By JOSEPH VITALE
Earlier this week in Lowenstein Hall – a building which lies on land that a housing project occupied until Robert Moses’ renewal effort in the 1950s – the Urban Studies Department hosted a discussion on New York City housing, discrimination in the city’s buyer’s market and ways to move forward in combatting the city-wide injustice.
Notable panelists included Roberta Gold, a visiting assistant professor of history at Fordham, Rosanne Haggerty, a housing advocate and president of Community Solutions Fred Freiberg, executive director of Fair Housing Justice Center, Inc. and Joe Muriana, Fordham’s associate vice-president for Government Relations & Urban Affairs.
Both undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of departments and schools within the university attended, as well as others associated with New York City housing policy-making and community organizing.
A number of groups, including the Urban Studies Department, which sponsored and coordinated the event, tweeted with the hastag #NYCHousing, which was introduced at the beginning of the event.
Gold discussed her latest book, When Tenants Claimed the City: The Struggle for Citizenship in New York City Housing, and focused on the rise of tenement organization in New York City.
“People moved to action,” Gold said in regards to grassroots organizations in the Lower East Side responding to increasingly poor conditions in city slums and projects. She continued, “Liberal members went on the opposition with direct action and deliberate violations of landlord rules.”
She mentioned tactics such as squatting and move-ins where tenants of white-only apartments would invite African-American families to move into their apartments in protest of segregation practices. Gold emphasized the rise of female community organizers, among them Francis Golden, Jane Benedict and Jane Wood. Many of these organizers, she noted, came from “forward-thinking families who encouraged them to be autonomous and not shy away from a man.” It was just the beginning of a city-wide movement still in progress today.
Haggerty moved the discussion to the movement’s contemporary plight. She, having implemented various successful and innovative homelessness solutions, discussed an increasing need for transitional and other housing options in the city.
There is a necessity for “inexpensive places to live while people transition through life,” Haggerty said. “Many of these basic housing forms have been eliminated. Urban renewal left a path of devastation that left, most catastrophically, low-income renters without a place to go.”
Haggerty also touched on the idea that “well-intentioned people” destroy substandard housing but fail to build affordable housing in a misguided attempt to improve the modern city.
The result of this is increased gentrification which continues to drive working class families out of the city’s center.
“This is really going to be the next fight,” Haggerty added. “Not just how we preserve public housing, but how we will improve it.”
Muriana spoke about his time as an undergraduate at Rose Hill and his formative days as a Bronx community organizer.
Referencing a time when landowners would burn abandoned buildings in order to collect insurance money—known as owner-organized arson—Muriana recalled seeing the burning buildings in the South Bronx from the view of his residence hall window.
“You could see the smoke rise as the sun set,” he said. “The flames would be going up all night.”
As an activist in the Bronx community since the 1970s, he cautioned about future development and the necessity of strong community organization directed by assertive leaders.
“An important thing is to develop leadership: They can’t do it unless they develop competencies to make progress,” Muriana said.
The students present were asked to reflect on the community’s awareness of Fordham’s role in the city’s history, as well as its continuing role in the surrounding community’s development.
“Because Fordham did benefit from urban renewal, it almost charges us as members with the responsibility to be aware and to perhaps ask questions about remedies of housing inequalities,” said Nicholas Haggerty, FCRH ’16.
The final speaker, Freiberg, discussed the city’s failure to enforce many of its policies and his organization’s tactics to combat such illegal practices.
Freiberg noted the recurring metaphor of a “slam-door” policy against African-American buyers, but said it was largely outdated. Today, many minority ethnic groups are victims of a “revolving door” approach.
“People are politely escorted out in a way that is so subtle and stealthy that people don’t even know,” he said.
One of the methods Fair Housing Justice Center uses to find such law-breaking landlords is sending in testers, which are “potent tools.” The organization hires actors posed as potential buyers, helps organizations, such as Freiberg’s, document discrimination and pursue lawsuits.
While the city’s long-standing history of discrimination piqued the curiosities of many students present, some were just as interested in discussing solutions to the city’s most unending issues.
“There is an uprising due to increased housing needs and innovation of housing activism,” said Caitlin Waickman, an Urban Studies graduate student. “And people are paying attention.”
Joseph Vitale is Managing Editor at The Fordham Ram. You can follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/_joevitale.