Monday, September 26, 2016
It was bad enough Brooklyn City Councilman Antonio Reynoso and a mob of approximately 100 supporters “shut down” a public hearing of the City Planning Commission last week, ostensibly because they oppose a housing development in Williamsburg near the disputed Broadway Triangle.
Worse, it turns out that the groups that organized the protest, and whose members wore branded T-shirts throughout the demonstration, are actually prominent nonprofit organizations that receive extensive funding from the city.
The “scoping hearing” had been called to let the community voice its concerns or objections to the proposal, which will add 1,100 much-needed apartments, including hundreds of affordable units, to the area’s scarce housing inventory. But Reynoso and his rabble decided they might not be the primary beneficiaries of the project — so they screamed and shouted and blew whistles until the meeting was canceled.
Dozens of members of Churches United for Fair Housing were at the hearing, and were the loudest voices screaming for it to end. CUFFH is a Brooklyn group that “connects residents” with lists of available affordable-housing units and “counsels them through the grueling paperwork.” This year it received more than $220,000 from the city — most of its operating budget.
One of the leaders of CUFFH is Jesus Gonzalez, who has run for elected office in Brooklyn. Gonzalez, who pronounces his first name with a hard “J,” can be seen in videos of last Wednesday’s public hearing signaling his members to rise from their seats and begin shouting. “La puebla, unida, jamás será vencida, (the people, united, will never be defeated),” Gonzalez chanted, clapping his hands over his head.
In July, CUFFH Executive Director Rob Solano gave a presentation at a conference called #HackHousing about how to apply for subsidized housing. He explained that putting down an income that is higher than the maximum allowable income for the project would immediately disqualify you from getting one of the affordable units. The trick, Solano explained, is to understate your income.
“Let’s say you make 36 (thousand a year), and it says 35, you should put 34.9, and then figure it out later,” counseled Solano.
Another group participating in the demonstration last week was the highly regarded Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, known as “Brooklyn A.” Brooklyn A is one of the oldest and most venerable nonprofit organizations dealing with housing law in New York City. It counts many esteemed lawyers among its alumni.
Brooklyn A gets millions of dollars from the city, state and federal governments. A majority of its budget, in fact, comes straight from the taxpayer. This year the City Council alone designated $611,000 for Brooklyn A, a 31 percent increase over last year’s budget.
The longtime director and chief counsel of Brooklyn A, Marty Needleman, can be seen in the videos of the protest smiling and chatting with demonstrators. Shekar Krishnan, the head of Brooklyn A’s affordable-housing division, was much more actively involved, pacing around the front of the room, screaming, “Shut it down,” and waving his arms to get the crowd more riled up.
Needleman and Krishnan are both attorneys, and are theoretically bound to the principle of due process — except, it seems, when they don’t like the odds.
Private groups can do whatever they want, including intentionally disrupt public meetings and deny other people due process. But CUFFH and Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A aren’t really private groups, because they get almost all their funding from the city. Certain city functions have been outsourced to these groups, and the taxpayer foots the bill for their salaries.
If nonprofit activist groups — which function more like gangs looking for a shakedown than as public servants — want to shut down community meetings in the pursuit of revolutionary goals, maybe they should figure out a way to do it off the public’s dime. Because last we checked, their grant applications don’t include “Cause mayhem and sow chaos at municipal hearings” as a description of purpose.
Seth Barron is project director of the Manhattan Institute’s NYC Initiative. He blogs on city politics at City Council Watch.