Will NYC Allow Non-Citizens to Vote in Local Elections?

Eric Carr

Rather than talk about yesterday’s elections (though we’ve got a lot to say), we wanted to bring up an important City Council bill that was introduced earlier this year by Queens Councilmember Daniel Dromm that could have a major impact on improving the democratic process in NYC. The bill proposes allowing non-citizen residents of New York the right to vote in local elections. Residents would need to have lived in New York City for at least 6 months, hold a legal green card, and meet any other current requirements for voter registration.

This bill’s passage makes a lot of sense.  If residents are paying taxes, sending their children to school, and are active members of society, they should have a voice in how their community is run. Duh.  According to the New York Daily News, the city has a tradition of including immigrants in voting processes. All residents- whether or not they were citizens- had the ability to vote in school board elections back when school boards were locally controlled and not run by the mayor.

Dromm points out that before 1920s, immigration laws were not in place that prevented immigrants from voting in their local elections.

For almost the first hundred and fifty years in the history of this country immigrants were allowed to vote. Originally, when you came to this country if you were a white landowner you could vote. Then women had to fight for the right to vote. Then African-Americans had to ensure their right to vote in the 1960s through the Voting Rights Act. So there has been a history in the United States of people seeking redress from their government on voting rights issues and we feel this is just another step in the logical progression of human and civil rights for people in this country.

Preach it!

At UHAB, we believe that residents should have control over what happens in their communities, and therefore we strongly support this bill.  City Council does, too.  Even though Bloomberg has threatened to veto the bill’s passage (what hasn’t he threated to veto?), the bill has the support of a veto-proof majority- 34 councilmembers.

While scores of New Yorkers  went out and voted yesterday, the bill would allow one and five more New Yorkers to vote- and in some communities one in three!  As Dromn aptly puts it:

I don’t think communities like the community that I represent, which is 68 percent immigrant, would ever be able to be ignored again by anybody running for major citywide office in New York City.

Let’s hope the bill passes soon.


representMEnyc: First Hand Accounts of What New Yorkers want in a Mayor

Last night was the final televised debate in the race for the Democratic nomination for NYC Mayor. If you missed it there is ample coverage all over the internet; we don’t need to link it here. However, the question remains whether or not the current mayoral candidates accurately address needs of struggling New Yorkers. Michael Powell at the NY Times published a similar article on politics and inequality in the Bronx on Sunday.

The Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project has developed a tumblr called “representMEnyc” in which low-income New Yorkers are able to express what they want from the next NYC mayor. Helen Strom, legal advocate at UJC, shares the motivation behind the project:

During the Bloomberg years, while some sectors of the city have prospered, low-income New Yorkers have faced both official neglect and outright malice from the mayor’s office. We want the site to allow people to connect personally to the stories and desires of their fellow New Yorkers and to amplify the voices of low-income communities, which have been ignored and suppressed in the city for too long.

Through the tumblr, we are able to learn individual stories and desires of New Yorkers, and what’s important to them.  One child and his mother hold up a sign listing their priorities for the city.  They tell UJC staff:

“The mayor needs to worry about more than soda when people don’t have anywhere to live. I am thinking of moving out of state because of the living conditions here. I have been in that building 19 years and it’s time to go. The way they treat you here is like garbage if you are on Section 8 or something like that. If a new mayor comes, we need better housing laws because the housing is never up to code. My landlord is getting money but they never do anything. We are being abused by landlords with the living conditions here, how much more abuse can we take?”

Another woman writes:

“I need the next mayor to: budgeting the city’s money in a logical and fair way. Not just build housing, but REAL affordable housing w/out gentrifying neighborhoods. 80/20 is not fair and not good enough. Learn the AMI of neighborhoods you are rebuilding. Be more active in community events. Get to know those who vote for you. Understand minimum wage in no way can afford anyone a home/apt or proper housing single/married or especially family. The hiking of MTA and the lack of better service. Where is all of our fare going? When service seems to just get worse.”

She goes on to say:

“This issue has become more of an importance because I am head of household, because I am a mother. And not involved in a two income household where this city seems to tend to more. I need to build a security for my child so she does not have to experience the trials this city has inflicted on it natural born citizens especially. I was born/raised/educated in the city of New York and yet can’t afford a basic, comfortable living. I do not meet concierge/drivers/ and restaurants I can’t afford. I need housing/a decent paying job w/ skills I’ve strived to attain to be a part of the city I grew up in and be a working part of society and to not feel banished from it, by being PRICED out.”

Getting these stories out is crucial.  We need to make more effort as a society to make sure that this perspective is heard, and is being told by those experiencing it.

If you’d like to contribute to the tumblr, you are able to share your opinions directly on the page or by emailing UJCSafetyNet@gmail.com.

