Local Right to the City Coalition Releases Policy Platform for New York

Alex Kane Sep 20, 2009

Right to the City members protest outside of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Providence, Rhode Island last June.

The local coalition of the national Right to the City Alliance has released a detailed policy platform for New York City, calling for low-income communities to be involved in the allocation of stimulus funds, radical changes to the New York City Charter to give communities more power, and affordable housing for low-income people.

The demands, written over the course of a year and published in August 2009, also include urging the city to combat environmental racism, and ensuring that the unemployed get adequate services and that the employed receive a living wage.

It was written in response to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC:  A Greener, Greater New York, which the local coalition says, “did not adequately address many of the issues most pressing to low-income communities,” or provide ways for communities to be involved with implementing the plans.

“Naked class privilege to determine the character and meaning of urban life is what the Right to the City alliance directly contests,” writes David Harvey, the author of many books on neoliberal capitalism and who works closely with Right to the City, in an introduction to the platform.  “The Right to the City is a cry and demand that must be – and will – be heard.”

The breadth of the platform reflects the array of grassroots groups involved in Right to the City—New York City, which include Make the Road New York, Picture the Homeless, Queers for Economic Justice, Mothers on the Move, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and many more.  The group made headlines last February when they interrupted a speech being given by Mayor Bloomberg.  Eight members were arrested and charged with trespassing.

Here’s a rundown of some of the demands included in the policy platform:

Stimulus Funds:  establishing a local board with low-income, youth, immigrant and homeless representation to monitor where stimulus money is allocated, and ensuring that low-income people obtain at least 30% of the new employment for stimulus projects.  (The national Right to the City Alliance’s first national campaign, which was kicked off in June 2009 at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is similar).

-Community Power:  expanding voting rights to all residents of New York City age 16 and over, including undocumented immigrants, lifting felony restrictions on voting, and amending the City Charter so that Community Board members are elected, instead of appointed by Borough Presidents.  Also, they demand making Community Board’s decisions binding, as well as participatory budgeting for public housing residents and the City Council’s budget.

-Housing:  converting luxury housing in or at risk of foreclosure into homes for low-income people, passing the Housing, Not Warehousing legislation, and halting foreclosures and evictions on homes financed through sub-prime loans.

-Environmental Justice:  prohibiting the building of “toxic facilities” in poor neighborhoods, offering grants to small grocers to assist in stocking fresh produce, making sure that school food is healthy, and having Housing Preservation and Development build green affordable housing.

-Employment:  indexing insurance benefits to the cost of living, local hire and living wage provisions for developers receiving public subsidies, and ending the “Work Experience Program,” which ties receiving welfare benefits to unpaid work for the city.

-Public Space:  making “Quality of Life” citations not punishable by arrest, ensuring accountability to the law for private entities that develop and are involved in public space, and abolishing the police tactic of “vertical sweeps” in public housing.

The national coalition is a conglomeration of over 40 grassroots groups that are, in a myriad of ways, battling the urban effects of neoliberalism, the economic system that promotes privatization, deregulation and liberalization of capital flows.  (For more background:  I wrote a piece on the national Right to the City Alliance in the latest issue of Red Pepper Magazine, a radical left publication based in the United Kingdom.  You can read the whole piece, in two parts, here and here on Scribd.) 

The alliance says that it fights against gentrification and the displacement of low-income people of color.  The goal of the local platform, the coalition says, “is to help build the power of low-income people of color in urban areas and to create urban policy that is central to the needs of low-income people.”

“Currently, we are meeting with elected officials in New York City to discuss the points listed in our platform, and to fight for their implementation,” says David Dodge, a policy associate at the Urban Justice Center, a member of New York’s Right to the City chapter.

Included in the document are data, charts and graphs, showing things like the history of community-decision making in the city, disproportionate rates of asthma in low-income communities of color, unemployment rates by race and age, and the location of proposed major development projects.

Out of the demands the platform articulates, the one being prioritized by Right to the City—New York City is the call to convert vacant condominiums and luxury housing into affordable housing for low-income people.

In July, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn unveiled a proposal to help 400 “middle-income” families buy unsold apartments in luxury buildings, and last Spring, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) launched a project highlighting 65 financially distressed buildings in Brooklyn, calling on them to be converted into housing for “working families, middle class residents and senior citizens.”  But the proposals put forth by Right to the City would exclusively focus on using stimulus funds to place low-income residents of the city into affordable housing.

The local Right to the City alliance is currently canvassing eight different neighborhoods to find empty or partially constructed luxury condos, according to Dodge.  They are preparing for their campaign to convert luxury condos into housing for low-income people to be launched in late October.

Dodge says that the coalition is prepared to “use direct action tactics as necessary 
to ensure the points in our platform are taken seriously by the city’s
 elected officials and the media.”

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