Barbara Spiegal: I'll tell you where it did change, when 2 and 4 River Road. Oh my God. There was a big hoopla about, Oh my God.
Jameela Hammond: That’s Barbara Spiegel. She’s a longtime resident of Roosevelt Island, the two mile long island situated in New York City’s East River. Right between Manhattan and Queens. And here, Barbara’s talking about 2 and 4 River Road. These are the first two buildings you see when you get off the Roosevelt Island Bridge coming from Queens. They’re 18 floors tall, and together have about 250 homes in them.
One of the buildings is mostly for elderly, mostly single people. And the other is mostly for families. They were built at a time when Roosevelt Island had become known for doing something that had never been done before. Thousands of high quality homes had been built there with true equity at their core—made available for all economic backgrounds, all household types, and all races. And all with the support of local, state, and federal governments. But this perfect version of what life on Roosevelt Island was…well, it was complicated by these two buildings, 2 and 4 River Road. Here’s Barbara Spiegel again.
Barbara: Oh my God, that people are moving in there. You know, all on welfare, all this, all that. And they were making such a big fuss. And I don't think the community broke through ever.
[Plot of Land theme music]
Jameela: Over the course of ten episodes, I’m joining our team of five reporters throughout the U.S. as we pull back the curtain to look at how our history with land has shaped every aspect of our lives. How exactly did we get to this moment in time? In Plot of Land we’ll break down how race, class, and power have been used to build and maintain unfair systems that determine how land is used. These systems harm nearly everyone, and create so many inequities that they might seem normal, unavoidable, or even natural. But these are the products of deliberate choices made by real people. It's time to reckon with these decisions. It’s time to understand this history so we can help build a just future for everybody. This is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music by Blue Dot Sessions.
[theme music fades out]
Jameela: In this episode we’re joining Plot of Land reporter Melissa Fundira again on Roosevelt Island, where she grew up. As she reported in our last episode, the same powers that made the magic of Roosevelt Island come to life, were the ones to snuff it out. After eight years the government stripped the Urban Development Corporation of funding, rolled back its powers, and made the Roosevelt Island experiment a shell of what it was, fracturing the community in the process.
And then, a little more than a decade later, the island experienced another seismic event. Here’s Melissa.
Melissa Fundira: That community that Barbara Spiegel was talking about earlier, the one she felt never really broke through into being accepted on Roosevelt Island? Eneaqua Lewis is part of that community. She moved to 2-4 River River Road with her mother and three siblings the year Manhattan Park opened – 1989. They were some of the very first tenants. At first, she said, it seemed like a beautiful place. But she was just a kid, she didn’t understand older people’s prejudices.
Eneaqua Lewis: They started calling us the welfare kids. They started, you know, saying the welfare building, food stamp building. And we were just like, what the heck is going on?
Melissa: After the Urban Development Corporation went belly up in 1975, a large piece of land across from the Roosevelt Island Bridge that was meant to be subsidized housing became market rate housing instead. Housing where some of New York City’s higher income earners wanted to live. And the area became known as Manhattan Park. But here’s the thing, 2-4 River Road is actually part of Manhattan Park. But with 2-4 River Road, unlike all of the other, wealthier, Manhattan Park buildings, the whole entire building holds a Section 8 voucher.
Eneaqua Lewis: For some reason, this is the only building on Roosevelt Island that is totally Section 8. The only building.
Melissa: The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher is a rental assistance program for very low-income, elderly, or disabled tenants. It works like this… If a tenant qualifies for a voucher and they can find a landlord willing to receive it, their local housing authority pays a certain percentage of their rent directly to a private landlord, and the tenant pays the difference. Usually about 30 to 40% of their income. This model was developed by President Richard Nixon’s administration. Here’s Rosemary Ndubuizu, a professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University.
Rosemary Ndubuizu: Nixon says, look, public housing, the idea of public housing is no longer politically viable. And he felt it was important for the federal government to pivot away. So his administration is actually the first administration that helped to start redirecting funds more to the private construction and maintenance of rent assisted housing.
Melissa: According to Professor Ndubuizu, Nixon justifies this in two ways. One, despite the fact that it’s the federal government’s own doing, he says the cost of maintaining public housing is too high. And in part that’s because corners were cut in its initial construction.
Ndubuizu: The federal government, because of its ambivalence to actually housing poor people, which we must be frank about, Congress and different presidents were okay with cutting corners in terms of capital investments in the construction of public housing. So then that meant that by the 1970s, a lot of these public housings that were developed actually needed a huge amount of capital infusion for maintenance and upgrades.
Melissa: And the second reason Nixon gives.
Ndubuizu: Public housing is now becoming the primary home for Black elderly, single Black mothers, large Black families is becoming shelter, a form of shelter in public discourse and political discourse that’s overwhelmingly overdetermined by blackness…but in the eyes of the Nixon administration, because it was so saturated with blackness, and the wages of the public housing population continued to decline, it became politically unviable….and so ultimately, in 1974, he finally gets with Congress. He gets a law passed that actually dramatically expands investment in the private construction, in maintenance, rent-assisted housing, and that's called Section 8.
Melissa: And 15 years later, when Eneaqua Lewis and her family move into an entire building that’s designated as Section 8, the voucher program has a deep stigma attached to it.
Lewis: Look at Roosevelt Island; it's beautiful. It seemed like a beautiful place. And so we moved here. And I think it was like a real culture shock to some of us, because when we got here, that's when we realized that we were poor[laughs] I mean before that, you’re young, you don’t really know your social status but when we got here everyone around us let us know.
Melissa: That stigmatization, the idea of “an us” and “a them,” it didn’t only pertain to housing. It seeped into the local public school as well, P.S./I.S. 217. Nikki Leopold grew up on the island and is now a kindergarten teacher at 217. But she remembers that time.
Nikki Leopold: So when that happened, like there was a lot of white flight out of 217. And so the whole face of the school changed. And then when I say face, I mean, the whole dynamic changed.
Melissa: And Eneaqua Lewis? That experience is burned into her memory.
Lewis: [Sighs] It was so racist when I first got there. Like, seriously, the white teachers did not like us at all. Like, at all. And the majority of the teachers there were white, and they just really did not like us. And I can't even say all of us, the Black people they did not like, because there were Spanish girls in my class that were from this building. And I seen the way that they got treated versus the way that we got treated. And it was totally different. Like they really treated us bad. They ignored us in class. They try to make it seem like we weren't smart.
Melissa: This puzzled me because until Manhattan Park was built, every single home on Roosevelt Island was subsidized in some way. Sure, some residents made too much money to qualify for Section 8, but Eastwood, the largest building on the island, was specifically for low and moderate income residents. And as former resident Courtney Frances said, it’s not like that was a secret.
Courtney Francis: Everyone knew that that's where, you know, the lowest rents were and no one ever made a big deal of it. Never that I know of.
Melissa: Eneaqua Lewis said she couldn’t make sense of this either.
Lewis: It's so hard to explain because you clearly knew that some of the families were like, on welfare and they did get Section 8 and it was just like they, they didn't get teased like that because they weren't in this building.
Melissa: Why, then, were lower income residents in the Eastwood building treated differently from lower income residents in the newer 2-4 River Road buildings? It has to do with the changing political context. Professor Ndubuizu explains.
Ndubuizu: By 1989, at the end of the Reagan administration, HUD's policies had shifted so that they had to emphasize housing the unhoused, those who were coming from shelters, those who may have been struggling with mental health, those who are unemployed. Again, place and race, and then also gender becomes highly conflated. So the Reagan administration helps to increasingly stigmatize public housing by not only reducing and suffocating public housing from the operating resources it needed to sustain itself in terms of high quality shelter, but then also tighten the restrictions so that it actually emphasizes the poorest.
