You’d have to be living under a rock to be surprised to hear Bushwick is undergoing some explosive changes. It feels like streetscapes here are transforming faster than anywhere else in the city and many longtime residents feel they’re losing grip on their neighborhood. But Bushwick is in a strange limbo right now. While the northeast corner is bubbling over with ritzy new restaurants, bars, clothing stores, and art galleries, all increasingly patronized by German tourists and chiseled young bro dudes with man buns, for now at least the southern section closer to the graveyard has resisted these striking demographic shifts and skyrocketing rents. “We need to make moves now,” explained Drew Vanderburg, a resident of Bushwick and a graduate student at Parsons in the Design and Urban Ecologies program.
Come late summer, the New York State Senate will make several important decisions that could either exacerbate or address the city’s affordable housing crisis (e.g. renewing or retiring the 421a tax credit that some say allows wealthy developers to reap huge benefits from building negligible numbers of affordable housing units). This sense of urgency about the need to strengthen a loosely organized housing movement before these policy decisions are made has propelled Vanderburg and his peers at Parsons to compile a comprehensive guide to housing justice in Bushwick.
“It’s an educational resource,” he explained. “And it’s for anyone who is interested in housing justice.”
Under the leadership of their professor, Gabriela Perez Rendon, the group has nearly completed the bilingual gazette, ¡Derecho A La Vivienda!. All that’s left is to raise the funds necessary to print copies for distribution. Their big fundraising event, a “party for housing justice” happens tomorrow at Babycastles. “It’ll be a way for people to blow off some steam about housing,” Vanderburg said. “Organizing for housing justice is not really a party, it’s serious work and it’s hard work– but fun and partying are a great way to build coalitions and organize.”
The publication, which will be given out free of charge, is sort of a jumping off point for activism. “It’s a tool to demand affordable housing,” Vanderburg explained.
Any movement that seeks to address the housing crisis needs all the help it can get– the problem is a massive and multi-faceted monster. Just a short list of some of the issues we spoke about during the interview includes foreign ownership (as in pieds a terre), tax breaks for wealthy developers, skyrocketing rents, an overall housing shortage, crumbling public housing infrastructure, the loss of rent-regulated and rent-controlled apartments, displacement, homelessness, the lingering effects of the 2008 mortgage crisis, rapid urbanization that outpaces housing construction, and of course racially divided neighborhoods.
“We can never be too vocal about the ways racism in this country has shaped our cities,” he said. “But the housing crisis really effects everyone, it’s the same land repossession that’s happening around the world and I would compare Bushwick to any other marginalized community outside of an urban center in a different country.”
Though Bushwick is certainly experiencing some of the above problems more dramatically than any neighborhood in Brooklyn, Vanderburg says the community hasn’t sat by quietly: “Bushwick is doing a lot to foster connectivity and there’s a groundswell of activism.”
Though gentrification is the enormous elephant in the room, that’s not the only facet of the housing crisis. As such, ¡Derecho A La Vivienda! isn’t about pitting the existing community against “gentrifiers.” The semantic problem with the word “gentrification” is evidence of the problems it creates. While “gentry” implies that land-owning people are involved, the vast majority of people moving into rapidly changing sections of Bushwick are renters just like members of the existing community (the exception is southeastern Bushwick, where more of the majority black population are homeowners).
“We’re all in this together,” Vanderburg said. “Everyone is just trying to afford to live. If you’re renting an apartment and you live on the fringes of the city, join together with everyone else who lives there because we have a much bigger enemy to fight– which is Wall Street, and Washington and the global systems that are causing all this crap.”
With this in mind, ¡Derecho A La Vivienda! is aiming to appeal to a diverse audience.“We tried to make it personable and visually exciting because we know sometimes academic writing can be pretty heady,” Vanderburg explained. “The gazette includes historical accounts of the neighborhood, interviews with community members, government people, artists, students– so it’s reaching out to a broad group of people and will hopefully be a tool for the housing justice movement.”
While the gazettes breaks down complicated things like the bureaucratic hierarchy of housing agencies (federal, state, and city) and explains what each one actually does, it’s also includes interviews, maps, and original research findings. “In Design and Urban Ecologies, we look at the whole system,” Vanderburg said. The gazette considers all the moving parts including the government, historical circumstances, demographics, buildings, infrastructure, community members, the developers, and social movements.
The information inside should be relevant to every New Yorker who doesn’t want to see their city become a pleasure dome for the wealthy. “If you have a crap-load of money and you’re OK with people getting evicted from their homes so that you can have more money, I have a problem with that,” Vanderburg argued. “And those are the people who are in power, in the United States at least, so I have a problem with that.”
The central concern of the gazette is to get people to act in the interest of their neighbors. Vanderburg also said that the publication is, at least in part, a reaction to the de Blasio administration’s affordable housing plan.
“His housing plan will create a small amount of affordable housing but it’s also going to create an exponentially large amount of luxury housing,” Vanderburg argued. “So the divide between rich and poor is actually not addressed. The plan doesn’t go nearly far enough.”
He added: “I wanna believe the actual mayor is a good dude doing good stuff,” he said. “But there’s always going to be greed in the system– the banks, the developers– that’s going to mess it up.”
If this all sounds a little Occupy, well it is– sort of. But ¡Derecho A La Vivienda! doesn’t just point out the problems, it also offers solutions. The publication highlights three conceptual proposals for alternative housing models that could work in Bushwick. “They are pretty much theoretical,” Vanderburg admits. But that doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t feasible.
Vanderburg created one of these three models– the Sweat Equity Land Trust. It’s a way to involve the homeless population in renovation of vacant property. “There are about 60,000 homeless families in New York City– that’s a lot of homeless people, but there are also a lot of vacant buildings,” he explained. “We would get volunteers and artists together to renovate these buildings, and sweat equity– which is a concept that’s been around for a long time– allows people to contribute labor instead of paying rent.”
The buildings would be in the hands of a community land trust before becoming co-operatively owned by anyone who worked on restoring them. Something like this could actually work on a small scale. Firstly, the vacant buildings are there. The students found 250 of them, in fact. And the budget is also there, in theory. “The Department of Homeless Services, they have a billion dollar budget and all they do is create really ineffective homeless shelters,” Vanderburg pointed out.
But without the actual resources or power to enact such programs, the students are making their proposals public in the gazette. And information about the vacant buildings is also part of the pamphlet. “We hope the map will serve the community to engage those spaces and regain them before developers can do it,” Vanderburg explained.
And that’s basically what ¡Derecho A La Vivienda! aims to do– to empower a community through education.
But I wondered what needed to change to get people to rally around the issue of housing.
“It’s basically that private property rights are more important in the cultural zeitgeist than human rights and the need for a stable home,” Vanderburg explained. “As a civilization we need to rethink our system, but I really think the majority of people really do care about their neighbor. Since we can’t change the economic system, the most you can hope for is to shine a light on the issue. Even if protesting isn’t your thing and finance and politics aren’t your thing, you just have to be a good person to your neighbors.”
Learn more about “¡Derecho A La Vivienda!” at the Party for Housing Justice, Saturday April 11, 7 pm at Babycastles, 137 West 14th Street, $7 donation “but nobody will be denied admission for lack of funds.”