The string of apartment buildings on West 166th Street was supposed to become an emblem of Rudy Giuliani’s commitment to affordable housing. Instead, it is a brick-and-mortar personification of the mayor’s capacity for thin-skinned political retaliation.
Last month, Giuliani pulled a $6 million contract from the housing group ACORN, which was to buy and renovate the 60 apartments in this corner of Washington Heights, between Amsterdam and Edgecombe avenues. The reason for the turnaround? ACORN had infuriated the mayor, twice: On July 22, the nonprofit community group issued a 35-page report criticizing Giuliani’s housing policy. Two days later, the chants of ACORN members disrupted the mayor’s presentation at a national housing conference.
By early September, ACORN’s development director Ismene Speliotis heard rumors that the West 166th Street contract, which was coming through the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), had been called off. Ditto for a $2 million grant to develop 15 smaller buildings for homeowners in East New York through another HPD program. The cuts were first reported in an October 13 newsletter published by City Limits magazine.
“Our Washington Heights group fought for years for these buildings, and we had just gotten a commitment from HPD for the project when word came down that we were not going to get to do this, and that HPD could do no business at all with ACORN,” Speliotis told the Voice. She says she heard the news informally from HPD workers. “It’s just the mayor being vindictive, like a little boy in a sandbox who says, ‘I’m kicking you out!’ Well, it is his sandbox.”
In late September, ACORN’s board wrote Giuliani requesting a meeting; he has not responded. In October, Speliotis wrote to HPD commissioner Richard Roberts asking him to reconsider and meet so that the agency and the nonprofit could “renew our relationship.” The commissioner has not responded, either. Neither HPD nor the mayor’s office returned calls for this story.
ACORN has a long housing history, and now owns and operates 500 units for low-income tenants citywide. It is working with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to take over a 114-unit building in Mott Haven where the feds kicked out the HUD-backed landlord this spring after years of bad management. And HPD itself has solicited ACORN to help run a program that returns buildings to private landlords in parts of the South Bronx and west Harlem.
But ACORN’s relationship with the Giuliani administration is by no means cozy. For years, it has protested his welfare reform, particularly his Work Experience Program, which requires welfare recipients to perform city sevices. And the group has been a constant antagonist of Giuliani’s public housing commissioner, Ruben Franco, who runs the New York City Housing Authority. ACORN has charged that NYCHA warehouses apartments and fails to keep buildings in good repair; NYCHA retorts that ACORN pressures NYCHA tenants to join its group, pay dues, and ignore local tenant councils.
The animosity crested earlier this month when Giuliani called ACORN members “paid political operatives” for Democratic mayoral challenger Ruth Messinger, after being heckled about his policies for homeless people while at a public appearance about gangs. The mayor’s Cold War rhetoric–followed by his Nixonian canceling of ACORN’s contracts–might seem so out of date as to be singular. But that hasn’t been ACORN’s experience.
“Newt Gingrich was quoted as saying we were paid demonstrators” when ACORN protested a Washington, D.C., conference on school lunch programs, says Helene O’Brien, who runs ACORN’s Bronx office. “There must be some GOP handbook on how to respond to ACORN: see page 22, section B, where it says to call us paid demonstrators or political operatives. I wish we were paid.” The mayor based his claim, in part, on the $14,600 that Messinger’s campaign had paid ACORN to mobilize voters for a Democratic runoff, although one never materialized.
Speliotis says that in both the July report and protests, ACORN was simply trying to force the mayor’s campaign to address housing. “It’s just not on his agenda, but the problem remains out there,” she says. “We still have people paying 80 per cent of their income for rent. The issue is not going away, whether he talks about it or not.”
In September, Bronx city councilman Wendell Foster tried to ensure the topic would get attention: the council passed his resolution calling for a review of the ACORN report. Staffers for housing committee chair Archie Spinger of Queens have met with ACORN and will probably hold hearings on the report–after the November election.
The real price of the mayor’s pettiness, of course, will be paid by the tenants whose apartments were to be renovated by ACORN, which has worked on West 166th Street for four years. It is unclear if another agency will get the contract instead.
Elaine Crumpler, who has lived on West 166th Street for more than 20 years, was hoping the renovation would rid her apartment of rats and repair bedroom walls so leaky and moldy from water seepage that she virtually wallpapers them with plastic trash bags. “The mayor doesn’t care; he doesn’t come up this way unless it’s something to do with the police,” says Crumpler. “He should come up and live here himself for a few weeks.”