Grassroots Group Eyes Progress Amid Lucerne Activism

Open New York advocates for affordable housing and residential construction

04 Oct 2020 | 04:22

At one of the recent press conferences about the Lucerne homeless shelter saga on the Upper West Side, the crowd included members of a local organization, Open New York, that advocates for affordable housing and residential construction. The organization wanted local city officials to address the situation of homeless men continuously being relocated to new shelters.

Whether subsidized by the city or a private company at below-market rate, Open New York would like to see the availability of more homes for low-income city residents.

Kyle Dontoh, a recent graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said what makes Open New York different from other public housing advocates is that they look at the issue from a holistic, interconnected perspective.

“We understand that we are in a housing crisis and the way things are now, we are fighting over a shrinking pie,” said Dontoh. “People are drawn into competition for a relative small number of homes and compelled to compete based on price, ergo, the only people who can succeed are the people who have the most resources – which causes waves of displacement and limitations on opportunity. Whereas people who are placed out of one neighborhood are forced to go into the next, then push people who are there out and it’s like a ripple effect of displacement.”

“A Vocal Few”

Community unrest first brewed when 283 homeless men were temporarily lodged at the Lucerne Hotel on 79th Street, after being relocated from the Washington Jefferson hotel on West 51st Street in July. At a rally on Sept. 16, Dontoh was struck by remarks made by Maya D. Wiley, a potential 2021 NYC mayoral candidate and former top counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Once overseeing the city’s police oversight board and a civil rights lawyer, Wiley deflected the attention on her mayoral bid and focused her speech fighting to keep the Lucerne as shelter.

“A vocal few shouldn’t be able to tell a whole community, a community whose concerns were met, that these men have to be pushed out,” Wiley said at the rally.

Among the other speakers were City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, whom Dontoh says has been consistent about speaking up despite political risk or the loss of political capital – sticking her neck out in favor of the shelter. “Rosenthal really had a very loud and noisy conversation with the people in her district who were up against it,” said Dontoh.

Mayor de Blasio’s administration announced on Sept. 23 that the people sheltered at the Lucerne are expected to be moved to a hotel in the Wall Street area. According to the UWS Open Hearts Initiative, they expected it to happen on October 5.

Volunteer Staff

Open New York’s passion to achieve their agenda runs deeps. Started in a basement in Murray Hill in 2016, the organization has grown substantially. Dontoh, who got involved in early 2017 as an undergraduate at Columbia, recalled that when he began working with Open New York, there was no permanent staff, everyone being volunteers.

Dontoh stated that Open New York believes a focus on rezoning would be something they could back from any candidate in the 2021 mayoral election. The city council initiated the discussion of rezoning, but it was specifically Open New York who brought affordable housing into the conversation, including “Let’s up-zone SoHo.” He said that New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer was one elected official who supported their agenda.

Dontoh said that Open New York believes de Blasio has backtracked on statements he made during his run for mayor and in the early days of his administration.

At the “Where the Children Sleep” photographic exhibition for World Refugee Day in 2016, de Blasio spoke about the things that he looked to enforce during his time as mayor: basic human rights, building equal opportunity and to inspire everyone to action.

“We have a deep understanding of what it means to search the world for a new home, to be cast out of the country you come from, to be forced out by persecution,” de Blasio said during his speech. “For us, it’s a reminder that the fact that people are thrown into such a painful and difficult circumstance ... their identity is stripped away from them... It’s a moment we wish didn’t happen, and, yet, if we are a city of refugees in so many ways, which proves what happens when people reach out a helping hand to refugees and give them a chance at a new start.”

Dontoh says that the mayor has changed the approach he preached about earlier in his term. “The Lucerne ... is the people who have fallen over and are trying to get back up. Instead of trying to help them, give them a helping hand like [de Blasio] campaigned on back in the beginning, this mayor has bent over to the people who would rather kick at that hand.”

To further clarify what Dontoh believes is false narrative about New Yorkers, he referenced the findings of the Siena College Research Institute. The Manhattan Institute commissioned them to survey New York City adults making $100,000 yearly, to understand their views on the future of work and their likelihood of leaving the city amidst COVID-19.

“It was opposite of the narrative that all the rich people are moving out and it’s the real working-class people who are the ones toughing it out to stay,” Dontoh said. “It was actually found that higher income earners are more likely to stay and lower income workers are more likely to leave – but of course, they can’t. It’s not really a question of desire but of resources. People who have access to money, who can afford to buy space, effectively things are good for you.”

Dontoh said Open New York would like to see the rezoning of NoHo and Soho as the next steps taken, which would create 3500 new units and 700 would be affordable.

“The city is not just a city, the city is an ecosystem,” said Dontoh. “Something happening in one place is going to influence the whole region. If it is just one unit, then yeah, it doesn’t matter. But when we’re talking about a 300,000-unit shortage over the last ten years between jobs and new unit construction, that’s going to have a very significant effect and we need to start closing that gap. “

“People who are placed out of one neighborhood are forced to go into the next, then push people who are there out and it’s like a ripple effect of displacement.” Kyle Dontoh of Open New York