Students Protest against Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo on Affordable Housing Issues

By Chereen James

Students Protest against Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo on Affordable Housing Issues

Sakia Fletcher, Medgar Evers College Student Body President

A protest against Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, who represents New York City’s Council District 35 (Prospect Heights, parts of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene), was held on May 10, 2019. Sparked by the suspension of Medgar Evers College Student Body President elect, Sakia Fletcher, after she was escorted from a Community Board 9 meeting on April 30, 2019, the protest was held outside the Councilwoman’s office at 55 Hanson Place.

At the Community Board meeting, Councilwoman Cumbo was seen in videos verbally sparring with Fletcher. According to the latter, the incident arose when she asked the Councilwoman if space at the Bedford Union Armory would be allocated to the Medgar Evers Student Body for their housing needs, classroom space and other facility uses. The Armory is located in the vicinity of the college and is owned by the City. Fletcher said that it was not the first time she posed that question to Cumbo, and not the first public meeting she has attended where the Councilwoman was present.

In a press release statement Cumbo stated that a student charged at her and was yelling at the top of her lungs in her face. Although the videos do not show what led up to the verbal altercation, they do show Fletcher, the student, standing with her hands behind her back saying, “you’re the reason why we fail as a people…because you get in these positions and yet every time you pass these proposals …it’s against the community.” Cumbo can be heard shouting, “I’m not leaving. I’m tired of people hijacking our meetings.” She is later heard shouting, “ignorant!” repeatedly while the student echoed, “Lying Laurie.”

The Councilwoman alleged in the same press release statement that the incident was orchestrated by the Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP), an organization that advocates for affordable housing based on the current population’s income as opposed to the city-wide median income that is often used, and is typically higher than the district’s median income. In a phone interview, Fletcher said, “I do not want to jeopardize my character and career for a 2-to3-minute social media stunt. I have never, and will never be, a puppet for anyone.”

Although Fletcher’s question was not formally addressed at the meeting, Cumbo explained in the press release statement that the Armory will be redeveloped into a mixed-use facility, where 250 of 400 residential apartments will be rented to families earning 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI) or less. Sixty percent AMI for a family of three is an income of $57,660 per year. The AMI for NYC is calculated using City income data, as well as income data from Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties, where incomes are significantly higher than those of the five boroughs. In fact, those counties do not use NYC income data when calculating their AMI, as it will be significantly lower. According to NY Business Journal, the median income for the zip code, 11225, where the Armory is located, was $39,992 in 2016. This means that to meet the needs of the population, 200 apartments should go to individuals earning $39,992 or less. In the Councilwoman’s proposal, 49 units will go to families earning the median income for that area.

Affordable housing units, such as the ones proposed in the Armory, are awarded through the City’s housing lottery system, where it can take months or even years for a family to receive a decision. In her letter, Cumbo states, “our federally implemented housing lottery system is extremely flawed, and that is exactly why I fought tooth and nail to ensure that the units at the Armory are affordable for existing Crown Heights residents as well as those who have been displaced from the community.”

Fletcher’s concern is that the students of Medgar Evers College are facing homelessness and housing insecurities, which can negatively impact their grades or cause students to drop out, further decreasing their chances to be employed and to break the cycle of poverty. There was no mention of space allocated specifically to Medgar Evers College in the Armory.

The argument of groups such as MTOPP is that City officials should use local AMI for their districts, not county-wide, nor city-wide, as those figures act as a brushstroke over the varying income levels in different districts.

Fletcher pointed out that it is not common for individuals from lower- income communities to appear at Community Board meetings, as they are not educated on the issues and how it affects them. She suggested that individuals from low- income communities should hold elected officials accountable for their actions.

Cumbo and other City Council officials should address the disparity between the median income used for affordable housing proposals, and the actual median income for her district.

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