“Choose people and housing over crackdowns”

When I left the Bronx, just before Christmas, it was with a sense of foreboding. A magnificent grassroots movement had managed to keep the eviction wolf from the door in New York for almost two years, but the housing courts were due to re-open on 15th January. Nobody quite knew what to expect, but it now seems some of the worst fears are being realised.

Below is an article written by my friend and comrade Marika Dias and her colleague, Helen Strom, published in the New York Daily News last Thursday. Marika and Helen are housing lawyers. They spell out the looming threat now facing New York’s working class tenants, as well as the brutalisation of homeless people by the new NYC mayor, Eric Adams. There are lessons and warnings here for housing justice campaigns everywhere. One of them is that, under capitalism, “rights” mean nothing unless they can be enforced. But the article is also a reminder of how the pandemic gave a glimpse of a different approach to housing.

In 2017, organizing by NYC tenants won a groundbreaking right to counsel in eviction proceedings that has had stunning success: With tenants now entitled to representation, 84% of tenants with lawyers are able to stay in their homes. Now, in the name of returning to business as usual, this essential right is being trampled by the courts.

With courts refusing to slow court operations to a pace that allows for tenants to access right to counsel — and shifting blame to legal service providers during a historic onslaught of eviction proceedings — the result will be displacement and a
rapid growth in homelessness.

More than 200,000 pending eviction cases are being pushed forward at breakneck speed. With callous disregard for people’s homes and lives, Housing Court is clearing the “backlog” and pandering to landlords eager to evict. Right to counsel
lawyers and advocates are taking all the cases they can, but they simply cannot keep up with the volume of eviction cases moving through the courts.

The result: Tenants are missing out on legal representation, and many will be evicted. Many others will face relentless pressure from landlords to leave their homes without fully understanding their rights and being able to defend their right to stay.

Housing court is again becoming — as it was pre-pandemic and pre-right to counsel — an eviction mill.

While tenants fight to keep their homes, homeless New Yorkers have also faced an onslaught of dangerous city maneuvers returning them to high-risk congregate shelter settings and forcing them to fight just to keep their tents and meager
personal belongings amidst an aggressive escalation of sweeps in the subway, on sidewalks and in parks.

Throughout his first 100 days, at the behest of the business and real estate communities, Mayor Adams intensified the same cruel approaches used by the de Blasio administration, which conducted more than 6,000 sweeps in just one year,
in contrast to around 3,000 across the preceding five years. The mayor’s focus on the aggressive broken-windows policies of sweeps, ticketing, policing and criminalization — which overwhelmingly entangle people of color — are intended
to rein in perceived “disorder” instead of offering people the permanent housing they urgently need.

Recent reporting has highlighted thousands of unused Section 8 vouchers for the homeless, thousands of vacant supportive housing apartments designated for the homeless, thousands of vacant HPD and NYCHA apartments, and 20,000 vacant
rent-stabilized apartments that are sitting empty.

The stunning contrast between the resources available to the mayor and his chosen response was on full display on April 6 in lower Manhattan. In the face of less than a dozen homeless people, their four tents, and a few dozen supporters, the NYPD deployed dozens of cops — including officers from the notoriously heavy-handed Strategic Response Group — along with sound cannons, garbage trucks and surveillance equipment. It is likely that the response, which resulted in the arrest of six people, cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. Instead of housing the homeless, the mayor is continuing the business of criminalizing them.

Around us, tenants and homeless people are standing up to the Goliaths trying to destroy their lives, as has been on display at recent sweeps and the growth of organized eviction defense across the city.

As the bulldozers and city marshals approach, advocates, social workers and organizers are rallying resources to support them. Yet the scale of this violent shift back to business as usual means that often we are left looking on horrified: at a mayor intent on (literally) crushing the last shreds of protection our homeless neighbors have, and at a governor toasting a budget that gifts to-go-drinks and hundreds of millions to a stadium, while leaving homeless people and tenants high and dry.

During the pandemic, when the eviction mills stopped, the buses were free, and cities found they could provide single rooms to shelter the homeless, it was clear that the violence and cruelty embedded in our “business as usual” could be changed. Adams and Hochul have decided that time is over, the needs of the
business community matter above all else. While they are encountering a struggle at every turn, the painful outcomes of re-opening strategies centered on profit will have devastating repercussions for years to come.

What a tragedy it will be if all we carry with us from the last two years are cocktails to-go and virtual pilates, rather than the essential lesson of the pandemic: People always matter more than profit and housing is a matter of life and death.

Communities for Safe Apartments (CASA) protesting outside the Bronx housing court, warning of what was to come, December 16th 2021.

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