The Right to the City

The luxury condo boom is over! Over 4,000 of these condos sit vacant in 9 predominantly low-income NYC communities. Meanwhile, average families in these communities are struggling to hold on to their homes. And homelessness is skyrocketing.

Housing is a human right. At least it used to be, back when NYC was a bastion of social democracy. Today, luxury condo apartments sit vacant while people get turfed out onto the street by unscrupulous investment bankers and other gentrifiers who destroy poor neighborhoods. From 2002 to 2005, NYC lost more than 205,000 units affordable to the typical household. Now, the city is filled with vacant luxury condos that are not available or affordable to those most in need of housing. We need the city to repossess these condos and make them available to the people who need them most – the people who have lived in these neighborhoods for generations!

Today I attended a “Harlem-El Barrio Condo Tour” organized by the Right to the City coalition. The idea of a right to the city comes from the great radical urbanist Henri Lefebvre. In works such as The Urban Revolution, Lefebvre argued that the primary locus of capital accumulation – and, consequently, of social conflict – was shifting from the industrial workplace to the urban tissue itself. Given this development, he argued that future social struggles would hinge on assertions of human rights to dwelling and a decent livelihood in urban spaces. My CUNY colleagues David Harvey, Neil Smith, Ida Susser, and Sharon Zukin (among others) have done a good deal to flesh out Lefebvre’s theoretical ideas.

I’m sure that Lefebvre would be delighted to know that his radical intellectual work is being carried forward in NYC today. But he’d be equally pleased by the work of organic intellectuals like those who led the march today. The organizations that compose the Right to the City coalition canvassed their neighborhoods to learn how many luxury condos sit vacant. They discovered that at least 138 condo buildings exist in the five boroughs. Their developers owe the city a total of $3.8 million in back taxes for unpaid property, water , and sewer taxes.

We went to see a number of these buildings during our “condo tour.” We trooped past Windows on 123, a building on West 123rd street that is currently 100% vacant according to Right to the City’s research. The average cost of an apartment in this building is $831,500. This in an area – Harlem where average income is below $30,000/year.

Here are some of the many, many empty buildings we marched past. The anger among people in the crowd as they saw these vacant buildings was palpable. I spoke with one woman who lived in a building which was demolished to make way for the tower development at the right. Aside from the obscenity of demolishing public housing in order to build unaffordable luxury condos, the marketing of such buildings is immensely offensive. The development pictured at right, for instance, advertises that part of the building will be devoted to the Museum of African Art. So, African Americans are displaced for an African Art museum that will no doubt have such steep admission fees that only visiting European tourists and Upper East-siders will be able to gain entrance.

Right to the City has just released a report that discusses this problem of empty luxury condos in far more detail than I have here. It’s also worth checking out their website for more info about the organization and its goals. Important demands they list include the following:

  • Conversion of empty luxury condos into housing for low-income tenants.
  • Affordability should be defined based on median income of census tract or zip code where the building is located
  • NYC agency or non-profit developer should manage/own the housing rather than private developers
  • There should be an oversight committee including low-income people to ensure that programs are administered fairly and transparently.

For more photos of the march (including lots of vacant buildings in Harlem & El Barrio), check out the gallery I’ve put up on my photos site. It’s very exciting that a movement grounded in such militant research techniques has developed in to oppose practices of dispossession that have dominated NYC for far too many years.

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Filed under class war, Uncategorized, urbanity

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