The coronavirus pandemic laid bare the critical need for affordable housing across the United States. As millions lost their jobs, many Americans were only able to remain housed thanks to the advent of COVID-19 housing policies, including eviction moratoriums and rent freezes.
In the last year, as these protections dwindled across the country, tenants in Black neighborhoods have taken up fights to improve housing access—and have won significant battles.
In Kansas City, residents pushed city leaders to codify a right to legal counsel during eviction procedures for low-income residents as rents rose 10 percent last year. In Oakland, California, following a years-long rent strike against a landlord who wanted to kick out tenants to raise rents, voters made it illegal to evict people without reason, a win against displacement and gentrification.
And in Chicago, organizers fought the real estate lobby to successfully push state measures that stabilize rents. In Chicago’s Cook County, more than 50 percent of renters are “rent burdened,” paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent.
Neighbors have survived by simply “sticking together,” says Karen Leader, a Cooper Park resident of more than 30 years.
“The residents know when it’s time to come together and how to fight, when it seems like our political leaders and these companies want to get rid of us,” Leader said.
Cooper Park Houses, a 70-year-old complex that’s home to 1,500 people, sits between Williamsburg and Greenpoint in the one of the fastest gentrifying areas in New York City, serving as a buffer between now-multimillion-dollar homes and heavy industry. A few blocks west, posh restaurants, coffee shops, and new, modern, gray luxury apartment buildings line the streets. One block east, there is a 120-acre natural gas plant.
With decades of organizing under their belt, the residents exemplify tenant activism for other low-income renters across the city and country, says Paula Segal, a lawyer focused on housing issues in New York City.
“[Cooper Park residents] have the secret sauce: a very strong, sustained, on-the-ground organizing presence,” said Segal. To win housing rights battles against the government and developers, Segal says, “you must be somewhat organized and in-community before the attempted takeover starts. Cooper Park is the perfect example.”
In 2019, the resident council—primarily older, longtime denizens of Cooper Houses— successfully fought off a proposal by NYCHA to lease the housing project’s parking lots to private developers who would then build “mixed-income” apartments. Eighty percent of the new units were slated to be luxury apartments, which would have drastically changed the economic makeup of the community.
With legal help from Segal and TakeRoot Justice, residents showed that NYCHA failed to follow environmental-review procedures and did not adequately engage residents as the development plan was crafted.
The use of environmental law highlighted an under-utilized path in public housing activism, especially considering 70 percent of all Superfund sites—a term used to describe the country’s most toxic sites—are located within 1 mile of public housing, impacting more than 9,000 federally subsidized housing properties. Cooper Park is located within a mile of two Superfund sites.
At least one other public housing project in the city was able to secure a similar win in the months following. Cooper Park’s success helped temporarily stave off a practice that has taken root in places like Chicago and Los Angeles, often leading to gentrification and the displacement of public housing residents.
Now, NYCHA is again pushing forward a similar proposal at Cooper Park and in other parts of the city. The effort—dubbed Permanent Affordability Commitment Together-Rental Assistance Demonstration initiative (PACT-RAD)—would lease public housing projects to private developers for 99 years at a time to help lower the agency’s $32 billion budget shortfall.
PACT-RAD works by converting apartment complexes from Section 9 traditional public housing to Section 8 project-based vouchers, which subsidize private housing. NYCHA will retain ownership of the properties, but give day-to-day management power to private developers.
While NYCHA says the practice will help fund much-needed repairs across public housing (A 2017 NYCHA report found that the Cooper Park Houses required roughly $120 million in repairs by 2022), residents fear it offers landlords an easier path to displace and evict residents.
Cooper Park tenants will be able to vote whether to support a move to private management through PACT-RAD or to remain under NYCHA management through, the Public Housing Preservation Trust, a new state-authorized program meant to help accelerate capital improvement of subsidized housing. However, there is no legal requirement that NYCHA honor residents’ preference on PACT-RAD, Segal said.
(If residents reject a transfer to the trust, state law requires that NYCHA honor that rejection, she added.)
Historically, public housing residents have survived because they’re only relegated to paying 30 percent of their monthly income on rent, as long as they make less than the federally designated maximum.
While the trend has led to the much-needed modernization of dilapidated housing, it has reduced government oversight and crucial protections for tenants’ rights among some of the country’s most vulnerable residents.. Across the country, there are 11 million households that fall below the federal poverty line, qualifying them for subsidized housing, but there are only 4 million such properties.
“I don’t see where our political leaders are really fighting for us to have housing. I think they want to get rid of us because they don’t want to support public housing financially,” Leader said, pointing out that federal funding for public housing projects has decreased by 20 percent since 2010. “They would prefer private organizations to take over public housing regardless of the outcome for us, regardless of if we lose our homes, are living on the streets, or forced into their messed up shelter system.”
A Growing Renter Class
Standing in the center of the Cooper Park Houses complex in mid November, you would not know it was a chilly 32 degrees. The courtyard buzzed with residents as yells of “Hey neighbor!” bellowed across the walkway and young children zipped around trees lining the lawn.
With Thanksgiving about a week away, the resident council was preparing for its annual turkey giveaway. Council President Debra Benders had secured 300 turkeys to give to residents in the 700-apartment community. Tenants also left with a bouquet of yellow flowers to help brighten up their apartments, which often go without heat and electricity in the wintertime.
