Last week, dozens of East Harlem tenants and residents and shareholders gathered at Taino Towers to figure out how they were going to save their homes – and their community.
They came together to see if community land trusts might be the solution.
“I want to be here on behalf of my father,” said Floyd Sanchez, himself a resident of a TIL building with a 70% vacancy rate – except the city won’t let them rent out any of the vacant apartments! “If we can really help out buildings like mine and my father’s, then I want to be involved.”
It’s no secret that East Harlem is under attack. Like communities of color all over New York City, the housing landscape is bleak. Rents are some of the highest in the world, and the “affordable” housing that is being built is not accessible to the neighborhood’s poorest residents. Vacant buildings are being turned into luxury condos that often remain empty. Many of the subsidies that allow residents of East Harlem to stay in their communities are set to run out soon, as well.
That’s why, as part of the New York City Community Land Initiative’s East Harlem Pilot Project, we’ve spent months talking to residents and learning about the challenges they face – how TIL buildings are struggling, how city programs sometimes seem designed to fail, how HDFCs have a hard time making repairs, and how this could eventually lead to buildings falling back into the private market, where tenants could see their rents drastically rise!
With simultaneous English-Spanish translation from the fabulous Caracol Collective, and a delicious meal from local favorite restaurant Sabor Borinqueño, the forum was an exciting opportunity to bring together powerful people who are ready to fight for their homes. Monica Garcia from the New Economy Project and our allies in the Public Education and Outreach workgroup created some terrific infographics and other materials, and helped shape the agenda of the event. Filmmaker Dave Powell shared a clip from his excellent film about organizing a community land trust on the Lower East Side, It Took Fifty Years. Valerio Orselli and Jasmine Garcia talked about the achievements of the Cooper Square Community Land Trust.
“The Lower East Side faced a lot of the problems East Harlem is facing now,” Valerio said. “We’re like you, except twenty years ahead. And I can tell you that our community land trust saved hundreds of homes.”
“I think this is good,” said one tenant named Rosa, who we first met back in November. “I have always been the fighter in my building. Now that I know we have support, we can whip the other tenants into shape.”
Our aim is to organize for and support the creation of an East Harlem Community Land Trust (CLT) – and, eventually, a citywide CLT. Community Land Trusts are a non-profit, democratic, community-based organization that acquire and manage land according to the community’s needs and desires. CLTs are an alternative form of land ownership that put people before profit. By owning the land, the CLT takes that land out of the speculative private market and gets to decide what to do with it. This allows the community to develop truly affordable housing that serves the needs of the lowest income New Yorkers, as well as preserve green space in the community. In cities across the country, CLTs have proven to be an effective tactic in preventing homeless and displacement while keeping families in their homes.
Unless East Harlem residents organize now, private developers will be able to turn more housing into inaccessible luxury apartments, pushing community members out of their neighborhoods.
“I know that saving our buildings will come with challenges,” said organizer Joel Gil, “but I genuinely believe, after watching what everyone had to say, that we can get anything done.”
Last week’s forum was just the beginning. We’re creating a Residents Planning Committee for residents, tenants, and shareholders of threatened housing to come together and save their homes, their buildings, and their neighborhood.
We believe that an East Harlem CLT will:
- Create a stable source of housing for segments of the population currently excluded from the housing market.
- Prevent displacement of residents currently at risk and thus stabilize the neighborhood.
- Provide a shared focus for organizing and a framework for collaboration at neighborhood and city levels.
- Lay the groundwork for a Citywide CLT, which could support a network of local CLTs