Protesters Build “Housing” in Billionaire Developer’s Lobby

About 75 protesters erected their own version of “infill housing” in billionaire developer Larry Silverstein’s lobby Dec. 4.

“Now is not the time to give billions of dollars away to people who already have billions,” Met Council director Jaron Benjamin declared as the protesters gathered on a Tribeca street corner just before dusk, the crowd repeating his words mic-check style. “If he wants to build luxury towers on NYCHA property, I say we build housing for the 99 percent on his property!” Lugging five large cardboard “high-rises” reading “Housing 4 All of Us,” they headed quietly down Greenwich Street toward Silverstein’s new 7 World Trade Center building, and slipped into the lobby through the revolving doors. 

Silverstein is one of the developers who the New York City Housing Authority has solicited to construct “infill” luxury buildings on playgrounds and parking lots in eight Manhattan projects. He’s also building one of the five luxury towers that received a total of $1.1 billion in state tax breaks intended for affordable housing this year, thanks to a no-one-takes-responsibility-for-this amendment added to a state omnibus housing bill last winter—and maybe the more than $440,000 their developers gave state politicians last year.

“We’ve got Occupy Wall Street in our lobby,” a security guard said into the telephone, as the protesters set up the five cardboard buildings. 

“It’s not Occupy Wall Street,” a demonstrator answered. The protesters actually came from a mix of Met Council, New York Communities for Change, Community Voices Heard, and a nearby protest against American Express slashing its security guards’ wages by $100 a week, but the response was the same. “This is private property. You have to exit,” a Port Authority police officer announced, as about 20 other cops and security guards ringed the protesters. 

The demonstrators decided to leave peacefully, chanting, “No Justice, No Peace.” One guard shoved Jim Lister of the Real Rent Reform Campaign into a pole, breaking his glasses. Lister, who lives on Social Security disability payments, said he’d gotten the glasses five months ago, after five years of saving for a new pair. “I was holding one of the buildings and the guy pushed me,” he said. He also suffered minor cuts on his eyelid and nose.

The occupation lasted less than five minutes, and the crowd regrouped outside.

“We are tired of billionaires dictating how we should live in NYCHA,” Madelyn Innocent of Community Voices Heard told the crowd outside, as police were locking the revolving doors. She has lived in the Douglass Houses on the Upper West Side, one of the projects targeted for infill, for more than 50 years, and she urged incoming mayor Bill de Blasio “to hold on to your campaign promises.”

“Rest assured, we rattled some cages,” Benjamin added.

The demonstration was one of a dozen “New Day New York” actions that day, including protests against low wages for workers at buildings in the High Line luxury district, against student debt at Bank of America, and against union-busting outside a Cablevision board member’s Upper East Side townhouse—where the Communications Workers of America deployed a giant inflatable pig. Its three demands were no more tax breaks for billionaires, for Silverstein to stop abusing campaign-finance loopholes, and for him to drop any plans to build luxury housing in NYCHA projects.

Addressing income inequality in the city “starts with families being able to live here,” said Jonathan Westin of New York Communities for Change. “We need to build more, we need to preserve more, and it needs to be deeply affordable.” He defined “deeply affordable” as “affordable to a fast-food worker.”

“We’re here to tell developers you need to make way for a new day in New York,” said Eugene Woody of Community Voices Heard. In the 12-year reign of Michael Bloomberg as mayor, he added, they got tax breaks, but “left the common man out in the cold.”

While protests and lawsuits have delayed NYCHA’s infill plan, and de Blasio has said he opposes putting luxury buildings in public housing, the idea still worries many project residents. “If it can happen in this fashion, it’s pretty much going to happen to everybody,” said Woody, who, like Innocent, lives in the Douglass Houses. “People should start paying attention.”