Talking Community Land Trusts with Talking Transitions

talking transitions

Monday, while many of us enjoyed the day off for Veterans Day, dozens of people got together to dialogue, brainstorm, and plan for the New York they’d like to see created.  And this wasn’t a one-time-thing. Through a forum call Talking Transitions, New Yorkers are gathering together to address issues from drug policies to community art to property taxes. According to their website:

Talking Transition is an open conversation about the future of New York City. Join New Yorkers online, in the streets, and in a new meeting place on Canal Street to help shape the transition to a new mayor. The election may be over, but you can continue to make your voice, your question, your idea, and your neighborhood heard.

A few of us from UHAB attended yesterday’s panel and community conversation on affordable housing, organized by New York Communities for Change.  Participants on the panel were people directly affected by various housing issues in the city: Someone currently living in the shelter system (from Picture the Homeless), a HASA tenant living in supportive housing (VOCAL-NY), and a woman in poor conditions facing harassment from her landlord (Make the Road Bushwick).  After listening to powerful stories which tackle the crux of the housing issues in NYC, we, the audience, got a chance to collaboratively brainstorm ideas to change the system.  The room was divided into subsections, each facilitated by a different organization specializing in the topic. The groups included: ending the homelessness crisis, preservation, and new development.

The UHABers at the event attended the inspiring group discussing Community Land Trusts, an exciting proposal to create permanently affordable housing and community controlled land.  Basically, City Council would pass legislation allowing for the creating of a CLT, a nonprofit organization run by communities.  The CLT would acquire land and the community would have control over how that land is developed and maintained.  Our group, facilitated by Picture the Homeless, gave a popular-education style rundown of what community land trusts are and how folks could become involved with making it a reality.  UHAB has been involved with the discussion of land trusts because we believe that neighborhoods and buildings should be controlled by those who live there. One way that the land trust could acquire land would be through coops opting to donate the land under them to the trust (not the building itself).  UHAB, of course, has access to hundreds of HDFC’s who care about the preservation of affordable housing and community control.

Not only did we walk away inspired by the possibilities of a Community Land Trust, but we also were amazed at Talking Transitions and the power of intentionally coming together to envision a better New York. Check out more on the Community Land Trust Initiative here  or here and Talking Transitions here.


Stop and Frisk: “Reform” Debate Continues

As a result of powerful organizing and strong city-wide coalitions, Stop and Frisk has become one of the major issues that Mayoral Candidates have been forced to address.  Democratic mayoral candidates who did not seem critical enough of NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policies suffered in the election. Earlier this summer, the courts ruled that the way the NYPD has implemented Stop and Frisk is unconstitutional.  In attempt to improve police practices, Judge Scheindlin appointed an independent monitor and mandated that certain groups of police in high-crime areas must wear cameras. While we view this court ruling as a moral victory, we remain skeptical about how Stop and Frisk can remain in place in a just way.

Bloomberg and the NYPD are doing everything in their power to maintain Stop and Frisk as it is, and challenge the court’s ruling. This week, the union representing NYPD sergeants filed paperwork to appeal the court ruling, as well as to demand a seat at the table to help decide how the reforms will be implemented.

On the one hand, this seems fair- it’s their jobs and they’ll have to be the people carrying out the reforms. Just like we support teachers being involved in education reforms, perhaps police need to be involved in this process.  But when you dig deeper their role in conversations around reform becomes murkier- the NYPD sergeants are the very people who have been carrying out the unconstitutional practices. What’s more, they clearly do not believe that the program needs reform- which is why they are working to appeal the ruling.  If they don’t believe in the need to change their practices when those practices are clearly damaging, why should they have a seat at the table?

Stop and Frisk greatly impacts our work at UHAB. The tenants we work with are almost exclusively people of color, and Stop and Frisk policies (as proven over and over again) disproportionately impact communities of color. As a result, neighborhoods are deeply affected- from the way that people view the police and safety, to the way that they feel monitored and policed in their own homes.

Even “Operation Clean Halls,” the Stop and Frisk for privately owned apartment buildings, was deemed unconstitutional. But so little has changed. The NYTimes reports that:

Judge Scheindlin excoriated the Police Department for persisting in making illegal stops and arrests outside private apartment buildings — even after prosecutors had pointed out that they were wrongful.

