City Limits: Can Broad Housing Coalition Get Real Change from Albany?

City Limits

Can Broad Housing Coalition Get Real Change from Albany?

Real Affordability for All is bringing an unusually broad coalition to press the state for changes to rent regulations and other policies to preserve affordable housing.

Arturo Conde | September  4, 2014

Late last month a coalition of 50 groups, including housing, labor, health, environment and immigration rights advocates, marched in Harlem to call on Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city and state officials to prioritize affordable housing in New York.

As hundreds of its members chanted “Fight, fight, fight… housing is a right,” during the August 20 march from First Corinthian Baptist Church to the Harlem State Office Building, Real Affordability for All (RAFA)—the city’s largest and most diverse affordable housing coalition—was escalating its effort to make housing a primary focus of every candidate in the 2014 statewide elections.

“We understand that we have to take all this energy that we are building up to Albany,” said Jaron Benjamin, executive director of the Met Council on Housing.

With almost half of the city living near the poverty line, advocates say that New York is facing its worst housing crisis in recent decades. In April, RAFA proposed a detailed plan to the mayor, calling for a 50-50 housing model where half of the new apartments in rezoned areas will be set aside for moderate-income people and lower-income families.

Now the coalition hopes to gain wider support from the mayor and the City Council to lobby the State legislature for policies to create and preserve affordable housing. How it will maintain unity once the campaign gives way to the nitty-gritty of policymaking remains to be seen.

For now, as the city continues to lose affordable housing – 385,000 units from 2002 to 2011 according to RAFA’s 50-50 proposal – organizers stress the urgency of getting housing reform on the radar of all elected officials.

Making connections

RAFA’s approach is to find broad connections between different groups to address the housing crisis on multiple levels.

Organizers are working on one such connection between labor and housing. “It is a false dichotomy to think of issues separately,” said Patrick Purcell Jr., executive director of GNY LECET, a trust fund for trade unions and contractors in New York. “Our members don’t only exist in the work place. Our members exist as mothers and fathers. And our members exist as people who need housing. And our members exist in the same way every New York City resident exists wanting a safe job, a safe place to live and safe schools.”

Purcell explained that GNY LECET supports RAFA because housing alone cannot be sustainable without jobs. And when contractors exploit workers by committing fraud—paying in cash to avoid worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance and taxes—it affects everyone.

“It’s not just the worker who is not getting paid right,” said Purcell. “When you have groups of workers who are not getting health insurance on that site… [it causes] a widespread ripple that affects the tax payer, our economy, our healthcare, our social services.”

Other RAFA organizers are similarly looking for solutions in connecting issues. “Housing equals healthcare,” said Jeremy Saunders, lead organizer for VOCAL-NY, an organization that works with marginalized communities. “We know through data that homelessness takes days off the lives of people living with AIDS. We know firsthand that housing for people with AIDS means you can take medication, you can stay healthy.”

Saunders emphasized that good housing promotes good habits. But when you are homeless, instability aggravates your health. “People who are homeless are not as able to make decisions that reduce health factors, and are less capable of taking care of any health issue that they are dealing with – from HIV to diabetes,” he said. Now, with 54,000 homeless New Yorkers, VOCAL-NY has teamed up with RAFA to call for city-state rental assistance programs that will protect people’s homes and health.

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