Supplanting ACORN

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Did a housing group’s chide transform Mayor Giuliani into Mr. Hyde? The head of ACORN’s housing development group says the Giuliani administration has unexpectedly pulled out of two multimillion-dollar projects it had agreed to fund because the controversial organizing group jeered Mayor Giuliani at a housing conference this summer.

In recent months, officials at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development had been working out logistics with New York ACORN Housing Company and its sister organization, the Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY), for the $6 million Neighborhood Redevelopment Program in Washington Heights and a $2.5 million stake in the new Neighborhood Homes first-time homebuyers project. When ACORN’s top development staffer, Ismene Speliotis, asked for a status report in mid-September, however, officials told her the organization had been kicked off the projects.

According to Speliotis, the officials said the severance was purely political: ACORN members’ chants of “Housing for the needy, not for the greedy!” had interrupted Mayor Giuliani’s speech before a national conference of development officials on July 25. “The people from the city told me, ‘We’ve been told not to do any more business with you,” Speliotis says. “We were given no other reason apart from our organizing activity. This is completely not fair.”

Jack Deacy, the mayor’s deputy press secretary, says Giuliani would not make such a unilateral decision. “The mayor doesn’t cancel contracts. There has to be a reason why,” he maintains. “In general, it sounds ludicrous.” Press representatives at HPD did not return messages.

But housing advocates contend that this administration gives the impression that threats to take away housing contracts are not idle ones. “Since Giuliani became mayor, it’s very clear that the cost of criticizing the administration has increased,” says Jay Small, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, Inc. “It’s their intention [to scare groups away from criticism]. It may actually have that effect.”

ACORN has been organizing aggressively during the past year around workfare and housing. Their actions helped force New York City Housing Authority Chairman Ruben Franco to withdraw an application to the federal government seeking permission to move a greater number of working-class tenants into housing projects previously reserved for the poorest applicants.