How to Solve NYC’s Affordable Housing Crisis? Legalize Basement Units


“Nearly 40% of the new housing created from 1990 to 2005 were illegal apartments. Many of them are in basements or cellars. These units exist because there isn’t enough affordable housing in NYC.” -Seema Agnani, Executive Director, Chhaya Community Development Corporation in “Bringing Basements To Code” 

For years, Chhaya, a community-based non-profit in Jackson Heights, Queens, has been working on a campaign to legalize basement apartments as a means of creating more affordable housing. According to a 2008 study conducted by Chhaya and CHPC, there are approximately 10,000 illegal dwelling units in New York City, many of which could be easily converted into legal apartments.  More often than not, the tenants in these units are recent immigrants, in search of available affordable housing, which we all know is hard to come by.

Chhaya and ally organizations are working to legalize basement units, and bring them into the scope of regulation that would mutually benefit tenants, landlords, neighborhoods, and the city. Through regulation, tenants’ living conditions would not only improve, but they would receive protections against evictions (benefiting the landlord, as well.) In addition, the city will be able to allocate resources specifically for maintaining units, while simultaneously increasing tax revenues from these properties.

Chhaya has put forth a proposal to create an Accessory Dwelling Unit code, which would legalize many illegal basement units while maintaining the current zoning regulations. Much of Queens, for instance, is zoned for single family housing, and adding this code would create new affordable housing units without changing the character of the neighborhood.

Legalizing basement apartments has emerged as a major component of mayoral candidate Bill De Blasio’s plan for affordable housing.  In a press release, the current Public Advocate says of so-called “granny flats”: “As mayor, I will bring them into the regulated housing system, ensure they meet legal standards for safety, and work to bring them under rent-regulation, so their tenants will have the same basic protections as New Yorkers in traditional apartments.”

At UHAB, we see illegal units all the time, and there’s currently no good answer for the tenants who live in them.  When buildings are in foreclosure and change ownership, for example, we are unable to guarantee that those tenants won’t be evicted.  Illegal units put tenants at risk of displacement and also at higher risk of living in poor conditions.

To learn more about Chhaya’s campaign, and how to get involved, visit their website here.

New Yorkers March to Denounce LGBTQ Hate Crimes

Photo by Macey Foronda. Featured on BuzzFeed

Yesterday, a rally was held in the West Village to honor Mark Carson who was murdered Friday evening as a result of a hate crime. While walking through the West Village with a friend, Carson was confronted by Elliot Morales.  Morales made homophobic remarks such as, “Look at these faggots” and “What are you, gay wrestlers?” Despite trying to walk away and avoid an altercation, Morales followed the two men, pulled out his .38-caliber revolver and shot Carson. He died shortly after.

To show respect for Carson and denounce the recent hate crime against the queer community, thousands of LGBTQ folk and allies gathered in the West Village and marched from the steps of The Center to the site of the shooting. Chanting “We’re here, we’re queer!” and “Homophobia has got to go!” the voice of the queer community echoed down Greenwich Avenue and up through 6th Avenue. Speaker Christine Quinn, the first openly gay Speaker of the New York City Council, and Edie Windsor, the plaintiff of the Supreme Court same-sex marriage case, joined the march. After a slew of violent hate crimes within the past month, this march reestablished the visibility and, in turn, power of the queer community in New York City.

The West Village has been portrayed as a haven for queer folks. Home of the Stonewall Inn and the inception of the gay liberation movement, LGBTQ folk from across the country have come to the West Village either seeking refuge from hate crimes, in search of community, or to pay tribute to those who have fought to stop violence. Unfortunately, there has been a resurgence of hate crimes in the West Village. According to the Anti-Violence Project (AVP), six hate crimes against LGBTQ folk have been reported within the past week in New York City. The following are a list of three incidents reported by the New Yorker:

… a gay man and his partner were beaten up outside Madison Square Garden after a Knicks game, another gay man was attacked and beaten on Christopher Street, and a gay couple was beaten after leaving a pool hall on West Thirty-second Street.

With Pride month fast approaching, these weeks serve as a point of reflection to assess how much progress has actually been made in terms of LGBTQ rights and safety in our country. One of the signs held at yesterday’s protest read, “Marriage means nothing if we are being gunned down.” While much emphasis has been placed on the Federal Supreme Court ruling on the Marriage Equality Act, much more needs to be done to stop homophobic prejudice, discrimination, and violence in New York City and throughout the country.

While it might appear as if this rally has little to do with our work in housing and organizing, look again. As we’ve discussed before on the blog, discrimination in housing against LGBTQ folks is alive and well in our country and our city.  Through organizing, we need to ensure that everyone who lives in our city feels secure enough in demanding that their rights be met- whether it’s housing conditions, marriage, or the right to walk down the street in safety. We at UHAB admire the powerful organizing that has taken place in response to the recent hate-crimes, and plan to support that organizing effort as long as it takes.

If you or someone you know has experienced a homophobic hate crime, please contact the Anti-Violence Project at (212) 714-1141.

Tenants at 1255 Longfellow Speak Up!

Conditions at 1255 Longfellow have only worsened over the past few months. Tenants and the super face language discrimination, and deal with issues ranging from rats, inconsistent heat/ hot water, mold, and leaks. Tenants are calling on the city and their landlord to make the repairs they deserve!

