East Harlem Residents, Housing Advocates Rally Outside Vacant Building

 PHOTO:  Joel Cook
More than one hundred people rallied outside a vacant building owned by New York City in East Harlem this afternoon, demanding affordable housing and sensible homeless policies from the City Council and the mayor.  The protest and occupation were organized by Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization run by homeless and formerly homeless people.

In a move inspired by the Miami-based Take Back the Land group, which moves homeless people into foreclosed residences, members of Picture the Homeless helped a small group of people take over a part of a vacant building, one of the hundreds of vacant buildings found around the city.  But the building, located on 116th Street and Madison Avenue, had a large hole in the ceiling, so the building was deemed unsafe and nobody could stay inside.

The action was taken to expose the fact that 24,000 potential apartments exist in vacant buildings, enough to house every homeless family in the city, and to push the City Council to adopt legislation put forth by Tony Avella, a Queens Democrat running for mayor, which would end the practice of warehousing apartment buildings.

“Today’s action is an exciting development and should send a message that the situation has grown too serious to ignore: that low-income New Yorkers are becoming more frustrated as they wait for the city to solve the housing crisis and that we must not hesitate in our search for creative solutions to our most pressing housing challenges,” said Melissa Mark Viverito, a City Council member that represents East Harlem, in a press release.  Viverito supports legislation that would ban the practice of warehousing buildings.

As the rally got underway outside the vacant building, over a dozen police officers arrived on the scene.  No arrests were made.

Protesters brought many signs and posters, including a sign tacked onto the entrance of the building with the words “Housing For All,” and one poster with an image of a jazz band and the words “Yes We Can… Make A Better Tomorrow For Everybody.”

The crowd chanted, “They say gentrify, we say occupy!” and “Money for housing, not the war. House the homeless and the poor!”

Deborah Dickerson, a homeless woman who helped organize the action, said, “we’re not going to stop until all of those buildings have people in them.  Let these buildings go!”

Rally participants made clear connections between the sixth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War and the economic crisis that is hitting low-income and homeless New Yorkers hard.  “It’s disgraceful.  Here we are bombing the homes of the people in Iraq, messing it up for people in Afghanistan, throwing away our money killing and destroying homes…We need that money [going to the wars] here, to build our housing.  It’s just so wasteful.  The war is wasteful, wrong, and immoral,” said longtime El Barrio resident and community activist Gloria Quinones, as she was holding up two Puerto Rican flags.

“We have folks sleeping on the street, [and] we figure we have to get a little creative,” said Rob Robinson, a Housing Campaign organizer with Picture the Homeless, at a recent planning meeting for the action.  “It’s going to send a message to the city…this little arrogant man is going to have to sit with us,” he said, in reference to billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The day started with people gathering at East 116th St. and Lexington Ave. in Manhattan at 12 Noon.  A march was led by Picture the Homeless organizers to the site of the warehoused building on 116 Street and Madison Ave.

Damiyr Davis, a 16-year-old student in the city, said he wanted the protest to wake people up to the housing crisis around them.  “I hope people start to see the homeless problem.  Homelessness isn’t because you’re a drug addict.  We need to solve the problem,” not exacerbate it with wrongheaded policies, he said.

The city needs to repair this building, fund affordable housing, and use vacant buildings to house the homeless, says Picture the Homeless.

“We’re talking about apartments where the landlord is keeping it vacant because they want to demolish the building … or they’re trying to get out of rent stabilization laws. … There are a number of reasons why landlords would [warehouse buildings], but its all based on greed,” Avella told the Indypendent in an interview last April.

To read more of the Indypendent's coverage of Picture the Homeless, see:

Vacancy Reversal:  Legislation Seeks to Ban Warehousing

Homeless Face a Cold Fight