Squeaky wheels get a victory

New York City public housing residents won some breathing space to build support for keeping their community centers open.

PUBLIC HOUSING residents in New York City scored a small but significant victory in the final days of 2008 because of their determination to speak out. Plans to close 19 community centers in the five boroughs have been "put on hold."

Columnist: Brian Jones

Brian Jones Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. He is featured in the new film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and his commentary and writing has appeared on MSNBC.com, the Huffington Post, GritTV and the International Socialist Review. Jones has also lent his voice to several audiobooks, including Howard Zinn's one-man play Marx in Soho, Wallace Shawn's Essays and Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects.

At a December 22 meeting with officials from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), a crowded room of East Harlem residents cheered when they were told that the Jackie Robinson Community Center would be granted a six-month extension.

Unfortunately, residents discovered there was more to the story. Claiming it was facing a $195 million deficit, NYCHA officials put forward a new plan for keeping the centers open: privatization. "Community-based organizations" already being asked to submit proposals to come in and run these centers. Residents were encouraged to solicit proposals and were promised a voice in deciding which organization would be selected.

I visited the Jackie Robinson center earlier in the month, and it was obvious from all the activity and the range of programs offered there that residents rely heavily on these facilities.

So there was an understandable feeling of relief that the center would not be closed on January 2, as originally planned. But there was anger about the new plan as well. "This is despicable and embarrassing that we have to run around to get money for our children," one resident told officials.

The new plan doesn't hold much promise for the 200 people who currently work in the centers citywide. As union members in AFSCME District Council 37 and Social Service Employees Union Local 371, they will most likely face layoffs if the centers fall into private hands. Some workers have already received pink slips saying February 20 will be their last day.

Joanne Smitherman, president of the Highbridge Gardens Residents Association, is furious about the possibility of layoffs. "I don't want to hear about them not having a job, because they've got families, too," she said.

According to NYCHA's deputy general manager, Hugh Spence, the average community center staff person has 15 years on the job.

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NYCHA HAS not yet released information on how centers will remain open without staff, or which centers are losing staff. Still, the fact that the January deadline was moved is a clear example of the squeaky wheels getting the grease.

On December 23, the New York Daily News quoted Smitherman in an article on the centers closing. On December 24, NYCHA officials called her to say that they were "putting everything on hold," and that the question of whether or not to close her center "was not settled yet."

Birdie Glenn, president of the Jackie Robinson Tenants Association, and City Council member Inez Dickens hounded NYCHA over the plan to close their community center in East Harlem.

Glenn and her board members had already collected hundreds of signatures on petitions, had written and sent letters of protest to several elected officials, and were gearing up for further actions when they received the news that the center would not be closed for at least another six months.

"It's so easy for them to just come down and say that this center is closed," a NYCHA employee (who did not want to be named in this article) told me. "They're not closing it because you guys put up a fight."

"People tend to think that just something is written or spoken, it's the law and that's the way it's gonna be," Smitherman told me, drawing lessons from many years as a tenant organizer. "I've learned differently, I've experienced differently. That's what people need to understand. When they told me that three centers in the Bronx have to close, I told them, 'You must be crazy!'"

NYCHA's general manager, Douglas Apple, laid the blame for the financial woes on the Bush administration, explaining that NYCHA's budget was cut by $600 million in the last six years. "I'm hoping that there's a new day coming in Washington," he said.

But many public housing residents feel that NYCHA's budget is also being bled by unfair expenses. At a rally in Queens to protest the closing of the Latimer Gardens Community Center, state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky lamented the fact that NYCHA has to pay New York City "for services such as sanitation and public safety that other New Yorkers receive free of charge. To bill NYCHA is outrageous, and this charge must be rescinded," Stavisky said, according to the Queens Chronicle.

This fight isn't over. Activists and residents have won an important victory--mainly some breathing space to build support for keeping the community centers open and to make further plans.

There is likely to be tremendous pressure on tenant leaders to accept the logic of budget cuts, and to focus instead on how to help NYCHA and the city manage a new, privatized arrangement. At a meeting held this week with citywide tenant organization representatives, Smitherman and other tenant leaders were actually told to start recruiting volunteers to run the community centers!

We shouldn't accept the excuse that there isn't enough money to keep the centers open with the experienced, unionized staff members that currently work there. After all, if some nonprofit organization can get money from foundations to run a community center, why can't that same money just be given to NYCHA?

We have to reject the idea that there simply isn't enough money. Barack Obama is making headlines with his plans for hundreds of billions of dollars to stimulate the economy.

Public housing residents deserve some of that grease. Now is the time to squeak.