Category Archives: Blog

Just Utilities: Organizing for Solutions to the Household Energy Crisis

JustUtilsCoverThe grassroots community organization Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson has published an excellent report in connection with their fight for affordable, sustainable, and just utility rates and energy policies in the Poughkeepsie, NY area:

“Energy utility affordability is a widespread and severe national crisis for low-income people of color. It is a strategic, yet currently neglected, organizing issue for building power to win racial, environmental, and economic justice.

Drawing from their experience developing a cutting-edge Utilities Justice campaign, the leaders of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson – Homes For All campaign partners and core members of the Right To The City Alliance – share their organizing model, advance replicable policy solutions and document the extent of the local, statewide and national energy utility crisis.”

Download the full report for free from the Homes For All national campaign.

Why Cities and Universities Need a New Kind of Dialogue

From a recent article by Diana Graizbord, Jamie McPike, and Nicole Pollock:

“This year the City of Providence Department of Innovation collaborated with Brown University on the Providence Business Engagement Initiative. To kick off the Initiative, students in an applied policy research course utilized City licensing data, open meetings records, and census data to identify neighborhood business clusters and determine an appropriate outreach and engagement methodology. Three student groups then collected the stories of over 50 small business owners, community leaders, and city officials. These stories were used by Department of Innovation to inform changes in the City’s business licensing process and to enhance the City’s Start Up in a Day program. The success of this partnership would not have been possible without ongoing, iterative dialogue that allowed both partners to reevaluate and renegotiate project plans and goals, manage expectations, and ensure that project deliverables were relevant and useful. . . .

What we found was that both partners had specific goals and priorities, but both were open to adapting and changing these as the project evolved. By focusing first on establishing a dialogue rather than a set of binding terms, the partnership became more nimble, able to shift and move in new directions as new ideas arose. This flexible style of collaboration required a foundation of mutual trust; the dialogue that we established early on helped the partnership to withstand the uncertainty and challenges that emerge in a project committed to innovation. . . .”

Read the full article at The Huffington Post.

A View from a New York City Rent Guidelines Board Meeting, June 13, 2016

1467086073On June 13, 2016, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board held a hearing of public testimony at Founders Hall of Saint Francis College in Brooklyn. This was one of five hearings scheduled before the Board passed its June 27 vote for another rent freeze on one-year leases and only a 2% increase on two-year leases for rent stabilized tenants.  At the hearing, tenants and building owners were given the chance to speak to the NYC Rent Guidelines Board, which is made up of public officials, on “proposed rent adjustments for renewal leases for apartments, lofts, hotels, and other housing units subject to the Rent Stabilization Law of 1969 and the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974.”[1] Each speaker had two minutes to make her or his case to the Board, while occasionally Board members themselves would ask questions of the speakers in return.

I noticed a number of noteworthy and compelling dynamics as one testimonial followed another. For example, of the six or so building owners who testified, the majority appeared White and male. In contrast, all of the five or so tenants who testified appeared to be people of color. Additionally, the large majority of the Rent Guidelines Board appeared to be White. I found these racial dynamics to be informative to the conversation and its implications, since it speaks to the wealth disparity between White folks and people of color, and the senses of injustice felt by communities of color in New York City, in this case regarding affordable and well-maintained housing. Because those in attendance at this event were not randomly selected, it is important to note that there is no guarantee that they are a representative sample of all building owners and tenants. However, the dynamics among those present certainly does offer a glimpse into the racial dynamics that shape land use in the city, and certainly reflects racial economic disparities in this country.

To begin with the building owners, there seemed to be a variety of perspectives and financial situations among the owners present. Many made claims that they were not able to cover the costs of maintaining their buildings due to rent decreases. Several of these owners maintained that there did not seem to be a point in spending time and energy in the upkeep and management of a building from which they were not profiting.

