election 2021

In Conversation With Dianne Morales, the Tenants’ Candidate

Photo: Dimitri Rodriguez/Courtesy of Dianne Morales Campaign

From her first job as a tenant organizer in the 1990s, mayoral candidate Dianne Morales has spent her entire professional life working on housing issues. She went on to launch an outreach program for LGBTQ homeless youth at nonprofit The Door and oversaw supportive housing programs at Phipps Neighborhoods, where she was CEO. Her experiences are reflected in her ambitious platform, which includes proposals for ending the shelter system, creating a community-first responders department for homeless outreach, and piloting resident-led organizations to manage the NYCHA complexes where they live. We spoke to her about her most far-reaching proposals. 

Valeria Ricciulli: I saw that you worked with Banana Kelly, the Bronx-based affordable housing organization. 

Dianne Morales: You did your homework. That was a long time ago.

What did you do for them?

I was a tenant organizer! It was like a fellowship or something that I won in graduate school, when I was at Columbia, and I got to work with them as a tenant organizer. It was in the Bronx, obviously. I had to go out there and I had to do the work. I had to knock on people’s doors. I had to get them to come to meetings. I don’t think anybody else has asked me that question.

They started by getting Bronx tenants to help rebuild their burned-down homes. So their work seems connected to your proposals.

Yes, very much. So they helped to spearhead this sweat equity model with tenants in these buildings that had been abandoned, essentially, by their landlords right after the fires. And they helped organize the residents to renovate their own buildings and take back their own buildings and become owners in their own building. So it was a really powerful model. And yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t made that connection that you just made — it is a direct ancestor to my current thinking about housing. Now I’m going to start talking about that.

You’ve spoken a lot about your personal experiences with NYCHA; your parents lived in the Sumner Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and you were a NYCHA service provider. What was that job like? 

For the last decade, I was the CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods, an affordable housing and social services organization, in the South Bronx. And we did a lot of things with NYCHA. But the first thing I’ll say that we did was to operate what’s called Cornerstones. Cornerstones are community centers that are embedded in the NYCHA developments and funded by the city. In that capacity, we did everything from after-school programs to parenting classes to programs for court-involved young people to summer camp to senior services and career training; job training-type programs. So it was really sort of a central location in the development that would serve anybody in the community but primarily NYCHA residents.

We were also tenants of NYCHA, so if we had an issue that happened, we were also subjected to the maintenance system that didn’t operate well.

So you had instances where you would request repairs and they never did them?

Yes. One of the centers that we ran was the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Center in Soundview, named after her, where she lived. It has a beautiful, huge gym with lots of natural light. And there was a devastating leak, and the floors buckled. It was almost as if there had been an earthquake inside that opened up the floor. It was months and months before we got that repaired, and we had to go through our elected officials, we had to make a big thing about it on the news. It was really, really, really problematic. And even we couldn’t get them to do it faster or better. And not that they should treat us differently than they treat the tenants, it’s exactly the same thing, but we were there to serve the tenants.

That’s terrible. As we know, residents also have to resort to similar measures to get repairs.

What the residents have to go through is call in a ticket for what needs to happen, and then someone comes, not to fix it, but to verify that what the resident is asking for is actually a need. And then they go back. And then if the tenant is not there when they show up to verify the need, they close the ticket, so the tenant has to start over. There’s so many things in the system that are set up to demoralize and dehumanize the residents. It’s really problematic.

So you have proposed a lot of ambitious goals for NYCHA as a mayoral candidate; you support the federal Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, including green workforce development and retrofitting buildings. So what will be your first priority?

Obviously, one of the first things we’d have to do would be to focus on trying to make some of the repairs that are needed. So I’ve committed to at least $1.5 billion from the New York City budget. I’ve committed to going to the state to get the state to match that. I’ve committed to fighting at the federal level, because I think New York City should be the model for the country in terms of public housing. But the other thing is, I think that there’s some possibility in the recovery funds that we’re getting from the federal government, and I would look to that to see if there’s money that I could set aside. So there’s the finances that we need, starting the immediate repair process.

