Casitas: Places of Community Power in the South Bronx

Casa de Chema;
Casa de Chema;

We all know that in the 1970s the Bronx was burning. We don’t always hear about was the amazing organizing and cultural production that came out of the time, such as hip hop, and the focus of this blog post: casitas. Casitas, “little houses” in Spanish, were an incredible creation that developed out of the immigration waves, nostalgia, and state of affairs in the Bronx.  Built on abandoned, overgrown lots, and they transferred neglected spaces into meaningful community meeting points.  The Puerto Rican community viewed casitas a means of reclaiming the power which has been taken away from them as a marginalized immigrant community. The casitas are small houses, built to resemble rural houses in Puerto Rico, evoking memories of rural birthplaces before its industrialization in the 1950s.

In a way, casitas helped the many cultural aspects of the Puerto Rican community grow and flourish in New York City.  A 1990 NY Times article reports:

 More than a sentimental backdrop for the garden, the casita is a workshop where craftsmen carve drums and speckled carnival masks and where local children learn dance steps to rhythms that first came to this hemisphere aboard slave ships.

The casitas demonstrate the importance of a built space as a way to bring together a community.  They represented more than just current realities, but also were memories of life in Puerto Rico, of childhood. It is easy to see the influence of casitas on current movements such as Occupy Wall Street, which also illegally reclaimed space to educate the community and use collective power. Both OWS and the casitas were places where the community built their structures in order to establish their notion of an ideal world.

Like Occupy (or many other structures which challenge community norms), the casitas are impermanent and remain at risk of demolition. Many have been torn down, while others have moved locations.  La Casita de Chema (formally known as Rincon Criollo) is one of the oldest casitas in the South Bronx.  In 2006, HPD threatened eviction.  Only after extreme community mobilization with community groups like Nos Quedamos, was there a renegotiation, and the casita was moved one block away.

 In 2009, former Bronx Borough President and current mayoral candidate, Adolof Carrion, Jr. headed a campaign to make the casitas state landmarks.  While we are pretty sure that the campaign was lost, we feel confident the casitas will remain a part of the Bronx and the Puerto Rican community for the long run.  We are amazed and the incredible organizing and education efforts which not only keep the casitas in existence but flourishing.  To learn more about Casita de Chema (and to hear some music about it) click here.


Buffalo, NY Moves $45M From JPMorgan Chase

The Guaranty Building in Buffalo, NY is often considered to be the world’s first skyscraper

We are proud supporters of (and participants in) the nationwide movement to hold banks and financial institutions accountable. Alongside tenants whose buildings are in foreclosure, we fight banks for responsible disposition of their distressed assets.  We also stay attuned to the work that low-to-moderate income homeowners and advocates are doing to fight for mortgage modification and against foreclosure and eviction.

Other groups get involved in bank fights in different ways. Last November, activists rallied around Bank Transfer Day.  Think Progress reports that over 600,000 people switched banks from Chase, Bank of America and large institutions to smaller (and presumably more responsible) banking options, either on November 5th’s day of action, or as a result of it.

Today we learned that another JPMorgan Chase customer has decided to move their money. The City of Buffalo, New York is moving its $45 million in deposits to First Niagara Financial Group! First Niagara’s headquarters are located in Buffalo; they are likewise a major employer in the city. This is exactly the kind of thing that is good for the City, good for taxpayers, and bad for big banks. The Buffalo News Reports:

The move follows concerns about JPMorgan raised with the Common Council by members of the Occupy Buffalo movement, who asked that the city withdraw its deposits from the institution.

“Not only will the funds earn more interest with First Niagara, a major local employer headquartered in Buffalo, but it also sends a crystal-clear message to JPMorgan Chase that the City of Buffalo is not happy with their business practices,” City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder said.

In the scheme of things, $45 million isn’t that much money to JPMorgan Chase, but we still think it sets an important tone. We are always encouraged when we see elected officials responding to citizens, activists, and advocates rather than aligning themselves with the big bank juggernauts.

Though many cities are responding to the widespread distrust of major lenders by passing Responsible Banking Acts, I couldn’t find any others that have actually moved their deposits. If you know of any, please tell us! We hope Buffalo sets a pattern for other cities. As New York State’s second largest city, Buffalo isn’t exactly a backwater town. (Okay, so maybe part of my goal in this blog post is – as a Western NY transplant in NYC – to encourage downstate New Yorkers to recognize the smaller cities up North.)  And who knows, maybe cities as big as New York City- with deposits that can total 7 billion- will follow suit. It would not be the first time Buffalo, NY set the stage for the bigger city downstate: the world’s first skyscraper was built there by Louis Sullivan in 1895.