In contrast to these claims, however, one tenant asserted that an “increase in rent only benefits the owners of buildings” who do not make the proper repairs regardless of the rent amounts they receive. The tenant had a particularly unusual housing situation (at least in the context of the other testimonials at this particular hearing), explaining that his landlord was verbally abusing and intimidating him and his family, and failing to act on the presence of lead in the building, which had the potential to harm his children. He additionally claimed that the “building was dirty” and there were “bad floors,” essentially calling for more responsible and less abusive building management. At the end of his testimony, he also stated that he had a disability, and that this made his situation even more difficult. The Board was hardly empathetic to his situation, yet did point him to New York City’s Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) Program, which exempts against future rent increases for “eligible disabled persons” living in rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments.

Other tenants more explicitly called for a rent rollback, one proclaiming that “people are being displaced” by the escalated cost of renting in New York City and the lack of new affordable housing. As this tenant continued her testimony, a protest occurring directly outside of Founders Hall became audible to those of us in the hearing. People seemed to be chanting “Rent rollback…now!” and “Shut it down!” These protestors were members of Flatbush Tenant Coalition, a group of tenant associations in Flatbush, Brooklyn working to build power in the tenant community in the surrounding areas.[2]

The rent rollback that both the tenant and the protestors called for refers in part to some building owners tendency to overcharge tenants due to the lack of state-level enforcement of a program which states that building owners who benefit from the taxpayer subsidy must abide by the modest annual rent increases determined by the city’s public officials. Due to this poor enforcement, a number of tenants were not able to access, or did not know of their benefits under this program.[3] Thus, the tenants want justice.

A following speaker, a blunt, outspoken tenant advocated again for this justice, and received passionate praise from the audience. She boldly began with the assertion that she was “being discriminated against” and “If [she is] back to 1950, [she] wants to know.” This tenant also outright opposed landlords denying housing to Section 8 housing recipients, and therefore also castigated them for their repudiation of “the public.” As the audience cheered on this speaker, she continued to express her concerns and claimed racism from the Board.  After one Board member interrupted her in what seemed an attempt either to wrap up her testimony or temporarily speak to her concerns, she exclaimed,“I don’t want them to pacify me, I want them to do something.”

By and large, it was clear that the majority of those in attendance were in favor of a rent rollback, as was evident when the audience broke into a “rent rollback” chant after the tenth speaker. It also became clear that the majority of the building owners in attendance were calling for a rent increase, yet did not seem to represent the wealthy building owners to which many of the tenants referred in disdain. I am sure that the tenants would have appreciated the presence of these building owners, but recognize that their wealth may determine their priorities in more ways than one.





“Call and Response: Black Power 50 Years Later” at Brooklyn Historical Society

“CaBrownstonephoto_Wikimedia_publicdomain_Smallll & Response: Black Power 50 Years Later,” a panel discussion, which took place at Brooklyn Historical Society on June 14, 2016, featured the perspectives of five people with very diverse life experiences and approaches to the meaning of Black Power from a 21st century vantage point. The panel reflected on the movement, which thrived primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, and considered ways to use historical perspective to inform methods for organizing in the contemporary #blacklivesmatter movement. The speakers included 86-year-old Rev. Dr. Herbert Daughtry, social activist, pastor, and founder of the African People’s Christian Organization; 30-year-old DeRay McKesson, a civil rights activist and politician; long-time activist, educator, and radio host, Bahir Mchawi; Board member at Black Women’s Blueprint, Inc., Janeen Mantin; and Dante Barrett, a writer, organizer, and Executive Director of Million Hoodies. The  inter-generational dynamic was immensely interesting and allowed for a great deal of comparison. Continue reading

