New Urban Politics and the Right To The City Initiatives

NYU Student Activism on Campus

A group of people protest wage theft

NYU’s student activism tackles a wide range of issues, including affordable housing, a living wage for student workers, and an alternative to the university’s endowment. The Urban Democracy Lab spoke with two student activists to get a deeper look at student organizing on campus.

Brennan O’Rourke is an active member of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) and a sophomore at NYU Gallatin. SLAM describes itself as a “student-led organization dedicated to building student and worker power on campus and around the world,” whose members are “committed to human rights and believe in taking direct action to advance social justice.” One of SLAM’s current campaigns is demanding a $15 per hour living wage for all student workers. They are also protesting the name of NYU’s Moelis Institute for Affordable Housing Policy, which is a “non-partisan research center at NYU that works to improve the effectiveness of affordable housing policies by providing data and analysis about promising new ideas and innovative practices.”

The UDL’s Kai Bauer interviewed Brennan to learn more about SLAM’s recent activities:

KB: Can you explain why SLAM wants to change the name of the Moelis Institute for Affordable Housing Policy? What are SLAM’s demands?

BO: Ron Moelis, head of L+M Development Partnership, is the largest for-profit affordable housing developer in New York City. He knows how to take the city and state, so that he makes millions of dollars off of subsidies. He uses a model of wage theft that targets non-union construction workers, some of the most vulnerable workers in the city. Moelis pays his workers less than $15 an hour and has them work in some of the most dangerous conditions in the city. Moelis was a major contributor to De Blasio’s campaign and is one the main supporters and benefactors from De Blasio’s ‘affordable’ housing plan. SLAM is demanding that NYU change the name of the Moelis Institute for Affordable Housing Policy and stand with workers who are working toward actual affordable housing and living wages. The original intention of this center was to change affordable housing policy and to make it more effective for low-income individuals. We find it ironic that a center meant for helping the city’s most vulnerable populations would be named after an individual that exploits those vulnerable citizens and calls into question the efficacy of affordable housing.

KB: Can you talk about De Blasio’s affordable housing plans and Moelis’ involvement in this rezoning?

BO: De Blasio’s affordable housing plan is anything but that. The majority of units being built or preserved are for individuals who make over $38,000 a year, the median income of New York City. Side note: Even someone working for $15 an hour for 40 hours a week would not make over $38,000, yet that is how we determine affordability standards. What is worse is that currently our minimum wage is not even $15 an hour. Another problem with De Blasio’s plan is that the neighborhoods being developed most do not sit at the median income level. The neighborhoods that need affordable housing the most sit slightly below or well below the median income level.

Currently, out of the 40,000 affordable housing units in construction this year, only 9,500 are being made available for individuals who make under the median income of the city. For example, affordable housing units for rent in High Bridge, a neighborhood in the Southwest Bronx, run approximately $1300 a month and are available to people who make between $43,680 to $69,050 a month. The median income for this neighborhood is between $28,000 to $32,000. On top of that all, those units are a lottery system. So anyone who applies could get these units. This is just one example of how the units being created are not based upon the incomes of the people who live there. In reality De Blasio’s plan is bringing luxury high-rise apartments to working class neighborhoods by rezoning and effectively changing the fabric of existence for people who live there.

KB: How do developers profit off of these citywide affordable housing plans?

BO: The way developers make money off of this plan is simple. They get paid by New York to make these units, which then are sold at ‘affordable’ prices. Ron Moelis, a housing developer, makes even more money by using non-union labor, which is not regulated. So he gets away with paying his construction workers less than traditional union laborers.

KB: As more students move into gentrifying areas during their time at NYU, what advice can you give to students navigating these areas? How can NYU students get involved and stand in solidarity with these low-income communities?

BO: Honestly we, as students, have to recognize that we will be gentrifying areas. There is no way to get around it. Most of us will not be able to afford living in Manhattan and will be forced into lower-income neighborhoods. I think becoming better citizens indicates how we interact with the communities that we live. Instead of seeing our apartments as where we sleep at night, we have to become invested in our communities. We need to put our money into local businesses to help prevent further development. When we support the local economy, we can help businesses that have been in neighborhoods for years to stay there. In this way we prevent unnecessary development. It is also important to be aware of the history of the neighborhood you live in — to interact with the people and to give something to your community. Get involved with nonprofits in your neighborhood that are combatting the effects of gentrification and community development by greedy real estate developers. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from the people who know their communities best. That is why it is so important to stay actively engaged in your communities. Also know if you are taking a space that would no longer be rent stabilized if you moved into it… DON’T DO THAT! This is one of the few ways that affordable housing still exists.

KB: Thank you so much Brennan!

We reached out to the Moelis Center to get a response to SLAM’s protest and received the following statement from a spokesperson at NYU School of Law: “While we respect the right of the students to express their views, Mr. Moelis is a generous and respected benefactor who supports an institute that does research on affordable housing policy, an issue that is of pressing importance to New York City.”

To learn more about SLAM and how to get involved, visit their website at

In addition to affordable housing, students are also organizing around the issue of the university’s endowment. Davis Saltonstall is a student at NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences and is involved in creating the Alternative Endowments Coalition, which aims to envision a new radical future for NYU funds. Kai spoke with Davis to learn more about this project:

KB: What is the Alternative Endowments Coalition?

DS: Primarily the effort of several student-led campaigns, the Alternative Endowment Coalition is organized around the belief that members of the NYU community should have agency over the administrative decisions that affect their experience at the school. It promises to foster change through the creation of an alternative donation pool for students, faculty, and alumni who share their similarly dissatisfied view of university governance and decision-making.

KB: How will the Alternative Endowments Coalition function?

DS: Instead of giving to the University, we suggest that potential donors dissatisfied with the public performance of NYU give to our new body– a coalition of active students driven by a commitment to social and environmental justice rather than continued expansion. This coalition will then responsibly invest the funds in companies that have positive impacts on society and generate competitive returns. Then, when NYU meets the demands of this socially-minded body of students, the funds will be transferred to the school. But only then. Until NYU adopts sound social and environmental governance practices, it will suffer the losses associated with a growing “alternative endowment.”

KB: What does the immediate future look like for this group?

DS: The Alternative Endowment Coalition is currently is in the process of development. The “new body” has yet to take an official form, the investment strategy is still up for debate, and a number of the larger decisions have still yet to be made. Since the coalition itself is essentially an additional form of student representation at NYU, an effort is being made to keep these ongoing conversations as transparent as humanly possible.

KB: Thank you, Davis!

The Alternative Endowment Coalition holds meetings on Mondays from 7-8:30pm at the University Hall Basement on 110 East 14th Street and students can apply online for their student board and fund organizer positions. To learn more about this group, visit