Cooper Park’s success comes from a place of earnest care, residents say. It starts simply with a desire to be in community with one another, says Elisha Fye, who moved into Cooper Park at 6 months old in 1953, the year it was erected. That means going beyond general pleasantries with your neighbors to become invested in each other’s lives, doing small, but vitally important things like sharing meals or checking on a neighbor suffering from the flu.
The passion required to protect a community’s unique physical and cultural pieces comes easy after that, said Fye, known as “E.W.” in the neighborhood.
“This community has always had to be politically active,” the 70-year-old said. “Starting with our parents, they knew the value of each other and that the only way to survive was to be engaged in what’s going on in the community.”
Most notably, Fye points out, was Cooper Park’s organizing in the 1980s, when the city closed down the community’s only public hospital. Wanting to maintain investment in their neighborhood, residents advocated for a community organization to take its place. Now the building is occupied by a city-run shelter and St. Nicks Alliance, a nonprofit focused on housing justice and worker’s rights.
While Cooper Park’s 2019 win against NYCHA was driven by a need to fend off displacement, it also was motivated by a dedication to protecting the community’s older residents. America’s elderly are increasingly renting during retirement, a phenomenon that has disrupted the housing market. Between 2007 and 2017, there was a 43 percent increase in renters over 60.
In New York City’s public housing, two out of five households are led by someone age 62 or older. So displacement leads to dire consequences for the elderly, said Leader, a retiree and member of Cooper Park’s resident council.
“We want folks to be able to age in place, and for our seniors to be able to maintain support from their lifelong communities,” she said. “Gentrification hurts the elderly on fixed incomes the most.”
At the core of the country’s growing rental crisis is a disruption in the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” neighborhoods, says Amber Jackson, a researcher with Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. Gentrification, and the general increase in the cost of living, has turned historically ‘undesirable’ neighborhoods, many of which were redlined, into high-demand destinations.
“Gentrification correlates with the way that people are being kicked out of certain places that were once called ‘bad neighborhoods,’ but are now home to valuable land,” said Jackson, who researches racial residential segregation. “People can’t afford to move to better neighborhoods, and now they can’t even afford to live in their home communities.”
Major problems with the country’s housing system are not new, but the coronavirus pandemic prompted a convergence of high home prices, rising mortgage rates, stagnant wages, and defunded public housing, which laid bare the need for affordable housing.
About 35 percent of U.S. residents are renters, an estimated 25 million more people than in 2000. Despite the increase across all races, Black people are disproportionately affected: About 60 percent of Black residents live in rented properties, compared to 28 percent of white residents, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
“Evictions, a lack of affordable housing, all those things have been issues for decades,” said Jackson. “In a weird way, the pandemic gave legitimacy to issues already rising and plaguing Black and brown communities.”
‘We Love Us Too Much’
Every month, roughly two dozen residents, many of them retired, gather in the basement of one of Cooper Park’s 11 buildings. Sometimes huddled over Leader’s famous macaroni salad, the meetings are most importantly used as a time to be in community with one another—but they often lead to moments of intense strategizing and organizing. In between the monthly meetings, the council holds regular community events: movie nights, sip and paints, barbecues, open mics, health fairs, and community clean-ups.
Cooper Park residents have no choice but to build something for themselves, Leader explains. “With our income levels being so low, we really can’t afford to move on or move out,” she said. “Well, unless someone hits the lottery.”
The housing complex has worked to create a sustained organizing ecosystem, allowing them to utilize far-reaching relationships and resources in times of need. Every year, the council partners with about a dozen local organizations, including those focused on environmental justice, women’s rights, and tenants’ rights. Last year, after Benjamin Robles, a Cooper Park resident, was shot in the apartment complex, residents and Brooklyn-based activist groups led a march through the surrounding neighborhood. Dozens of community members gathered to advocate for gun control, increased mental health services, and community programs for early- to middle-age adults to help curb gun violence.
Their community relationships allow them to activate whenever needed because, as Leader explained, winning one battle does not mean they’ve won the war. While fighting private developers over the last few years, the resident council has also been at the center of a legal battle over a proposal to expand a Liquefied Natural Gas plant—a refinery for combustible methane gas owned by National Grid—that is less than two blocks from the housing project.
Residents say that the plant, situated in North Brooklyn’s industrial corridor, has contributed to a concentration of health ailments for tenants, including respiratory illness, strokes, and kidney failure that are nearly twice as high compared with the rest of New York. In this fight, the resident council has joined a coalition of 24 New York organizations working to block the expansion, even gaining support from local, state, and national politicians.
With the overshadowing fear of displacement, racism, and environmental violence always over their shoulder, “joy [has become] a necessary component,” Leader said. One of the community’s biggest sources of joy is the annual Cooper Park Houses “family and friends day.”
“It’s a time when we get all residents, even those that have moved, to come back. Everybody is barbecuing, children are playing outside, there’s dancing and music,” she said. “It’s a complete day of fun, forgetting about all the negativity, and just enjoying one another.”
It’s so monumental, Fye says, that dozens of former residents who’ve left New York City for more accessible housing in Southern states such as Georgia and South Carolina have an annual “Cooper South” reunion.
The Cooper Park Houses have people everywhere, says Leader, so there will always be someone to take up the struggle.
“We love us too much,” she said, sitting in her living room after making her neighbor Fye a plate of freshly fried chicken. “Cooper Park is always going to be here because we will fight. We are going to fight for our homes.”