There is a similar class-action lawsuit in the works claiming that stops in NYCHA buildings are discriminatory:

One resident, the president of a public housing leadership group, testified that life for families harassed by stop-and-frisk policies in their own apartment buildings was like life in a “penal colony.

Last week, Picture the Homeless  screened its new film “Journey Towards Change: Victory Over NYPD Profiling.”  According to Picture the Homeless’s website, “this short film includes interviews with our members, glimpses of activists in action, and reflections on what we’ve achieved and how much work we still have to do.”  To check out the film or get involved with Picture the Homeless’s work around Stop and Frisk, contact Shaun Lin at

How to Address Increasing Homelessness? Recapture Vacant Land

In January 2012, Picture the Homeless released a report, “Banking on Vacancy,” to document vacant property in New York City and make suggestions as to how that space can be used to reduce homelessness and increase low income housing. During this time, 38,000 people were living in city shelters. Here are their findings:

The numbers show that there was a massive amount of under-utilized housing stock in New York City. So much, in fact,that the vacant spaces in just one-third of the city (the area their survey covered) could house the number of people living in the shelter system many times over.

Since the survey was conducted, the need to recapture vacant buildings and land for affordable housing has only intensified. In August, the Bloomberg administration reported that nearly 50,000 people are spending the night in New York City shelters. This is almost a 10% increase in the number of recorded homeless people – the actual number is likely much higher, as un-housed people seeking shelter with family, friends, or spending the night outside are not recorded. In the wake of this increase, the Department of Homeless Services rushed to open nine new shelters in just two months.

The problem deepens: In a joint press conference with Cuomo on November 4th, Bloomberg emphasized the major housing crisis that left in Sandy’s wake. According to Bloomberg, there are as many as 40,000 New Yorkers that “we’re going to have to find housing for.” The Governor agreed: “There’s going to be a massive, massive housing problem.”

Now, more than ever, seems like an ideal time to return to Picture the Homeless’ survey. The unprecedented number of shelter-seeking people in New York, along with a possible influx of federal disaster relief money, calls for innovative housing solutions. By directing disaster relief money towards rehabilitating vacant property, we could provide housing to victims of Sandy – many of whom are NYCHA residents – while stabilizing long term affordable housing in New York City.


“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.

New Report! “Banking on Vacancy: Homelessness and Real Estate Speculation”

Picture the Homeless and Hunter College Release Unprecedented Report
That Reveals the Extent of Vacant Property in NYC

January 26th, 2012

Contact: Adrian Antonio Paling or
Kendall Jackman, Housing Campaign Leader
Office: (646) 314-6423, Cell: (917) 744-5325

New York, NY.— Picture the Homeless (PTH) and Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning and Development (HCCCPD) today released the report “ Banking on Vacancy: Homelessness and Real Estate Speculation,” which exposes the potential housing stock that is available in New York City in the very communities hardest hit by gentrification and homelessness. The report was presented today at the Roosevelt House at Hunter College, 47-49 East 65th Street, New York N.Y. at 2pm.

The study is the latest development in Picture the Homeless’s six-year campaign to document the extent of vacant property in NYC and the culmination of an ambitious community survey involving 295 volunteers who walked throughout the five boroughs to identify empty buildings and lots in the summer of 2011.

The report identifies that there are enough vacant properties in just 20 community districts, a third of the city, to potentially house 199,981 individuals essentially clearing out the shelter system!

“We were right!” noted PTH Housing Campaign Leader Kendall Jackman. “We have been saying this for years! There are enough empty buildings and lots in New York City to shut down the Department of Homeless Services. We proved our point!”

“Vacant housing is a drain on this city’s potential,” said Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito. “We have people sleeping in the streets, in shelters, and crowding in with loved ones just to have a roof over their heads. It doesn’t have to be this way. This important study from Picture the Homeless demonstrates that New York City can house every family if developers and the city work together to rehabilitate these vacant buildings and lots. We have to do something, now.”

PTH Member Kalaif Swann stated, “Housing is a human right! This report demonstrates that the commodification of housing has caused profit to be put over people! We need to take back our land!”

