Time for Hardball: Public Housing Politics

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NYCHA resident leaders rally in late 2008 at City Hall. Front row, left to right Charlene Nimmons, Ethel Velez, Reginald Bowman and Rose Bergin.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

NYCHA resident leaders rally in late 2008 at City Hall. Front row, left to right Charlene Nimmons, Ethel Velez, Reginald Bowman and Rose Bergin.

There were many exciting races on Election Day 2008, but the State Senate contest in New York’s 12th District, which includes Long Island City and Astoria, was not one of them. Incumbent Democrat George Onorato was expected to easily defeat Republican challenger Thomas Dooley. But it was a big contest for Community Voices Heard, the low-income-people’s advocacy group, in its bid to mobilize New York’s 400,000-strong public housing population into a potent political force—one that can fight for survival in Washington, Albany and City Hall.

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, CVH organizers visited three NYCHA developments in Queens to get residents to pledge that they would vote in the Onorato race. The aim was not just to persuade people to vote but to make sure they voted all the way down the ballot—something many voters don’t do. The winning candidate would then receive postcards from the pledged voters reminding them to support public housing. CVH, which collected 1,500 pledges, hopes the additional votes and the postcards will send a clear message to the pols: “Whoever wins, they need to start paying attention to public housing,” says Alisa Pizarro, a public housing resident and CVH canvasser. But the residents themselves are also a target. “We’re just trying to convince them that their vote does count,” adds Demitrus Gonzalez, another canvasser. “We outnumber the politicians.”

Organizers who target public housing have one thing going for them: The density of public housing makes it easy to reach a lot of potential voters fast—and then to follow up with them. And public housing is the sort of bread-and-butter issue that CVH has found provides a stronger motivation for people to vote. “The idea that it’s your civic duty, it doesn’t work,” says organizer Henry Serrano. “So the idea behind this is really to tie it to a specific issue.”

CVH isn’t the only organization trying to bulk up public housing’s political muscle. It’s part of a national group, the Right to the City Alliance, that’s pushing that effort nationally. Organizers from Public Housing Residents of the Lower East Side traveled to Chicago after the election to meet with fellow members of the Housing Justice Movement, a coalition lobbying for affordable housing. Landmark West, which is trying to obtain landmark status for the Amsterdam Houses in Hell’s Kitchen, is providing support to the tenants’ association there so it can mobilize to preserve the development.

NYCHA itself is no slouch when it comes to playing politics. In recent years, the authority won a better state “shelter allowance” payment for welfare recipients living in public housing and obtained the right to use federal Section 8 vouchers to pay for city- and state-built public housing. In late November, when NYCHA began pushing to get some cash out of a new economic-stimulus bill, then-chairman Tino Hernandez urged residents to “reach out to Senators Schumer and Clinton as well as the entire New York State Congressional Delegation.”

NYCHA resident leaders are turning their attention to city elections in 2009. Reginald Bowman, president of the citywide council of resident leaders, says, “We are mobilizing ourselves because the only equity we have is our political leverage, and we plan to invest it wisely in the coming election.”