To the attention of all elected officials of city, state, and federal levels, and representatives of NYCHA and HUD:
First, the Justice For All Coalition hopes you and your family are doing well and staying safe during these unprecedented times.
We are writing to you today to advocate with and on behalf of NYCHA tenants for fair and decent housing, healthy and safe communities, and social justice. Our communities need your support—during this hyper-precarious time of COVID-19, and always.
The Justice For All Coalition (JFAC) is a volunteer-led, community-based organization fighting for fair and decent housing, good-paying jobs, and just development for the residents of Western Queens. Our roots, base and leadership are in the local public developments of Astoria, Queensbridge, Ravenswood, and Woodside Houses. Since our founding in April 2016, we have educated and organized ourselves and our neighbors towards fulfilling the current and future needs of our communities.
Prior to COVID-19, JFAC was fighting against multiple large-scale city-led developments in our neighborhood (for example, Sunnyside Yards, the BQX, a rezoning of Anable Basin) which promised to continue routing public money and efforts away from critical public resources like public housing and public transit, while inflating land values and exacerbating hardships for private-market residential and commercial tenants. As tenant groups around the city have consistently argued, and the courts have confirmed, the city’s narrow and discriminatory approach to land use and “community” development has contributed to the lack of affordable housing in New York City, increased the number of unhoused individuals and families, and worsened challenges for small and/or independent businesses and manufacturing firms, and artists.
Simultaneously, we have been working towards alleviating the unsafe and unhealthy living conditions NYCHA tenants are forced to endure because of this mismanagement of public money. Our concerns are not new, or under-covered. Reports, press conferences, town halls, and apartment tours by NYCHA representatives, the Mayor, the Governor, and representatives of the Trump Administration have exposed the extent of the deterioration of living conditions for NYCHA tenants. And yet, despite the “promises” and “guarantees” made by these officials and representatives to remedy the situation, the needs of NYCHA tenants continue to be sidelined, and conditions worsen. Today, NYCHA tenants feel completely left out and ignored by the elected officials who are supposed to represent them.
This feeling persists and is amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further exposed the hardships endured by our communities, while highlighting the ongoing neglect by all levels of government. As we know, the pandemic hit New York extremely hard; and yet unevenly. NYCHA tenants, including those in Astoria, Queensbridge, Ravenswood and Woodside Houses, are among the hardest hit communities in the city. In part, this has to do with who lives in public housing today.
For one, many tenants are essential workers—healthcare, sanitation, corrections, postal workers, social services, maintenance professionals and more—who are being asked to put their lives on the line to keep the city running. Most are not being provided (adequate) PPE by employers, by NYCHA, or by elected officials, and thus the likelihood of contracting the virus is heightened. Also, their need to go in and out of their apartments and buildings regularly and use public transit, means they are more likely to bring the virus home with them, and put their families and neighbors at risk. This brings us to our second point.
Many NYCHA tenants are seniors and/or have underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and/or asthma, conditions that are known to amplify the effects and consequences of the virus if contracted. These conditions are the direct result of ongoing neglect by city, state and federal officials, mismanagement by NYCHA, and other forms of structural and systemic inequality that are known to predispose the working-class and communities of color to premature death, even without COVID-19.
Now, during this time of outbreak, tenants are dying at alarming rates; and communities are experiencing widespread and tremendous loss. And yet, neglect by officials at all levels of government continues. Tenants are reporting that buildings are not being cleaned (regularly) and that information and instruction is not being provided by NYCHA. Moreover, responses by our governor and mayor, including the distribution of masks and hand sanitizer, have been slow at best—coming more than one month after COVID-19 exploded in NYC, and after multiple reports found that frontline essential workers and black and brown communities were experiencing the gravest extent of the crisis. To boot, their distribution measures have been critiqued by multiple Tenant Association Presidents for putting tenants at risk, meanwhile the extent of the supplies distributed to households as reported by them are underwhelming (a few squirts of sanitizer; one mask per household). This response is utterly unconscionable.
Further still, COVID-19 compounds the existing issues of habitability that NYCHA tenants face. The lack of cleaning relegates tenants to the confines of their apartments, and yet, the deteriorating conditions of their apartments—from mold, to rodent infestations, to lead paint and more—also pose health risks to them. Broken intercom systems and locks decrease the ability of tenants to control who comes in and out of their buildings, making regular cleaning even more necessary, meanwhile broken elevators make it harder to keep safe distances from other tenants. Ongoing glitches in the recertification systems prevent tenants from adjusting their rents in relation to changes in their income at a time when new expenses are arising, such as funeral costs. This, in conjunction with the loss these communities are experiencing, further compounds mental and financial stress.
NYCHA tenants, like all residents, deserve fair and decent housing. They deserve apartments and buildings that are safe and healthy and secure, and management staff that are reliable and responsive.
We are calling on you to step up and work fervently to right these wrongs by providing NYCHA tenants with living conditions that you would deem adequate and comfortable for you and your loved ones. We all deserve to live with dignity.
