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“Housing right is a human right!” With this chant, Citizen Action of New York organizer Jamell Richardson led hundreds of New York City tenants as they welcomed New York City Councilmembers to a lively public forum on the city’s housing crisis in lower Manhattan on April 17.

“Y’all are not just organizers and members, you are voters!” Henderson told the tenants, to raucous applause. Turning to the lawmakers, he added, “There are over three hundred voters in this room, who will spread the word to three thousand, who will turn into thirty thousand that change the outcome of this election, come next year. Come 2025, we’ll remember.”

Two People’s Action member groups, CANY and Community Voices Heard, organized the forum with the Met Council on Housing and Tenants & Neighbors. Lawmakers were asked to go on the record about four key areas that affect city tenants. The results were recorded on a public “report card,” which will be distributed by the four organizations to their many members across New York City’s five boroughs.

“This is the biggest issue facing the city – I believe that!” said Councilmember Shaun Abreu, who represents West Harlem. “We need your voices in the ring, now more importantly than ever.”

Abreu accepted the tenants’ invitation to attend and answer questions, as did Alexa Aviles, who represents Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Carmen De La Rosa from Inwood and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Mayor Eric Adams was a no-show, as were Councilmembers Kamillah Hanks from Staten Island, Yusuf Salaam from the Upper East Side, Erik Bottcher from Midtown, and Diana Ayala from East Harlem. Those who failed to appear were represented by empty chairs, and asked the same questions as those present.

The stakes are high, just like New York City rents – the average rent for a studio apartment is $3,087 and more than twice that amount for families. While rent stabilization laws offer protections for a small percentage of tenants, landlords aggressively refuse repairs and use legal loopholes to kick these tenants out so they can charge higher rates.  And while one out of every 17 New Yorkers lives in public housing, chronic underfunding creates unlivable conditions, forcing more tenants out and these properties to be demolished or sold off to private developers.

“I want folks to make money to make a living, but you can’t make all of the money on the backs of people who can’t afford it,” said Jumaane Williams. In his role as New York City’s elected Public Advocate, Williams is a watchdog over public policy and spending, and is first in line to succeed the mayor in an emergency.

Councilmembers were asked four questions: first, whether they would fully fund public housing, with $3.55 billion for capital repairs and $355 million for rental arrears in the upcoming city budget. Second, if they support the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA), which would give mission-driven nonprofits the first right to purchase multifamily buildings when landlords sell. Third, whether they will vote to fund three existing programs: Neighborhood Pillars, which helps community organizations acquire and rehabilitate buildings, Open Door, which creates pathways to home ownership through new construction, and Right to Counsel, which protects tenants from unjust evictions.

Tenants in the audience rated the Councilmembers and Mayor Adams on these issues, holding up red or green cards to express their approval or disapproval.

The evening was a powerful show of tenant solidarity and strength. Housing justice, and holding public officials to account, run deep in People’s Action’s mission and history: indeed, the organization was founded in 1972 by Chicago neighborhood activists Shel Trapp and Gale Cincotta, who organized to end the practice of disriminatory lending practices by banks not only in Chicago, but nationwide. Their activism led to the passage of two foundational pieces of federal legislation – the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) and Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which forced banks to reinvest in Black and working-class neighborhoods where they had long refused to lend.

“Families deserve to live in dignity and safety, and our city needs to invest in New York City housing,” said Gail Baez from Community Voices Heard, summing up the feelings of all those present at the meeting.

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