People holding protest signs.
Protesters at Gracie Mansion, the New York City mayoral residence, demand the mayor fulfill his promise to build $500 million of affordable housing for seniors. June 13, 2019. Molly Keisman/CityLab

Mayor Bill de Blasio walked back a promise of $500 million in affordable senior housing. New York’s rapidly growing elderly population came out to protest.

David K. Brawley, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, did not mince words when he stepped up to the podium in front of 1,400 protestors on Wednesday. “The indictment has been given” he shouted. “It is now time to tell you what the charge is against this man … The charge is betrayal.” The crowd erupted into cheers. “Bill de Blasio,” Brawley continued, “you have betrayed the seniors of New York City. You ran on a platform to close the gap between the tale of two cities, and since you have been mayor it has only gotten exponentially worse. You have betrayed black and brown people, you have betrayed the working poor, you have betrayed our people.”

The protest took place outside of the mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion. In furious testimony, religious leaders and struggling New Yorkers demanded that Mayor Bill de Blasio fulfill the promise he made a year ago to donate half a billion dollars to affordable senior housing.

As New York City’s population continues to age, the question of where and how seniors will live is becoming increasingly crucial. From 2005-2015, New York City’s over 65 population increased by more than triple the rate of the under 65 population’s increase. And elderly immigrants jumped by 42 percent over approximately the same period according to a 2019 report from the Center for an Urban Future.

Where affordable senior housing does exist, waiting lists can be as long as ten years. The Frances Goldin Senior Apartments in lower Manhattan received 65,000 applications for its 99 units when it opened in January 2018. In an interview with City Limits, Allison Nickerson, director of senior citizen program and policy organization LiveOn NY, said that 65 percent of single elderly households living in rent-stabilized units are severely rent burdened, spending over half their income on rent. All of these numbers: seniors, population age, the people on waiting lists for senior housing, and the severely rent-burdened elderly, are expected to continue to increase.

On June 12, 2018, in a press conference with the New York City Council speaker following budget negotiations, Bill de Blasio announced that the city had committed $500 million to build affordable housing for seniors initiative, or at least that is what most listeners—activists, politicians, journalists and especially seniors, understood. However, when the city comptroller, Scott Stringer, pressed de Blasio for updates on the project, his administration revealed that the $500 million was not in the 2019 budget and instead they would pay $100 million, financing the rest through other means. To date, the proposed senior housing has not been built or financed.

The protest, held on the anniversary of the mayor’s confusing announcement, lasted a little over an hour. It took on many aspects of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing, with residents complaining that what did exist was often uninhabitable.

Damian Gaillard, 39, said, “As a NYCHA resident, I can say the conditions are deplorable. De Blasio needs to step up as one of the biggest landlords in the city. He needs to step up and fulfill his promises. We deserve the quality of life that we wanted.”

Carmen Santiago who lives in a NYCHA building in the Bronx with her parents and two children, said the lack of space has taken a toll on their health, but there are no other options. “I am here because I am angry,” Santiago said. “The mayor promised us senior housing a year ago and he broke his promise. This hurts because, like so many others, I need help for my parents. At 77 and 83, my parents deserve privacy and dignity. They need a senior citizen apartment in the community where they can be supported by the community and church and still have their space.”

Organized by Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, the protest was spearheaded by religious leaders like Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan, who denounced the mayor for only helping others once they came to his front door and begged. Mosbacher, who started his speech with a comparison between biblical figures—Abraham, proactive and generous, and Job, reactive and restrained—said, “God, we recognize that the mayor has a choice to make today: does he want to be like Job or like Abraham?”

Protestors were adamant that de Blasio resign if he could not fulfill his promises. They wielded signs with messages like “de Blasio you’re fired!” and “RESIGN.” Attendees booed and waved thumbs downs as Pastor Brawley announced the de Blasio administration’s counter-proposal to build two developments for seniors over the next four years. “We publicly, thoroughly reject that,” he said. “We do not want crumbs from the master’s table. We want a seat. So, we are here to take care of business. We are not here just to chant. We are here to give this mayor his sentence.”

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