For some reason the New York Daily News mobile app went with this story about last night’s City Council forum on affordable housing, sponsored by East Harlem Preservation and JustPublics@365, as its lead this morning. The headline, “Ugly Council Debate Paints Melissa Mark-Viverito as a Gentrifier” seems designed to stir up some shock-value interest on another sleepy summer day near August’s end, but this sort of rowdy dialog up in District 8 is nothing new. Councilwoman Mark-Viverito has been living on the edge of the gentrification debate since early in her first term, and this night was just another of several community dust-ups during her tumultuous tenure.
I’ve been following the “Melissa Mark-Viverito: Millionaire Gentrifier or Fearless Anti-Gentrification Activist” controversy for several years now and tried to paint a picture of the daunting ambiguity around this issue in the documentary Whose Barrio, which I co-directed with Laura Rivera in 2008. (I’m currently streaming the doc for a limited time here.) The film depicts Councilwoman Mark-Viverito as a protector of the Spanish Harlem in our hearts, but also climaxes with a noisy battle that occurred in a town hall-style meeting about the E. 125th Street Project–which has since been slowed by the Great Recession–that showed there was considerable opposition to her vision from varied sectors of the community.
Last night at the forum–where I was one of two co-panelists (with Jeff Mays of dna.info) asking questions–there was a lot of murmuring and heckling directed at Councilwoman Mark-Viverito, some of it coming from supporters of candidate Gwen Goodwin. Mark-Viverito sat patiently as she was accused of being a “millionaire” (a 2009 New York Post article named her as one of only City Council members with millionaire status, at the time worth $1.8 million). Daily News writer Simone Weichselbaum, who wrote the “Ugly” piece, had also recently broken the story that Mark-Viverito had received over $87,000 in matching funds from the Campaign Finance Board, despite having “raised more than $123,000 in private donations,” amounting to “nearly quadruple the amount in her rivals’ accounts.”
Mark Viverito was also accused by hecklers of taking money from large real estate developers, and when that question was asked during the lightning round, rather than answer it “yes” or “no,” she chose “not that I know of.” A brief scan of Mark-Viverito’s campaign finance disclosure, available here, shows that she has received donations from Kamal Haron of Artimus Construction ($250), Stephen J. Hayes, VP of The Carey Group ($300), Nicholas Lembo of Monadnock Construction ($1250), and Stephen Nislick, CEO of Edison Properties ($3250), a parking lot developer that may be hoping to profit from anti horse-carriage legislation by taking over stables vacated if the horse carriages are banned. Banning horse carriages is favored by Mark-Viverito, who co-sponsored legislation targeting it, as well as mayoral candidate Bill DeBlasio.
Of course, Mark-Viverito’s campaign disclosure lists many benign local and community organizations, as well as several personal acquaintances and even friends of mine. But as paltry as some of the real estate money is, it dwarfs the other candidates’ cache. The rest of the field was very eager to prioritize affordable housing, but their proposals didn’t seem fresh. Goodwin’s suggestions about creating affordable housing were quite progressive, proposing edgy, if unrealistic solutions like using eminent domain to seize warehoused apartments and finding a way to take “the profit” out of the housing market. At one point Goodwin went on a long diatribe essentially placing all the blame for the wave of gentrification the district has been plagued with over the last few years on Mark Viverito, which was punctuated by the loudest heckling of the evening.
One of the most contentious moments in the forum came late, when moderator Mireya Navarro (New York Times) asked whether the candidates favored 100% local placement in the P.S. 109 artist housing development. Candidates Ralina Cardona, Sean Gardner, and Tamika Humphries did not feel they could answer, and Mark Viverito said yes. Goodwin and her supporters turned this into another protest-fest, in which they accused the proposed artist housing of being a trojan horse that would allow non-residents to move in and further gentrify the neighborhood.
Further chaos ensued when Goodwin accused the local community group Community Voices Heard of being Mark Viverito supporters because they received funds appropriated for them through the Councilwoman’s budget. The Fiscal Year 2014 Expense Budget does list CVH as the recipients of $31,000 in appropriations through Mark-Viverito’s office, the largest from any single City Councilmember. The problem of how political loyalty is motivated by funding is an issue that isn’t limited to campaigns and electoral politics. In fact so many nonprofits are getting so much money from corporations that it would seem better for a democratic society if they got it from “progressive” politicians.
In the end, the game plan for elected officials is to see how much good they can do while working in a highly compromised environment. The question is, how much compromise can “the people” tolerate and still survive? There’s also the question of who are the gentrifiers? This article seems to make the case that many who call themselves anti-gentrification are gentrifiers themselves. If you live Uptown, you know. The next friend you have over with a sketchbook and pierced eyebrow will mark you with a scarlet gentrifying letter forever.
As for the rest of the field, there doesn’t seem to be much viable opposition to Mark Viverito. Ralina Cardona is earnest and principled, but her lack of experience and questionable endorsement from the tainted Maria del Carmen Arroyo raise red flags. She did come up with a new buzzword, “gentefication,” which was probably borrowed from this article about the same struggle out in LA. Tamika Edwards did not seem well prepared and drew titters when she suggested more SRO construction for the neighborhood. Sean Gardiner, also apparently gracious and principled, did not add much to the conversation. And Ed Santos, who was absent for most of the debate, drew scowls from the audience when he said that spending time in public housing made him “smell different.”
In the end, voters are going to have to decide whether Councilwoman Mark-Viverito is ultimately “on their side,” and that her considerable experience and high visibility will work for them. She did spend most of the time trying to build allegiance with audience members by attacking the last 20 years of Republican control of the mayoralty. She has endorsed DeBlasio, and if he manages to win, there may be some rewards trickling up to El Barrio/South Bronx. Hopefully there will be a reasonable amount of us left to take advantage of them.