NYC Public Housing Tenants Fight Back!

New York City: For years politicians have been finding ways to hand over city-owned property to their friends at banks and real estate companies. These efforts are intensifying right now, as banks and real estate com- panies are poised to take over what they see as poten- tially some of the most valuable real estate in the world: New York City’s public housing. Through privatization schemes like the federal RAD program, as well as New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA)’s “Blueprint for Change,” private companies and non-profits that serve as fronts for the big banks are taking over ownership and management of public housing. There are some legal limitations on how quickly and aggressively new management companies can cash in on public housing, such as by evict- ing low-income tenants and turning buildings to market rate or even “luxury housing.” But these limitations are flimsy by design.

A coalition of tenants and activists formed The People of Harlem River to fight back against RAD at Harlem River Houses, and now we’ve begun working together with folks from other public housing developments including Grant Houses, Fulton Houses, and other sites as well. Through discussions at meetings, tenants wrote a petition demand- ing that the building not be given away to private develop- ers, which over 100 tenants at Harlem River have signed.

In March, we held a protest at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Building on 125th st., where we announced the petition, and then delivered it to NYCHA CEO Greg Russ and board members of Settlement Housing Fund, the non-profit facilitating RAD conversion at Harlem River Houses. Settlement Housing Fund is a player in the “affordable housing” business. They usually operate as a middleman, facilitating development projects for banks and large real estate companies who exploit tax breaks and zoning incentives by providing a little bit of “affordable housing” (though only a small amount, and rarely “affordable” by most people’s standards). The board members of Settlement Housing are executives at many of the banks and real estate companies which benefit from this arrangement.

Harlem River residents speaking at a protest against privatization at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Building.

RAD is BAD, but it’s only one piece of a very big mess. NYCHA is in the process of writing itself out of existence, implementing a “Blueprint for Change” which is designed to lead to privatization of all the public housing in the city. This is why it’s so important that people from across the city come together to share in- formation and work together.

Like many negligent landlords, NYCHA has often done the minimum in terms of maintaining buildings. Some repairs have come only after unrelenting public pressure, even when people are dealing with serious problems like floods, lack of heat and hot water, electricity outages, rat infestations, and so on. Especially since the RAD privatization scheme was introduced by the Obama administration, it seems that NYCHA has intentionally let buildings deteriorate in a gambit to force transfers to private corporations. Their line is “there are just too many problems, we can’t afford it—we have to give these buildings away to private corporations who can raise more capital”. The heads of NYCHA, such as “privatization czar”, Greg Russ, are in bed with those corporations. They’re all friends. Of course when you really look at it, even their own justification for RAD makes no sense. The basic source of funding under RAD is the federal voucher program, Section 8. Money is still coming from the same place, the federal government, as it does for normal pub- lic housing. But after privatization, it goes to private landlords with far fewer legal regulations regarding their treatment of tenants.

Now that President Biden and members of Congress have said they intend to allocate 40-80 billion dollars for public housing, the privatization scheme is even harder to justify. Therefore, NYCHA and its RAD “partners,” like Settlement Housing Fund and Harlem River Preservation LLC, are working around the clock to seal as many deals as possible. Arthur Schwartz, an activist lawyer who has joined the cause at Harlem River and Fulton Houses by organizing an escrow account for residents going on rent strike, summed up the situation in a public letter to NYCHA CEO Greg Russ:

“It seems to us that the continued rush into PACT/ RAD NYCHA-wide is both arbitrary and capri- cious. President Biden has asked for $40 billion for public housing capital repair in his Infrastructure bill. Congress Member Nydia Velazquez, has pro- posed that that number be increased to $80 billion. By the end of June, NYCHA will have $40 billion available to be drawn. That being the case, putting aside the fact that your organization will likely move slowly and squander lots of that money, why aren’t the PACT/RAD conversions underway being fro- zen? Why are tenants having their arms twisted at Harlem River Houses to sign the C&C leases?

I write on behalf of my clients to demand that all efforts to get NYCHA tenants to sign leases cease—immediately. If those efforts do not cease by May 1, 2021: we will file suit to block further PACT/ RAD conversion on behalf of a class of all NYCHA residents. Our clients will commence a rent strike, putting funds in escrow until the PACT/RAD harassment ends.”