Melissa: Professor Ndubuizu points to the growing anti-Black discourse of the Reagan years, the stereotyped trope of the single Black mother who was mired in a life of crime, drug-use and immorality. On the campaign trail, Reagan was obsessed with the idea of the “welfare queen” a shorthand for single Black mothers who defraud the welfare system.
Former President Ronald Reagan: In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record. She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans' benefits for four nonexistent, deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.
From PBS Newshour, The true story behind the ‘welfare queen’ stereotype
Melissa: The welfare queen is actually based off of just one woman, Linda Taylor, who was accused of a bunch of crimes, like sure, welfare fraud, and other more serious crimes like murder. No one else was ever found to be systematically gaming the welfare system like she was, yet presidents from Reagan to Clinton used this racist myth to rationalize cutting social services across the board. In housing policy, Professor Ndubuzu says, it made it easier to reduce poverty to Blackness, and Blackness to deviance.
Ndubuizu: So what ends up happening is that at least in your case, and this happens throughout the country, is that public and Section 8 housing ends up becoming a proxy for talking about black black people, Black and brown, but specifically heavily Black, and oftentimes Black women who were on, at the time, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, so welfare as well.
Melissa: At every turn, Roosevelt Island resident Eneaqua Lewis said she was reminded that she was not welcome. While Eastwood was made to feel just as much a part of the other main Roosevelt Island buildings, 2-4 River Road was routinely set apart from the greater Manhattan Park network, which, again, it was technically part of.
Lewis: Like, I mean they would do really mean stuff. They had a pool, Manhattan Park pool, they would have pool parties every year, not invite us. Like, come on, these are kids. Why are you not inviting us? And this was Manhattan Park Day. Why are you not inviting us? They would do like Christmas parties, not invite us. It just was so many things, like little things like that. Gatherings, just things that make you feel part of the community.
Melissa: And then Eneaqua found out about BuildingLink.
Lewis: So it's like a internal system that alerts you for everything, like you can get, they have like a classifieds section and there were people just from Manhattan Park sell things, they would send notices, they would… just anything, like if there was an emergency, you can get it through there. If you had packages delivered downstairs, they would notify you through BuildingLink. It was just everything that was happening in Manhattan Park and we weren't even a part of that. We didn't even know that it existed. Like I mean, seriously! I'm like, this is a prime example of discrimination. You literally give it to everyone else except for us, and it's free!
Melissa: So Eneaqua started to organize and fight back. She joined associations that help low-income tenants in New York City, like Tenants and Neighbors and the National Housing Association. She became the housing chairperson at the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the public benefit corporation that was set up by New York State to run the island. And in 2018, she revived the 2-4 River Road Tenants Association so they could improve their living conditions within Manhattan Park. And then, it escalated.
Lewis: We had started having meetings and then the management basically were like, You're not a tenants association. We're not giving you the community room anymore. Like that's it's shut your little project down. We're like, what tenants the neighbor came in. NAT came in, National Association of HUD tenants they came in like, no, you're not shutting them down. They are a legitimate tenants association. We formed them, and that's it. You have to give them community room, because that's their right as a tenants association.
Melissa: With that, Manhattan Park’s management had to let the 2-4 River Road Tenants Association carry on. And the association did start to get a few concessions.
Lewis: So they did give us a gym. We had a laundromat that we only could use during business hours, when over there, like, 24 hours. So that was my big fight, like, first of all, most people in this building work. They all have jobs. During business hours, they’re working, how the hell are they doing laundry? So I was able to get that 24 hours in the laundry mat. Having to fight, fight and fight. But I still feel like those are little things.
Melissa: Now, Eneaqua says, even though she knows they don’t want them there, they’re invited to the holiday parties and the pool parties. And together, these things start to add up.
Lewis: That was very important for me because I know how it made me feel when I was a child and I didn't want my son to feel like that. So it was very important for me to make sure that this building was included in the community and that we were considered a part of Manhattan Park, even though we're still not. But they try to make us feel a little bit like we are now versus back in the days where they just didn't even try at all.
Melissa: Eneaqua says she feels kinda stuck between a rock and a hard place, because she can’t carry on fighting like this for much longer, but, as a Black mother, her options for safe, affordable housing elsewhere in the city are slim.
Lewis: I'm…I'm exhausted here. I really am. The thing is, it's very, very low crime. And it's one of the best places to raise a young Black boy. And so I feel like, just being a Black person anywhere, you have to weigh your pros and your cons..for me, why I've been here so long and why I haven't left is because I'm not going to take my son into a dangerous place. Until I can find a home where I feel like it’s a good neighborhood, I’m not leaving. The money that I make off construction in this neighborhood, I'm still poor…and so for me, that's what has kept me here. Being able to let my son go outside by himself; not having to worry about him getting shot.
Melissa: Unlike the other buildings on Roosevelt Island that were built under the Mitchell-Lama program, electricity isn’t included in Enequa’s rent. And her bill is starting to go up.
Lewis: As bad enough as it is on me as a young person, 2 River Road is all elderly or yeah, 2 River Road is all elderly and disabled, mostly elderly…They are all on fixed incomes. Why are they paying 3, 4, $500 electricity bills? They can't afford that. In the winter, I feel so bad, these old lady be walking around the house with bubble coats on because they don't want to turn on heat because they’re scared to get high electric bills.
Melissa: What’s even more disturbing is that 2-4 River Road’s project-based Section 8 status is up for renewal.
Lewis: So when we moved here, we all knew that it was for 30 years. Yeah, it was for 30 years that this building was supposed to be affordable. After that, they had the option of going private. Now, when that time came up, all of us were scared, like, “so what are you going to do? Are you going to go private or whatever?” Even though I feel like it's a benefit in going private, it's kind of a win lose. But they said, “No, we're not going to go private.” And I believe that they sign it every five years.
Melissa: That means that, according to Ennequa, 2-4 River Road’s Section 8 status was renewed in 2019 and will be up for renewal again in 2024. At that point, anything goes, including privatization.
Melissa: As I left Eneaqua’s home, I reflected on my years as a child at Manhattan Park. I moved to Manhattan Park a decade after Eneaqua. I was 6, just a few years younger than she was when I got there. If I’m honest, there was an unspoken way that we were discouraged from playing with children at 2-4 River Road. I was unaware that that apprehension, that bias, was tied to anti-Black discourse, especially against lower income African-Americans living in rent-assisted housing. And I was also unaware that children at 2-4 River Road felt that apprehension.
Lewis: I mean, I was a child, that does something to you, you know, that does something to your psyche.
Melissa: Professor Ndubuizu says that… in America generally, and definitely in its housing policy, Black tenants are often portrayed as a nuisance, or a blemish on other, more civilized, subsidized housing residents. But in reality, it was the Black-led fight to change discriminatory policies that led to decent subsidized housing. The same housing that residents on Roosevelt Island have now enjoyed for generations.
So it bears pointing out that some of those same residents who have enjoyed housing born out of the Civil Rights movement, born out of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr—some of those same residents were the ones who stigmatized their Section 8 neighbors. Some of those same residents are the ones who removed their children from the public schools.
Soon though, it wouldn’t just be 2-4 River Road fighting for stable and affordable housing. Residents of the original four Roosevelt Island apartment buildings had life-changing events barreling towards them. Events that could change their housing situation forever. What was left of the UDC’s Roosevelt Island experiment was about to be tested like never before.
