Harlem community battles developers, privatization of schools and housing

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In his 1951 poem Harlem, Langston Hughes asks: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

More than half a century later, with hedge fund honchos and real estate moguls calling the shots, the pursuit of profit is turning Harlem’s unfinished dream of Black liberation into a struggle by residents to block transformation of the neighborhood into a luxury playground for the select few. Quality public housing and public schools — pressing needs for Harlem residents — are a key part of the fight.

Rezoning for gentrification. During the 2008 recession, billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a major rezoning of Harlem. On Feb. 21, 2008, The New York Times reported that Harlem’s iconic 125th Street would be “transformed from a low-rise boulevard with businesses like hair salons … into a regional business hub with office towers as high as 29 stories.” The plan “might lead to the razing of some of the street’s century-old buildings.”

One local activist described this as “Harlem’s death warrant.” Community Board 10, representing Central Harlem, voted against the plan. But the New York City council rubber-stamped it, disregarding protests so strong that the council brought in police.

As usual, the proposal promised to create thousands of jobs. But Harlem’s unemployment rate has stuck at around 17 percent. Residents’ average income remains a third of what the rest of the city makes.

Meanwhile, luxury apartments, condominiums, and swanky office buildings rise from the earth, changing the face and character of the historic district.

Profit drive vs. public housing. While Harlem becomes increasingly unaffordable, access to public housing is ever more difficult. It has the highest concentration of public housing in the country.

Harlem is under a double-barreled attack to replace public housing with “market-rate,” i.e. privately-owned, for-profit housing units.

First there’s budget slashing from Washington. The Obama administration has cut Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which finances the projects, by hundreds of millions of dollars — $100 million in 2011 alone. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) currently faces an $18 billion shortfall for urgently needed capital improvements. The New York Times reports, “Vital repairs are going uncompleted. And essential renovations are being put off indefinitely.” Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society commented: “If we don’t do something about these developments, we’re going to lose them.”

Next is the recent police “anti-crime” campaign against selected NYCHA projects. In June 2014, for example, a military-style assault was staged on two Harlem housing projects. In “Operation Crewcut,” body-armored police arrested 40 youths on charges that could bring them 15 years to life in prison. Instead of improving education, job opportunities, or otherwise productively countering youth crime, the police handed the city a neat little weapon — drug-related charges are grounds for eviction of whole families from public housing.

Charter school invasion. These schools are publicly funded but privately managed. CEO’s often make huge salaries.

The main charter developments have been in urban communities of color. New Orleans schools have been converted almost entirely to charters since Hurricane Katrina. Washington, D.C., is about 50 percent charters. Harlem sends 25 percent of its children to charter schools, with half the schools in Central Harlem now charters.

This expansion of private control over public funds has been made possible with vigorous backing from Democrat politicians. Obama has committed tens of millions of federal dollars to charter programs. He even proclaimed the first week of May in 2013 and 2014 “National Charter Schools Week.” Describing them as “an important partner” in “communities with few high-quality educational options,” he didn’t address the obvious economic racism that forces such limited options. Nor did he admit that charters are actually increasing race and income segregation.

Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo championed charters at an Albany rally early in 2014 called by charter mogul Eva Moskowitz. She was outraged that not all of her demands for free space were granted.

Yet New York City’s new Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, despite prior demagogic anti-charter campaign sloganeering, awarded her five new charters out of the eight she requested. Overall, he approved 36 of 45 charter applications to “co-locate” in public schools, i.e. to get free rent.

Harlem’s charter schools, eager to engineer higher test scores and attract more students, select their own students, which public schools aren’t allowed to do. Harlem’s public school children are much poorer, more are English language learners, and more have special needs. Parents have protested the exceptional privileges given to charter schools at public expense.

In a 2012 rally against Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter sharing space at Wadleigh Secondary School of Performing Arts, parents chanted “separate is unequal.”

Hedge funds and charters. The connection between gentrified real estate development and charter schools is not coincidental. In December 2009, The New York Times reported on the huge interest Wall Street hedge funds were taking in charters, noting that “hedge funds managers … dominate the boards of many of the city’s charter schools” like Harlem Success Academy 4, and that “in New York, hedge funds are at the movement’s epicenter.” These speculators like the “incredible cash flow” of charters, where they can double their money in seven years due to a special federal tax credit.

They also drool over the non-unionized teacher work force.

Commenting on the hedge fund interest in charters, education activist Barbara Miner wrote that “Real estate obviously plays a role, as Harlem and the South Bronx are the poor neighborhoods most ripe for gentrification.”

Stop the privatization. Gentrification in Harlem is based on ignoring the needs of Harlem’s longstanding residents. The wealthy move in and the poor are forced out. It is all driven by the profit motive, and if some people suffer, “that’s how capitalism works.”

But the people of Harlem have a right to stay, and live in decent, well-maintained housing. They have a right to housing they can afford. This is not the same as “affordable housing,” a legal term that allows 30 percent of a person’s income to go to rent.

Harlem children have a right to high quality public schools staffed by union teachers, with smaller class sizes, more resources, and better learning environments.

Democrats and Republicans back charter school entrepreneurs and public housing budget cutters. Only when Harlem residents organize independently of these charlatans, for quality public housing, equitable funding for public schools, and a community say in all local economic decisions, can their dreams be realized.

Contact the author at fspbaltimore@hotmail.com.

Also see: Seattle tenants mobilize against massive rent hikes

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