Brooklyn, late 80s: we seized private property… and should have seized much more

A little flavor from a lost era if not a lost cause of saving New York

I worked as a community and tenant organizer for ACORN on and off from 1987 to 1991 in Brooklyn. There was a couple more or less running the office, Fran and her husband… what was his name? I can picture him flipping his hair out of his face — too long not because of some kind of hippy look but because he was too busy to get a hair cut — and storming around the office in a huff, even as Fran was as calm as summer day no matter what happened. Obviously, these two were more than a married couple but a functional unit. I just can’t remember the guy’s name.

Just before I stumbled into the office, a nice group of families had taken over a couple dozen abandoned buildings in an organized squat. We had about 80 units in the organization when we stopped squatting, in an agreement with the city to set up another organization with no obvious links to ACORN. It was a deal. If you have an organization with an address and known leadership, as we did, and if you care about your reputation, the moral high ground, you always cut a deal in the end, or get rolled over.

Rather than auction off buildings to speculators, the master plan was to establish a mutual housing cooperative (search MHANY NYC), for poor people to own their own homes while maintaining a permanent pool of affordable housing. This plan did work, well in fact, even if we did not transform the meaning of “home ownership” in Brooklyn.

One of the key leaders of the squatters was named Manny, which was mad confusing when I first started because MHANY is pronounced Manny. Big relief when someone explained that Manny did not (and could not) name the organization after himself. That’s just a hint of how behind the curve I felt when I started, but I was only 18.

I have a copy of the New York Times article above in my scrapbook somewhere. I saved all the articles, as wrong as they mostly were. I have one somewhere from the Daily News about a tenant action we pulled off. Got to dig that one out.

If you look up the organization that did, in fact, emerge from the action, MHANY, you’ll see that there is usually pretty scant information about the origin of the Mutual Housing Authority. It was an extralegal, organized seizure of private property by a leftist organization. And we got away with it but we had to hide that origin. And stop squatting.

The organization that emerged worked like this: the family in the house owned the house, but the coop owned the land on which the house stood. The owner could pass the house on to his or her children, or whatever, but whenever the owner might want to sell the house, s/he would have to sell it back to the organization, which would, in turn, pass it along to another family on the waiting list who could buy the house with “sweat equity” and almost no money upfront. So, the idea was, the houses would remain available to poor people forever.

After more or less hiding the origins of MHANY, ACORN looked for ways to get loan money to be able to fix up these shells (the houses tended to be in horrible shape). One technique was to sue local banks, or threatening to sue, under the Community Reinvestment Act: the bank could avoid trouble by coughing up loan money.

There was a parallel street dimension to this legal track. We held demonstrations at the offices of local banks. I was particularly involved in demonstrations at Banco de Ponce, a Puerto Rican bank with branches in East New York and Brownsville, where we were active.

About 40 of us walked into the bank, then busted out the signs: “Banco de Ponce doesn’t care about our neighborhood.” It was true: the bank did not comply with the Community Reinvestment Act, Puerto Rican or not has nothing to do with it.

The bank freaked. Being a bank, they could easily access the police and we were surrounded by about 1000 cops and removed. At this time the murder rate in the neighborhood was through the roof, of course, with dozens of murders every week in the neighborhoods.

The vastly excessive police response pissed me off. Most of the protesters were Puerto Rican members, many quite old, and all completely harmless. We were a little roughed up, in fact.

Just for the hell of it, or something, maybe vengance, maybe strategy, I called the bank the next day. I said I was a freelance journalist covering the protest story and asked rather obvious questions. Then I said, “I was just speaking to the protest organizer and they suggested they would be back Friday. What would your response be? Would you expect a similar police response?”

Now we were not planning another protest Friday. I just wanted to throw them off a bit. The bank rep said the police response was perfect and that he would hope to see a similar response if there was another protest. Then, he asked, what paper was going to run this story?

I hadn’t really figured out this part: I wasn’t prepared. I remembered there was a restaurant on Vanderbilt Avenue downtown (this is all from memory, mind you) that was called Page One. We called that part of Brooklyn “downtown” in East New York then but it’s now Prospect Heights. I remember Page One seemed more like the name of a paper than a restaurant. So, I said, “Page One.” He asked for the number. I said I was working from home and gave him my number… he wanted the number of the newspaper office and I said I was a freelancer and would have to get back to him.