In conclusion, we’re not “fighting for NYCHA”, a corrupt agency which squanders hundreds of millions of dollars and whose policy is to hand properties over to predatory management companies. We’re fighting against the abuse, harassment, and displacement of working class families. To build this fight, we need to confront some
of the issues that divide people in the projects, including lack of security, which causes various hardships that NYCHA and its “private partners” easily exploit. In hours-long virtual “town halls”, the new management companies say over and over, “we’ll come in and fix these problems!” But they have no interest in working with the people to solve these problems, and instead plan to make Harlem River more like a jail: installing gates, walling off parks, setting curfews, making rules about where residents can go, who they can bring in, and so on.

When people ask hard questions during these town halls, NYCHA and it’s RAD “partners” quickly change the subject, play slideshows touting glossy bath-fitters in a wide variety of colors, and direct tenants to free food giveaways sponsored by RAD “partners” (the de- velopers and management companies). They think the people are really dumb. But they’re wrong. Through door knocking and public meetings, the People of Harlem River have spoken with a majority of the 600 households at Harlem River Houses. Most tenants al- ready see RAD as a bait and switch, and aren’t fooled by handouts and photos of bath fitters. The question is how can we fight back?

People of Harlem River post fliers about the rent strike and the protest against privatization.

In the coming months, things are going to really heat up, as the new management company tries to finalize the takeover of Harlem River Houses, and NYCHA moves to speed up privatization of public housing all over NYC under the Blueprint for Change. But peo- ple are starting to come together. A group of residents from Harlem River Houses and Fulton Houses are beginning a rent strike to demand repairs and a halt to RAD privatization, which will begin with a pro- test at Harlem River Houses on May 1st. Residents of NYCHA buildings around the city will be joining for this.

We are also working with tenants from other cities. In one of the early meetings of The People of Harlem River, we were joined by a tenant from Grant Manor in Boston, Haywood Fennell Sr., who has been active in the struggle against rent increases there. Afterwards, he shared these thoughts with us:

“On behalf of our Grant Manor Resident Initiative, thank you for inviting me to listen in and participate in your meet- ing last evening. I encourage you to study those that think that you can be bullied and feel uncomfortable as they try to take away your rights as residents. Learn who they are and learn who can help you develop your strategy. Do not think because your numbers are small that you cannot pro- tect your mission. It is not the size of the dog that is mea- sured but the size of the fight in the dog.”

The encouragement from Boston–alongside the Bos- ton Tenant’s publication Urban Core, which has been read widely at Harlem River–really helped folks in the struggle in New York. At times, some people have got- ten discouraged because there are relatively few of us, whereas the developers we’re fighting are armed with millions of dollars, are shielded by housing non-prof- its, control much of the media coverage, and have all of NYCHA at their disposal with which to influence tenant associations and intimidate tenants (often ille- gally). But even at an early stage in the struggle, the advice from Boston held true. By March, the People of Harlem River so unnerved the new management com- pany that they sent representatives to try and break up our meeting.

When UFAD activists from Oakland joined us for a protest at the State Building here in NYC, it helped demonstrate the national scale of the privatization agenda. This is quite scary, as a complete nationwide erasure of public housing is underway. But at the same time, it is inspiring, because the national scale of this crisis opens the possibility for collaboration on a na- tional scale. Discussions with Defend Glendale & Public Housing Coalition, the group of tenants who have been fighting RAD in Minneapolis Public Housing (where NYCHA CEO Greg Russ cut his teeth) have also helped us to develop strategies for opposing privatization1. In the coming weeks, national ten- ants’ calls are being planned to coordinate efforts to oppose privatization and displacement in cities across the country. By continuing to work together, across the city, across the country, and perhaps, someday, beyond, we have a better chance of exposing and stop- ping tenant abuse and housing scams which lead to gentrification, displacement, and the decimation of working class neighborhoods.

From New York, UFAD-NYC and the People of Harlem River say: “WE CAN FIGHT BACK!” ■

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