“The results of this study confirm what many of us already knew, that thousands of vacant buildings across the City go unused each night, while at the same time, the City struggles to cope with increases in the homeless population,” said Council Member Annabel Palma, Chair of the Council’s Committee on General Welfare who spoke at the beginning of the event. “As a City, we need to prioritize developing affordable housing to meet the high need of low- and moderate-income New Yorkers who seek nothing more than safe and affordable permanent housing.”

Council Member Jumaane D. Williams said “It is not morally or economically sound to have so many vacant buildings and lots in this city, especially when so many New Yorkers are struggling to find a home.”

Tom Angotti Director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development stated, “This project is a good example of the kind of community-university collaborations that public universities need to sustain. The first step in solving housing problems is knowing where the potential resources are. This report points us towards a huge inventory of potential housing units for people who need them.”

PTH Member Owen Rogers states, “Developer’s, builders, and speculators see vacant spaces as future wealth. That future wealth does us no good now, when people are hungry and starving and homeless.”

The report will be available online this afternoon at:

The Housing Rights Movement: A Conversation at the “Left Forum”

Last weekend, the annual  “Left Forum” at Pace University in Manhattan gathered together a motley crew of academics, professionals, activists, organizers, and visionaries to exchange knowledge and strategies with one another through participation in panel discussions covering a variety of “hot button” topics.

I attended the forum eager to learn about new issues, as well as to deepen my analysis of the issue that I agonize over daily: how to build a thriving, progressive housing movement.  The distinguished Peter Marcuse moderated of panel of representatives from the National Association of HUD Tenants (NAHT), Take Back the Land-Madison, Community Voices Heard (CVH), National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), Picture the Homeless (PTH), Public Housing Tenants Association, and the Community Service Society (CSS).The discussion between these groups centered on several questions which have been critical considerations in my time as an organizer with UHAB.

Spatial Issues

The first question focused on spatial issues of organizing: when people affected are not physically together at one place and time. As a city-wide (rather than community-based) organization, UHAB confronts this challenge regularly. Although we generally focus our organizing efforts on specific building campaigns, we recognize that the issues in affordable housing units are systematic.  The same issues that plague low-income tenants across New York City also face the country at large.  Sometimes we organize campaigns around a portfolio of buildings that might be scattered in location, but connected by a common mortgage holder and/or owner. Other times we partner with community-based groups to form larger tenant/organizer/advocate coalitions that mobilize around collective issues that most affect members of these groups.  One such coalition that UHAB participates in is the Partnership to Preserve Affordable Housing (PPAH). In this way, UHAB takes a very multifaceted approach to organizing across space.

Questions of Scale
Some of the groups on the panel, such as Take Back the Land and CVH,  rooted their work exclusively on a building, neighborhood, or community level, focusing energy on creating inviting spaces that mediate inner-group tension, or engaging in localized direct action. Other groups, such as NAHT and CSS, fight their battles on the policy level, carting groups of tenants off to lobby in Washington D.C or other state capitals, or convene for a press conference on the steps of City Hall (as UHAB has done many times).  But one thing that all groups had in common was a desire to move the conversation from individual issues to one about the bigger issue of threats to affordable housing. This essential big-picture component of tenant organizing is what unites and enhances housing struggles everywhere, regardless of their spatial orientation.

Compromise vs. Negotiating
Another question which elicited strong reactions from some panelist asked about compromise and negotiating. Who decides what to ask for, what is feasible, and what constitutes a successful outcome? Interestingly, groups such as Take Back the Land, CVH, PTH, Public Housing tenants, and NESRI (all of which are led directly by the constituents they represent) spoke of compromise as a “curse word.” It was, however, agreed that negotiating and collective bargaining are not forms of compromise.  While recognizing the importance of strategic partnerships with groups that will sit down with public officials to discuss often “watered down versions” of their demands, the aforementioned groups preferred to stand their ground “…all day until you get what you want.”

As the 2-hour time slot allotted for the panel drew to a close, the panelists continued to raise questions about the relationship between organizing and negotiating, the differences between coalitions and alliances, and the complicated task of establishing solidarity and networks of mutual support despite differences in mission and strategy.

Although no definitive conclusions were made about best practices, one panelist left the audience with an intriguing challenge: “Say No, and…” In other words, housing organizers and advocates need to be able to think creatively and concretely about the solutions that they want to see and in doing so build a strong movement of people who can face the powers that be and say “No. And this is what we need.”