Towards these ends, we charge you, our representatives, with pursuing the following to make buildings & apartments safe, and stabilize our communities—now and in the future.
Improved Response to COVID-19
- Hold NYCHA accountable for cleaning our buildings; not doing so threatens the health and well-being of tenants.
- Hold NYCHA accountable for making apartments liveable and healthy, now during COVID-19 and in the future. Essential repairs must be made; and the list of essential repairs should include anything that threatens the health of the household.
- Provide adequate PPE for all individuals in public housing, and all cleaning, maintenance, management, and repair staff.
- Fix and reopen laundromats in NYCHA buildings so tenants can do their part in keeping themselves and their families safe during this crisis.
- Support calls to #CancelTheRent, and ensure they include NYCHA tenants. Currently, NONE of the calls to cancel rent by electeds include NYCHA tenants; this perpetuates the neglect we describe above that has contributed to the severity of the moment for these communities today.
- Ensure all land use decisions are halted for the indefinite future—tenants are grieving the loss of loved ones; please do not place more strain on our communities. This means no Sunnyside Yards, no BQX, no rezoning of Anable Basin, and more.
Though the pandemic appears to be easing up right now, history and researchers have told us that this is far from over. We need elected officials to be better prepared to respond during the next wave so our communities are not disproportionately affected again.
Dedicate Public Funding and Resources for Repair and Maintenance
- Say No to NYCHA 2.0, which de facto privatizes buildings, apartments and other resources, and will provoke displacement.
- Propose and support legislation that generates and/or allocates public money to funding public housing now and in the future, and addresses repair needs.
- Reallocate the $10 billion that has been put aside to build new jails to public housing to address repairs immediately.
- Rather than spending $9 billion+ on development over Sunnyside Yards, stand with us to request that money be invested in public housing now.
- Support Bill S4511A, sponsored by Julia Salazar, which would impose a progressive tax on incomes over $1 million, and funnels the expected $2 billion in revenue annually to funding NYCHA and the division of housing and community renewal.
- Support Bill S07231 / A09041, proposed by Julia Salazar and Harvey Epstein, which would expand mortgage recording tax so real estate developers 1) also have to pay, and 2) their transactions are recorded publicly. This would generate hundreds of millions of public dollars for NYCHA annually, and create more transparency.
- Impose a pied-à-terre tax (Senate Bill S44) as sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman. This would institute a progressive surcharge on non-primary residences worth $5 million or more. Ranging from 0.5% to 4% on homes worth more than $25 million, State Budget Director Robert Mujica estimates the new tax would generate $9 billion in new revenue over the next decade.
- End state-level tax abatement programs, including 421-a and 485-a, which cost the state about $4 billion annually, and only benefit corporate landlords and wealthy developers. More to the point, nearly 80% of developments receiving 421-a exemptions offer no affordable housing in exchange.
- Support the Public Housing Emergency Response Act, proposed by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez which would allocate $70 billion for public housing capital repairs and upgrades nationally, including $32 billion to NYCHA, the country’s largest remaining public housing stock.
- Support the Green New Deal for Public Housing, proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex and Senator Bernie Sanders, which will make buildings liveable now, prepare buildings for the future, create jobs for our communities, and create more public housing towards truly addressing the housing crisis plaguing our city and country.
- Hold NYCHA accountable to following through with fair rent readjustments when tenants experience a change in their household income.
Lift Harmful Regulations & Support Community Control
- Legalize all tenants living in public housing by putting them on the lease. Because of past land use decisions by electeds which have inflated housing costs, there is nowhere else for many of us to go.
- Lift bans that prevent formerly-incarcerated people from living in public housing. We know black and brown and working class communities are hyper-policed. We also know that recidivism rates are high in part because of discrimination in labor and housing markets. This double-edge sword creates an ongoing cycle that must be interrupted.
- Enforce and expand Section 3, the HUD mandate that includes preferences for NYCHA tenants in employment and other economic opportunities. Relatedly, work to ensure tenants are able to secure the certifications needed to qualify for such opportunities.
- Directly support efforts to educate tenants about resident management options, and support them in making that transition so they are less susceptible to bureaucratic mismanagement in the future.
Every NYCHA tenant has the right to fair and decent housing; the same right that you—as a fellow human being—are accustomed to. Please show that the tenants’ vote is not in vain by standing with us and putting NYCHA at the center of your policy decisions and political effort. For too long, public housing tenants have been sidelined. . . do the right thing and support NYCHA!
Justice For All Coalition
Kristen Hackett is a member of the Justice For All Coalition, a group of LIC and Astoria residents fighting for dignified housing, good jobs and just development in Western Queens, and a doctoral candidate and fellow at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Yvette D. Kemp is an Executive Member and Co-Chairperson of the Justice For All Coalition. She is a former resident of Ravenswood Houses, where she raised her son, and was deeply affected by the rampant lack of repairs in NYCHA.