City Hall Rally Demands ‘Real Affordability for All’

Chanting “No more harassment! No more decontrol,” more than 200 people demonstrated at City Hall March 6 to demand that Mayor Bill de Blasio create more housing that low-income New Yorkers can afford. 

“We’re kicking off our campaign to take back the city,” Met Council director Jaron Benjamin told the crowd.

Dubbed “Real Affordability for All,” the campaign is timed to influence the mayor before May 1, when he is scheduled to release his plan to “create or preserve” 200,000 units of affordable housing. It’s backed by a coalition of housing groups that includes Community Action for Safe Apartments, Community Voices Heard, Make the Road New York, Met Council, New York Communities for Change, and VOCAL-NY. Members of city workers’ union District Council 37, clad in green-and-yellow caps, also turned out.

The city now has a shortage of 400,000 apartments for people who make less than $35,000 a year, Ismene Speliotis of the Mutual Housing Association of New York told the crowd. In a report released to coincide with the rally, the group estimated that the city has almost 800,000 households that make less than 40 percent of the metropolitan “area median income” used to define “affordability,” but only about 270,000 apartments they can reasonably afford—studios renting for less than $573 a month and two-bedrooms for under $818.

“I know mothers with two or three kids in a one-bedroom,” said activist fast-food worker Naquasia LeGrand.”

The 165,000 supposedly affordable units “created and preserved” under the Michael Bloomberg administration, the MHANY report says, “were in fact only affordable to middle-class and more affluent residents. Low-income residents were completely left behind.” Even among apartments designated as low-income, it added, many “quickly become unaffordable because a household’s wages do not increase at the same rate as the rent does.”

Speakers at the rally talked about an array of issues, from not building luxury developments within public-housing projects to appointing more tenant-friendly public members to the Rent Guidelines Board. “We need a rent freeze,” said Leon Black of CASA.

Irania Sanchez of Bushwick, speaking in Spanish, said that she, her mother, and her two daughters are the only family left in their building, because their new landlord has driven the others out with “tactics of intimidation.”  Randy Dillard of CASA urged the city to crack down on landlords who tack illegal fees onto rent bills, and said that tenants facing eviction in Housing Court should have the same right to a lawyer as defendants facing criminal charges. The Bronx, he said, is going through an “eviction crisis,” with 11,000 households thrown out of apartments in 2012.

The crowd on the City Hall steps March 6.

Gary LaBarbera, head of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said the city’s 100,000 union construction workers “want to be a part of” building low-income housing, much of which is now constructed or renovated with cheaper nonunion labor. “We understand the economics, but we want to do this,” he told Tenant/Inquilino afterwards. The Penn South nonprofit co-ops in Chelsea, the cheapest block of privately owned apartments in lower Manhattan, were largely financed by union pension funds, he added.

South Bronx resident Madeline Mendez said she came to the rally to “fight for people on Section 8.”

The coalition’s more specific proposals are ideas to get around the two major obstacles to creating and preserving affordable housing: State law prohibits the city from strengthening its rent controls, and federal law prohibits it from building more public housing. That has forced the city to rely on trickle-down from luxury development, giving tax and zoning breaks for including below-market units—but builders take advantage of the “area median income” formula, which classifies households with incomes as high as $125,000 as “middle income,” and enables apartments that rent for more than $2,000 to qualify as “affordable.”

What the city can do, the campaign says, includes:

  • requiring more low-income apartments in city-subsidized developments, and giving bigger subsidies for family-sized apartments;
  • cutting more money into repairing, improving, and maintaining public housing, where many low-income New Yorkers live; 
  • promoting nonprofit development;
  • subsidizing rents for low-wage workers, replacing the defunct Advantage program;
  • not giving developers “sweetheart deals”;
  • allowing taller buildings on undeveloped land in low-income neighborhoods like East New York and the South Bronx; 
  • giving low-cost loans and tax incentives to help owners maintain their properties, in exchange for keeping rents down;
  • using federal disaster-recovery funds to build “deeply affordable” housing for low-income residents of areas of the city hit hardest by Superstorm Sandy; and 
  • increasing the penalties on bad landlords.

With de Blasio promising 200,000 affordable apartments, that puts the campaign  in the position of both supporting and pressuring the new mayor. Eugene Woody of Community Voices Heard, who lives in one of the public-housing projects Bloomberg slated for luxury infill development, said it was “working in solidarity” with de Blasio and City Council Housing Committee chair Jumaane Williams—and then led a chant of “We’re not playing.”

“We’re not asking, we’re demanding,” Christopher Cortez of Make the Road New York said after the rally.

“Unless he makes other basic changes, we’re going to end up with less than whatever he builds,” Marlene Nadle, housing chair of the Village Independent Democrats, said of de Blasio. But there are things he and the Council can do, she added.