New Yorkers rally for affordable housing

NEW YORK — On Feb. 2 more than 5,000 people took part in a “Housing Here and Now!” rally outside of City Hall. It was the largest show of support for affordable housing the city has seen in decades. Union members and leaders, city residents, religious groups and elected officials came together to demand city leaders enact a five-point program to put an end to New York City’s housing crisis.

“I’ve known for all my public life that affordable housing is one of the foundations of a stable family and community life,” Fernando Ferrer, former Bronx borough president and current mayoral candidate, told the World.

Ferrer said that adding more affordable housing units is a critical necessity, and that the current administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done a poor job of it. “He’s been pounding his chest about building 3,000 units in three years, but at the height of the housing rebuilding in the Bronx, we did that in six months, not in three years,” he said. “There’s an enormous need that’s remaining unfilled. People are making the choice between feeding their kids and paying their rent — and that’s wrong.”

Louis Jones of the AIDS Housing Network said, “Housing is more than just a roof over my head. Housing is a right.”

Two out of every three New Yorkers is a member of an immigrant family, and immigrants have been hit hard by the crisis, said Chung-Wha Hong, deputy director of the New York City Immigration Coalition. “Immigrants are 50 percent more likely to live in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, and on average they pay a higher percent of their income for rent,” she told the World. “They’re also more likely to live in overcrowded housing, partly because immigrants are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage jobs.”

The five-point program urged by rally organizers called for providing housing for homeless people living with AIDS, enacting a law to force slumlords to repair dangerous housing violations, using a promised $1 billion in Battery Park City Authority surplus revenues for affordable housing, and guaranteeing that affordable housing be built in neighborhoods being gentrified. They also demanded the repeal of the “Urstadt Law,” which puts the state Legislature, instead of the city itself, in charge of much of NYC’s rent and evictions rules.

Lillian Roberts, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 37, which represents 121,000 city employees, said a strong community and labor coalition effort is needed to win. “We will be supporting the handicapped and everybody else that needs housing, because it’s not fair, and it’s part of our strength — the people united can never be defeated,” she told the crowd.

Housing activists charge that the mayor supports many real estate developments that benefit big business, but has aggravated the housing crisis for regular people.

Reginald Bowman, representing Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.), told the World that housing plans must take into account the needs of community residents. Referring to plans of Ratner, a developer whose corporation is trying to redevelop downtown Brooklyn in a way that would force out many community residents, Bowman said Rep. Owens is supporting an alternative. “He is an advocate for making sure that the community has affordable housing and the kind of planning for neighborhoods that makes sure the working class and the poor always have some place to live.”

Karen Singleton, who participated in the rally, told the World of how the owners of the 16-unit building in which she lives are attempting to evict all of the tenants and turn the building into a huge one-family mansion. Outside of New York City, she says, such an action would be illegal. “A lot of us have been there for 25 years, and we’re all losing our homes.”

Annabel Palma, a city councilperson from the Bronx and former SEIU 1199 organizer, told the World, “We all know we’re in an affordable housing crisis. It’s an important issue to get out and fight for.”

dmargolis@cpusa.org