“Now long-time residents of neighborhoods across the city, people who endured dangerous housing conditions for decades because they had no other choice, but who fought to improve their neighborhoods, finally have the best chance in decades to win support. public”.
The Lower East Side, 1970.
It was a short five blocks from my apartment on East 4th Street, between avenues C and D, to my job at a local community organization at the abandoned PS 64 on East 9th Street, later renamed. What I saw on those five blocks, back and forth every day, was a trend unfolding and spreading its poison throughout the neighborhood: landlords removing basic services from their buildings and sometimes even burning them down to collect the insurance, before abandoning them completely.
There were vacant lots where buildings had once stood, and buildings with fire-damaged apartments and boarded-up windows. The Fire Department painted an X with a box around it to proclaim that a building is dangerous, warning others to “stay away.” Soon, drug users lined the thriving drug market that grew up on my block.
And yet, there were local people who claimed buildings for—Cleaning and rebuilding with found or salvaged materials. Those efforts were at first few and far between. But then some enlightened city bureaucrats saw the promise of letting tenants into buildings and community organizations springing up locally to take over, manage and save them. Soon, city funds were allocated for these purposes.
In the midst of all this ruin, families doubled; others moved. The neighbors who stayed became the troops that fight to reverse disinvestment and abandonment. More buildings were reclaimed, and some vacant, trash-filled, and rat-infested lots were turned into magnificentsome with little houses, while residents worked to alleviate the wounds of displacement by creating dignity and a shared community space.
When we finally managed to save and stabilize the neighborhood, we realized that we had inadvertently made it safe for gentrification. Now new owners were coming in, buying and remodeling buildings, raising prices, and driving out longtime residents. State policy rolled back rental regulations, and city policy gave for-profit developers cheap access to now-vacant lots. Both measures crowded out other efforts to keep the neighborhood affordable for the people who had fought to save it. Many of these same policies persist today, decades after they were instituted during the Koch and Giuliani administrations.
On several other blocks on the Lower East Side, a community organization, the Cooper Square Committee, organized to save 21 buildings with more than 300 apartments, first from the wrecking ball of urban renewal plans in the 1960s and after gentrification in the 1980s. They established a Community Land Trust (CLT), which won a deed from the city to own the land and a state-approved Mutual Housing Association to manage the buildings in it.
It remains, nearly 30 years after its founding, a neighborhood oasis, where working-class, mostly Latino tenants live together and run their buildings collectively, and do so for a fraction of the rents charged in the rest of the neighborhood.
Today, community land trusts are being formed in all five boroughs of the city, with a mission to preserve and develop deeply affordable housing and prevent displacement, and to bring new community centers, artist spaces, and manufacturing back to neighborhoods. who need them. And now, residents of neighborhoods across the city, the people who endured dangerous housing conditions for decades because they had no other choice, but who fought to improve their neighborhoods, finally have the best chance in decades to win public support.
Hea package of three bills currently on City Council would curb overheated real estate transactions, give tenants and community groups when it comes to market, and in the disposition of public lands. Several other bills would help subsidize rents for very poor renters and create a land bank to hold public lands for a time when they can be developed for affordable uses determined by the community.
Without the control these bills give our communities, local residents will once again be called upon to solve the housing problem at our expense.
Harriet Cohen is the president of the Cooper Square Community Land Trust.