billionaire developers to come up with privatization schemes. CVH is working to defend public housing from these assaults. Infill was a privatization plan put forward by the Bloomberg administration to have NYCHA lease its parking lots, playgrounds and other vacant spaces so that private developers could build luxury housing on its publically owned land. It was defeated by strong opposition from organizations like CVH and Met Council.

A plan put forward by de Blasio called NextGeneration NYCHA has the same features. It was launched in May, 2015 by de Blasio and Shola Olatoye. Before taking on her role as Chair and CEO of NYCHA, Olatoye was Vice President of HSBC Bank, and a Director of HR&A Advisors, Inc., a real estate development advisory and consulting firm.

NextGen, which states operating “as an efficient and effective landlord” as one of its primary aims, plans to increase NYCHA’s revenue by leasing ground floor space to retailers, increasing the costs of its parking spaces, laying off NYCHA workers, and pursuing a more aggressive rent collection policy.

NextGen will also allow private developers to build on NYCHA’s “underutilized sites with potential market value,” using the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) rules. MIH allows developers to build luxury housing in working class Black and Brown communities if a certain percentage of units are deemed affordable, but MIH uses a definition of affordable that is way above the means of local residents.

Many are making minimum wage which will not reach $15 until the end of 2018. It also offers various plans for developers to choose from with different ranges of affordability and percentages. Developers in pursuit of profits have no reason to choose options that are better for local tenants. MIH has contributed to the displacement of working class New Yorkers, especially those in Black and Brown communities.

Seniors, many of whom have no family, are especially impacted by the displacement and dangerous health conditions. Hundreds of thousands of families are on the waiting list, contributing to the crisis of homelessness. Ethel Velez, chair of Manhattan North District Council of Presidents has pointed out, “If you were building housing for seniors, that would let up apartments for other families.”

MIH has also subsidized real estate profits with a billion dollar tax break known as 421-a. Developers have exposed themselves as being totally uninterested in partnering with the Mayor to create affordable housing. They used the $1.4 billion they received in public money from this tax break to build only $100 million worth of affordable units. Cuomo wants to increase this tax break to $2.4 billion. This will not move billionaire developers to stop stealing from the people. It will only deplete the war chest the Governor needs to defy Trump and his club of racist billionaires. Instead, Cuomo could help the Mayor use the $2.4 billion to build $2.4 billion worth of public housing that is really affordable.

Carmen Quinonez, President of Douglass Housing Tenants Association and a leader of CVH, is also frustrated by the smoking ban in NYCHA houses put into place at the end of November. Besides being a distraction from the real issues, “Who in the hell is going to enforce it?” she asks. A majority of NYCHA residents are already racially and nationally oppressed and in need of criminal justice reform, not more police harassment. “If I want to open my door to you, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. I pay rent here. People are literally dying from mold and mildew.”

Velez has noted how luxury high rises sitting on NYCHA properties threaten to create social hostilities at a time when greater unity is needed in the fight against Trump. “Those incomes are going to be much higher than the income that is there. Income is good, but there’s so many other things that need to be in place with that. If NYCHA cannot take care of their property, they’re setting everybody up, because someone is not going to want to be next to property that is not well taken care of. When you’re mixing two communities like that there needs to be education all the way around.”

Infill also won’t be able to solve the basic budget problem created by lack of public investment. “It is only projected to raise $400 million out of the $17 billion deficit,” noted member leader Giancarlo Fernandez from Carver Houses.

CVH has asked for information on which NYCHA developments have been selected for NextGen, but they are still waiting to hear from the Mayor.

The tenants of CVH are reminding the Mayor that he has other options when it comes to protecting vulnerable New Yorkers from the racist-in-chief Donald Trump. De Blasio controls an $84 billion budget. He has the power to use a fraction of that budget to ensure NYCHA residents have #HealthyHomes.

Additionally, if Trump wants to punish New York for protecting its residents, New York City can make up the difference by taxing the rich. Forty-five Fortune 500 companies are in NYC, the highest concentration anywhere. Seventy billionaires live in the city. The median income of Wall Street employees is $404,000. These tax increases would require support from Albany which controls city tax rates.

With sufficient backing from Governor Cuomo and the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in the State Senate, who were elected as Democrats but have been voting with Republicans, de Blasio could provide tenants with all the protection they need. Cuomo now supports an extension of the millionaires tax, but it is being opposed by the IDC.

Donald Trump owns over $2 billion in taxable New York real estate. New York City and New York State have a special role to play in resisting Trump’s efforts to create a government controlled by Big Real Estate and their Big Bank backers. Many New Yorkers have applauded Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo for taking a stand against Trump to protect racially and nationally oppressed communities from the heightened racist danger. They will receive even stronger popular support if that protection comes in the form of dollars and healthy, affordable homes.

The people of California are making their state a base of resistance. Democrats in that state control all three branches of government and are opposing the ultra-right. In order for New York State to become a base of resistance, de Blasio and Cuomo must resist the developers by guaranteeing #HealthyHomes as a human right for all New York residents. To do this, they will need to raise public funds. They will also need to put the heat on members of the IDC to stop collaborating with Trump.



Cameron Orr
Cameron Orr

Cameron Orr is a musician and writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.