By Lynn Lewis
Picture the Homeless is a decade-old grass roots membership organization of homeless New Yorkers, and a member of the coordinating committee of the New York City Right to the City Alliance. We have targeted the powerful Chase Manhattan Bank to press for real changes in the way people are housed, as one facet of the broader Housing Not Warehousing Coalition staffed by Picture the Homeless. The campaign raises several questions for grass roots organizing and housing activism in the city. Among these questions are: what power do low income communities have to change the housing market? What strategies do we use to build that power? How do we move a multinational financial institution to release vacant buildings and land to create housing for the very poor? And what type of housing is needed and desired in order to actualize our value of housing as a human right?
Part of the gigantic Chase portfolio includes vacant buildings and lots that have been warehoused for years, as well as newly foreclosed vacant properties and newly constructed units that remain unsold and even unfinished. Land ownership — and being a landlord — has always been a means to accumulate wealth in the United States. Warehousing vacant buildings at first glance may not seem like much of an investment strategy. Warehousing can be a lucrative investment however, when vacant properties become hot commodities in gentrifying neighborhoods – more so than occupied buildings, particularly if full of tenants paying low rents. This is where the interests of homeless people and Chase Manhattan Bank collide.
Unfortunately for Chase, the City of New York and other banks and investment funds that are warehousing vacant properties, homeless New Yorkers are ready, willing and able to claim them and create new models of housing to benefit the very poor. We are talking about nothing short of changing the housing market, or at least, creating space within the market to develop for poor people not served by the market. As grass roots organizers and people displaced from their homes and communities, we have had to confront the question of what is a winnable organizing campaign. To this end, we are combining participatory research, civil disobedience, public education, coalition building and legislative work, among other tactics.
Shelters and jails create profits for investors while housing for the very poor does not. The Housing Not Warehousing (HNW) campaign grew out of our critique of the insane logic that created huge numbers of warehoused vacant properties while tens of thousands of homeless individuals and families are warehoused in shelters and jails. Money is not the problem. The City of New York pays more per household to institutionalize poor people than it costs to give them housing vouchers. We’ve documented, for example, cases in which the city pays up to $3,300 per month for a couple in one room in the Bronx sharing a bathroom with 15 other families.
The city has not moved forward to build on successful housing creation programs such as sweat equity, limited equity coops, community land trusts and mutual housing associations. Not because they don’t work, but because they don’t generate a profit for real estate developers. Hard-fought struggles over housing, including squatting, moved the city to create progressive housing programs for the very poor in the past. It is time to re-kindle struggles, learn from them and force changes in the housing market that benefits all community members, particularly those currently excluded.
In 2005, Picture the Homeless started counting the vacant buildings and lots that surrounded our office in East Harlem/El Barrio. We learned that the majority were privately owned and some vacant for decades. We then crafted and a Manhattan wide, block by block count, carrying it out in conjunction with the Manhattan Borough President and over a hundred volunteers. This effort proved that there were enough vacant properties in Manhattan alone to house every homeless household in all five boroughs of the city – without even counting vacant public housing units, or other partially occupied buildings. Since then we have been pushing the city to conduct a comprehensive, vacant property survey annually, in all five boroughs.
The majority of the vacant properties in Manhattan are privately owned. The city no longer takes over vacant properties to become the landlord and property manager: another neo-liberal move towards privatization with no benefit for the majority of community members but very profitable for corporations. We are currently researching Chases’ portfolio of vacant properties, but in July of 2009 we moved forward in our targeting of Chase by occupying a lot vacant for decades, owned by Chase. We created a tent city with hundreds of members of Picture the Homeless, allies, artists and neighborhood residents to illuminate the issue and to force dialogue. While ten of us were arrested for this action, we were released within hours, and Chase refused to press charges when we went to court in October.
The fundamental question is whether or not housing and land are commodities to be bought and sold, or public assets because housing is a human right. The bailout that Chase and other banking institutions received further begs the question, but the fundamental conflict remains between housing rights and community development practices that privilege land use for profit. The current housing crisis provides an urgent impetus to consider this question, but it is one that homeless people were already asking.
We believe that publicly shaming Chase and other property owners, including the City of New York, who hold onto vacant land and buildings as investments in the midst of the largest numbers of people homeless in the U.S. since the Great Depression, is necessary to bring about change and to win housing for the very poor, particularly since Chase was a major recipient of government bailout funds. And we also believe that alternative models of housing and community development proposed by our Housing Not Warehousing campaign offer more democratic forms of community development and benefit the community as a whole. Housing for homeless individuals and families stabilizes the housing market for those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, generally concentrated in the lowest income neighborhoods.
While our Manhattan vacant property count was completed in 2006, and our report Homeless People Count released in 2007, since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been a new wave of vacant properties. Among these are the luxury condos that were constructed for the higher end of the housing market during economic “good times,” as well as newly foreclosed properties. Our count helped provide a framework for the Right to the City Alliance to undertake a count of vacant luxury condos in 2009.
We are working towards moving the City of New York to do an annual inventory of vacant properties so that communities can use this information to fully participate in the community planning process. By community we also mean homeless folks, who are often portrayed as needing to be “reintegrated” into society, but who are members of multiple communities, including geographic communities and neighborhoods. Homeless New Yorkers have plans for the disposition of the vacant properties as well; it isn’t enough to just count them. We know that homeless and very poor people will not benefit from the development of vacant buildings unless we fight for inclusion. Homeless New Yorkers, through the Housing Not Warehousing campaign, are providing real alternatives to private market development, shattering the conventional wisdom that nothing can be done to end homelessness.
The Housing Not Warehousing Coalition is creating a Homeless People’s Community Land Trust, with the assistance of progressive urban planners and organizers, including Tom Angotti in New York and James Tracy in the Bay Area, housing activists, students and homeless folks,. We have moved elected officials to introduce legislation that will mandate an annual inventory of vacant properties, and are working towards crafting legislation that will facilitate the development of Mutual Housing Associations: one mechanism to create permanently affordable housing for the very poor – because counting properties is not the ultimate solution, it is the disposition and control of the vacant properties that concerns us.
We continue to move forward with our demands that Chase donate their vacant buildings and land to a community land trust as well as provide pre-development and development funding and will expand our targets beyond Chase. Since the July occupation of the vacant lot owned by Chase, we have continued our research into their real estate holdings and held two direct actions targeting Chase executives. We have also worked internally to flesh out the vision of what type of housing people are willing to fight for and want to live in, what would a just tenant selection process look like, and so forth. We have been gathering the support of allies including faith communities. We are in the process of working on a meeting date with Chase, and hope to sit down and begin to negotiate a transfer of unused properties into the Homeless Peoples Land Trust. For us it is a classic case of extreme need vs. extreme greed. Not to oversimplify the struggle, but we believe that organizing homeless folks, other poor people, and our allies will build the pressure necessary for common sense and justice will prevail.
The Housing Not Warehousing Coalition is poised to create a model for housing development for the very poor. We are also poised to provide both the City of New York, as well as Chase and other financial institutions, the opportunity to make a real difference in ending homelessness, by joining with us to open up the bottom end of the housing market for those currently squeezed out.
Lynn Lewis is Director of Picture the Homeless in New York City.