Tomorrow: May Day “General Strike”…No work, No School, No Housework, No Shopping, No Banking….

Tomorrow is May Day, marking the the126th anniversary of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, turning this traditionally Celtic holiday into a lefty labor rights anarchist immigrant rights prison justice anti-corporate Occupy everything holiday.  This year, there is a nationwide call for a General Strike – “A Day without the 99%” – encouraging people not to go to work, to school, to shop, or to buy anything.  Like in 2006, El Dia Sin Inmigrantes, the general strike will demonstrate just how powerful collective organizing can be. We see the power of collective organizing every day.  Tenants join forces through group lawsuits, building-wide petitions, and even by the simple act of coming together and brainstorming solutions to building problems, tenants improve their buildings and establish community. May Day is not only a time to assert people-power, but to assert labor and immigrant rights.  Tenants we work with are almost exclusively low-income immigrants or people of color, and all are effected by the racial implications of policies like “Stop and Frisk,” “Operation Clean Halls” and the would-be “Secure Communities” program.  Tomorrow is a chance to band together across racial and class lines to assert an anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-sexist agenda.  There will be a plethora of free food, music, art supplies, educational teach-ins allowing for us to live one day in without participating in the system (capitalism) which promotes policies that hurt our communities. Check out Occupy Wall Street’s website for a full list of May Day activities and organizational endorsers. A few events we wanted to highlight:
Tenants and Neighbors:

This May Day, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) will be voting on a proposed range of rent adjustments for rent stabilized tenants. Every year since it came into existence, the Rent Guidelines Board has voted to raise rents, usually to levels that are unaffordable to many rent stabilized tenants.  This year, join us in expressing our collective frustration with the Rent Guidelines Board and demanding that it be made to be more accountable to the millions of New Yorkers who want the city to remain affordable to low and moderate income people. The meeting is at 5:30 at 7 East 7th Street; we will be rallying outside at 5:00 PM. For more information or to RSVP for the rally, please contact Sam Stein at or 212-608-4320, ext. 316.

Take Back the Land:

The Free University at Madison Square Park is an open invitation to educators around New York to participate in May Day. Lectures, workshops, skill-shares, and discussions will be held — all open to the public. University professors will bring their classes to the commons. Join Robert Robinson,  representatives from Take Back the Land and from Organizing for Occupation for a teach-in and conversation about the current housing crisis and the growing movement of communities taking positive action to collectively secure the human right to housing.

positive action (direct action) to collectively secure the human right to housing

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice:

2pm – JFREJ joins GOLES to support Public Housing residents taking their struggle to the streets! Meet: NE Corner of Houston and Avenue D, New York Sick and tired of being left out of decisions that affect the future of their homes, Lower East Side residents have decided to take to the streets — marching from Houston to 14th street to raise awareness about the New York City Housing Authority’s proposed policy changes that will affect the future of public housing. The LES has always been a safe haven for immigrant and low-income families – public housing is one of the few affordable housing options left. Protect what we have! March with LES public housing residents to Union Square where we’ll join the masses for the Unity Rally.

For the massive solidarity rally, we will be meeting at 4pm in Union Square, and at 5:30 we’ll be marching to Wall St.! We hope to see you there.

NYC Foreclosure Story Misrepresented in The Village Voice

Ben Sin, a journalist with The Village Voice, has been featuring the foreclosure crisis several times a week in order to highlight the persistent problem facing our country and city.  In a city like New York, where the majority of residents rent, foreclosure is complex, complicated, and not always black and white. The media often portrays foreclosure as a battle between defaulter (innocent) and bank (evil) are not useful in all cases, as it show little awareness of tenants’ rights and the myriad of options foreclosure can present.

First and foremost, tenants in rent regulated units cannot be forced to leave their home as a result of their landlord defaulting on his or her mortgage. For New York City tenants, foreclosure does not go hand and hand with eviction and this basic right needs to be understood by those who claim to tell the story of New York City foreclosures. Furthermore, because of a process known as predatory equity, by the time a multifamily building falls into foreclosure it is usually in terrible condition. A landlord struggling to cover inflated mortgage payments based on a speculative loan is unlikely to make repairs. In cases like this, tenants widely see foreclosure as an opportunity to kick their slumlord to the curb (with the help of the bank) and bring in a more responsible actor, or perhaps even buy the building themselves and convert it to a low-equity co-op.