But also from the longer-term perspective, what you’re talking about in terms of the Green New Deal, I think it’s time for us to invest in NYCHA. And part of the way we do that is through job creation, for NYCHA residents to do these repairs; actually having them not just get jobs as a result of it, but also have some ownership over the places where they live.

So the de Blasio administration has been trying to get more funds for the housing authority through NYCHA 2.0, the city’s plan to bring in private partners to improve NYCHA facilities, as well as get funds via a plan to allow private developers to build on NYCHA land. You’ve disagreed with these methods. So how would you get the $40 billion needed to fund repairs?

First of all, we’d have to keep public housing public. I think any movement towards privatization continues to erode at affordability and the concept of housing for all. And there’s something incredibly valuable in the public housing that we have: I think, in fact, that it is social housing, and we have more of it than anybody else. In terms of the $40 billion, I’m making a commitment; I think I can get the state to make a commitment; I think we need to go to the federal government to get additional commitments. And then we need to look at how much we have from the recovery funds.

Now I’d like to ask about one of your biggest ideas for homeless New Yorkers: ending the shelter system. This is something that advocates have been demanding a lot over the years. How would you go about actually implementing this?

There’s a shelter industrial complex that we have created. We’re spending over $3 billion a year on these warehouses for homeless people that aren’t, through no fault of their own, being funded to provide services to help people address the conditions that resulted in them being homeless in the first place. And so I think if we moved toward gradually reinvesting those dollars into the creation of permanent affordable housing, that would actually dramatically decrease the homelessness situation. And I believe in housing first. I believe people need a home in order to begin to address the other issues that they’re struggling with, a stable place to be in order to keep a job, in order to do the mental-health care that they might need — we have to prioritize that. So my proposal involves actually moving away from that funding; gradually decreasing that funding and using that funding to create one pool of housing funding so that we are focused on and prioritize the creation of permanent affordable housing for everybody in New York, rather than these Band-Aid systems, while at the same time, the homeless numbers continue to skyrocket.

Do you have any idea of the timeline? How long would that take? 

That’s a really good question. I think I would aim to have that done by the end of my first term. I want to actually be very aggressive about that. So me saying the end of my first term is me giving myself a lot of leeway. I don’t want to take that long.

There are different kinds of shelters — ranging from the infamous intake shelter on 30th street to family shelters. What kinds or what specific shelters would you shutter or move away from?

Everybody, everybody, everybody deserves permanent, affordable housing. And that should be our goal. We should not be talking about how we improve the shelter system, we should be talking about how we move away from the shelter system.

So there’s two things I think about: The shelters for single people, those are the ones that generally tend to be the ones that are considered the most unsafe, and when I think about warehousing, that’s what I think of, the sorts of conditions that lack humanity and dignity and are so problematic for so many. And then I think about the family shelters, which certainly have better conditions, but we’re not focused enough on that, in terms of providing permanent housing and having permanent affordable housing be family-friendly. The large majority of the homeless population are actually families, so a lot of the stereotypes about the homeless population are deeply misguided and racist. A lot of the housing tends to be smaller and geared toward individuals. So I think we have to tackle both of those things at the same time. We have to expand the individual housing opportunities for the folks that are being warehoused in these shelters and also do a concerted effort to expand the number of affordable units that are available for families.

In the short term, how would you handle homeless outreach? The de Blasio administration recently moved the NYPD away from doing outreach to those who are not in the shelter system. What about your administration? 

So, one of the things I’ve called for is the divestment from policing by $3 billion [out of a $6 billion budget] and the investment in communities. And a critical part of that, for me, is the creation of a community-first responders department. That would be separate from the NYPD; it would be staffed by people who are trained and skilled in intervention and de-escalation and support, but who would also work as part of a larger ecosystem of human service providers of mental-health specialists, hospitals, so that people can actually get connected to the services that they need to change to help them. Now, what happens if the NYPD responds? In the best-case scenario, the person gets locked up, and they get released the next day, and they still have to deal with the same problems. In the worst-case scenario, they get shot and killed. My proposal actually involves being able to connect the person in crisis with something that’s going to actually provide a service and an intervention and help them move forward.

I know one of your proposals is to shift the $3 billion shelter budget toward preventative measures and models to respond to “housing displacement and vulnerability.” What would those measures be? Aside from trying to get people permanent homes, is there anything else? 

