Tenants, housing advocates join Occupy Wall Street protests

From left: Wednesday’s Occupy Wall Street protest, Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants Political Action
Committee, and pro-tenant attorney Samuel Himmelstein

As thousands of demonstrators rallied at the Occupy Wall Street protests yesterday, they were joined by hundreds of affordable housing advocates, tenants organizations and even tenants’ lawyers, who hold the big commercial banks and wealthy investors directly responsible for an ongoing housing crisis.

“I have been very excited about the Occupy Wall Street movement and the fact that its growing and the fact that these kids have been able to spark something that we’ve been waiting for years,” said Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants Political Action Committee, a statewide organization that works to elect pro-tenant politicians to higher office.

McKee said that thousands of New Yorkers have been pushed out of affordable housing either by the sale of Mitchell-Lama buildings or the purchase of rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem and other low-income neighborhoods, which are then deregulated in favor of higher paying tenants.

McKee and other advocates argue that Wall Street investors drove much of the speculative investment during the boom and would like to see more protection for homeowners, tenants and other working people who were hurt during the housing boom.

Tenants groups, labor unionists and others got out for the two-week-old protests yesterday with a 4 p.m. rally at Foley Square and a march down to Zuccotti Park, however McKee said his group was penned in at Foley Square for more than two hours due to police barricades and wound up marching over to Chambers Street at 7 p.m. yesterday. He said that despite the difficult logistics of the march, he expects this protest will linger for weeks or months to come.

“I do not agree that this is a ragtag movement without a message,” McKee said. “They have identified the problem in this country, they have identified who has the power in this country, it’s not the government, it’s the oligarch’s that own the government.”

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A New York Police Department spokesperson referred questions regarding the protest to City Hall. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking at a press conference today, noted that the city was very tolerant of protests, but added there was a “standard of conduct” that had to be maintained and that protestors would be allowed with permits once safety issues were reviewed. Despite those concerns, Bloomberg expressed sympathy over concerns about the economy and the political gridlock in Washington.

Samuel Himmelstein, a partner in the law firm of Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue and Joseph, participated in the rally with several other attorneys from his firm. He said during the boom he fought many landlords trying to evict tenants because they alleged the tenants were not living in their primary residence. But the weak economy has changed many of the cases he sees now.

“What I’ve seen going up is number of tenants, both residential and commercial, that can’t pay their rent anymore,” he told The Real Deal.

Tenants and Neighbors, a statewide group that works with tenants in rent-regulated and affordable housing apartments, also participated in the protest movement. They have argued for years that many of these buildings were highly leveraged during the real estate boom, and now developers cannot afford to charge affordable rents or provide proper services.

“A lot of the organizing has been about getting the banks and the bank regulators to try and address the problem in a responsible way,” said Emily Goldstein, subsidized housing organizer at Tenants and Neighbors, a statewide group that works with tenants in affordable housing developments.

The Pratt Area Community Council, an organization that rehabilitates housing and advocacy in the Clinton Hill and Fort Greene sections of Brooklyn, also participated in the protests, amid concerns that residents are being pushed out of these neighborhoods.

“We felt that this was an issue that really fell into an area we work strongly in,” said Sujatha Raman, director of development for the organization.

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