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The Free Market Will Never Provide Decent Housing for All

Here’s what we can do.

Alexa Avilés Apr 2

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Years ago, at PS172 in Brooklyn, NY, my daughters’ classmates started disappearing from their desks. It was clear what was happening: Even before the trauma of the Trump administration, immigrant families in Sunset Park were being terrorized by their landlords, who would threaten to call immigration authorities on them in an effort to push them out of their homes. And they were successful. A few families at a time — ones living together in a shared apartment or in different spaces in the same building — would pack up and flee to New Jersey or Pennsylvania. The landlords could then sell the buildings to developers, who’d flatten them and turn them into luxury eyesores, or who’d patch the buildings up and double the rent.

In my community, the whispers about dirty landlords have grown louder. We are collectively shouting for justice. Residents here understand that developers’ greed drives gentrification and displacement, particularly for immigrants and communities of color like ours.

It’s time to bar real estate and finance executives from holding leadership positions in the City’s planning and housing agencies.

In City Council District 38 where I live, which includes Sunset Park and Red Hook, we’re lucky to have legislators who double as tenant organizers and activists. Together, we are building power to fight back.  Take Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes — she recently introduced the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase (TOPA) bill in the State Assembly, which would ensure that tenants living in multi-family buildings would be notified if the landlord planned to sell the building, and would give them the opportunity to collectively purchase it. Inspired by Marcela’s win and her tenacious, unrelenting advocacy for our community, I’m running for  City Council in District 38 to win real gains for renters and small homeowners, and to build the tenant movement. I want to see tenants in private housing, NYCHA residents, and small homeowners take back control of their homes from banks and corporate landlords. The free market will never provide decent housing for all, and we should stop pretending otherwise.

Over the years, communities like mine have gotten used to hearing that the only way we can access what we need to survive — good-paying jobs, schools, and transportation — is to let big developers take control of our neighborhoods. But the displacement of our neighbors can no longer be the price of progress. I was proud to stand against the Industry City rezoning proposal last year. Our community is full of people who work in retail, manufacturing and the light industry, and so many of my neighbors walk or take public transit to work on retail corridors, like Fifth Avenue. Industry City’s plan, to build a bigger, taller playground for the rich, with an even more massive shopping center and hotel complex, never made any sense.

There is a growing movement of candidates who are refusing donations from real estate interests, and I am proud to be among them. After all, I’ve seen how the real estate industry has shaped the landscape of my own neighborhood, how they have nefariously manipulated immigrants into fleeing their homes, and their communities. To ensure that neighborhood change can be constructive, we need to free City planning and housing agencies from real estate influence, too. The industries that created and bankrolled explosive gentrification should not be the ones proposing solutions. It’s time to bar real estate and finance executives from holding leadership positions in the City’s planning and housing agencies.

We need to do more than just block predatory developments, however: We need to empower our communities to take ownership over their own needs. The Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA) provides us with an opportunity to replicate Mitaynes’ TOPA policy at the city level. It would establish a New York City land bank and give priority to nonprofit housing developers and community land trusts to purchase housing that’s listed for sale. That means that wealthy developers wouldn’t be the first ones to swoop in, and that new housing is affordable to the people who live in our neighborhoods. It is also critical we build a new land-use process that centers community needs, rather than developers’ fictitious claims.

The Community Opportunity to Purchase Act would establish a New York City land bank and give priority to nonprofit housing developers and community land trusts to purchase housing that’s listed for sale. 

From there, we need to abolish the tax lien sale, a Giuliani-era policy that lets corporate landlords off the hook while punishing homeowners of color. Under the current system, liens from distressed properties are turned over to banks that charge exorbitant interest rates, and tenants in these buildings are more likely to see their homes neglected and foreclosed, and to face eviction. The city should instead take control of these liens and ensure that tenants and homeowners can stay in their homes with the option of social ownership like community land trusts.

In District 38, almost 3,000 families live in public housing. As a Council Member, I will work with our representatives at state and federal levels to fight for fully funding NYCHA. Public housing residents deserve to live in better conditions — and just like tenants in private housing, public housing residents  shouldn’t have to put up with luxury development in order to have livable, safe and dignified housing. It’s the Council’s moral and political duty to work with the NYCHA residents in their district, opposing plans to privatize our public housing. Too often, our Council Members neglect this duty, distracted by seemingly quick fixes to decades-long, systemic problems. But our communities know better. Residents in the Red Hook Houses want a Green New Deal for NYCHA, which will preserve it as a public good and ensure that NYCHA can be a sustainable and healthy asset for our community while creating good, green construction and resiliency jobs for residents. 

After the wave of crises of the last year, it should be clearer than ever that housing is healthcare, housing stability is economic stability, and housing justice is environmental justice. It’s disgraceful that residents of District 38 have had to fight so hard for their rights to be recognized. But I have hope that together, we can win reforms at the state and local level. Together, we can preserve the vibrance of our community, and build a sustainable future, where every resident has a home they can call their own. 

Alexa Avilés, a mom and education organizer in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is a union-backed candidate for New York City Council in District 38.

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