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Rage Against Rent

Steven Wishnia Feb 10, 2005

By Steven Wishnia

The worst thing is when you have a job and can’t afford housing,” says William Medley. “Rent’s too much. For a studio they want $900 a month. For a studio!”

Medley, 42, was crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to join the “Housing Here and Now” rally at City Hall on Feb. 2. A tall, lanky black man with oval glasses and two crosses in his left ear, he’s currently unemployed – “I’m a jack of all trades, master of none, but my passion is cooking,” he says – and lives in a homeless shelter in East New York. He came out to the rally after seeing flyers in the shelter.

“I’m homeless. I need housing. I’m going to put in my voice,” he explains.

The rally, sponsored by a coalition of more than 100 labor unions and housing, community, and AIDS-activist groups, drew several thousand people. It was a diverse crowd: Gray Panthers and Queers for Economic Justice, Teamsters in satin baseball jackets advertising their locals and teenagers putting a hip-hop beat on hoary leftist chants.

The protest had five main demands: use Battery Park City money to build and preserve affordable housing; guarantee housing for low- and moderate-income people in neighborhoods being rezoned; win back New York City’s right to determine our own rent laws; provide permanent housing for homeless people living with AIDS; and support legislation for better inspections and tougher penalties for landlords who don’t maintain buildings.

Many people carried “Repeal the Urstadt Law” signs, referring to the state law that bans the city from enacting its own rent regulations. “Why has Mayor Bloomberg fought tooth and nail to gain control over our schools, but not over our rent laws?” asked Hilda Chavez, a speaker from the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.

CHILDREN LEFT BEHIND

A different housing-education connection was on the mind of Nether Carter, parent advisory chair at PS 42Q in Far Rockaway, Queens. Homeless children in the school, she says, are missing the English Language Arts test, which is used to determine whether pupils get promoted to the next grade, because they’re being bounced from shelter to shelter.

“It’s not one or two. There’s thousands of these children,” she says angrily. “No child left behind? These are the children being left behind!”

The homeless are the most visible part of the city’s housing crisis, but the biggest part is the squeeze it puts on working people. There was a strong labor presence at the rally, with many people wearing baseball caps in the purple and yellow of the Service Employees International Union or the dark green and gold of District Council 37. DC 37 printed up scores of black-and-white signs reading “No More Luxury Construction,” and “Don’t Price Me Out of the Market.” One union official spoke of construction workers commuting from Pennsylvania because they can’t afford to live here any more.

“My rent goes up and my pay is lower. We’re playing tug-of-war here. Every time you catch up you’re a step behind,” says Wilson Lassus, 38, a Brooklyn hospital worker and SEIU Local 1199 member. “The only way we can make a difference is if we support each other. Every community should unite and give each other strength.”

“Housing is our main problem. Rent is so high. And most of the apartments have roaches,” says Joyce Thompson, 73, a Jamaican-born resident of Parkchester, in the Bronx. She’s retired and pays more than $800 in rent; others in the neighborhood pay more—”plus gas, electric, heat. It’s hard.”

At the other end of the generational spectrum was a high-spirited group of about 50 students from the School for Social Justice, a small high school in Bushwick, chanting “Si, se puede” (yes, we can) and “Where housing at?” to the beat of cowbells and plaster buckets. “People don’t have heat in their house,” says Veronica Calle, 15.

“We’re the voice that doesn’t get heard,” says Diandra Atkinson, 16, a student at Louis D. Brandeis High School in Manhattan. She’s wearing the red armband of Youth Against Homelessness, a project of the Coalition for the Homeless that “allows youth who’ve experienced homelessness to speak out,” an organizer explains. There are 15,000 homeless youth in New York City, says Ashana Balliram, 17.

Another contingent wore “Queers for Economic Justice” stickers. How is housing a queer issue, other than that gay and lesbian New Yorkers have to pay rent too? “A lot of it’s the same, but transgender people and stone butch lesbians have a hard time getting housing,” answers QEJ organizer Jay Toole, 56, of Brooklyn. Almost half the city’s homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, adds Jessica Stern, 28, of Brooklyn, and many of them were thrown out of their homes by their parents after they came out.

NEEDED: NEW ZONING LAWS
Another demand was for “inclusionary zoning,” requiring permanent affordable housing to be part of any new development in the city. The Bloomberg administration has dramatic plans to rezone the waterfront in Williamsburg and Greenpoint for luxury high-rises, but has not committed to including a definite amount of affordable housing in the plan, says Barbara Schliff of Los Sures, a housing group in Southside Williamsburg.

“Right now, they’re only talking about incentives [for developers],” she explains. “We want a plan that’s going to be good for the whole neighborhood, not just pushing everybody out.” Neighborhood activists want a minimum of 40 percent affordable housing in the plan, she adds.

SAVING PUBLIC HOUSING
Percentages are critical to any inclusionary-zoning scheme. Developers in Manhattan get tax breaks if they agree to include 20 percent affordable housing, but “we’re trying to get a better split. Twenty percent is not enough,” says Pat Boone, vice president of ACORN’s New York State chapter.

Saving public housing was a priority for Hilda Wright, vice president of the tenants association at the Beach 41st Street Houses in Far Rockaway. Otherwise, “the people don’t have a place to go. The rent outside’s as high as the sky. And now Bush is talking about taking Social Security.”

“I’m protesting to help others,” says Lorraine Nunez, 45, who’s grateful that she’s finally found a place to live, in a building designed for the formerly homeless. “I used to live in the streets, live in abandoned buildings. I thank God every day I have my housing.” Her advice for Mayor Bloomberg? He should watch Trading Places, the 1983 movie in which Eddie Murphy played a homeless man who switches social stations with a Wall Street broker.

“We are not just a pressure group. We are an advance guard for a movement for affordable housing,” declares Velma Murphy Hill of Afford Chelsea. “We have a message for Mayor Bloomberg: We will not give up.”

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