Melissa Mark-Viverito's Own Eminent Domain

East Harlem Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, a candidate for Speaker, has long-standing ties to a radical homeless-advocacy group that had its Council funding pulled for teaching its followers how to break into buildings in order to establish squatter’s rights.

CM Mark-Viverito raised eyebrows last week at a Speaker candidate panel when she suggested that “seizing” bank-owned property in order to prevent foreclosure was a “creative” and “innovative” idea. Other council members pointed out that such an expansive use of eminent domain would likely crater the housing market when banks stopped extending mortgages in the city, and AG Schneiderman batted down the proposal as unrealistic and probably illegal.

It is worth noting at this redistributive juncture that Mark-Viverito has a deep political and legislative connection to a group called Picture the Homeless, an advocacy organization that has rankled the nerves and sensibilities of Council members with its raucous and impolitic agitation on behalf of a piece of favored legislation. Intro 48, the primary sponsor of which is CM Mark-Viverito, would mandate a citywide census of unoccupied residential units. Picture the Homeless, frustrated that the bill was stuck in committee, disrupted Council hearings in 2010 and embarrassed its sponsor, who threatened to pull the bill entirely if the group didn’t behave itself.

Why such tension over a proposal that sounds so banal? The real point of Intro 48, as one can gather quickly from a review of Picture the Homeless communications (“You Say Gentrify, We Say Occupy!”), is to develop a list of properties that are available for seizure and occupation. It is actually hard to think of any other reason for insisting that there be an official documentation of unoccupied residential units other than to establish a basis for removing underutilized resources from private hands and putting them to supposedly better public use. The bill even specifies that the list of unoccupied properties “shall be made available to the public in print and on the city's website,” the easier to locate choice units, presumably.

The scarcely-disguised motives of Picture the Homeless, whose logo shows a fist clenching a crowbar, were made transparent when a board member and trustee of the organization, Andres Perez, was found to be conducting “homesteading” lessons in East New York, encouraging his pupils to break into empty apartments and file change-of-address forms. The Council froze its HPD funding for Picture the Homeless, citing “alleged wrongdoing” pertaining to “unlawful squatting on private property." It is not clear whether the existing funding was ever released, but Council documents show that no further funding was allocated to the group in the following fiscal years.

Melissa Mark-Viverito has a long history of affiliation with Picture the Homeless, dating at least to her first term in the Council. In addition to twice sponsoring the organization’s pet legislation, the CM has routinely appeared at the group’s press conferences and demonstrations, and has received campaign contributions from Lynn Lewis, the Executive Director of Picture the Homeless.

There is a housing crisis in New York City, though it is hardly new. Recall that the Lower East Side of Manhattan circa 1900 was the most densely-populated area ever, in the history of the world, before or since, when approximately 250,000 people were crammed into a square mile. The idea that there are apartments available to be lived in when people have nowhere to live is discomfiting, to be sure. But so is the idea that there are single retired people living in 2- or 3-bedroom apartments, in co-ops as well as NYCHA buildings. Wouldn’t it make sense to conduct a census of these inequities as well, in order to effect more rational use of residential space?

CM Melissa Mark-Viverito appears to incline towards radical approaches to the redistribution of private property, based on past and recent comments she has made, and bills she has sponsored. Some may find it ironic that the CM, who grew up a child of privilege, and whose father owned a 6-passenger airplane, herself owns a number of properties, some of which are currently unoccupied, including an unimproved lot on Puerto Rico's lovely eastern coast. Of course there is a long history of wealthy youth embracing radical causes, including the CM’s beloved Che, and it may be unfair to impugn the motives of these revolutionaries. However, it seems sensible to at least call things by their real name. If Melissa Mark-Viverito believes in the expropriation of private property it would serve the city’s current discourse of progressivity well to come out and say it.