Review: “If you can’t afford to live here, mo-o-ove” at Mitchell-Innes & Nash

All images courtesy Osman Can Yerebakan for Art Observed

On June 7, I attended Martha Rosler’s exhibition, If you can’t afford to live here, mo-o-ove!!, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash (renamed “The Temporary Office of Urban Disturbances” for this exhibition.) From the title, I expected the exhibition to discuss gentrification through art, and this is exactly what it did. But, I had no idea that the quote “If you can’t afford to live here…” is not just an example of an ignorant statement that one might hypothetically say, but it is actually something said by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Curator and critic Nina Möntmann, who wrote about the original exhibition cycle organized by Rosler in 1989, referred to this statement as “the principle of gentrification in a nutshell.” Many advocates for social justice would likely agree with Möntmann’s assessment. After all, gentrification involves displacement of people, especially people of color and poor people, on the basis of their ability to afford the areas in which they live or once lived. Koch’s encouragement of this displacement is, essentially, an encouragement of gentrification.

Continue reading

Introducing our Summer Blogger: Ayesha Sharma

Ayesha Sharma, a rising Junior at Bates College, has joined the Urban Democracy Lab staff as our summer blogger.  Watch out for her dispatches from New York City in the coming weeks.  Ayesha describes herself as follows:

“I’m a second generation Indian-American studying Anthropology and Gender Studies at Bates College. I’m most intellectually and emotionally driven by inequality affecting a variety of humans and non-humans. While difficult to name a few, some of the impacts of broad and problematic systems which trouble and motivate me are emotional violence, and the loss and robbery of personal identity through forced assimilation. I use they/them and she/her pronouns. ”

Welcome, Ayesha!


The Laundromat Project: Call for creative responses to #BlackLivesMatter

_84026_PostcardsOur friends at The Laundromat Project — which connects artists and artwork with community members in order to solve problems and build community networks —  are calling for creative responses in connection with the Black Lives Matter movement. Please consider making a submission:

“Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland. We are heavy-hearted that two years later we find ourselves once again trying to make sense of the gross disregard and disrespect for life in the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the loss of the hundreds of lives of other people of color at the hands of those meant to protect them.

. . .

We invite you to share your creative responses to this moment–drawings, poems, dance, films, songs, etc–as well as your readings, curricula, self care tips, and more with The LP community, by sending them to Information can be shared in all formats (images, links, videos, pdfs, etc.). We will share responses on The LP’s Black Lives Matter webpage, started in 2014. We will also share tips on self-care, educational resources, and details regarding actions and interventions on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. You can also find information by following us @laundromatproject (Twitter) and @laundromat_proj (Instagram).”

Read more at The Laundromat Project.


Does subsidized housing make a difference?

17d93581-2c85-4143-bfb1-17e01499fa9bFrom our Democratizing the Green City colleague Karen Chapple (UC Berkeley), who is a co-author of this report:

Is market-rate development the most effective way to prevent displacement?

We are pleased to release our latest research brief, “Housing Production, Filtering and Displacement: Untangling the Relationships.”

The brief assesses the effectiveness of subsidized and market-rate housing production in alleviating the current housing crisis. We find that both market-rate and subsidized housing reduce displacement pressures in the Bay Area, but subsidized housing has twice the impact.

The brief is our response to the February 2016 report from California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office that used our data to argue that market-rate development would be the most effective way to prevent displacement of low-income households. With the simple addition of data on subsidized housing, we present a more nuanced story.

However, because of the severe mismatch between demand and supply, development alone is not enough. Aggressive preservation and tenant protection strategies will be needed to help vulnerable households stay in their neighborhoods.

Read more of the report here.

Book Talk — Dreams Deported: Immigrant Youth and Families Resist Deportation

DreamsDeported160513From our friends at 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers:

Join us for a panel discussion of the immigrant rights movement and the book Dreams Deported: Immigrant Youth and Families Resist Deportation, edited by Kent Wong and Nancy Guarneros. Dreams Deported: Immigrant Youth and Families Resist Deportation is a UCLA student publication featuring stories of deportation and of the courageous immigrant youth and families who have led the national campaign against deportations and successfully challenged the president of the United States to act.  Continue reading