We do not want to represent that foreclosure is an easy opportunity to NYC renters. Banks are eager to get as much money back for their non-performing assets as possible and in doing so overlook tenants’ interests. Rather than allowing speculative private equity groups to buy buildings, banks should be pushed to negotiate fair prices and responsible sales with tenants and allies. This is the story that Mr. Sin and other journalists writing about foreclosure should be pushing. This is the action that Occupy Wall Street should support. Stopping foreclosure auctions is not necessarily what is important in multifamily foreclosures, though stalling the auction could potentially allow tenants more room to insert their voice into the process. Alternatively, it could leave them suffering in poor conditions under a receiver for many more years. Saving buildings from predatory developers who will run the building deeper into the ground and removing the option of long-term affordability is what we should be talking about.

Ben Sin’s beat on foreclosure demonstrates a simplified understanding about what foreclosure means in New York City.  By ignoring crucial pieces of information and real communication with tenants, stories being told in The Village Voice are misleading.  For example, in his article “Singing Protesters Strike Again; New School Students Interrupt Foreclosure Sale,” Sin writes:

The tenants of 556 Evergreen Avenue in Bushwick, which was one of nine properties set to be sold at the auction, did not show up to the auction. But when told of the blockade, Luis Mendoza, a handyman who lives on the second floor, were obviously relieved.

“So some kids saved our building from being sold today?” he answered. “I wish I was there, I would have played guitar to the song.

The building highlighted, 556 Evergreen Ave., is in HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, meaning it has very high code violation and has been flagged as one of the 200 worst buildings in the city.  This shows that the property owner, Moody Amar, is probably not a very responsible landlord.  Why should we block the transfer of this building to a new owner? What happens when the building switches hands? Will the new owner clear code violations with patchwork repairs, or will tenants fight to correct the underlying conditions and fix code violations behind the walls? What opportunity do tenants have to support a good, HPD-and-tenant vetted buyer to win the building at auction? This is the story Mr. Sin should tell in his foreclosure beat behind the buying and selling of distressed, foreclosed buildings.

The foreclosure process in New York City takes an unreasonably long time, adding to already difficult living conditions for tenants.  Court appointed receivers are often placed in buildings and have little or no concern for tenants, and rarely have the energy or funds to make necessary repairs.  When thinking about the multifamily foreclosure in New York City, the question is not how to prevent the foreclosure process from taking place, but rather how to finish the process quicker while simultaneously pressuring banks into doing the right thing.

H+T Affordability Index: A Useful Tool?

As a former geography major in college, I was really interested to discover the the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing and Transportation Affordability Index which measures housing and transit affordability.  The index understands housing to be affordable when it is under 30% of one’s income, and housing + transportation should be under 45%.  Through the index tool, one can compare regions to understand how housing and transportation, as well as more specific data such as commuters per household, effect populations. It is also possible to compare two maps side by side, and view on several different scales all the way from nationally to neighborhood-level.

While this tool is interesting and has its advantages, there have also been many negative critiques of the data that is used, and its agenda to promote living in high-density areas.  For example, in the article “The Muddled CNT Housing and Transportation Index,” Wendell Cox points out several opportunities for readers to misinterpret data.  For example, the index uses metro-median income, even when analyzing the data on a neighborhood level.  Cox explores of a neighborhood in Dallas to make his point:

The H&T Index indicates that housing costs are 8% of incomes in the low-income West Dallas neighborhood when compared to median metropolitan income. However, when the neighborhood income is used, the share of income required for housing is 57%, nearly twice the HUD maximum standard.

The use of median income by metro-area certainly would not translate in areas where UHAB organizers work such as Brooklyn where incomes vary greatly block by block and change dramatically as a result of gentrification.  The map of Bed-Stuy, for example, where we just began working with low-income tenants in a severely distressed AEP building, uses a metro-median income of $63,553– this is clearly much higher than the actual income of tenants in the building, and likely higher than most of the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, there is value in experimenting with the maps and generating information about regions, whether or not it’s the ideal tool to use.  For NYC transit workers and OWS solidarity groups, the current transportation system is abominable.  In a release published by The Gothamist, activists declare:

The cost of our Metrocards has been increasing, while train and bus service has been steadily reduced. Budget cuts have precipitated station closings and staff/safety reductions. Police routinely single out young black and Latino men for searches at the turnstile. Layoffs and attrition means cutting staff levels to the bare minimum, reducing services for seniors and disabled riders. At the same time, MTA workers have been laid off and have had their benefits drastically reduced. Contract negotiations are completely stalled.