I hung up and called Page One. A woman answered. I had never set foot in the restaurant. All I knew is that it was Caribbean food, so probably Caribbean people. Anyway, not White people, and in the 80s in the neighborhood, I thought I had a shot by just telling her the story and asking for her help. I told her, flat out, I had lied to a guy from the bank and that if he called, she should say they ran a newspaper, not a restaurant. I was a complete stranger with a totally whacky story. Nevertheless, she agreed to do it.

I gave the bank the number. He called. He could look her restaurant up in the phonebook, I guess, so I thought I had to give an actual business called Page One and not just put a friend up to take the call… not sure about my logic at the time. Anyway, this worked.

Friday, the day of the “protest,” rolled around and at 10 AM I called people in East New York to go check the bank out. About 1000 cops surrounded the building.

Effective? Annoying? Useless? Not sure. I thought maybe I’d get in trouble when I reported the operation at work later in the day. The guy, Fran’s husband, got on the phone and verified the bank was indeed copped up to the brim.

“Nice work,” he said.

My boss then, Fran’s husband, said, “Look, we proved that this model of housing works to creating sustainable affordable housing and home ownership for poor people. Do you think they want to expand the program? Never.”

Brooklyn was a different place then, of course. But, for the record, this non-capitalist approach to housing, this ground up, illegal, radical approach, represents a powerful model. The Mutual Housing Association was effective, non-governmental, outside of the crushing, gentrifying capitalism of ethnic cleansing we see in Brooklyn now, or even then.

There are some 180,000 units of public housing in NYC, about 800,000 rent stabilized units and maybe as few as 80 in the mutual housing model. Still, as small as this collective model is, it might be the way forward. Consider a building with, say, 12 rent stabilized units, that should be a worth about 2.5 million given the current rent paid by the tenants. If that building sells for 6 million, you know the new owner wants to kick everyone out, one way or another, bribes, making life hell, somehow. In a just society, the state should step in, as the buyer with the right of first refusal as in many property contracts, and buy the building for 2.5 million, then resell the property to the tenants with a mortgage that is equivalent to their current rent. The new owner/tenant would have to re-sell the unit, if they ever leave, back to the co-op at a set rate, with only a 3% increase in value per year.

Taking all 800,000 units of rent stabilized housing out of the private market, removing all landlords, and selling the units to the tenants at a fixed rate would stop the ethnic cleansing and homogenization (White-ification, richification) of the city. The only thing stopping this from happening is capitalist propaganda that says that people born rich (almost no one can buy these units on the open market without family money and the investors who buy the apartments to convert them also inherited their wealth) have more of a right to live in a given neighborhood than people who have lived their their whole lives and pay more than 50% of their income in rent… as almost all rent stabilized tenants work and pay massive percentages of their income in rent right now. Hard working Black and Hispanic families are being driven out by White people with inherited wealth.

If the model had been widespread back then, New York City might not be as lily White as it is becoming. Many Black and Hispanic people, particularly but also White and Asian, had no chance to buy houses then or now and the gap between ethnicities has nothing to do with hard work or any kind of morality. Rather, who could buy had a lot to do with inherited wealth. Somehow inherited wealth is okay — morally, legally acceptible. If you grew up on the otherside of the world, you can have a house in the neighborhood if you have the money. But moving into an abandoned building on your own block and fixing it up for your family to live in with no potential profit motive (resale to the collective) was not to be tolerated.

We were way too timid when we had the chance to take city-owned property. Instead of our small movement, we should have been millions and taken a substantial portion of the city property, seized, and most of the public should have understood that housing is a right and supported us. Given media ownership, indoctination to capitalist ideology in school, ethnic divisions, and the legal system, a mass movement was not in the cards. Of course, we were vilified.

I barely understood what was going on then, being not yet 20, even if the injustice of the system was pretty obvious. I jumped in with both feet and caused as much trouble as possible. That fake bank protest was par for the course of the stuff I was up to.

We should have seized the whole neighborhood before they gentrified it. Maybe the moral high ground route was wrong too. Maybe, given that the system was never going to expand the program within the law, we should have had a mass movement of taking property and fighting off anyone who tried to remove us from the buildings. We (I mean the whole neighborhood) just weren’t radical enough and now the neighborhood belongs to someone else. It’s gone. People scattered. At a key turning point, we decided to play by the rules and behave. We tempered our image and cooperated with the system. So, we basically lost. The system does not want poor, Black and Brown people to have stable home ownership.