Northern Brooklyn

In public service: Radical investment is needed if city hopes to house its immigrant population

November 24, 2020 Emily Gallagher, Assemblymember-elect 50th A.D.
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In Public Service is a regular feature of the Brooklyn Eagle to allow elected officials to offer their views and ideas to the populace they were elected to serve.

New York has long lacked enough affordable housing. But the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant economic fallout have made the problem even worse, bringing us to the point of crisis.

The effects have not been experienced equally. The ongoing pandemic has emphasized racial and economic inequities across all five boroughs and intensified the debate over adequately addressing housing insecurity.

Take one of my future Williamsburg constituents Atanacio Ortiz, for example. Atanacio is a 66-year-old refugee from El Salvador who is paying rent but has been fighting for four years to avoid eviction from his rent-stabilized home in Brooklyn. After years of legal back-and-forth, including the COVID-19 court closures and Eviction Moratorium, Atanacio is again headed to court at the end of January, facing eviction amidst a global pandemic and in the dead of winter.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

As Atanacio shared at a rally a few weeks ago, “Just as I am being harassed for my apartment, I think other neighbors of mine are also being harassed, and many landlords do this … I’m going to fight and defend my right to stay here.”

I stand with Atanacio and am going to fight alongside him and the many other rent payers who face eviction so landlords can raise prices, warehouse units or try to deregulate their buildings.

Even before the pandemic, many New Yorkers struggled to keep up with rising rents. This problem has disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and immigrant households. Many who are on the frontlines of the virus battle as essential workers, including nearly two million immigrant essential workers, or lost jobs in the service industry that has been hit particularly hard by the economic regression. However, the city lacks a robust infrastructure to help those struggling to gain access to or hold on to affordable housing, pushing more people over the precipice into homelessness.

Making matters worse, our state’s most vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, including New York’s undocumented immigrants who are not eligible for unemployment benefits or federal stimulus funds. Without a long-term solution providing economic relief, these financial hardships will only worsen.

Nearly 80,000 New Yorkers are homeless. If we don’t act now, that number will only continue to rise. Without access to financial assistance, undocumented immigrants could succumb to this fate, and are already more susceptible to harassment from unscrupulous landlords as deportation fears often prevent them from seeking help.

Some may point to the eviction and rent moratoriums repeatedly extended throughout the pandemic by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But these are short-term delays and do not apply to everyone, leaving people with the same issue: How will they be able to pay their rent?

Assemblymember-elect Emily Gallagher. Photo courtesy of Gallagher

From Cuomo on down, New York leaders often speak about the city and state as safe havens for immigrants, yet thus far, they have left this community behind. It is the responsibility of elected officials to protect our most vulnerable populations. In the face of repeated attacks by the Trump administration, immigrants and all New Yorkers need more.

Time and again, immigrants have proven themselves to be the lifeblood of the city’s workforce. They account for nearly one-quarter of New York’s population and make up more than one-fourth of the total labor force. And while New Yorkers were being asked to stay home, millions of immigrants continued working for the health and safety of all New Yorkers. Still, job losses due to the pandemic have led to widespread housing insecurity throughout the immigrant communities in New York City.

New York needs a holistic and long-term solution to its housing crisis. We must create comprehensive protections for New Yorkers, invest in projects that offer true affordability, and stop incentivizing luxury development in the five boroughs. The good news is that since the Democrats took control of the state Senate, Albany has made progress in protecting tenants. But more must be done to increase access and affordability during these uncertain times and beyond.

We must pass the “good cause” eviction law; approve aggressive vacancy and pied-a-terre taxes; enforce and expand the tenant protection act of 2019; invest in NYCHA and democratize development and planning. I ran on these ideas, and I plan to fight tirelessly for them with my colleagues in the Assembly for our constituents.

We treat housing and access to it as a privilege, something available to a select few. The truth is that safe, affordable housing is a fundamental human right, and we must aggressively fight for it. Immigrants who risked everything to come to New York City to pursue their version of the American dream deserve housing, too. When so many people are hurting, it is incumbent on our elected officials and leaders to ensure that every New Yorker, regardless of their socioeconomic or immigration status, has a place to call home. I will work to do just that.

After all, we live in a time where housing is healthcare.

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