The Story Behind the Story

Posted on March 9, 2016

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Every week, the news media reports on issues relevant to the work we support. But often, these accounts tell only a small part of a more complicated and nuanced story. In our new series, we ask our grantees to fill in the blanks. Discover the events leading up to the story and how the issue fits into the bigger picture. Find out what’s next for the people involved and their partners who are behind the scenes.

Today’s “Story Behind the Story” was sent to us by Sam Miller, communications director of Picture the Homeless. They are a member-led group that works to advocate for homeless New Yorkers.

On February 18th, we joined NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer at a press conference announcing the release by his office of a report on vacant city-owned lots, which builds on the Manhattan count we conducted with him in 2006. His office found 1100 city-owned lots, enough to create more than 50,000 units of housing!

CLICK HERE FOR A FULL SET OF PHOTOS FROM THE EVENT.

“Like the song says, this land is your land,” said Comptroller Stringer at the press conference, in front of a vacant city-owned lot on 123rd Street. “New Yorkers, you should have a say in what happens with it. This vacant lot has been owned by the city since the seventies, collecting garbage, attracting rats, and hurting the proud community of El Barrio. We’re in an affordability crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen – yet our most valuable resource, vacant space, is readily available all across this city.”

“I want to introduce a group that has been working on this issue for years,” Comptroller Stringer continued. “Picture the Homeless partnered with my office a decade ago to count vacant property all over the borough of Manhattan. And they’re still at the forefront of this fight.”

“One of our mottoes at Picture the Homeless is ‘don’t talk about us, talk with us,’” said PTH member DeBoRah Dickerson. “So, thank you, Comptroller Stringer, for coming and working with us. Thank you for helping us build up our communities, so we will not have our people being displaced by gentrification. Thank you for finding the vacant lots. We knew they were there. We’ve been saying this for years. 2006 we did the count and there were a lot of lots – and they’re still there. We want to be able to have affordable housing. We want our communities to stay vibrant. We want to be able to build up this city. New York is the greatest city in the world. Everybody comes here for opportunity, education, and a better place. We have a housing epidemic right now, and we need to be able to take our communities back. So I want to say to everyone here – thank you, thank you, thank you – and keep on moving.”

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After DeBoRah’s brilliant speech.

“Vacant lots have been a blight in our neighborhoods for years,” said Jonathan Westin, of New York Communities for Change. “I want to thank Picture the Homeless for working to bring this issue to the forefront of the housing organizing so many of us are doing. This land should not be used to line the pockets of the same City-Hall-favored developers who have been causing this crisis. As the comptroller is demanding, it should go to non-profit housing developers who will develop housing that’s actually affordable to people in these neighborhoods.”

“This city needs a better plan,” said Rosa Custodio, a PTH leader and member of the board of the directors of the East Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust. “Lots like this should not be made into more ‘affordable housing’ that’s not affordable. Put it into a community land trust so that the community can control it, and preserve our historic culture here in El Barrio. We have so much fantastic talent. Being homeless doesn’t mean you’re not creative, not talented, don’t have contributions to make – it means you can’t afford this city’s rent. And lots of people can’t. Enough is enough. Let’s get to work.”

When the press conference came to a close, PTH member Darlene Bryant led the crowd in an impromptu a capella performance of “This Land Is Your Land.”