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By Jon Campbell
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The numbers are not only disturbing; they're ironic. East New York is home to city councilmember Priscilla Wooten, who is arguably Giuliani's most ardent supporter among black Democrats. Despite her loyalty, however, Wooten's community seems to have been shortchanged by the alliance or treason, as some of her constituents might see it since her district still suffers mightily from crime.
It also suffers from a dire shortage of decent housing. And on that front, Wooten herself is an obstacle despite the fact that Giuliani appears willing to help out. While his housing agency is prepared to help a local group turn six abandoned buildings into affordable co-ops for 19 low-to-moderate-income households, Wooten refuses to write an essential letter on behalf of the project.
Also ironic is the fact that the sponsoring group is ACORN, a nonprofit that Giuliani has deep-sixed as an enemy of his administration. In 1997, the mayor reneged on pending commitments to ACORN after the group criticized his housing plans and disrupted a speech. Even so, his Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is willing to honor a 1995 plan to give ACORN's housing arm, the Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY), $1.2 million to renovate the six buildings. The European American Bank is prepared to loan ACORN $411,662. The state awarded ACORN $276,000 in a competitive grant. And MHANY itself is forking over $303,000. Only one obstacle remains: Wooten.
Before HPD can turn the properties over to MHANY, Wooten must write a letter of approval or, at least, neutrality to HPD. For at least three months, MHANY director Ismene Speliotis has asked Wooten for such a letter. Wooten has ignored the request.
"HPD has this money slated for this group of buildings and this project," says Speliotis. "They have all the paperwork ready to go, they're waiting, they're poised, and ready to submit this to the City Council." The council must approve the transfer to MHANY, and traditionally takes its cue from the councilmember whose district is involved. "The commissioner of HPD, who works for the mayor, got the go-ahead to do this," says Speliotis. "But Wooten's holding it up. She doesn't work for the mayor. She's actually supposed to work for her constituency."
Wooten would not explain why she has not written the required letter, offering only references to "reservations" she declined to discuss. She launched into a tirade about ACORN's "tactics," but refused to give details. No doubt among her peeves was ACORN's January 26 protest, when about 40 members marched with petitions to Wooten's Linden Boulevard office (she was in Albany at the time). The protesters were greeted by just as many police officers.
"I have reservations about how ACORN does things," Wooten said. "I will say that I've been more courteous to them than they have been to me. I don't take lightly someone telling me what I am to do."
Speliotis says months of reaching out to Wooten, to no avail, left little choice but a protest. "We're not confrontational on day one," she says. "We write letters and we pick up the phone and we call. If you don't respond, then we come and look for you. We meet you where you are. If you can't respond to your constituency what are we supposed to do?"
The six buildings now in limbo are the last in a round of 17 properties that MHANY has renovated since 1995. Eleven in Crown Heights and Bushwick are already occupied. In fact, the East New York properties were the last MHANY projects to be funded before Giuliani cut ACORN out of his political will in 1997.
In September of that year, just months after an ACORN report criticized the mayor, Giuliani pulled a $6 million contract that was supposed to help the group renovate a string of buildings on West 166th Street in Manhattan. In the November 1997 election, ACORN supported Democrat Ruth Messinger against Giuliani.
But this past fall, in a move that ACORN staffers describe as "agonizing," the group endorsed Wooten's reelection. The decision tore members apart largely because of Wooten's support for the mayor. Ultimately, the group decided it was best to support her, in hopes of getting more housing. "Wooten would call me personally" around the time of the election, says Bertha Lewis, head organizer for ACORN's Brooklyn office. "But from election day on, we have not been able to get a phone call returned or a letter returned." Wooten refused to discuss why she would not respond to calls or letters.
Wooten and ACORN have not always been antagonistic. In 1995, the councilwoman wrote a letter supporting the very project that she is now jeopardizing. All of which raises a question: Is Wooten's unwillingness to write the letter, coupled with the administration's apparent support of the project, orchestrated so that ACORN is punished without tainting the mayor?