Homelessness, Community Land Trusts, and the Future of NYC Neighborhoods: A Conversation with Sam Miller
Picture the Homeless was founded in 1999 against the backdrop of Giuliani-era policing practices that were seen by many as repressing the civil rights of poor people. Mainstream media headlines at the time included “Get Those Violent Crazies Off Our Streets,” A New York Post article reflecting the sentiments of New Yorkers who had been fed the idea that “homelessness” was synonymous with mental illness and substance abuse.
The organization’s founding members were living in a shelter and saw how these issues were intrinsically tied: bad government policies and false media stereotypes had obscured the real issues that cause people to lose their homes. The group’s founding principle is that in order to end homelessness, people who are homeless must become an organized, effective voice for systemic change. The mission is to not simply change policies and laws, but to ultimately transform the way we picture the homeless.
Recently, Kevin Ryan (KR), Program Director at New York Foundation, sat down with Sam Miller (SM), Policy and Communications Coordinator at Picture the Homeless, to discuss Sam’s nine years with the organization and their work with the NYC Community Land Initiative.
KR: How did you initially get involved with Picture the Homeless?
SM: As I was working as a community organizer with another organization, I took a class in community organizing with the New York City Organizing Support Center in 2003, a wonderful institution that no longer exists, and there were several members and staff from Picture the Homeless that were in that class from whom I learned a lot on my cigarette breaks. When Picture the Homeless was hiring, I applied for the job and got it.
KR: Picture the Homeless has been around for 15 years. Talk about one of your organization’s early accomplishments.
SM: When one of our co-founders passed away in 2004 and was buried in Potters Field in an unmarked grave, our members were angry about it and looked into ways the city deals with the indigent when they pass away. It was really a successful alliance with faith leaders and uncovered the egregious injustice of the way the Department of Corrections deals with folks when they pass away.
Homeless people are still being buried in mass graves, which the city refers to as “common plots” because mass graves has a negative connotation. Homeless people do not have the opportunity to mourn and celebrate their loved ones as you could only visit with approval from the Department of Corrections and by proving your blood or marriage relation to someone who was buried there. We took the NYPD to court in 2003 and 2004 and we won and got the implementation of the first ever non-selective enforcement protocol for interacting with homeless folks.
KR: Tell us about a recent victory.
Our work culminated in 2013 with the passage of the Community Safety Act which a ton of organizations were really active in. It was an inspiring and transformative experience in coalition work with different directly impacted communities like homeless folks, LGBT folks, Muslim Americans, youth of color, and many more folks. A lot of organizing groups that had been working for change during the Bloomberg administration have not seen a lot of victories, so the Community Safety Act campaign showed how far we have come. Not only as Picture the Homeless, not only as individual organizations, but the social justice movement as a whole.
KR: I want to talk a little bit more about one of your newest projects, in terms of coalition building, around community land trusts. First let’s define the term: what is a community land trust?
SM: A community land trust is an innovative model for housing development that allows housing to be created that is permanently affordable for folks at a lot of different income levels.
KR: How does it work?
SM: The land trust works by separating out the ownership of the land from the ownership and management of the property itself. The community land trust owns the land on which the buildings are developed and is administered by a tri-part board which is made up of residents and stakeholders from a number of different backgrounds: faith leaders in some cases and some cities, elected officials in some cases, and other stakeholders can potentially be involved. What that means is, because the community land trust is administered by a diverse group and the land trust sets restrictions in the ground lease, the landlords or developers who build on land trust properties are prevented from speculating and developing housing that is unaffordable. For example, the problem that a lot of low-income buildings and low-income cooperatives face in NYC is that, being low-income, residents are vulnerable to speculation. So, a landlord or developer will offer them what seems like a ton of money to sell their apartment or their share in the coop, but before you know it, that building has been bought by a developer who is going to tear it down or renovate it to make much more expensive housing. The mechanisms inherent in separating land from building and creating a tripartite system of governance can help maintain permanent affordability. It is often used as a solution to displacement and gentrification.
KR: The community land trust model has been a strategy that Picture the Homeless has discussed for a number of years—when you discover this model?
