The Justice for All Coalition, a grassroots group representing the community members of Astoria and Long Island City – including tenants of three NYCHA campuses (Queensbridge, Ravenswood, & Astoria Houses) – held a rally last Saturday to promote next steps in protecting NYCHA land from private development.

    Rally attendees also demanded public investment for much-needed NYCHA repairs, and call for an immediate moratorium on any new construction in Western Queens until a comprehensive neighborhood plan predicated on true community involvement is created, including the evaluation of current infrastructure.

    About 19 speakers addressed the crowd including democratic nominee for New York’s 14th congressional district,  29-year-old Bronx-native Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  Greeted with an enthusiastic round of applause, Ocasio-Cortez ran on the platform that “housing is a human right.”  This concept was well received by an audience of people who are part of the 600k NYers who call NYCHA home, and who know firsthand what it is like to live in horrid conditions due to years of neglect by city, state and federal government.  “NYCHA is not broken, it needs to be invested in,” was Ocasio-Cortez’s take home message.

    Democratic Congressional Nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addresses the rally. Photo by Kirsetn Theodos

    In June, Ocasio-Cortez pulled the biggest upset in Queens political history, taking down incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, who has represented the community for 20 years. “This community made a new playbook…,” Ocasio-Cortez lamented, “you’re never supposed to win the first time you run for politics. You’re never supposed to win against an incumbent.”

    Shock and surprise, it seems, translates into hope. Ocasio-Cortez defied those odds and in keeping with the fierce tenacity that got her elected, inspired the audience of what could be if we elect politicians who do not take real estate money so we can “legislate on every level of government” to ensure everyone has an affordable and safe home to live in.

    Of the 19 speakers, about half were leaders of other organizations across the city, brought in to share their personal and organizational experiences and lessons learned – from one community and organization to another.

    Eljeer Hawkins of Northern Manhattan is Not For Sale (@NMN4S_NYC) and Jay Koo of Queens Neighborhoods United (@QueensBarrios) spoke about how their communities fell victim to big real estate’s take over of their neighborhoods, made possible by complicit local elected officials.  Having recently suffered a huge defeat in the massive Inwood rezoning (part of Mayor De Blaiso’s plan to bring affordable housing to his constituents), Hawkins spoke about NYC’s “system of capitalism” defined by real estate interests.  “This is a manmade crisis… (that is) stripping away people’s homes.”

    Koo, who grew up in NYCHA on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, spoke about the mistakes that were made during the planning process of a massive development called Essex Crossing.  He wisely warned “If we do not learn from our past mistakes, then we are doomed to repeat them.“ He noted that a lack of cohesion in organizing among different groups, some of whom were “negotiating” in private with the city, resulted in a sliver of the local jobs promised and inflated the price levels to qualify for the affordable housing.

    Koo continued: the “majority of the units were reserved for a family of three making $70,000 to $90,000… we learned the hard way, promises made by developers aren’t legally binding.”  Having been priced out of the neighborhood he called home, Koo  landed in Queens and joined Queens Neighborhoods United, a grassroots group founded in Jackson Heights that successfully defeated the expansion of a business improvement district (BID) which are “notoriously known for erecting small business-displacing chain stores.”

    State Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria, Long Island City, Sunnyside, parts of Woodside, Maspeth, Ridgewood, Woodhaven) also spoke and promised, “When Democrats take over, you can be rest assured we are going to make the rent laws better… NYCHA is going to get the attention it deserves.” Gianaris also shared a big announcement: that he is joining the growing list of representatives who no longer take real estate money, which was received with thunderous applause.

    NYCHA is under attack, there is no question about it. After decades of disinvestment, Mayor De Blasio’s “NextGeneration NYCHA” plan, aims to privatize NYCHA campuses through infill, or giving playgrounds, parking lots and other “underutilized” spaces to private developers.

    If allowed to proceed, these mechanisms will effectively privatize NYCHA, which Committee for Independent Community Action representative and speaker Dr. Jessie Fields noted, “is dangerous because it puts decision making into the private sector… It’s based on profit.”

    On the whole, these are already sweetheart deals for developers. And that’s without noting that half of the units in the private tower developments built on NYCHA land will be market rate (read: luxury) units, exempt from property taxes (because it is city-owned land), includes additional taxpayer subsidies – in one case, $13M – and with stewardship secured through a 99-year lease.

    Why should developers get millions when 4 in 5 NYCHA residents went without heat at some point last winter? That money could be used to purchase new boilers to keep NYCHA residents warm this winter, among the other $32 billion dollars worth of needed capital repairs.

    NYCHA is the only truly affordable housing left in NYC; and while it’s not as affordable as it once was, many residents don’t have the funds or desire to move and leave their homes or community behind.  If the City can seize NYCHA land for luxury development and find millions to give to developers, it can find a way to repair and even improve NYCHA.

    And that was the brunt of the rally.

    Kirsten Theodos is a co-founder of TakeBackNYC and is on the steering committee Human-Scale NYC.

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