NYCHA's Not-So-Free Speec

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A team of well-paid New York City Housing Authority's lawyers spent the better part of a week in April fervidly fighting to keep a group of East Side protesters from getting the word out about NYCHA's proposed deregulation scheme.

Yet despite three Court actions, three judges' rulings and the authority's contention that not all speech should be free in its housing developments–members of the Jacob Riis Houses tenants association held their April 26 informational rally on a Street adjacent to their East Village project.

This spring, tenants groups and housing advocates have been organizing to oppose the city's request to free NYCHA from federal public housing regulations–which could allow the authority to rent to richer tenants, disregard some rent caps for low–income tenants and even sell some NYCHA properties to private developers.

Val Orselli, executive director of the Cooper Square Committee, said the idea of the Riis meeting was a way of getting the word out on the downplayed plan. [NYCHA's own information session, mandated by the feds, is planned for May 6 at the Fashion Institute of Technology.]

“We are planning to inform tenants of the potential dangers they face with NYCHA,” Orselli said. “Dangers like it being able to charge higher rents, opening apartments up for families with significantly higher incomes, elimination of tenant grievance procedures. Basically, we wanted people to know that deregulation is part of a movement to privatize public housing.”

On the Monday before the rally, city lawyers claimed NYCHA denied permission for the rally because event leaders wanted to use the rally for partisan political purposes. Two days later, State Supreme Court
Justice Helen Freedman shot that argument down.

Then early Friday, a team of three NYCHA lawyers filed an appeal–a move which, for the moment, barred the demonstration. A few hours later, yet another state judge had okayed the demonstration–but only allowed Riis tenants to attend.

“This whole thing was crazy. They had three lawyers working full time just to keep a group of tenants from meeting,” said Judith Goldiner, the Legal Aid lawyer who represented the Riis tenants. “The New York City Housing Authority is crazy.”

The demonstrators did have to sidestep one more hurdle: sometime during the week before the rally, road crews began tearing up the disputed ground. “I walked by and I saw the sidewalk being torn up by whatever you call those big, loud machines,” Goldiner added.

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