[Brass band, playing “Saints”]
Melissa: A lot of the residents I spoke with for this story call themselves The Originals, because they’re the first batch of kids who grew up in Roosevelt Island’s 4 original apartment buildings: Westview, Island House, Rivercross and Eastwood, often just called the WIRE buildings, after their initials. Westview and Island House were middle income buildings, about 760 units altogether. Rivercross was a slightly ritzier co-op building with 377 units. And Eastwood, the largest of them all, had about 1,000 units and was mostly for low and moderate income tenants, with some especially for elderly and disabled folks.
Now, the Originals, the first residents of these buildings, they’re in their 50s and 60s, but they still keep in touch. They often organize reunions where hundreds of people show up, there’s BBQs. DJs. In fact, one summer Grandmaster Dee from Whodini DJ’d the reunion. He grew up on the island, too.
But in the summer of 2021, it was the loss of one of their own that brought them together. A well known Roosevelt Islander passed away. His name was James Decker, but everyone called him Jimmy Star. On an August afternoon, a procession gathered for James’ Homecoming. They walked about three quarters of a mile along the back road facing Manhattan.
Morgan Elinson: It was just this great moment..the old island got the island back for an evening and like the new island had to make way for us.
Melissa: That’s one of the island Originals, Morgan Elinson. He lives in the Bronx now with his family.
Elinson: Like, we hired a Louisiana style New Orleans band, and we marched his coffin, like along the promenade on the Island House, Rivercross side of the island. And we had a big memorial service for him up at by the Octagon.
Melissa: As they often do when reunited, the original residents started reminiscing about the good ol’ days. And they started lamenting too… that so few of them are still there.
Elinson: Maybe two people out of the 100 who were there still lived there. That's one reflection. I think a lot of us have that it's not an option for us to return. Like, I will never be able to send my kids to the very elementary school I attended, despite having the exact same occupation as my parents, maybe even having a little bit more of a head start on savings…I don't even have the option to, like, repeat my childhood for my children, as I had it.
Melissa: I want to bring Jameela back in here because, today, the story of Roosevelt Island is in many ways the story of so many cities across the U.S.
Jameela: Yeah everywhere you look – from the federal level down to the local – government has been retreating from its role as a builder and maintainer of subsidized housing, so you get widespread disinvestment.
Melissa: And at the same time, it hasn’t done enough to curb the commodification of housing – in fact, it sometimes encourages it.
Jameela: Right, which leaves the door wide open for rent intensification. That’s when the gap widens between the value of a property’s actual use and the value of its potential exchange. In other words, when a house becomes more valuable as an investment property, than it is as a home for someone to live in.
Melissa: And that rent gap makes it much more profitable to develop, redevelop, and market homes to higher income people. It’s something Roosevelt Island resident Sasha Ross knows all too well.
Sasha Ross: Whoever like the first real estate person that came in and was like, “Oh, look at these views.” All right. I think we have a nice view, but I'm used to it, like it's dull by now. But you're raising the rent, which takes away from people's futures, takes away from their quality of life, because of the Manhattan skyline? It's not fair. It's an apartment. It's a box that no one owns, that someone can continue to raise the rent at their will. Like, I get bills, I get land leases and, I get you know, employee salaries. I get all of that. But look around like this is not worth 60,000 a year when it’s mortgaged.
Melissa: Professor Ndubuizu says that financial investors and institutions often work closely with real estate developers to set high sale prices, prices that are far outside what a lot of people can afford.
Ndubuizu: And so there's always going to be this gap between what people's wages are and what speculative capital wants. Public housing used to be that opportunity for low wage families to be able to get access to rent controlled housing. But we've since moved away from that because Congress, and different conservative presidents, but also including liberal presidents, have supported figuring out what they thought were more cost efficient ways to deal with this.
Melissa: Since the early 2000s, the number of subsidized homes on Roosevelt Island has been steadily shrinking, while the number of market-rate apartments has more than doubled. And that change – we all saw it. Here’s resident Nikki Leopold.
Nikki Leopold: Oh, so much has changed. The socioeconomic shift is the most outstanding part of it. I think that, you know, it was definitely a mixed income community and now everything is skewed towards the upper middle class.
Jameela: That’s what the census data says too. In 1999, the median income on Roosevelt Island was about 30% higher than the rest of New York City’s. Quite high. But by 2017, that figure had doubled. More and more higher income people were moving to Roosevelt Island.
Melissa: And you could see this shift in the businesses on the island too. The variety store, one of the convenience stores, the seafood market – they all got replaced one-by-one by a more expensive health food store, and a doggy daycare and hotel. The thrift store was closed down and never replaced. And then Courtney Francis saw it.
Courtney Francis: When I saw Starbucks, I said "Oh! it's over!" Like Roosevelt Island is grassroots, independent, you know, like I just didn't expect to see a Starbucks, which is what you see every place. It's not that I'm against Starbucks.
Melissa: And truth be told, many of us enjoyed the conveniences of living like Manhattanites. A good chunk of my teenage years was spent drinking frappuccinos with my friends at Starbucks. A LOT of frappuccinos…
My brother Lionel Fundira still lives on Roosevelt Island. He says he’s seen this gentrification play out in real time, he watched as countless residents have been priced out.
Lionel Fundira: I fully understand that a lot of people have been excluded from this experience, from being able to live in a quiet place that's close to the action, that's close to the city, that’s close to decent paying jobs. I know that many people have lost that opportunity and it took away a lot of quality of life for some people.
Melissa: What we gained in new perks came with a great loss. Housing that’s genuinely affordable for low and middle income people, for starters. In 2000, only a quarter of all housing on Roosevelt Island was market-rate. Now, it’s well over half of all housing.
And things really started to change in 2006. First came the northern tip of the island. For years, that’s where the former entrance of the New York City Mental Health Hospital sat, abandoned. The first time I stumbled upon it, I was about eight, and I thought it was an ancient Roman ruin. But then, nearly two decades after the last new housing had been built on the island, it was renovated and opened as a new 500-unit luxury apartment complex. They called it the Octagon. About 20% of the Octagon’s units were designated as affordable for middle-income residents.
Jameela: In 2021, on the south end of the island, housing developers Related Companies and Hudson Companies opened the newly constructed Riverwalk – 2,000 homes on some of the island’s last remaining empty land. Of the first 313 apartments to be offered for rent as affordable units: 11 were for a single person making about $37,000 a year, 48 units were priced for someone making about $56,000, and 28 were for a person making about $75,000. The rest, 226 units, were priced for someone who makes more than $122,000. The Area Median Income in New York City is now about $94,000 for a single person.
In a reversal of Roosevelt Island’s initial philosophy, this newest generation of quote-unquote affordable housing reserves the smallest percentage of new housing for the people who need it most.
Melissa: And the same goes for the rest of the city. The term affordable housing has become somewhat watered down in recent decades. Before 1981, rent was considered affordable if you paid 25% of your income for it. This stemmed from this years-old practice of paying about a week’s worth of wages for monthly rent. But in 1981, the affordability percentage was raised to 30%. Meaning that today if a tenant pays more than 30% of their income on rent, it’s commonly accepted that they’re considered rent-burdened. In New York City, however, even a household living in so-called affordable housing can often spend as much as 43% of their income on rent.
Jameela: What’s interesting is that, because of rising construction costs, the real estate industry is currently lobbying for this 30% threshold of affordability to be raised even higher. And unless a person’s income increases, or the cost of other life necessities decreases, this puts low income people in especially precarious positions. Professor Ndubuizu says this means low-wage earners are disproportionately rent burdened. And yet, the Department of Housing and Urban Development could choose to bring the threshold for rent burden back down to, say, 25%.