I think we have to address the housing insecurity issue, because there’s the folks that don’t have housing, but then there are also the people that have housing but are living on the edge. So we need to make sure that we’re addressing the housing insecurity issues by providing people with legal counsel where they need it. Economic relief, where they need it. Also ensuring that we’re not harming small homeowners in the process.

I am really interested in ensuring housing security for everyone, including small homeowners. Because we know that for many in the Black and brown community, homeownership is the only mechanism to any kind of wealth. I’m a case in point; the house that I own is all I have — even though the bank really still owns it, I’m still paying the mortgage. So we know that that’s important and that our small homeowners can’t afford to have their tenants not pay the rent, right?

The bigger picture here is that we have to focus on how we transform the housing market, period. Right now, the housing market is focused on providing tax subsidies, tax incentives, to large for-profit developers. And we know that we’re not getting as much out of that, right? Because the affordable units that they’re producing are not really affordable, and there’s not enough of them. My proposal fundamentally is to take all those shelter dollars and invest those dollars in the community, for the community land trusts, for social housing, for really prioritizing real, affordable nonprofit community developers in the process. So that we’re building out really affordable housing and using the dollars that we’re giving away right now and really investing them in our community.

I’m glad you mentioned that: You said to Gotham Gazette that one of the flaws of the de Blasio administration’s affordable-housing plan is that it “relied too heavily on developers whose priority is ultimately the bottom line.” De Blasio provided a lot of tax incentives, but his plan didn’t create a lot of units for those with the lowest incomes. So how would you work with developers? Would you only plan to work with nonprofit developers and community groups and skip the large developers, or will you work with them in some way?

This is not an either-or proposition, this is a both-and. But I think the question is still, who’s leading? What do we prioritize? By looking to focus on and prioritize nonprofit, community-based, affordable-housing developers, we begin to invert the usual priorities. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for large developers in the conversation; it is to say that it is important that they also invest in the community. And that means that maybe they’re not getting the profits that they had been getting before. It is time for us to actually say, “Yeah, we definitely want that partnership, but you’re not going to be able to make that 40 percent profit” — I’m making that number up, I don’t know what the exact number is. But we need to change the model of how we do this. Right now, the model has them in the driver’s seat, has them deciding how much poor people get, and they’re not giving up a lot.

You also said to Commercial Observer that you would pause all the city’s in-progress rezonings because of the flaws in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure [ULURP]. What specifically would you change in the rezoning process?

The ULURP process right now is reflective of everything I just talked about in terms of who’s leading: The developers get to create the package, and then, once that’s pretty much done, then they present it to the community. And the community is in a position at that point to not really stop it, but to essentially try to figure out how they can get something out of it, because they see how much they’re giving up or how much they have to let go of. So then they are scrambling to try to figure out how they can negotiate a little bit of leverage.

The process should actually be the opposite. The community should be the one that’s driving it. The community should be the one that is the leading voice at the table in terms of what they want and what they need. The one sort of caveat that I will give to that — because what often comes up is the NIMBY situation — the community has to have a voice, but the decisions have to be made within the context of the larger city. So we have to take into account the distribution of resources, the allocation of, for instance, how many homeless shelters are in that district?

Why is housing such a big focus of your campaign?

I think the pandemic has made it crystal clear that we can’t separate housing from public health or public safety. And we need to make sure that everyone has access to permanent affordable housing. I’m not a traditional candidate. My ideas are “radical.” But they’re not actually that radical, and we are living in a radical time. And we have an opportunity at this crossroads in our history to recognize all of the things that the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare, the deeply rooted structural inequities and systemic inequities, and to make a decision that we’re going to actually build something better than what we have and not go back to normal. And actually recognize that the same people that are the most vulnerable right now are the people that helped the rest of us survive through the pandemic — the essential workers, the excluded workers — and that we should actually be taking care of each other. And to me, that’s not radical, it’s just common sense. So I’m not promising to take New York City back to normal. I’m promising something new and the possibility of us living up to the rhetoric of being the greatest city in the world.

Dianne Morales Wants to Be the Tenants’ Candidate