My name is Pedro Wolfe, a prospective Social Work and Poli Sci double major with a passion for social justice. This summer, I’ve had the opportunity to intern for Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer and former Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. During my time here, Norman Siegel has taken on a wide variety of pro bono cases ranging workplace discrimination, tenants rights, racial injustices, and much more. Though I’m still ambivalent about whether I forsee myself using legal reforms to achieve social justice in my own future career, working in Norman Siegel’s law firm has given me a tremendous amount of insight into the daily process of grass roots organizing.
From my first day, I was assigned to do research and groundwork for an ongoing tenants rights effort in Chelsea, Manhattan. To provide some background, Chelsea has become one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City within the past couple of decades, with average rent for a one bedroom apartment resting around $4,000 per month. The Fulton Houses complex, located near Google’s Headquarters in Chelsea, is the last remnant of federally assisted public housing in the neighborhood, and by contrast, contains apartments for low income residents who on average pay $700 per month. Facing $168 million in outstanding repairs at the Fulton Houses, the city housing authority has opted to pursue a private-public partnership program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), wherein private developers take over management of public housing to bring in additional funds. Under the cities proposed plan for Fulton Houses, two existing low-income apartment buildings would be completely demolished, and their residents would be moved into one of three new buildings being built in their place by private developers. These new buildings would have 30% of their apartments reserved for low income residents, with the remaining 70% selling for market rate prices to typical Chelsea residents.
Unsurprisingly, the residents of Fulton Houses are fighting tooth and nail against this plan. Not only are they scared of being forcibly displaced from homes, but the RAD program has has had a well documented slew of civil rights violations nationwide. Due to a lack of federal and local oversight, private developers often abuse the RAD program to renovate public housing, evict low income tenants, and bring in unprecedented numbers of market rate tenants in their place. This is of special concern in Chelsea, where the majority black and brown tenants of Fulton Houses fear they will be treated as second class citizens in these new “mixed-income” buildings.
At work, I’ve been tasked with doing research into specifics of the RAD program, the history of public housing, and the cities plans to expand public-private partnerships to a third of its housing developments in the city. In addition, I’ve been involved in a lot of groundwork with the residents of Fulton Houses. Several times a week, I attend community meetings and protests at Fulton Houses to raise awareness about the city’s plans, and work with community leaders to find solutions that are agreeable to all the residents.
I couldn’t be more thankful to have had this internship for the summer. Instead of doing rote filing and paperwork for a law firm, I’ve been engaging with the community, researching impactful issues, and coordinating efforts with several groups to advocate for the people of Fulton Houses.