It’s a decent crowd at Lehman College in the Bronx, where an audience has turned out to vent its fears over the latest round of public housing regulations being handed down from Washington and City Hall. The crowd is mostly middle-aged African-American women. A smattering of Latinas huddles around an interpreter in the front aisles. After a brief spiel by officials from the public housing agency, the audience’s questions and recriminations focus on the everyday hassles of urban life hovering around the poverty line: crime, rent, building upkeep.
But on several occasions, a male voice from the back of the room–younger, softer and more articulate–rises to deliver point-by-point queries:
“Is the housing authority committed to preserving ceiling rents in spite of federal regulations? How long will master leases with private developers last? The residents want to be sure there won’t be demolition further down the line–will there be any demolition after the fiscal year 2000?”
That voice belongs to Dushaw Hockett, 25, who has emerged as a populist gadfly in the debate over how the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) will comply with the federal Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998. Articulate, confident and impeccably dressed, he has become a fixture in community politics. And this fall, as NYCHA begins changing the way it does business, he has been at the core of a newly awakened public housing tenants’ movement.
Raised in the projects, educated in public schools and steeped in civil rights activism, Hockett has the classic pedigree of a New York City progressive–more Fiorello LaGuardia than Third Way liberal. And in true grassroots style, he focuses on an issue he knows first-hand: the problems of the projects. By choosing that battle, Hockett is getting into the very business that the federal government is trying to get out of–tending to the future of the 600,000 tenants in New York City’s public housing.
“It’s an ideological mistake to view public housing as a plague that needs to be cured,” he says two days later, in a postmortem interview at a Fort Greene luncheonette. He favors these sorts of vivid metaphors, but Hockett has also mastered soulless bureaucratic language such as “deconcentration”–a term the federal initiative invented to describe its mandate to mix in members of the working class with the poorest of the poor in public housing projects.
Local authorities believe that deconcentration will help restore the economic diversity in public housing that once made New York City’s tops in the nation. In 1983, 50 percent of New York’s public housing residents were employed; by 1996 the figure had dwindled to below 30 percent. “The difference between New York and other cities, where public housing has failed, is that we have always had a viable mix of people in our developments,” says Steven Love, director for federal policy and compliance at NYCHA, comparing Gotham’s projects to public housing disasters in Chicago and Newark.
But this policy in particular has earned Hockett’s disdain. Not only does it squeeze out those with the greatest need, he argues, but it implies a moral hierarchy based on income. “Are you telling me that a person who earns $10,000 more than me is going to be a better neighbor?” he scoffs. “That they have values and beliefs that are better than mine?”
Hockett knows what he’s talking about: he’s been living in Bushwick Houses in Brooklyn for 18 years. “This is an issue that hits close to home for him,” says Damaris Reyes, aide to City Councilmember Margarita López. López’s political stronghold has been in the projects of the Lower East Side, and Reyes herself grew up in public housing. “A lot of people take on causes for professional advancement, but that’s not what he’s about.”
Even in his days at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, while other kids were studying and battling teenage problems, the political bug had already bitten Hockett. When proposals to cut education funding came down the pipe, Hockett led his schoolmates to protest at City Hall and even staged two walkouts.
“I was reading a lot of books about Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King and civil rights at the time,” he recalls. “And my English teacher–who happened to be Coretta Scott King’s cousin–really helped get me started.” The teacher, Philip Mott, took his protégé to Washington to see the Congressional Black Caucus. Mott also brought Hockett along to seminars in Atlanta on nonviolent protests and invited him to dine with Martin Luther King’s daughters.
A lucky break landed Hockett into politics. The summer after he finished high school, he met Nydia Velázquez’s campaign staffers distributing flyers on the street. When they learned that he lived in Bushwick–where the Rev. Jesse Jackson happened to be scheduled to stump for Velázquez the next day–they enlisted his aid. To his surprise, both pols thanked him publicly and asked him to deliver an impromptu speech at their side. Hockett obliged, talking about the need for political unity among African-Americans and Latinos.
