The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

“How Big a Scandal Could This Become?”

That’s the question Brian Lehrer asked Azi Paybarah of Capital New York this morning on WNYC, in reference to the sexual harassment charges against New York State Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Lopez has been censured by the New York State Assembly, forced out of his job as Chairman of the Housing Committee, and has announced that he does not plan to run for re-election to be leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. As more information about previous harassment charges and subsequent settlements emerges, the implosion of Mr. Lopez’s career may have implications for other NYS Democrats: Sheldon Silver, Tom DiNapoli, and even Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Sexual harassment is just one example of how Mr. Lopez is totally unfit for public office. A notoriously corrupt machine-era politician, Lopez used his power to direct subsidies and steer developments as he saw fit. (The story of the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg is a good example.) As Chairman of the Housing committee, Mr. Lopez wielded considerable power in the city’s subsidized housing industry. His non-profit, Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizen’s Council, has been wrought with charges of corruption since its inception.

Some affordable housing developers we have spoken with since the implosion of Vito Lopez’s career are pleased with what this may mean for the affordable housing community in New York City. And on Friday, a community organizer based in North Williamsburg commented to us, “You should see Brooklyn right now – it’s like Christmas.” This may be a liberating moment for the borough that has been rigorously controlled by Mr. Lopez for years.

A lot of information, some of it quite descriptive, is available about the charges filed against Mr. Lopez and we do not need to go into it here. But our question is: what took so long? Without trivializing the scarring experiences victims have suffered at Mr.Lopez’s hand (or mouth, or eyes), at times it can seem like everyone knows someone who the Assemblyman has acted inappropriately with. His corruption and his heinous behavior have been an open secret for quite some time; there are entire websites dedicated to exposing it.

Now powerful New York politicians are lining up around the block to call for his resignation. But they are answering the wrong question. Of course Mr. Lopez should resign, but it is not challenging anything to publically call for his resignation now that this scandal has been a breaking news story for nearly a week. New York pols should be telling us how this was allowed to happen, for so long, and why they looked the other way. They should also be answering WHY these sexual harassment charges are so much worse than the laundry list of things that this man has done wrong. By all common sense, this man should not have been allowed to hold office long enough to have been given the opportunity to prey on his recent victims. New York politicians should be apologizing to Mr. Lopez’s victims for waiting this long to take action and in so doing enabling him to exploit that power, again and again, on women, on neighborhoods, on Brooklyn, and on New York State.

If this is a liberating day for Brooklyn, it is a sad day for Albany — a day that illustrates the desperate need to change the status quo in New York State politics.

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