Ndubuizu: Absolutely. They absolutely can. And that will require, again, the great work of a lot of national and local groups, tenant organizations demanding that HUD is attentive to the rising cost of housing and reformulating their affordability maps to actually deal with the specific regions where the affordability crisis is most acute.
Melissa: Again, Roosevelt Island is an example of what that could look like. Most of the original Roosevelt Island buildings were rented at about 20% of a tenants’ household income – and that included utilities. That kind of affordability, as my brother Lionel told me, was a lifeline for many families on the island who needed housing the most.
Lionel Fundira: I had friends who, you know, where only one parent was working or there was some disability in the family, or where the parents just didn't have it. That were able to live here for years and years at a time.
Melissa: For some that deep affordability was thanks to a New York State program called Mitchell-Lama.
Jameela: Mitchell-Lama is the New York State program that was created in 1955 to incentivize developers to build rentals and co-ops for moderate and middle income tenants. From 1955 to 1981, the program helped create 66,000 subsidized rentals and 69,000 subsidized co-op apartments, including many of the original buildings on Roosevelt Island. Under the co-op model, a tenant is a shareholder and an owner, meaning that if and when they decide to sell their home, they only receive whatever money they’ve used over the years to improve it—no profit, but no loss either.
Melissa: But by the late 2000s… Mitchell-Lama apartments on Roosevelt Island and across New York State were being lost left and right.
Melissa: Over the last forty years, since 1981, 7 percent of those Mitchell-Lama co-ops have been lost, and much more than that—nearly half of all the affordable Mitchell-Lama rentals have been lost. That’s because the program doesn’t make homes permanently affordable. After about 20 to 35 years, the obligation to keep them affordable by renting or selling them to moderate and middle-income households, that expires. So owners can decide to extend their building’s Mitchell-Lama status, or they can come to some sort of new agreement with tenants, or they can exit the program altogether and rent or sell those homes at the market-rate.
In the 2000s, all the original buildings on Roosevelt Island found themselves at this crossroad.
Marie Orraca: There was a fear and a buzz. There was possibility, but there was also foreboding.
Melissa: Marie Orraca is one of the Originals. Her family moved to Eastwood in 1979, and she grew up on the island. Later, in the early 2000s, as an adult, she got her own place, just as change was in the air.
Orraca: And unfortunately, Eastwood, as I will always call it, Eastwood was the canary in the coal mine. You know, it really now has become, you know, kind of the, you know, the, the cautionary tale. And every, all of the original buildings looked at what happened there and they said, let's not let that happen to us.
Melissa: What happened at Eastwood is simple. Its Mitchell-Lama status was never renewed. And around 2000, Eastwood, the island’s largest subsidized housing development, became privatized and renamed Roosevelt Landings.
In the book Affordable Housing in New York, the architecture professor Matthias Altwicker wrote about Eastwood and its failed attempt to stave off privatization. He wrote that, tenants, some having lived there for 30 years, expressed quote, “anxieties about privatization and displacement.” And when residents attempted to convert their building into a tenant-owned co-op, they were thwarted by misinformation campaigns that claimed the process would be too expensive. Altwicker also wrote that 84% percent of Eastwood residents reported being worried that they were being pushed out by newer, higher-income residents. In the end, it was a well-founded worry, because in the decade after Eastwood became Roosevelt Landings, tenants paying subsidized rents fell from 87% to 58%.
In reality, it’s not that all of Eastwood’s near 1,000 units became market rate overnight, but rather that as tenants left their homes, those units were renovated and then rented as market rate, never to be subsidized again. Many watched as older tenants, living in units reserved for the elderly, passed away, without other seniors replacing them. And the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association reported a steady decline in disabled residents too.
This is why Marie Orraca calls Eastwood the canary in the coal mine… because all the other Mitchell-Lama buildings were in danger of suffering the same fate.
Melissa: I first became interested in Roosevelt Island’s housing history when I was in grad school studying urban design and social science. For the first time in 4 years, I took a trip back to our family home on the island. Inside, so much had stayed the same. The music and books I’d grown up with were still lining the same shelves. The huge framed papyrus from Egypt hanging above the staircase. Persian rugs, wooden and stone figurines from Gabon and other parts of West Africa. The Rwandan flag I’d brought from a trip home in 2008. Aside from some new furniture, our home looked a lot like it did when we first moved there in 2003. But there was one major difference. Since I’d moved out to go to school, we went from living in a subsidized rental, to owning shares in a co-op. It was seen as a major victory many years in the making. And we have neighbors like Dorothy Davis to thank for that.
Dorothy Davis: I was the chair of the Island House Tenants’ Association for, I don't know, I think it was about seven years, I have to look back on my records.
Melissa: Dorothy has one of those classic “how did you end up on the island” stories. It was 1995. Dorothy was working at the African-American Institute in Manhattan, and she was raising her young child in New Jersey as a recently divorced parent. The commute was grueling. So a friend of hers who lived at Island House suggested she look into Roosevelt Island, a place Dorothy had never heard of before.
Davis: I thought, okay, this is a safe place to raise my daughter. And the feeling of community – people there seem to look after each other's kids. And also, there's a strong U.N. community there, and which I'm a part of. And so we were kind of all on the same wavelength in terms of trying to get our kids to school and all the mechanics of parenthood…I pushed hard to get through that application process….I used the fact that I was commuting from New Jersey to New York every day with this four year old taking her to school. I put, I just laid it on. It wasn't that heavy. It was true. So after I laid it on, this poor child she’s trucking from New Jersey to New York she needs patience, you know, whatever. I just threw it at them. So anyway, eventually they said, okay, so they found an apartment for me in Island House.
Melissa: I’ve spoken to Dorothy a few times over the years about Island House and each time I come away feeling like she’s just one of those women who puts her head down, organizes people, and gets things done, without any fanfare. When residents in our building were feverishly trying to figure out what to do in the wake of the Mitchell-Lama expiration, I was quite young and not particularly interested in the intricacies of subsidized housing policy. But I do remember hearing Dorothy’s name mentioned a lot, which I now know is because Dorothy was the chair of the Island House Tenants’ Association.
Davis: We were pushing for the building to be transformed from a Mitchell-Lama property, under the rules of the state's housing authority into a tenant-owned building.
Melissa: Dorothy says she was somewhat thrust into the tenant association by what she called the mom brigade – women from Mexico, Djibouti, Jamaica, and Sierra Leone who had grown close as they organized school buses for their children. Dorothy reluctantly put her name forward to join the tenant association and received the most votes, making her the automatic chair… but according to her, the men on the board disregarded this basic rule and started jockeying for the role.
Davis: I had to deal with a lot of racism inside the building, gender issues. Just the fact that, you know, I went through what I went through just to be chair, even though I got most of the votes and clearly did not want to be chair, but it was the principal. I had to fight all that.
Melissa: Eventually she did become chair, because Dorothy was, after all, uniquely positioned at Island House. She understood the needs of so many different types of tenants – the Americans, the UN workers whose allegiance to the building was often unfairly questioned, and the heads of households that seemed unconventional by Western standards. Homes like mine, with a matriarch, two aunties, and two children. And so Dorothy and the tenant association got to work.
Davis: So using my U.N. skills, in terms of building consensus, I realized that we had to get a team together that could help us go forward. And I had good people around me to help me through this process.
Melissa: The process of converting Island House to a tenant-owned co-op was extremely complicated, like too complicated to fully get into here. For one, the island is owned by the City, which leases it to the State. So dealing with a building’s ground lease alone required an army of lawyers, politicians, and people who knew people, who knew people.
Davis: So the bureaucracy is really ridiculous. It's intense and it's interwoven. And so we had to navigate both sides to get some kind of agreement. And at the same time push for what really was an innovative project.
