The Way We (Struggle To) Live In New York City, Circa 2007

Got this from April Silver.

New York’s Affordable Housing Crisis

By Kevin Powell

Stacy had been subletting an apartment in an expansive complex on the Upper Westside of Manhattan from a family friend for ten-plus years. A product of working-class New York, this arrangement helped to give Stacy’s life a foundation and, for once, she was enjoying the fruits of the Big Apple experience. So you can imagine the shock and awe when Stacy, a single mother who scraped to make ends meet as she raised her son, received a notice from the management of her rent-stabilized building that she would have to vacate unless she were able to shell out $2400 a month in rent, a huge leap from the $900 she was currently paying. Terrified, confused, and sure she would wind up in a shelter or on the streets if she did not react quickly, Stacy, an administrative assistant by profession, sought and found a small apartment for her and her son in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Brooklyn. She is thinking of leaving New York City altogether because she feels trapped by her environment; and because over half of her income each year goes to rent. 

Imani is a modestly successful model who supplements her earnings by bartending at exclusive nightclubs. Financially astute, she has been saving her money to purchase a condo here in New York, her adopted hometown-the city Imani would prefer to live in rather than anywhere else in America. And why not? Imani is young, talented, energetic, intellectually curious, and she feels it is here that she can achieve her dreams as an actress, or whatever it is she so desires. But Imani is in crisis mode. For the past several months, the management company of the building where Imani rents (her cousin’s name is on the lease) has been harassing her about her residency, threatening to evict her, refusing to acknowledge that although she has been in this unit for two years, has written every single rent check, from her checking account, that somehow she is suddenly not eligible to rent that unit, with or without her name on the lease. Terrified and confused about the matter, Imani is being forced to go to court to fight for her apartment, and she has no idea what she will do if forced to vacate or pay a substantial rent increase if she wants to keep her living space.

Welcome to the terrordome called the struggle for affordable housing in New York City, circa the early days of the 21st century. I have been living in New York, mostly in Brooklyn, for 17 years and I have heard variations on the stories cited above multiple times, from renters and subletters alike, from New Yorkers of all ethnicities and cultures, all religions and faiths, all educational levels and occupations. Clearly, there is something rotten in Gotham, and it is the fact that millions of New Yorkers, quite literally, cannot afford a place to live. I knew it was a problem as I watched a parade of folks come and go in my neighborhood, in my borough, in my city, the past several years. I knew it was a problem with the loss of massive housing developments like Stuyvesant Town. I knew it was a problem with the recent threat to Starrett City as a mixed income and culturally diverse experiment in affordable housing in New York. There at Starrett City a developer attempted-and failed-to purchase it for a billion dollars or so, with the intention of creating top-dollar luxury apartments on the development’s vacant land. And God only knows what he and his partners planned to do with the tenants already inhabiting the previously built towers. We who are honest know the deal: New York City is propelled by and on the backs of working class and middle class New Yorkers of all persuasions. That was the case in 17th century New Amsterdam, the original name; and that is the case today at this critical juncture in our city’s history. I moved to this great metropolis, from across the river in Jersey City, because I wanted to be in a space where, as a writer and an activist, I could encounter the myriad of people, social classes, sights, sounds, languages, cultures, foods, and attitudes as I could no where else. And I moved here because I knew that in spite of all its big-city problems, that New York is the one place in America where you could walk half a block, turn a corner, go one subway stop, and, without question, feel the heartbeat of what former Mayor David Dinkins called “a gorgeous mosaic” at any given moment. 

But that New York City is being threatened by what could potentially be our worst housing crisis in decades. Like Stacy, more than two million New Yorkers pay over half their income in rent. In just three years (2002 to 2005), the city’s subsidized affordable housing shrunk by 11%. We know that state and federal initiatives like Mitchell-Lama, Section 8, and public housing were specifically created to serve and protect low to moderate-income urban dwellers. And we know that tens of thousands of Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 apartments have been lost; and there lingers a loaded and uncomfortable question about the future of public housing in New York.   

So we have a battle on our hands. We have to ask ourselves what kind of New York do we envision 10 years from now, or by, say, 2030, as Mayor Mike Bloomberg has instructed us to do? Is it a New York City where all New Yorkers can continue to live and coexist to make this metropolis the most magical, the most multicultural, the most multidimensional, and the most multilingual on this planet? Or are we going to sit idly by as New York becomes an oasis mainly for those able to rent or sublease at or above today’s market value for an apartment?

Stacy has already lost her apartment, and Imani may as well. But concerned New Yorkers can help turn the tide in the fight for affordable housing by pressing newly-elected Governor Spitzer to reverse the destructive practices put forth during the Pataki administration which favor landlords over tenants. This means repealing “vacancy decontrol,” preventing displacing rent increases, extending rent regulations to all developments, preserving state-built affordable housing, and enacting legislation that gives tenants and tenant-selected qualified buyers a right of first refusal to purchase buildings put on the market. This means that while we applaud Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to create 94,000 new affordable housing units, and to preserve 71,000 existing ones, we also must move to maintain the nearly 1.5 million housing units at risk if local and state elected officials do not act immediately. This means, too, supporting the efforts of key organizations like the Working Families Party and Housing Here and Now, who are spearheading this latest charge for affordable housing in New York.

And, for sure, it means some of us will have to burrow into our souls and ask ourselves what New York City, our city, will look like if all affordable housing, and its occupants, were slowly but surely to disappear in the coming years and decades?

Kevin Powell, a community organizer and writer based in Brooklyn, New York, is the author of 7 books, including his most recent essay collection, Someday We’ll All Be Free (Soft Skull Press) . He can be reached at kepo1@aol.com .

To learn more about the New York City affordable housing crisis, and to get involved, please visit these websites:

Working Families Party

Housing Here and Now

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