SM: Picture the Homeless members have been looking at community land trust as a potential model since 2003 or 2004. We didn’t believe that you could only create housing for homeless people with government subsidies. We looked at different models from around the country, we were in touch with a lot of folks from different coalitions, alliances, and housing advocacy organizations, looking at best practices. Community land trusts and mutual housing associations emerged as something that, both in NYC and around the globe, have been used to create housing that is permanently affordable to homeless folks.
KR: What was the impetus to move this forward now? What changed?
SM: In the past couple of years, we recognized that a lot of folks were talking about the community land trust model. Picture the Homeless was partnering with a professor from City College of New York to co-teach a class on housing and land use focusing on community land trusts. We also conducted a national survey of community land trusts that provide housing to homeless folks to look at the ways they paid for housing developments. At the same time, Columbia University was doing a community land trust studio project and folks from the New Economy Project were looking into community land trust. So it seemed like this crazy, bizarre thing that we had been talking about that made people’s eyes glaze over was starting to pop-up more and more in conversation.
KR: The coalition that you’ve built – how many groups are involved? What is the structure of it?
SM: The New York City Community Land Initiative. It’s a fascinating alliance. We have dozens of organizations as well as individuals, bringing together low-income East Harlem tenants, homeless folks, the staff from elected officials, and folks from well-established housing organizations like the Urban Housing Assistance Board.
We have four different workgroups that allow people to plug in wherever they are able: first, we have a pilot project in East Harlem where neighborhood folks can come together and develop a concrete plan for developing an actual land trust, looking at specific property, looking at ways that vacant property can be developed or ways that tenants living in distressed housing can work together and share costs and use things like commercial rent to subsidize low-income housing development. Second, there is an education and outreach workgroup where we’re working with graphic designers and art students to create accessible, pleasing-to-look-at popular education materials. Third, there is a policy and legislative workgroup that looks at how we can facilitate the expansion of this model in NYC. And finally, a governance workgroup that looks at governance of the alliance and community land trusts at large.
KR: How can community land trusts have a significant impact on the lives of New Yorkers – particularly low-income New Yorkers, homeless New Yorkers, and New Yorkers of Color?
SM: We see the community land trust as a piece of the puzzle. The community land trust model is complex, as it requires community organizing and a really active degree of engagement with different stakeholders in a community. It’s not the same thing as Section 8 where there is money and people can apply for vouchers and hopefully find an apartment. Land trusts use economies of scale, and because it supports a mix of income levels and you can have market-rate housing help subsidize low-income housing, we see this as an important strategy that can bring communities together to work collectively to address a number of community issues including affordable housing.
Housing issues don’t occur in a vacuum. It has to do with unemployment and the difficulty that small businesses have in many communities. The Cooper Square Community Land Trust on the lower east side, who we’re working closely with, they operate a number of buildings that have storefronts that they make available to community owned businesses so that they can rent them at a lower rate than they would have to pay on the open market so that is a way to keep small businesses and community owned businesses alive, afloat, and paying a descent wage to their workers.
KR: Can you envision, in the long term, development of the community land trust and some of the other affordable housing strategies that Picture the Homeless and other groups work on? I equate the community land trust model with the cooperative business development strategy. If you develop a significant number of cooperatively owned businesses in a neighborhood, now you’ve created a new community-based economy. Do you see community land trusts as a way to restructure the way we look at housing in New York City?
SM: I think so. I think it has the power to do that and connect housing to other community issues that we have discussed. So often housing ends up being a separate fight. It’s the nature of organizing that different organizations are working on different things and sometimes find it difficult to collaborate or to see where the common cause is. We do see it has something that has the potential to bring issues and organizations together. We see in New York City that community land trusts, if nothing else, are a great tool for community organizing and engagement and we need more of that and the difference between communities that are organized and where there is a robust diversity of groups working together on a variety of community concerns are communities that can effectively deal with change. We don’t want gentrification and displacement to destroy this city. We want communities to be strong enough through organizing to preserve the aspects that make them wonderful places and to remain the home to all the folks who have lived in communities for generations.