Melissa: The result of these complicated negotiations was a giant document, Like, 1,050 pages to be exact. It outlined the terms of Island House’s conversion to a co-op. A copy still sits on my family’s bookshelf today. The very first sentence reads, in large, bold all caps: THIS IS A NON-EVICTION PLAN.
It says that residents could pay 35% of what their apartment would go for on the open market and own a slice of the building, making them a shareholder. One of the stipulations was that if the resident ever decided to sell their apartment, a chunk of what they made had to go back into the co-op.
The agreement also says that if residents want to stay as renters, and not buy into the co-op, they can, and for those folks, New York City’s rent control guidelines will be enforced. The agreement also negotiated buy-outs for folks who didn’t want to stay, or couldn’t stay and required renovations on those newly vacant apartments.
In the end, nearly 80% of all Island House residents stayed. One resident, who was closely involved in the conversion told me that the Island House co-op conversion is regarded as “the best affordable deal that’s ever been done in the history of New York.” Here’s Dorothy Davis.
Davis: And that's why I think it was, I see it as a major success, not only because people got to get their own apartments, but that they actually got past their own prejudices to see commonality. And to me, that was the biggest story in New York City housing. But it never got written. But I just thought, wow, this is amazing, you know, that people actually did this.
Melissa: But I have to say, the more I understood what happened at Island House, the more complicated my feelings about the conversion became. On the one hand, thanks to the hard work of neighbors like Dorothy, my mother, and our family by extension, we’re now shareholders in a 3-bedroom New York City apartment. In a world where housing is an asset, owning your own place can change the entire course of your life. It’s not something I take for granted.
But on the other hand… there is a price to pay for this good fortune. No new household will ever be able to rent a home at Island House below market rate, like we once did. Either you’re one of the lucky families who lived in the building at the time of conversion, or you took the buy-out and left. The only way into the Island House now, is through the private market. A three bedroom can go for as much as $1.4 million on the private market, that’s 4 times more than the insider price. Those who felt left out of the building’s new configuration are the renters. Here’s Nikki Leopold.
Nikki Leopold: I remember I walked into the lobby once and someone started to approach me about something that was happening for the shareholders and the guy was like, ‘Don't, she's a renter’. And I was like, You know what?[laughs]
Melissa: And then there were those, who, during the conversion process, were accused of not actually living in their apartment for a certain period. Here’s Dorothy Davis again.
Davis: It looked to us, the board, like the owner was not, you know, not finding occupants basically hoarding those apartments because in the end, those apartments could be sold at market rate.
Melissa: Nowhere was this most clear than at Island House’s sister building, Westview. Westview essentially followed the Island House conversion model, but it was a little messier and longer than expected. As negotiations dragged on and more and more people moved out, their apartments stayed empty. The waitlist to get into a Mitchell-Lama apartment is years long, and yet, in Westview, you had Mitchell-Lama apartments staying empty for years.
Those who did remain weren’t immune to the threats of eviction either. That’s what’s happening to my brother’s friend Marion Ntiru. Her family came from Kenya in 1992 and moved directly to the island, where, aside from the years she spent away at college and grad school, Marion’s been ever since. She’s 43 now.
When her family got an offer to buy co-op shares in the Westview building, they filled out the paperwork.
Marion Ntiru: But they refused. They rejected it. They were just basically like, no, this is no now your contract is not no longer on the table. And so that's when I knew and they, they sort of got nasty about it when I was in person, in the office.
Melissa: It felt like a slap in the face, Marion said. And it was all over a small discrepancy. The lease for their family home is in Marion’s father’s name. But Marion had been the one who signed the income affidavit to prove they were eligible for Mitchell-Lama housing. So now, when both Marion and her father signed the family’s co-op application, the developer looked at it, and said, “Nah, her father should’ve been the only one to sign it.” and not only that, they now faced potential eviction.
Marion is fighting the decision in court and can stay in her home for now, but it’s a stressful and heartbreaking situation…all over an extra signature on a form. While searching through public records recently, Marion saw that her family isn’t the only one suing Westview’s developer.
Ntiru: And the cases range from you know, the husband died, but the lease or the tenant on record was the husband, but the husband died and they're refusing to give the wife the purchase agreement in her name so that she can buy it. So that's one example.
Melissa: In another court case, the management company is refusing to transfer the lease to the guardian of a teenage girl whose mother recently passed away. Another case involves a friend of Marion’s, an Ethiopian woman who lives in Westview, but whose husband is back home in Ethiopia right now.
Ntiru: And they were telling her, no your name's not on it. We need to speak to your husband. And so she had to literally fly back to Ethiopia, get something notarized to show that, you know, her husband is allowing her to be on it, kind of thing. And so she was very frustrated. I've been very frustrated. And it feels like once you know that the market value is three X, you just sort of feel like, yeah, they're not looking for us to buy it.
Melissa: By 3X, Marion means that Westview developers would make three times more money if they could sell the units at market-rate. But to do that they need as many empty apartments as possible, and that includes evicting existing residents, who would otherwise have the right to purchase their homes at the much less expensive insider price. And Marion noticed something else, too…
Ntiru: I looked up how many people were suing and and the names of those seven or eight people that were also saying the, the WestView Preservation Company, we were all immigrants. So that was the other thing that stood out to me. I saw India name, Russian name, Ethiopian name. Yeah, you know, a couple sprinkled here and there.
Melissa: I looked through the public court documents myself, and it’s hard not to see what Marion saw. As I read through them, I came across an East African family name I knew, it was a close friend I grew up with, who had been there for decades. Honestly, my heart sank. I couldn’t comprehend that anyone, any institution, would ever question whether she was qualified to live on the island. That anyone would ever jeopardize her right to stay home.
Melissa: It’s not just the buildings themselves that have changed, it’s the general landscape too. My friend Ludi Nsimba grew up with me on Roosevelt Island. One day, she was hanging with childhood friends who now have children of their own. They went to a park so the kids could play, and all she could see was giant metal fences and gates.
Ludi Nsimba: I was just like, Whoa, what happened? Because we used to just roam around and the island was safe. Like, yes there's been incidents here and there, but it's New York like name a neighborhood that doesn't have, you know, a story or two. But the beauty of us going, we would take our bikes, our scooters, rollerblading like, “OK, meet me down at Blackwell” cool, or “meet me at “the baby park”, or, “well, let's go to Octagon”… So I was shocked last summer. I was like, what is going on?
Melissa: When I talked with island resident Marie Oraca, she pointed to what is perhaps the most contentious gate of them all. The one behind my building, Island House.
Melissa Fundira: What did it feel like for you when you saw that gate just now?
Marie Orraca: Infuriated! It's just that's the only word, totally infuriated. Because why? Why? What is the purpose? A gate like that? The only purpose is to keep people out.
Melissa: Island House is essentially a U-shaped building, with a courtyard in the middle. By design, this allowed residents to keep the proverbial “eyes on the street”. As Ludi explains, it put her mother, and – all of our parents really – at ease. And it gave us the freedom to run a little wild with the other kids from the island.
Ludi Nsimba: And that park, some of the aunties could see us from that park. So she knew like, OK, if you're back there, I know my friends can call me in case of an emergency. And yeah, it was fun. We used to play The Jerry Springer Show in that park. I kid you not. I mean, eight, nine years old yelling “Jerry! Jerry!”
Melissa: Since the building was converted into a co-op, the playground’s been updated. There’s gym equipment now for circuit training and the concrete floors have been replaced with Astro Turf. To be honest, it looks a lot better than before.
I used to walk through here often as a shortcut to the back road that overlooks Manhattan, and you still can. It's just that now, you have to go through a black metal gate that surrounds the courtyard. And once you close that gate…
Melissa: There’s no way back in without a FOB key.
