Gramercy Park Block Association - Neighborhood News #577

Last week, we described the GPBA's role in the takeover and rehabilitation of the Kenmore.  To celebrate the GPBA's 20-year history, we are continuing with a series of emails highlighting our major accomplishments. 

In 1994, the year of GPBA's founding and the federal takeover of the Kenmore, we were involved in another major issue:  Defending the Gramercy Park community's First Amendment Rights. To learn about this issue, read the timeline below

For greater detail, see the following links:


Four part booklet of articles:  Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
TIMELINE: GPBA's role in successfully defending the Gramercy Park community's First Amendment Rights
 
May 16, 1994 - GPBA learns of Community Access (CA) plan for residence for homeless, mentally ill, drug addicted population
Arlene Harrison attended a meeting for community leaders and elected officials, where they learned CA planned to sign an agreement to buy 117 E 18th St, to house a state-sponsored 28-unit facility, without notifying elected officials or the community. 
 
May 19, 1994 -  Irving Place Community Coalition (IPCC) formed to oppose plan - Harrison asked to be a leader
Hundreds of residents attended a Community Board 5 & 6 Public Hearing on May 31, 1994.
Councilman Antonio Pagan held a meeting where an ad hoc group IPCC was formed to oppose CA.  Pagan asked Harrison to be a leader of IPCC, to distribute information and to organize the Gramercy Park community opposition. 

IPCC organizes opposition
Harrison reached out to neighbors, neighborhood groups, buildings, political clubs, business owners, and elected officials to join the cause.  
 
Since the area already had the highest concentration of community facilities in the the city, IPCC adopted the theme "We Care, We Have Our Share." 
 
GPBA Harrison's role as a leader of IPCC
The GPBA facilitated the following:
  • Held weekly informational meetings for neighbors
  • Organized and Informed neighbors of public hearings
  • Drafted and organized petitions
  • Organized letter writing campaigns 
  • Liaised with the press, organized press conferences 
  • Served as spokesman for IPCC
  • Liaised with elected officials, government agencies
  • Liaised with local business
Community Access/HUD attempt to silence opposition
In less than 30 days, CA filed a federal Fair Housing Act complaint with HUD against IPCC, the bank selling the property, and a higher bidder on the property.

  

They invoked the Fair Housing Act claiming discrimination against the mentally ill in 5 instances in 6 months.  They filed what they hoped would be precedent setting complaints to extend the application of the discrimination laws to help silence community opposition, and intimidate local individuals and elected officials.
 
They used the Fair Housing Act to interfere with a contract for sale of 117 E 18th St to the higher bidder, filing a complaint against the seller and buyer, and making it impossible for them to close the deal.
 
Although investigations were conducted, no discrimination was found in any of the cases.

June 1994 - CA targets Harrison and two others with $150K fines and HUD investigation  
Harrison defends her rights to free speech at a City Hall press conference.
When no evidence of discrimination was shown,  CA amended their complaint and named Harrison and 2 other IPCC leaders in an attempt to intimidate and silence opposition, avoid questions and get control of the property from the higher bidder.  The trio was threatened with $150,000 fines, and were asked to turn in personal diaries, notebooks, names of friends in the community, and names of those who attended meetings in the Harrison apartment.  
 
HUD's invasive investigation condemned
Residents were outraged by the blatant violation of their First Amendment rights, and HUD's invasive investigations were condemned by elected officials Governor Cuomo, Congresswoman Maloney, NYC Council Speaker Vallone, Borough President Messinger, NYS Senators Goodman and Abate, Assemblyman Sanders, NYC Councilman Pagan and others.  CA was also condemned in resolutions by Community Boards 5 & 6, in statements by the ACLU/NY Civil Liberties Union, in the press and finally by the Assistant Secretary of HUD.
Councilman Antonio Pagan speaks at a press conference at City Hall as GPBA Harrison looks on.

Harrison forms national network to defend First Amendment Rights
Harrison learned from the Wall Street Journal that there were 32 other cases similar to the IPCC, and with the aid of the ACLU, NY Civil Liberties Union and American Alliance for Rights & Responsibilities, she quickly organized a national network. 


The role of the media - critical to success

In addition to extensive local coverage, this case attracted national attention in Forbes, US News & World Report, Crain's, New York Times, New York Post, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Observer, PBS, CNN, and all local news.  A team from 60 Minutes began documenting the First Amendment issue, and focused their story on community leader Harrison.
 
August 1994 - Pagan and Harrison testify before US Senate subcommittee, CA drops complaints against IPCC and leaders
A US Senate subcommittee opened an investigation into HUD's actions in the CA case and the 32 others similar to it in the country. In late August, responding to national pressure, CA dropped the complaint against the IPCC and its leaders.
 
December 1994 - New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) denies CA funding for proposed facility
CA then filed a HUD Fair Housing Act lawsuit against the OMH to try to force them to release the funds, suggesting that community and political opposition had driven the OMH to deny the project and thus discriminate against the mentally ill.

However, a judge ruled against CA stating they did not believe they had sufficient grounds to prevail in the lawsuit.  That same day, CA's sales contract expired, and the closing did not take place

Conclusions
The Federal Fair Housing Act was being used unfairly against anyone who spoke out against these projects for any reason, and those who brought suit were vigorously pursued by HUD. 

Instead of working with the community, CA failed to provide answers or plans for their project, and played the role of adversary  They filed a broad series of HUD complaints, a lawsuit against a community group, local residents, the seller, the higher bidder, and the OMH.  

Community Access tried to force OMH to fund the project, force the bank to sell to them, force their way into the community and intimidate and silence all opposition. 

These were the strong arm tactics the GPBA and IPCC fought against.

What we accomplished
  • New HUD guidelines to recognize First Amendment Rights
  • New state OMH guidelines proposed by Assemblyman Sanders for community notification, review and comment period of 75 days.
  • "Freedom of Speech Acts of 1994" in the US House, submitted by Congresswoman Maloney
  • US Senate Subcommittee Hearings on HUD actions involving application of the Fair Housing Act in communities
  • Beginning of a class action lawsuit against HUD
  • Gave our Gramercy Park community a strong political voice with the media, elected officials and government agencies
  • Created a powerful network of people in every building on Gramercy Park, in the greater GP area, in New York City and nationwide.