VICTORY: NYC enacts sweeping policy changes demanded by homeless “cluster site” shelter residents!!

In a huge victory for our housing campaign, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced yesterday that he was taking bold and decisive steps to transition shelter units into actual housing for homeless people – steps that members of Picture the Homeless have been fighting for for years, which will lead to 1,100 units of housing going back to rent stabilization, and 800 families coming out of homelessness.

“It’s fair to say the magnitude of this crisis is unprecedented, and it’s fair to say our response must be unprecedented as well,” de Blasio said at a press conference in the South Bronx. “The city will take immediate action to acquire cluster buildings and convert them into quality, permanent affordable housing.”

PTH member Tahica Fredericks (right) with NYC Commissioner of Housing Preservation & Development Maria Torres-Springer (left), Homeless Services Commissioner Steven Banks (center left) and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio (center right).

That includes using eminent domain to take the property, if landlords do not comply – something we’ve been demanding since the Bloomberg years.

We’ve always said clusters were a public health emergency, and everyone laughed at us when we mentioned eminent domain – from administration officials to other housing organizations. The City hasn’t used eminent domain for a purpose like this in a long time, and homeless folks shifted discourse and policy in ways that other people told us was impossible.

PTH members joined the Mayor and his commissioners for Housing and Homelessness in making the announcement – including Tahica Fredericks (pictured, right), who exactly one year ago was leading a candlelight vigil for two children killed in a “cluster site” shelter due to slumlord neglect. “These buildings need to be fixed up and reverted to the rent stabilized apartments that they were before,” she said then. “Greed is running rampant, and the Mayor needs to stop rewarding slumlords with multi-million dollar contracts. He needs to put a muzzle on the gentrification that’s destroying communities. Homeless people have real solutions, like our Gaining Ground Pilot Project. Let’s create housing, for everyone. How many more children need to die?”

After joining the Mayor in his announcement, Tahica said “It’s amazing to me that a year after two children lost their lives in one of these cluster sites, the city has made an announcement that they’re going to phase out this dehumanizing program. I am so proud and happy to bear witness to the dismantling of this unjust system. I’m sitting here grinning as I imagine the looks on the faces of the 800 families who will find out they’re going to be exiting the shelter system for permanent housing. There’s nothing like finding out that the floor beneath you will no longer move.”

When Housing Organizer Ryan Hickey pointed out to the mayor that his administration laughed at this idea when we brought it to them, he said “You guys are visionaries, and visionaries are always laughed at in the beginning.”

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio (center left) with PTH Members Lisa Milhouse (left), Charmel Lucas (center right) and Housing Organizer Ryan Hickey (right). Photo by Edwin Torres.

“I think this is awesome that they’re finally making change, and that hopefully soon no one else will have to go through what I went through,” said PTH member and cluster-site survivor Lisa Milhouse (pictured with the Mayor). “It was a nightmare experience. I’m happy he finally took our advice and saw that his way wasn’t working.”

At that candlelight vigil a year ago, Lisa said: “The Mayor needs to fix these cluster site units, turn them back into apartments, and give us a permanent place to live. His programs are not working. He should take advice from the people that are living through it, and implement real solutions like our Gaining Ground Pilot Project, which would move the city away from expensive and unsafe shelters and towards sustainable housing for all.”

The devil will be in the details, and we know that slumlords will fight tooth and nail to keep from doing the right thing. But when all is said and done, Picture the Homeless members will have helped bring 1,100 units of housing back to rent stabilization, and taken 800 families out of homelessness. In these scary times, victories this significant are extremely rare.