My former neighbor Nikki Leopold’s bedroom window looks directly out at that gate. She remembers when it went up.
Nikki Leopold: Yeah. I can see it right out my window. My bedroom faces out there. Yeah. I mean, that's something that never would have existed before. You know? I mean, it was shocking and it was very you know, it was jarring and it bothered a lot of people. It bothered me. It's you know, it's now, now this is supposedly, they're trying to turn this into an exclusive building, you know, and I guess that's one of their ways of, and you know what, I don't think it was just building management or owners that decided that. I think it was the residents that bought their apartments. I really do.
Melissa: For many neighbors, these growing fences are symbolic of a larger shift happening on Roosevelt Island.
Marie Orraca: We're going towards greed and silo-ism. This is mine. I bought in here. This is what I own. And you don't own that.
Melissa: Sasha Ross, another resident in Roosevelt Landings – formerly known as Eastwood– said she’s noticed the same trend. When we spoke, I could tell that all the changes on the island are hurting her to the core. In part because the island is the only place she’s ever known.
Sasha Ross: I definitely am one of the original originals, like, as far as conceived, born here…My parents met on Roosevelt Island. They lived on Roosevelt Island. My family came to Roosevelt Island…my mother contracted polio as a child and was a quadriplegic. There was a hospital here called Goldwater, where my mother was, I guess, a patient on the ward; my mom met my dad, whatever, whatever, they ended up becoming one of the first residents at 580 Main Street.
Melissa: 580 Main Street is one of the 10 buildings that made up Eastwood. For Sasha it was a childhood paradise. She remembers the people who’d maintain the grounds outside, the guys who’d fix things in the building, in the summertime they’d leave planks of wood and tools out for the kids so they could build tree houses. They were surrounded by that much wooded land back then.
Ross: During the winters, they would shovel the snow and pack it. If you look out this window, we have stairs. It's like an amphitheater. They would pack the snow on the amphitheater so that we could have like sledding hills. Northtown Park, which is now Capobianco park, the maintenance men would create obstacle courses for us kids to sled on, like this is what we grew up with.
Melissa: In the mid 1990s Sasha remembers how she was able to afford her own place, when she had her first son, Stephen, and how the whole neighborhood became the village that raised him.
Ross: I was a young mom. I was 17 when I had him…So by the time he was going into first grade, I was only 23. You know, and…I, I don't want to cry, my community helped me raise an amazing individual. But I had a community that rallied around me and my kid and other young moms.
Melissa: Sasha remembers all the small and big ways that everyone looked out for each other on the island. Regardless of which building you lived in. So when a building like Island House puts up a fence, it stings.
Ross: It's a tremendous divide. It was not part of the original structures, and it wasn't an improvement to the community. It went from a community about us to a community about me. And it sucks.
Melissa: And it’s not just fences. On Roosevelt Island we all grew up either playing or watching soccer games every Saturday. There were usually four teams – yellow, red, blue and green.
Ross: Any sports, Island-wide sports were free. You wanted to play soccer, you sign up with the youth center. You get a uniform. A soccer ball. Shin guards, you just had to pick up cleats.
Melissa: But now, for Sasha’s youngest kids, this has started to change.
Ross: When they were like seven and five, when they started getting into things. Other people started creating their own soccer teams, or baseball teams, because they wanted more for their kid, which is 100 percent agreeable and understandable. But when you start taking things away from people who can't afford it, because you want better for your child, instead of making that particular program better for all of the kids, it starts a huge decline.
Melissa: That feeling that, yes, we all have different life circumstances, but we’re in this together. That’s what’s started to disappear. Instead, these new teams, this new league, it costs money to play, several hundred dollars, which a lot of parents can’t afford. What happens to their kids?
Ross: So now this kid who wants to play soccer is now left with barely a team. And then gets to go to school on Monday to hear the kids who can afford it say how they traveled and they did this. Now the kid doesn't want to play soccer, because now he feels less than; where a year or two before, everybody was on the same team.
Melissa: This story, about the soccer and sports teams, is in many ways an analogy for what happened to housing on Roosevelt Island. When the original four Roosevelt Island apartment buildings opened, everyone was on the same team. Yes, there was class differentiation, but everyone lived in subsidized housing and shared the same spaces.
Today, there are those who buy or rent at market rate, those who are shareholders in a co-op, those fighting eviction notices, those living in Section-8 housing, and those weathering a new management company every other year hoping to not get priced out when the next lease comes along. Each scenario offers a different level of housing security, a different level of access to resources and opportunities; things like traveling soccer clubs for some kids and gutted soccer programs for others. It’s a far cry from the UDC’s vision of Roosevelt Island as a mixed community equally enjoying what the neighborhood had to offer. It’s a neighborhood divided.
Ross: The adults of my generation tried very hard, even the teenagers of, of my time, the 80s, the 90s tried very hard to curate and cultivate a neighborhood where everyone got along, right? Because that was the premise of Roosevelt Island, the social economical, uh, project. It was an experience. It's no longer that. As new buildings came in, as rents go up. It's becoming a haves versus have nots. You have people, what I call them temporary people making permanent decisions.
Melissa: Temporary is a tricky word, because the island’s newer residents aren’t all necessarily transient. Many want to make a long-term home of the island and believe in its original ethos. But still, that sentiment holds, and I’ve heard it get expressed in different ways. What people mean, I think, is that the island’s newer residents want their buildings to be more exclusive, which by definition, excludes people. And the ones being excluded, the people being shut out, they’re often part of a community 30, 40 years in the making, one founded on a principle of inclusion.
And that exclusion…. It’s felt in two ways. By some still on the island, like Sasha Ross, and by those who haven’t managed to stay….
[Sounds of people walking in the park]
Melissa: One summer afternoon, I met up with Rita Ombele, a childhood friend and neighbor. Her family lived two floors directly below mine, and because of the way the building is arranged, if I yelled loud enough from my downstairs bathroom, she could hear me in her upstairs living room.
On this day, we met in Manhattan, just a few blocks from the French American school we both attended. A lot of the francophone African kids on the island went to this school. Rita and I took the same school bus from Roosevelt Island. Had the same classes. The same friends. We were close in many, many ways. The school is up a hill from the United Nations Headquarters near a park called Tudor City Greens. We used to pass this park as kids everyday on our way to a nearby playground during recess. Sometimes I’d catch my mom eating her lunch there.
[background sounds, “I’m gonna send a picture of this to my mom actually, like, ‘hey mom, look where I am! Tudor City Greens!’”]
Melissa: Unlike most of the residents I interviewed, Rita and I aren’t meeting on the island, because her family was priced out after our building converted to a co-op in 2015.
Rita Ombele: So it's either you could own it or if you don't own it, your rent's going to go crazy high. And then the third option was a buyout.
Melissa: Rita’s parents decided to take the buyout. They went from living in the same 3-bedroom, 2 and a half bathroom duplex apartment for about 20 years, to a much smaller three-bedroom, one-bath in the Bronx.
Ombele: It was heartbreaking. It was really sad because I just, I couldn't see myself living anywhere else other than the island. So it was just, yeah, I lived there my whole life, you know what I mean? So it just sucked. I literally avoided the island for so long after moving cause it just made me like, so it was very sentimental to me. Like I would even, like, not want to take the F train and like, hear, like, Roosevelt Island's like the next stop. literally, like we'll get invited for barbecues and stuff. I was just, I wasn't mentally prepared to like to go back there. So I avoided it for a lot of, many years.