Friday News Update: Sandy Edition

Your Friendly Neighborhood Shark in New Jersey

This Friday news update is, of course, all Sandy related. As we sat down to write this, we attempted to create a news update talking about other relevant news going on in the world. But, like most New Yorkers, our lives are dominated by the impact of the storm and it’s quite difficult to think about anything else. Our own building at 120 Wall Street (right at water’s edge) is still flooded with water.

What is happening to the hundreds of tenants we work with? How have their homes held up during the storm? How will we help tenants to address the almost certainly disastrous water and wind damage in already distressed and ignored buildings? Like many others, our first concern is how to contact those we work with while our common means of communication are down.

  1. If you are interested in hearing stories of people directly impacted in Red Hook, Brooklyn, check out this interesting collection of interviews by the people at Housing is a Human Right.
  2. There are tons of volunteer opportunities for those who want to get involved with the relief efforts. We recommend joining up with the amazing work that CAAAV is doing in China Town. With no electricity or water, thousands of people are trapped in their apartments. Thanks to CAAAV’s dynamic organizing and immediate response, the community is responding and helping itself through this difficult period. Click here for more. Here’s some more info on how to help from WNYC. If you can, do.
  3. Grim scenes from New York City’s flooded subway system graced The Atlantic Cities today. All together now: “I solemnly swear I will never, ever, ever take the largest, most effective public transportation system in the country for granted ever again.”
  4. Finally, in an attempt at a non-Sandy related piece of information, check out these fascinating maps from Planet Money, illustrating where super PACs and outside groups spend their money to influence presidential campaigns.

As people remain stranded and missing, the death toll across New York City and New Jersey is still rising. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of victims of this terrible storm. But given the widespread destruction, the death toll of this terrible storm has been relatively low, and we’re thankful to our emergency workers and first responders that are doing their jobs and doing them well.

Stay tuned and help if you can.

New York State Legislators and New York City Council call for Rent Guidelines Board Reforms!

Picture via Capital New York

Yesterday, we stood with State Senator Daniel Squadron, Assembly-Member Brian Kavanagh, City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Tenants & Neighbors and tenants and neighbors from around the city to urge New York State elected officials to pass legislation to reform the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB), ahead of the RGB’s annual vote to adjust rents.

The Rent Guidelines Board was established in 1969 and is mandated manage the persist housing shortage in New York City that puts low to moderate income New Yorkers at risk of losing their home. New York City Council and New York State legislature have both recognized that under conditions of less than 5% vacancy rate, an unregulated rental market causes “severe hardship to tenants” and forces the “uprooting [of] long-time city residents from their community.” By establishing the annual rate at which rent in regulated units is allowed to rise, the Board’s mission is to create fair rent levels in a market driven by chronic scarcity.

Under current law, the RGB is made up of nine members, all appointed by the Mayor. These nine members are charged with investigating the economic condition of the real estate industry in NYC, including average cost of operating a multifamily building and the average income and cost of living for residents each borough. Two members are appointed to represent tenant interest, two members are appointed to represent owner interest, and five members are appointed to represent the general public. The RGB is consistently under fire from tenants and the NYC affordable housing advocacy community for regularly raising rents despite data that suggests landlord income is going up and affordable housing is scarce.

The proposed legislation (S741A/A6394B), sponsored by Senator Squadron and Assembly member Kavanagh, would require City Council confirmation of the Mayor’s appointees to the RGB, bringing necessary checks and balances to the system and making the appointment process more democratic. The bill would also open up appointment to a wider array of professionals – including those who work non-profit and urban policy – and ensure that more diversified views are represented on the RGB.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn expressed support for the bill, pointing to the fact that the council already has the authority to provide oversight to various NYC agencies and boards that are arguably less important to New Yorkers. “The question becomes…why hasn’t this happened? Why is this one board that is so important, so central to the life of so many New Yorkers, only appointed by the executive with no input from the legislature?”

Like Tenants and Neighbors, we agree that the RGB is consistently pro-landlord, taking little cue from actual data or tenant experience in New York City. These days, nearly everyone is weighing in on whether or not the housing market is rebounding. (We have our own thoughts – stay tuned.) People don’t seem to argue that years of homeownership struggle have caused on influx of new renters to the market. Basic economics tells us that rents will naturally rise. But unemployment isn’t dropping nearly as quickly as rents are rising and tenants in the Bronx and Central Brooklyn are still struggling with high rents and low pay. Even though the “market” may be doing better, we know that the people who live in this city are still struggling. By bringing accountability and democracy to the RGB, we hope that the board can become a stronger ally for affordable housing and NYC tenants.

To join this fight, follow Real Rent Reform on Twitter (@realrentreform) and like them on Facebook! Even better, get on the van to Albany on Wednesday to support the Assembly Housing Committee vote on R3’s priority bills: preferential rent reform, RGB reform, MCI reform, rent control reform, and the decrease in the vacancy bonus. Help R3 and Tenants and Neighbors put weight behind these bills! The van leaves from 236 W. 27th Street in Manhattan. RSVP to Sam at sstein@tandn.org.

For more on the RGB, visit their website: http://www.housingnyc.com . Stay tuned to this important fight for NYC tenants! Check out Capital New York for more on this story and yesterday’s announcement.