Homeless Revolution

An organization of homeless New Yorkers rallied residents of Harlem and Manhattan to stand up and take notice of the city's long-standing practice of warehousing vacant properties.

How many people does it take to make a revolution? Historians estimate that fewer than 500 Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in October 1917, effectively placing the Soviets in power.

Ninety years later in New York City, there are 38,000 homeless folks living in shelters, and untold thousands on the street — more than enough to start a homeless revolution.

For two Saturdays, in July and October of 2006, a group of senior citizens, veterans, mothers and children, and formerly homeless people combed every inch of Manhattan to count abandoned buildings and vacant lots. The goal was to expose the numerous buildings being kept off the market while a very real housing crisis festers throughout the city.

Since 2004, homeless members of Picture the Homeless (PTH) have been challenging claims by city officials that the number of vacant buildings has vastly diminished. As recently as May 2007, Shaun Donovan, commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, testified before the House Committee on Ways and Means that “The crisis of abandonment that plagued many New York neighborhoods…[has been] solved.” We needed to prove that such claims were false and that there were vast quantities of property left unused. While a count of vacant property might not seem too earth-shattering, in cities such as St. Louis and Boston, the technique was instrumental in moving elected officials to adopt new policies on land disposition.

“We are convinced that the numbers of underutilized spaces will surprise a lot of New Yorkers,” PTH leader DeBoRah Dickinson says. We needed something compelling and startling, since so many people were unaware that tens of thousands of units were left unused.

Picture the Homeless is an activist group that was founded in 1999 by two homeless men in response to the Giuliani administration’s oppressive policies toward the homeless. In the late 1990s there were frequent arrests of folks living on the street and predawn raids on shelters in search of people with outstanding warrants – all of which were applauded by the mainstream media. PTH initially focused on organizing homeless people to fight against media misrepresentations of the homeless and the NYPD’s violations of their civil rights, but it became clear that homeless people also wanted to fight for changes in city housing policy.

While developing the housing campaign, we realized that nothing galvanized the homeless community more than landlords keeping so many buildings empty. Within a month of launching the campaign, our meetings attracted standing-room-only crowds, and we were aggressively researching policies, legislative precedents, and earlier grass-roots movements dedicated to reclaiming vacant space – ranging from New York’s Lower East Side squatters to the Brazilian Landless People’s Movement.

We developed a comprehensive policy platform of penalties and incentives designed to generate housing for the homeless out of vacant property. We called for broadening the definition of “nuisance” buildings to include empty properties, because they are detrimental to the life and health of the community at large; imposing steep fines for landlords who keep property empty; and creating new funding streams and financing structures to ensure that any housing developed remains affordable over time. We then spent the next two years marching, holding press conferences and policy briefings, and working with other grass-roots and faith-based groups to show how the volume of vacant properties directly contributes to the city’s housing shortage.

Our platform made good fiscal sense. We weren’t asking for handouts or new taxes; we were asking the city to redirect the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends every year on shelter toward housing. We were asking the city to ban landlords from engaging in property speculation – keeping buildings empty while they wait for neighborhood demographics to change, so they can develop more expensive housing units – a practice that causes immense harm to communities and homeless people.

We were making little progress until we decided to step outside the box of conventional, conservative organizing tactics. In March 2006, we initiated a series of monthly sleep-outs in front of abandoned buildings in Manhattan – braving rain, cops, drunk pedestrians, and New York City rats – to draw attention to the injustice of properties being kept empty while people are forced to sleep on the street and in shelters.

Our first sleep-out was in midtown, on 3rd Avenue between 43rd and 44th streets, in front of a row of boarded-up buildings. Two major television news stations covered the action, and several independent journalists slept out with us to film and write articles about the event. Stories were published in independent newspapers and on numerous blogs and Web sites.

The week after our first sleep-out, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer agreed to collaborate with us on a count of vacant buildings and lots in the borough. It was our first major victory.

Our next sleep-out was uptown in Harlem. While midtown passersby reacted to our presence with surprise or apathy (“We had no idea these buildings were empty; we never looked up before!”), the response in Harlem was visceral and immediate. One woman, relieved to hear someone else complaining about the problem, told us, “That building was boarded up when I moved to this block 30 years ago, and it’s still boarded up!” Empty buildings have languished in Harlem for decades, and even when some are developed, the housing units are generally far more expensive than local residents can afford. People were excited about the opportunity to get involved with our campaign, and on the night of our first Harlem sleep-out, nearly 200 community residents signed up to count buildings.

Our sleep-outs received tremendous response from local residents – while they had heard lots of people talk about the problem, they were excited to see something done about it. What’s more, they galvanized the homeless community, as many new homeless leaders stepped up and worked hard to make the protests and the building count successful.

In July of 2006, after we conducted the first half of the building count, we received positive news coverage in The New York Times, the Amsterdam News, El Diario/La Prensa, and even the conservative Daily News – all of which was a major slap in the face of the Bloomberg administration and its claim that “abandonment is a thing of the past.” By September, we were meeting with City Council members who wanted to introduce legislation to make it illegal for landlords to keep buildings empty.

In May 2007, Picture the Homeless released a report, “Homeless People Count: Vacant Property in Manhattan,” documenting our findings. Specifically, we found that there are 24,000 potential apartments in vacant buildings and lots in Manhattan alone – enough to house every homeless person in the entire city. That’s 1,723 empty buildings with 11,170 apartments, and 505 vacant lots.

Imagine that. If the city wanted to, it could snap its metaphorical fingers and completely eradicate homelessness as we know it. It could house the 16,000 households (according to the NYC Department of Homeless Services) living in shelters, as well as everyone living on the street.

Homelessness has largely become a social-services issue, thought to be the result of personal problems – not systemic issues – whose solution is drug treatment, psychiatric help, and charity. Yet homelessness is fundamentally an issue of poverty. It cannot be comprehensively addressed without drastic change to a system where real-estate development is seen as the engine that drives New York’s economy and its politics. What homeless people need is not just more subsidized housing or better code enforcement, but rather an end to a system where landlords are permitted to profit at the cost of human dignity.

That’s what led the homeless at PTH to challenge the practice of property warehousing when no one else wanted to touch it. And now that we’ve quantified the problem, there’s an amazing buzz building in the progressive community and a growing demand for the city to take real steps to stop landlords from keeping buildings empty.

“Situations like this become revolutions in the streets,” says PTH member Wayne Thomas, when asked what he thought the housing situation would look like in 10 years. “If they don’t deal with us now, they’re going to have to deal with the ones who come up behind us, and are a lot madder, and don’t have a problem taking what they need.” If City Hall is going to survive the coming storms, it had better wake up to the fact that pinning the city’s social and economic health on the desires of real-estate development is in direct opposition to the needs of its residents.

Some research and writing was contributed by Black Ink Enterprises.

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