Melissa: Remember how Eneaqua said she was tired of fighting for Manhattan Park residents to treat people in her Section 8 building more fairly, but she couldn’t imagine moving her son, a Black boy, to any other neighborhood for fear that something terrible might happen to him? Well, Eneaqua isn’t the only one.
Melissa: My brother Lionel is 6’4. Growing up he mostly hung out with other Black teenagers on the island. It’s no secret that packs of young Black men are disproportionately brutalized and criminalized in this country. But as Lionel describes it, the island was a kinder world for them.
Lionel Fundira: I knew entire families of three, four, five, six kids and some of you know, many of them had difficult backstories and, you know, addiction in the family, some people have been to prison and things of that sort. But I felt like at least when they were here, they didn't always get in trouble here. They didn't get arrested here as much.
Melissa: But the world outside of the island is a different story.
Melissa: There’s this project out of Columbia University called Million Dollar Blocks. In it, researchers mapped New York City’s carceral data to show just how many people are incarcerated in a single city block. The redder the block, the more people from that block are incarcerated. And when you look at the maps created for this project, Black, brown and poorer neighborhoods in boroughs like the Bronx and Brooklyn are bright red. And that blood red also represents how much governments spend on incarceration. Sometimes just one block can represent more than $1 million in public money being spent on incarceration, hence the project’s name, Million Dollar Blocks. One year, the cost of imprisoning people from Brooklyn alone was $359 million.
All this is intimately connected to housing. And more than that, it’s intertwined with employment—with our economy and who has access to what. Here’s Professor Rosemary Ndubuizu.
Rosemary Ndubuizu: Men, particularly Black and brown men, are also negatively impacted by the speculative approach to housing because in the absence of employment opportunities that pull them into this shifting economy, they're oftentimes overrepresented in prisons... which then ends up becoming replicated in the housing market, because now more and more folks can't even get attached to a home if you don't have a credit check or background check.
Melissa: Professor Ndubuizu explains that, in order to deal with rising unemployment, poverty, and capital flight from certain neighborhoods, the government has historically opted to contain the issue by expanding the prison industrial complex. And this increasing investment in incarceration is happening concurrently with decades of disinvestment in housing – even though housing is a known solution for issues like poverty.
Melissa: It’s hard to know exactly how much being priced out and forced to leave the island has led to legal setbacks and incarceration, especially because we don't know where every single Roosevelt Islander has ended up in the aftermath of leaving. Many were able to land in decent housing in and out of New York City. Many were already planning to move. But many also landed in neighborhoods with higher rates of incarceration.
Lionel Fundira: As certain neighborhoods in New York City go back to being less safe, parts of the Bronx, parts of Harlem, I know that some of these people who had to leave now live over there, and they don't deal with the same safety. You know, so some of the people that had some of the issues I talked about earlier, some of the people that got arrested for small or big things and now they get arrested, you know, it's way easier to get arrested. It's way harder for their parents to keep their children away from bad influences.
Melissa: Parents like Sasha Ross, who lamented the loss of affordable soccer teams and other activities, are afraid that Black and brown teenagers on the island are at a higher risk of slipping through the cracks. As the neighborhood becomes increasingly stratified by race and class, there are fewer activities that are financially accessible for lower income residents, especially those in the 14 to 21 year old range.
Sasha Ross: What happens to the demographic? I'm so sorry. I get so... What happens to the demographic, and I'm going to be specific, the black and brown demographic between the ages of 14 and 21, when the world looks at these young men as men… because they might be a little taller or a little broader. I have a 14 year old who's five foot eleven and 170 pounds. If you're not the type of adult to look at someone in the face and look at their eyes and see innocence, because people are not going to always look at my son's face, his eyes on the train and say, “Oh no, he's big, but he's still a kid.” Roosevelt Island definitely has enough funding from the state to create a true utopia. And they don't. They don't care anymore.
Melissa: So, Roosevelt Island is becoming more and more exclusive and less affordable. But so is the rest of New York City. Here’s resident Nikki Leopold.
Nikki Leopold: One of the other reasons we moved here is because we were priced out of Brooklyn. And this was in the late nineties, you know, and so moving here, everything, it was still subsidized rent. I mean, you couldn't ask for more than that. So, I mean, that was huge. And that's few and far between now, you know, maybe on Housing Connect, if you're lucky, you'll get something. But that kind of subsidized housing, I mean, it's such a relief, especially for families, to know that there was that possibility and it's just not anymore.
Melissa: What Nikki’s talking about, Housing Connect, is a City of New York portal that allows residents to apply for affordable housing through a lottery. It’s one of several affordable housing options for low to middle income folks. There’s Section 8 and public housing through the Housing Authority. There’s the New York City Housing Search and the New York State Housing lotteries. And then there are still some rent-stabilized and Mitchell-Lama homes. But according to Yonah Freemark those options are becoming harder to find, and less affordable. Freemark is a senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
Yonah Freemark: During the Reagan administration, and in the years since, the U.S. has essentially really cut back on support for new affordable housing, and it's limited its support for what's called tenant-based housing, which is vouchers to afford to live in privately owned housing. When you put this in that context, it means that people who have low and moderate incomes in New York City, in New York State, have fewer and fewer options in terms of places to live. And it also has contributed to the affordability crisis that we, that we face.
Melissa: In 2020, the online publication The City reviewed 18 million applications for affordable housing on the Housing Connect portal. It found that for every affordable unit available, more than 300 applications poured in. But if you look at just the “extremely low-income category”, that number jumped to 650 applications for every qualified unit. So if you’re in the highest income bracket, you’re 6 times as likely to win the housing lottery. The lower your income, the fewer units are available to you. In other words, the more you need it, the harder it is to secure an affordable home.
Ndubuizu: And so what ends up happening is those residents don't actually get access to the, quote unquote, affordable housing that's built. And so we continue to have this huge gap between the actual need and the supply of affordable housing.
Melissa: Back at the park with my childhood friend Rita, we started talking about how things could be different. Rita said she wishes more had been done to keep families like hers in affordable housing on the island, but how do you fight against profit-margins?
Rita Ombele: Money talks, right? So we're in this capitalistic ass country, so it's all people see. Money, money, money.
Melissa: The absurdity for Rita, is not just that affordable housing is harder to come by, it’s that, at the very same time, the luxury homes that are cropping up left and right? Nobody’s moving into them.
Ombele: A lot of these skyscrapers are vacant, and it's pissing me off because it's like you have native New Yorkers who now can't afford to live here anymore, because the prices, rent is ridiculous and that they're moving to the South. But it's like you guys are building up all of these buildings that are empty. For what? Because the real estate value? And then once it goes up, then you're going to sell. You know what I mean? Like, really? Like, what is the meaning behind it when you have so many homeless people, or just people in general who are looking for places to live? You know what I mean?
Melissa: Between 2017 and 2021, New York City lost nearly 100,000 apartments that rent below $1,500 a month. Meanwhile, it gained more than 100,000 apartments renting over $2,300 a month. The other issue is zoning. Many zoning laws today prevent new housing developments from ever breaking ground. And with no state authority to override these laws, New York City’s suburbs aren’t producing their fair share of needed housing, which contributes to the affordable housing shortage.
Melissa: New York Governor Kathy Hochul tried to address this in her 2023 budget plan. She put forward two proposals – one would require suburban governments to OK applications for more housing in single-family areas. The other would allow multi-family homes to be built near commuter rail stations - like Amtrak. The thinking was – more housing by transit equals more homes and less traffic, which suburbanites often say is their main objection to building new housing in their neighborhoods.
