Housing Gets Organized

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Some neighborhood nonprofits have never taken to the streets. Others never gave up agitating. But here’s a guarantee: For the next four years, 15 New York neighborhood housing groups will have a community organizer on board. From the North Bronx to the center of Manhattan to far-flung areas of Queens and Brooklyn, a new network of organizers is busy identifying and responding to local housing problems–and working together to plan citywide action. The $4.8 million Initiative for Neighborhood and City Wide Organizing (INCO) is the brainchild of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) and has major financing from the Neighborhood Opportunities Fund, a consortium of major corporations and foundations.

“What makes this a really big deal is that community organizing is a really hard thing to fund,” says Irene Baldwin, executive director of ANHD. “The confrontational piece of organizing can make people uncomfortable. It’s a heck of a lot easier if you’re a corporation to put your name on a golf tournament than a community organizing effort.”

The city’s large network of nonprofit community development corporations grew out of strong neighborhood movements. But controversies, leadership changes, political fights and the professionalization of the housing movement left many nonprofits out of touch with this heritage of mobilization.

Many of the groups have become more concerned with managing apartments than promoting pressure tactics. For instance, New Settlement Apartments is the developer and landlord of 16 buildings in Mount Eden, in the Bronx. With funding from INCO, New Settlement has now moved into tenant organizing, and is using its own money to hire a second housing organizer.

New Settlement has initiated a survey of conditions in apartment buildings in the area, looking at such basic security issues as locks, intercoms and lighting. Of almost 200 buildings already evaluated, 86 had significant deficiencies, reports organizer Jackie Del Valle. She is starting with one building on the Grand Concourse and promises that her group will be active in six more by the end of 2004.

Other groups tapped for INCO funding include Abyssinian Development Corporation, Asian Americans for Equality, Forest Hills Community House, Good Old Lower East Side, Housing Conservation Coordinators, Pratt Area Community Council and the St. Nicholas Neighborhood Preservation Corporation. Each will receive $50,000 a year for four years.

INCO arose at a time when many nonprofits that advocate for affordable housing sensed they needed the kind of political muscle that mobilizing local residents can generate. At its best, organizing fosters grassroots democracy–and it helps keep city politicians focused on neighborhood demands. “The neighborhood-based housing movement has been extraordinarily effective,” says Benjamin Dulchin, director of INCO and former head of organizing for Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue Committee. “But we weren’t really able to translate our neighborhood strength into a powerful citywide voice.”

Gary Hattem, a managing director of Deutsche Bank and one of INCO’s major backers, says the renewed push for organizing is necessary because many community groups have been slow to adapt to changing populations and issues in their own communities. One of INCO’s goals, Hattem says, is “reconnecting nonprofits with changed neighborhoods.”

Plus, adds Baldwin, many groups became gun-shy during the 1990s. “The Giuliani administration was really hostile to organized communities,” she notes. In response, some groups toned down their talk. Today, a decade after Giuliani took office, the city still has vast unmet housing needs, despite the successes of community development groups. Says Baldwin, “People played nice and saw how far it got them.”

As INCO grows, the neighborhood organizations will need to mobilize people around issues that are not always close to home. “We’ve been very local in our advocacy role,” says David Pagan, administrator of Los Sures, a housing group in Southside Williamsburg. “The idea of the new contract is to be more citywide.” ANHD has identified three possible citywide issues for local groups to tackle: more aggressive housing code enforcement, inclusionary zoning to mandate affordable housing, and recapturing promised housing money from the Battery Park City surplus.

At the same time, the foundations sponsoring the project must recognize that organizing’s accomplishments cannot be easily measured. “It’s not enough to say ‘organizing for organizing’s sake,'” says Darren Walker, director of Working Communities at the Rockefeller Foundation. “Foundations are increasingly concerned about their grantees delivering outcomes that demonstrate accountability and achievement toward specific objectives.” And, of course, there’s the age-old question of confrontation, which can put funders in a politically uncomfortable position. Says Hattem, “I don’t see INCO lying down in the streets or doing radical things.”

But whatever tactics the groups choose, Baldwin is certain of one thing: More organizing will improve the city. “No matter how you felt about community organizing, we sure felt the loss of it,” she says. “The housing crisis we’re in, we wouldn’t have had if there were more organized communities.”