Soon after, Hockett joined Congresswoman Velázquez’ staff, helping immigrants, veterans and public housing residents navigate government bureaucracies. But the work left him hungry for more direct action. “It was a trying process and there were definitely more losses than victories,” he says. “Ultimately, I became frustrated with the fact that the best we could tell people was ‘Your paperwork is fine. Now you just have to wait.'” Nonetheless, because the lion’s share of his work involved public housing tenants, the job paid off by giving him a political education.
Now, Hockett draws his paycheck from the Center for Community Change, a national advocacy group formed in 1997 when Capitol Hill was swept by housing reform. He also chairs the NYC Public Housing Resident Alliance, a coalition of residents and legal advocates. And he’s still working on his undergraduate degree in sociology from Hunter College–a combination of financial hardships and other commitments has kept him too busy to finish. At one point he was juggling his studies with two jobs: one stocking inventory at a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory on Hudson Street, and another working the graveyard shift unloading boxes at United Parcel Service.
Frustrated with what they perceive as a system that doesn’t care about their well-being, many public housing tenants, including some who have tried to make changes before, see organizing as futile. “Residents feel that they have no control over what happens to them,” says Ethel Velez, a tenant activist at James Weldon Johnson Houses in East Harlem. “Folks use the buzzword ’empowerment,’ but many people have had their spirits broken.”
But this fall, Hockett–with many collaborators–has spearheaded an organizing campaign that brought thousands of public housing tenants to NYCHA forums this fall, mobilized a fractured population, and won concessions from the Authority. The tactics: key alliances with the Manhattan Borough President’s office and citywide tenant groups like New York State Tenants & Neighbors, combined with a core list of 100 committed tenants whom Hockett bombards with mail and faxes.
“He’s been willing to sit with all of us old dogs and learn,” Velez says. “The important thing is not to reinvent the wheel but get all the spokes together.”
Like many grassroots organizers, Hockett believes that information is the deadliest weapon. To boil down Byzantine government documents for residents, the Center for Community Change published its own rules for radicals: a 60-page, reader-friendly guide to the new housing legislation. On the local front, Hockett has spoken out at countless community hearings and distributed fact sheets. In every instance, the song remains the same: learn the facts; focus on the toughest issues; and speak your mind.
He doesn’t make everyone happy. Dianne Jackson, a representative on the nine-member citywide Interim Council of Presidents tenant board, praised Hockett for his ability to bring useful research and information directly to tenants. But she says that other ICOP members resent Hockett’s group as “outside agitators,” because of its alliance with Legal Aid and the Community Service Society. Hockett is equally critical of the Council, echoing tenants’ complaints that it is not a truly representative body.
“When are you running for office, Dushaw?” teased NYCHA’s Love as they left the Lehman College forum, where they had pubicly sparred. The question is a fair one, given Hockett’s oratorical style and organizing prowess. But Hockett says that while he cherishes his experience within politics, it’s not a game he wants to return to soon.
Besides, he believes that public housing tenants need his help now in the trenches. Because federal money to build new public housing has dried up, NYCHA intends to explore partnerships with private real estate developers. This has raised hackles among many tenant activists, who fear that tenants will become homeless if landlords decide later to get out of their commitment to public housing. “These private solutions are only temporary,” agrees Victor Bach, housing analyst at the Community Service Society. “The virtue of truly public housing is that it stays public for the long term.”
The organizing campaign shows promise. Where tenants are most involved–Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, downtown Brooklyn and Coney Island–the Resident Alliance hopes to develop a backbone for a permanent organizational structure, with the aim of having a permanent tenant role in NYCHA plans.
Meanwhile, Bach estimates, deconcentration could eliminate 10,000 to 16,000 apartments for the poor over 10 years. And while NYCHA plans to demolish just part of only one public housing complex this year–Prospect Plaza in Brooklyn-Hockett fears for the future. When the hoopla over this year’s plan dies away, he aims to spread his message of activism and pride in public housing. “People don’t make change because they believe that public housing is something that can’t be corrected,” he says. “But everyone can help build up a community, even if it’s just one step at a time.”
Keith Meatto is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.