But nearly 50 years after suburban lawmakers successfully lobbied to strip the Urban Development Corporation of its power to build affordable housing, Governor Hochul succumbed to the same pressures and abandoned her proposals. Opponents were mostly lawmakers from Long Island, which has a massive affordable housing shortage. They said, among other things, that it would create parking issues, that it eliminated their local zoning authority, and that their single-family neighborhoods were under attack. According to news reports, the Governor also fears the proposals would make it difficult for centrist Democrats to get elected in the suburbs. Governor Hochul now says she wants to work with local governments to create a new proposal, but if history is any indicator, suburban New York politicians don’t usually jump for joy when it comes to building affordable housing in their backyard.
And while Governor Hochul has recently shown a willingness to push through her plan to build more housing in the suburbs, she’s been quiet about two other very popular measures that would protect tenants – Good Cause Eviction, which would cap the rent increase on market rate housing to 3%, and another proposal aptly called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. So if there’s no substantial political support for public housing or other subsidized housing, as was the case in the short life of the UDC… what can be done? Here’s Yonah Freemark again.
Freemark: The question in my mind, number one, is, can we build a political movement that gets people in power who believe in this as a priority? Why aren't the people who serve in the U.S. Congress, who serve in the state legislature taking housing conditions and housing needs more seriously? One reason is that we haven't built a strong enough movement from the ground up to elect the right people and to force people in office to make the changes we want to see.
Melissa: Freemark said more tenants should band together and exercise their collective impact. And it reminded me of the recent story, of the Port Morris neighborhood in the South Bronx. In 2017, a new landlord purchased a 21-unit building there for $4 million. They wanted to overturn its rent-stabilized status to charge significantly higher market rate rents. But residents organized, and managed to get the building sold to a nonprofit, which is now helping residents convert the building into something called a Housing Development Fund Corporation Co-op. When the process is all said and done, residents, once at risk of being priced out, will be able to collectively own their building for $2,500 each. Professor Ndubuizu…
Ndubuizu: A just housing system will require a dramatic revamp of our financial institutions and providing financial instruments that actually provides long-term, low rent affordability. So that means limited equity cooperatives. That means having centralizing the ethic of cooperative economics within the financial system.
Melissa: The Port Morris example is a major victory, but it’s a small-scale solution to an issue that’s so much bigger, and more structural than any one co-op can hope to solve. Housing should just be a human right, my friend Rita said.
Rita Ombele: There should be no reason why there is somebody who is homeless there and there's somebody who has, you know, an apartment in this building, but is only here once a year and lives somewhere else. But the people who are living in the city can even have somewhere to lay their head at night.
Melissa: The tension that Rita’s describing here is between the exchange value of a home, versus the use value of a home, which causes the rent intensification that Jameela was talking about earlier. In other words, we live in a world where housing as an investment, something to make money off of, is prioritized to the detriment of housing as a home. Profit over shelter. As Professor Ndubuizu said again and again, the way we determine that worth, is deeply tied to race and class and power. These forces are so ingrained in us, she said, but they can be unlearned too.
Ndubuizu: Because we've been taught for so long that housing is a form of wealth accumulation, we have been constantly saturated with ideas of how to individuate and individualize our relationship to housing. And so we will need community education, whether that's happening in our school systems or whether that's happening in the communities…where we're actually reinvigorating ideas and civic associations and turning them away from “how do we protect private ownership?” to centering questions of co-operative economics and practices of cooperative economics and shared resources. So then we are less likely to, in the case of Roosevelt Island, to see different sub-populations in the working class as either deviant, or undeserving, or worthy of exclusion.
Melissa: I reached out to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation several times for an interview. That’s the corporation set up in 1984 by New York State to run the island. I wanted to ask someone there about its priorities and goals when it comes to providing genuinely affordable housing for low and middle income residents. No one returned my requests.
As a public-benefit corporation, its goal is to develop the island and presumably, it can help set the agenda for what gets built or doesn’t get built. But lately, the majority of new housing there has been prioritized for upper middle income residents. And the last meaningful remaining plots of land on the southern tip of the island are now home to Cornell University’s tech campus and the long-awaited Four Freedoms State Park. These last developments are appreciated in many ways, but certainly many have wondered: what if the state chose to build more subsidized housing there instead?
Freemark: So we need to find a way to make housing, not about investment, but rather about quality of life….We need to think about housing as having use value, as something that has merit in and of itself, that everyone deserves and that everyone can afford.
Melissa: The bottom line is that a housing system largely left to the free market has no incentive to produce housing for those who need it most. Its goal is to make as much money as possible. And in that process, those who need housing most get left behind.
Ndubuizu: Because we have a speculative approach and a privatized approach to housing, because housing is a commodity, that core issue of universal shelter that's quality and can protect us from the elements, and sustain us is always going to be a critical contradiction.
Melissa: In our current housing system, Professor Ndubuizu says that critical contradiction has always been tied to race as well. Specifically, Black women and their children are the most vulnerable and most quickly displaced. On Roosevelt Island, the census data shows that the number of Black residents has dropped more precipitously than any other race or ethnicity over the last two decades. And professor Ndubuizu says this will continue to be the case, until we actually start dismantling the speculative housing market. One way to address this is for the government to step in and make decent housing a priority. And Roosevelt Island is proof that it’s possible. Why not engage in that same level of ambition again?
Freemark: Having money available at the public sector is, to a large degree, a choice made by people in office and by the voters about what they want to prioritize, whether they want to increase support for public services or whether they don't care, and whether they are willing to let people live in in indecent housing and expensive housing.
Ndubuizu: The organizer in me says that, you know, we're only as strong as our collective will to continue to fight. As long as our popular will continues to get more organized and more coordinated and we use the voting booth, plus our political advocacy, that has to happen at all levels, we can then shape what the state does or does not do.
Melissa: The summer of 2020 showed that there’s an unapologetic demand for the Biden administration to address the legacies of racial harm in the U.S., Professor Ndubuizu says.
In a way, history is repeating itself. Without the dogged organizing of Civil Rights activists in the ‘60s and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s hard to imagine the UDC passing the New York State Legislature. Today, we’re living through a similar inflection point, with resurgent social uprisings triggered by the police killing of George Floyd, not to mention rising inflation, and a global pandemic that’s slashed the number of people who work in New York City offices.
As Dorothy Davis points out, there’s opportunity in these moments of crisis to shift the paradigm.
Dorothy Davis: You have to seize the moment because it only comes once in a while. Right? And right now, New York is scrambling, like every other city, to figure out, okay, what's our identity?
Jameela: Hey, it’s your host Jameela. If we’re in a moment now where the city—and really, the country—can reinvent itself… why don’t we reinvest in public housing, or social housing as some advocates call it? And why don’t we invest at a level that makes sense, not housing of last resort, but desirable, quality housing designed for racially and economically diverse neighborhoods, where residents have equal access to public space and amenities?
Why not have housing for all?
After decades of austerity politics one major casualty is our collective imagination. What is the government capable of? What the UDC accomplished, on Roosevelt Island, remains compelling proof that governments can successfully challenge dominant ideologies about housing. And at the same time meet people’s needs.
If the country ever hopes to build housing on that scale again, we need a change at the city, state, and federal levels. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not possible. There are thousands of people who lived through the UDC’s Roosevelt Island experiment who will tell you otherwise.
Jameela: Plot of Land is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music from Blue Dot Sessions. Thank you for joining us. And please, share these stories. Rate and review Plot of Land wherever you get your podcasts.
Thank you to all the Roosevelt Island residents who spoke to me on and off the record for this story.
A special thank you to my mother who made this story possible by moving us to the island all those years ago.
Archival tape from C-Span, Comedy Central, and PBS.
Thank you to Lizabeth Cohen, whose book “Saving America’s Cities” was integral to our research on the UDC and Ed Logue.