Another was the Big Mac Bonds. Unless our civil service unions led by Victor Gottbaum risked taking pension funds from their current investments and buying up a lion’s share of these questionable securities, more city services would have been severely skeletonized rendering the city more vulnerable to decline and devastation.
While the city’s population plummeted from 7.3 million by 1977 from over 8 million, new innovative responses came from our neighborhoods. Many of us poor, working-class, middle-class and upper-classes never lost faith in our city.
We saw the vitality of our young and poor compensate for their struggles with breakdancing, graffiti tagging, hip-hop, disco, and R&B. Today we have performers from that era and artists who brought enjoyment, pleasure and works of art to life in the midst of anger, fear, and anxiety.
Others, like Father John Powis in Brownsville with the East Brooklyn Congregations, introduced the Nehemiah Program and started building homes for over 5,000 in East New York, Brownsville and Bushwick.
In East Harlem, the Youth Action Program, initiated with local residents under the leadership of Dorothy Stoneman, brought about the homesteading of abandoned buildings. Both programs blossomed and spread to the Bronx.
Along Southern Boulevard grew the Banana Kelly Program that held fast to the buildings yet not abandoned. But unscrupulous landlords and management companies at the same time employed drug addicts to torch buildings for insurance purposes. It was the arson-for-profit game. The Bronx was truly burning.
This came in the wake of globalization, which earlier tore away at union factory labor for points south and east. WTO and eventually NAFTA crippled the future of many minorities seeking employment as generations of immigrants before them found these jobs as a critical rung toward the ladder of the American Dream.
The city, faced with a declining tax base and growing populations dependent on public funds, made it look hopeless. With grit, hope, prayer, faith and new immigrants the city stayed alive.
Today the city is prosperous. We have towers going up overshadowing Central Park with condos demanding $100,000,000 with maintenance fees set at $250,000 a year. This is the latest in massive gentrification that has pushed those of us who stayed, who fought crime, drug onslaughts, and declining sustainable jobs and saw rents skyrocket resulting in a growing homeless population.
During the Koch administration, there were over 3,470 homeless families in the leanest of times. Today, in this age of affluence, we have over 15,000 families and 25,000 children without a home. This is the population using our shelters.
Meanwhile we have families doubling up and even tripling up so they can maintain some sense of stability. How can this city, the richest in the world, reverse this growing, gnawing crisis that in effect condemns many in the next generation to a life of underachievement, poverty and destitution of mind and body?
The answer is all too simple. Do away with corporate welfare that allows developers for eight to ten years to doff their caps to affordable housing that is unaffordable to those most in need, while they garner greater and greater profits and receive $1.2 billion per year in tax breaks.
Currently, this could go on for up to ten years depending on their promises of ”affordable” housing, but under the mayor’s plan it will be extended to 25 to 30 years if developers promise 50 percent of apartments are set aside for “affordables” inside publicly owned properties of NYCHA.
The 421A program met its goal – it helped save the city. Instead of extending it, it is time for it to end. The monies spent now on shelters, along with $1.2 billion per year for another five years, can build 24,000 housing units on unused public lands such as Sunnyside Yards and huge acreage around abandoned state psychiatric centers in the five boroughs.
We can build new housing and still retain NYCHA, meet its debt obligations and rehab its buildings and not give these public lands to the hungry and greedy developers who see this space as theirs and not the public’s.
Let’s get back to the spirit of Fiorello LaGuardia, a true progressive, not a galvanized mouthpiece of liberalism. Let’s find the genius of a new Robert Moses –one as efficient but a more sensitive public servant. Let’s end homelessness now and provide for the future.
With more sensible and well-planned public housing, this city can force the price of all housing to go down to manageable levels based on construction value with a margin of profit of 15 to 20 percent, not the exploitive chimeras of
market value created by selfish developers, real estate and banking interests.
Gerard Frohnhoefer is an adjunct professor of urban sociology at LaGuardia and Queensborough community colleges and acting chair of Fiorello Homes for the Homeless Campaign Association.