In protest, activists opened over 20 service gates for subway entrance and chained the doors open to provide free access for commuters.  Perhaps one day, transportation will be permanently affordable for all, but until then it’s important to think critically housing and transportation and its impact on poverty in our communities.

“Come Sleep With Us!”: Picture the Homeless and Occupy Wall Street Stage Action in Support of Intro 48!

Source: The Real Deal, 1.26.12

You might remember back in January when Picture the Homeless and Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning and Development collaborated to produce a report entitled, “Banking on Vacancy: Homelessness and Real Estate Speculation.”  The report proves that private real estate investors are profiting from keeping buildings uninhabited while at the same time, thousands of New Yorkers are homeless.  Instead of revamping these vacant buildings to make them livable for homeless New Yorkers, the city is investing in shelters and temporary housing– clearly not a sustainable solution.

This is why tonight, Picture the Homeless and Occupy Wall Street are calling for a “sleep out” in front of the office of City Council Member Erik Martin Dilan, the man with the power to push forward new legislation, Intro 48.   Also known as the “Annual Census of Vacant Buildings and Lots,” Intro 48 would mandate that the city perform a yearly in-depth survey cataloging all vacant buildings in the city.  This annual survey would be a first step towards turning vacant properties into affordable housing, providing available homes for all New Yorkers, as well as sparking community development in affected neighborhoods.

Picture the Homeless member Alethea Smalls states, “I invite Councilman Dilan to, for a week, live as though he were homeless with little resources. Perhaps then he will see the struggle that so many New Yorkers face and calendar Intro 48. Intro 48 if presented could aid in the progression of the common good for the quality of life for all New Yorkers.”

The action will start this afternoon at 4:00 pm at Councilman Dilan’s District Office (387 Arlington Ave., Brooklyn) and continue all night.

For more information about tonight’s action and the Picture the Homeless Press Release, click here.

March 1st: National Day of Action to Support Education!

Today is the National Day of Action to Support Education, as put forth by Occupy Education, a branch of Occupy Wall St.  While UHAB does not work specifically on education issues, we work with communities directly impacted by the negative changes in New York City education policy.  Over 117 schools have been closed by Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, and tuition at public colleges and universities have been steadily rising.  The Bloomberg administration has also recently implemented wildly controversial methods of publicly shaming NY teachers .

In the same way that we support safe and affordable housing for all New Yorkers, we stand by Occupy Education in calling for accessible and quality education for all. NY Daily News interviews Paola Martinez who describes her struggle to pay for college at CUNY:

“Between mortgage, utilities, food, clothes, baby needs, child care, transportation, it leaves nothing for my CUNY tuition,” she says. “We earn too much to qualify for grants.”

So Martinez takes student loans.

Because of the rising cost of college tuition, students often have no choice but to plunge deeper and deeper into debt, leading to a cycle of poverty that college is supposed free us from.

Thousands of young New Yorkers don’t even get far enough to take out student loans.  After graduating high school, undocumented youth find themselves stuck in a system with no access to student loans or many scholarships, and thus no means to attend college.  This unfortunate reality has caused the strong and ever-growing DREAM movement to push for the NY Dream Act, a bill that would allow all New Yorkers access to scholarship money and loans, regardless of immigration status.

Like tenants who organize for the housing they deserve, undocumented youth have been coming out of the shadows and proudly announcing that they are “undocumented and unafraid” and deserve an education.  UHAB stands behind these youth as they find their voice and demand their rights!

Join NYC’s branch of Occupy Education today in their city-wide actions! The schedule is as follows…

Morning: Local actions at schools and campuses throughout the city

2pm: Manhattan Convergence @ NYC Department of Education: Tweed Court House, 52 Chambers Street.  March over Brooklyn Bridge – University and Bank actions in Downtown Brooklyn

4pm: Convergence and Rally Ft. Greene Park, Brooklyn

Evening: Rally at the PEP Meeting on school closures, Brooklyn Technical High School