Opinion

Why we rallied in the rain

Photo courtesy of Mark Clennon

Last Monday, we joined 6,000 fellow Metro Industrial Areas Foundation leaders at a rally near City Hall to bring attention to a crisis that threatens to alter our city as profoundly as the fiscal, safety and educational crises of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The radical increase in rents and housing prices on every corner of our city and the deteriorating conditions in city-run public housing developments is leading black and Latino families – including many members of our congregations – to be driven out of the city by the thousands. Sadly, Mayor Bill de Blasio reacted on Monday the same way he has before: by not showing up.

Beginning in the 1970s, we responded to each crisis by creating a new generation of organizations in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and The Bronx. As part of our work, our leaders initiated large scale rebuilding of East Brooklyn and the South Bronx with thousands of new, affordable Nehemiah homes for low-income residents of those communities who were at risk of displacement.

We weren't alone. Other independent groups – the Community Preservation Corporation, Breaking Ground, the Northwest Bronx Clergy Coalition and the New York City Partnership – created innovative, high-impact housing solutions. The Koch administration, at first skeptical and even resistant, came to the conclusion that this loose set of New York institutions should be supported, not suppressed or coopted. The result: the city was substantially rebuilt, with over 400,000 units either built new or rehabilitated since then.

RELATED: Is affordable housing New York's white whale?

Later we worked with the Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations to make neighborhoods safer, start small and high-quality schools, and continue to build or rehabilitate thousands more Nehemiah homes and apartments. Our relationship with each of these mayors was often contentious, but never absent.

We looked forward to a real and ongoing relationship with Mayor de Blasio after we had our first face-to-face meeting with him two weeks ago at Gracie Mansion. Everyone can see the mayor is trying to do something about developing affordable housing. But even the mayor acknowledges that it's having little impact on rising rents and the displacement of so many of our people. The affordable housing crisis may have begun before de Blasio got into office but it has only worsened since then.

That's why we're challenging the mayor to radically expand his efforts by developing 15,000 new units of affordable senior housing, freeing up space for 50,000 new people to move into public housing, rehabilitating those same developments from top to bottom and prioritizing subsidies for rents that residents can afford. We’ve found funding sources, sites to develop with resident support, and even ways to bring costs down. It's the same proposal that we’ve brought before every one of his commissioners since 2014 and even written about on these pages.

Most importantly, we want to develop a relationship with Mayor de Blasio to deliver at a scale and speed that could slow down and even reverse the tide of evictions and crumbling city-run buildings. We’re prepared to organize thousands of leaders over and over to see this plan through.

A week later, Mayor de Blasio gave us the brush-off and a form letter filled with happy talk about the city's own plans. The mayor, we were told, was too busy to meet again. 

On Monday, we delivered our response: 6,000 black and Latino leaders showed up in the pouring rain and stifling humidity. 

A storm didn’t deter leaders like Tawana Myers, Karla Martinez, and Dahlia Romero, who live in mold-infested and dangerous public housing developments. Nor Ancia Mota, an 82-year-old resident of Bushwick, who is facing imminent eviction after her building was recently sold, or Olivia Wilkins, who lives in a brand new ultra-affordable senior housing development, Redwood Senior Living, that can serve as a model of what we can build together with the mayor. A storm couldn’t put them off, because they know a larger storm is already here and claiming victims every day.

RELATED: De Blasio's housing plan should pivot to low-income New Yorkers

Our action on Monday was angry, hopeful, energetic and focused. 

In that way, it was the opposite of the mayor’s town hall meetings, which are packed with city employees, the police, the mayor’s media handlers and organizations that get money from the mayor’s office rather than actual residents of the neighborhoods he claims to represent. We brought fifty independent leaders to one in East New York, but we got up and left when the mayor told us he had no real answer to our housing proposals – and we couldn’t help but notice that when we left, there were virtually no local residents left in the room that evening.

Nor was our action on Monday a three-ring circus like the mayoral candidates’ forum the following night. 

Previous mayors – Democrat, Republican and Independent – learned something that this mayor has not: we can't be crushed or co-opted. Millions of New Yorkers are depending on us to deliver solutions to the affordable housing crisis. Our success is measured in impact and results, not effort and nice words.

Monday's demonstration was the opening in what may be a long and difficult struggle to get the respect, recognition and results that black and Latino New Yorkers deserve. We’ve got a long way to go, but the road is less difficult if the mayor wants to lead. If and when he does, we’ll be waiting.

Reverend Shaun Lee, Reverend Tyrone Stevenson and Reverend David Brawley are pastors and leaders of East Brooklyn Congregations and Metro IAF.

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