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It’s Time to Reignite New York’s Social Housing Revolution

While we fight for federal and state support to cancel back rent, protect tenants from eviction, and make small landlords whole, we need to lay the groundwork for a future where working-class New Yorkers are never this vulnerable again.

Rodrigo Camarena Dec 2, 2020

Rodrigo Camarena is running for New York City Council in District 38 in Brooklyn. Photo: courtesy.

In 1916, a group of 16 Finnish families in Sunset Park forwent the tenement style rentals of the time and pooled their money together to construct their own housing in the cooperative model they were accustomed to in Finland. These Finnish immigrants erected two buildings on 43rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues and named them Alku (Finnish for “beginning”) and Alku Toinen (“second beginning”).

Perhaps unknowingly, these Finnish immigrants created the first housing cooperative, not only in New York City but in the United States. In doing so, they would establish a model for social housing that transformed the City’s real estate landscape and became a unique feature of New York life.

Cooperative home ownership has allowed generations of New York families to live and work in the communities that they’ve helped build. It’s kept homes permanently affordable, offered middle-class families stability, and allowed thousands to build equity for the first time. While not a panacea, housing cooperatives offer an alternative to the speculative for-profit housing model that has pushed up rents, contributed to the de-regulation of rent-stabilized housing, and created the housing insecurity that we see today.

Cooperative home ownership has allowed generations of New York families to live and work in the communities that they’ve helped build. 

It is estimated that by January of 2021 over 800,000 tenants in the state of New York will be at risk of being forced out of their homes. With rising unemployment, a looming eviction crisis, and growing foreclosures, the corporate real estate industry is primed to acquire property liens and foreclosed assets at rates that would strengthen big real estate’s grip over our city and exacerbate the trends that have led to our current housing crisis.

While we fight for federal and state support to cancel back rent, protect tenants from eviction, and make small landlords whole, we need to lay the groundwork for a future where working-class New Yorkers can once again own homes, have access to permanently affordable housing, and are never this vulnerable again. As a candidate for New York City Council I’m committed to fighting for just that. Here are a few steps from my housing plan to prevent displacement, reclaim the land, and provide for permanently affordable housing for more New Yorkers.

●  Prevent the Private Equity Land Grab by passing the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA) – and Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act being drafted by Senator Zellnor Myrie – creating a New York City Land Bank so that we the residents of this city, and not private equity, can be first in line to acquire foreclosed and tax delinquent properties and transition private property for public and community use.

●  Abolish the Tax Lien Sale and Build a Pipeline for New Affordable Housing Developments. New York City’s tax lien sale accounts for less than $70 million in revenue, compared to the roughly $30 billion that the City collects in property taxes each year, and fuels displacement in Black and brown neighborhoods. We need to follow the leadership of the East New York Community Land Trust Initiative and demand that the New York City Council abolish the tax lien sale and support owners in transitioning tax delinquent property into Community Land Trusts (CLTs) that promote neighborhood stability and equity. According to the New Economy Project, the October 2020 lien sale list of 93 vacant lots with residential zoning could have been enough to build approximately 1,000 units of affordable housing. This is almost half of what Mayor De Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy has produced in four years.

●  Accelerate the Social Housing and Community Land Trust (CLT) Revolution by doubling the capital and technical assistance budget of the Council’s Community Land Trust Initiative  and allowing more communities to purchase land and set up land trusts to develop cooperative and affordable housing and guarantee affordability in perpetuity. Community Land Trusts are community-controlled nonprofits that own land and ensure it’s used to provide permanently-affordable housing and meet other community needs. Community Land Trusts are a bulwark against New York’s speculative property market and offer communities the opportunity to develop their own affordable rental housing, cooperative housing, single-family housing, and even commercial and community spaces.

Sunset Park’s Finnish immigrants knew that the exploitative rental market of tenement era New York was unsustainable and a dead-end for working families seeking to prosper in New York City. They were proactive, bold, and committed to providing housing security for themselves and their families. Instead of watching homes in our neighborhoods spiral into foreclosure and entire blocks of our city get gobbled up by private equity, we need to come together as New Yorkers and take big bold steps towards a different kind of future. Let’s honor Sunset Park’s social housing legacy, reclaim our communities, and look towards a new beginning for all New Yorkers.

Rodrgio Camarena is a candidate for New York City Council’s 38th District which includes the communities of Sunset Park and Red Hook, and portions of Borough Park, Dyker Heights, and Windsor Terrace.

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