Dozens of community-minded individuals gathered on Saturday at the Hollis Presbyterian Church on 196th Street for an informational forum, followed by a protest march through the streets of their neighborhood, in an effort to call attention to several buildings which they claim have been abandoned for over a decade.
Organized by the Hollis Presbyterian 99 Percent Group and Occupy Queens, the forum offered short presentations on the housing crisis, its causes and its impact.
The meeting addressed the plight of the homeless, who, in the words of a flier advertising the event, have been “tossed to the curb by banks whose executives take home million dollar bonuses. These predatory lenders targeted people of color and are now foreclosing on them, systematically attacking black economic stability.”
The buildings that sparked the rally are primarily located at 204th Street and Hollis Avenue, across from a school, church and library.
Organizers claimed the properties are owned by realtor Rita Stark, who they accused of “holding the buildings hostage” and letting them fall into disrepair.
Speaking through a spokesperson, Stark denied ownership of at least one of the buildings under question, a boarded up house at 197-05 Hollis Ave.
As to the buildings located at 203-14 and 203-24 Hollis Ave., she claimed to have had tenants up until 2010. At that time, the existing residents were relocated to one building in the Hollis Avenue complex.
This was done, she said, “at the advice of the developer. Because of the economy, the development was halted. We are currently in contact with a group who are attempting to obtain financing for the developing of apartments for homeless veterans and victims of domestic abuse.”
The panelists on Saturday included Robert Robinson, co-founder of Take Back the Land Movement, a national network that believes housing is a human right. Rooted in the idea that impacted communities must take non-violent direct action on their own behalf, the organization, according to its web site, is opposed to “immoral laws” which “allow banks to gain billions while human beings are made homeless.”
Robinson shared his own experience being homeless after losing a prestigious job in the data processing field. His circumstances led him to challenge the shelter system and, in so doing, he gained insight into the housing crisis. He stressed the need for “people to support people” and suggested that “we have to come up against the forces that are working against us. We need to change the dynamics.”
Also advocating housing as a human right is a group called Organizing For Occupation, which was formed in response to the housing crisis in New York City and was represented on the panel by Frank Morales, a priest and former squatter in the South Bronx and Lower East Side of Manhattan.
“We have a struggle ahead of us,” he said, as he encouraged the audience to “organize to carry out concretely our love for our neighbors. The right to a home is more important than the right to speculate and make a profit.”
The group’s tactic is to create housing through the occupation of vacant spaces, such as those that led to Saturday’s rally.
According to Morales, the group takes the “direct action approach to loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
Mark Chapman, pastor at the church and a professor at Fordham University, said the church formed the 99 Percent Group in January in order to draw attention to economic matters in the local community. “One of the most glaring examples are the abandoned buildings on Hollis Blvd,” Chapman said.
Mark Naison, who is part of the group, said the buildings are not only an eyesore but also a hangout for drug dealers. He added that repeated efforts to contact Stark have been futile.
Ernestine Alston, a resident of Hollis since 1959, said, “We love the community. We want it to keep its vitality and safety. We are concerned with this blight.”
Karla Gittens, a recent retiree who has lived in the neighborhood since she was 10 years old, said she is concerned for the area’s older residents who are scared to walk past the buildings.
Gittens was also concerned that property values in the area are tumbling because of the situation.
Damian Treffs, an original member of Organizing For Occupation, said, “We recognize a thread between the abandoned buildings and the foreclosure crisis and the crisis of homelessness.”
Treffs said what is plaguing the country is “a housing market crisis, not a housing crisis,” adding that “we must stabilize the market.”