"A Maestro At The Met"
by Eleanor J. Bader
“I work all the time,” Jaron Benjamin, the new executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing (better known as Met Council) says with a laugh. As if to shrug off the magnitude of the job—nothing less than revitalizing the nearly-moribund tenant movement throughout the five boroughs—the 33-year-old Bed-Stuy resident says he’ll take it one day at a time. Nonetheless, Benjamin makes it clear that he understands the enormity of the task.
Meanwhile, RealDeal.com reports that as of January 2013, the average rent in Manhattan was a whopping $3,800; the Brooklyn average was an equally shocking $2,950, up more than four percent since last year. And, while highly-paid Wall Street and corporate types fuel the gentrification of neighborhoods across the city, the median household income for folks living in rent-regulated housing remains a meager $38,000 a year.
By the Bloomberg administration’s own measures, nearly 50 percent of all New Yorkers live below or near the city’s poverty line. Creating and maintaining affordable housing for these folks, from single-room occupancy units to larger apartments, is at the heart of Met Council’s daunting mission.
Born in Oklahoma but raised in Texas, Benjamin is somewhat new to the city, having moved here in 2008 to work with Voices of Community Advocates and Leaders (VOCAL-NY) in organizing people who receive services from the city. But he’s also a seasoned rabble-rouser. Articulate and charismatic, with shoulder-length dreadlocks and a ready smile, Benjamin says that he got his activist start as a seventh grader in DeSoto, Texas, when he organized a petition drive against a policy on student IDs. “We lost,” he grins, “but from then on, whenever I saw something that pissed me off, I thought protesting was the logical thing to do.”
Sometimes he acted alone. As a student at the University of North Texas in Denton, he stood, by himself, outside a dining hall during a Black History Month dinner in 2000. “The entree was fried chicken,” he says, shaking his head. “I am a vegetarian so I stood outside with a sign that simply said, ‘Not all African Americans eat fried chicken.’” Campus police were called and Benjamin was forced to spend several hours in a small room until security staff released him.
He later got involved with a university-based organization called Men Against Violence. “I am a sexual assault survivor,” Benjamin continues. “On one hand, I saw myself as a tough, strong, rugby player and athlete, but on the other I knew I was a man in a position of vulnerability.” Connecting with the group, he says, gave him “a way to reconcile my masculine façade with what I was feeling.” It also helped him stop drinking—he has been sober since 2002—and enabled him to speak openly about sexual violence. As an employee of the Student Health Center, Benjamin’s job was to facilitate peer education groups; he calls it “taking feminist theory and applying it to someone’s life.” He also protested the Girls Gone Wild franchise. The message? “The human body is beautiful but exploitation is not.”
By the time Benjamin arrived at VOCAL five years ago, he was ready to take on the challenge of organizing low-income people living with H.I.V./AIDS. Many memorable protests followed, from pressuring the Obama Administration to lift the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs (to date unsuccessful) to organizing 23 busloads of New Yorkers to attend the We Can End AIDSdemonstration in Washington, D.C. last July.
Benjamin’s favorite action targeted Robert Doar, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration since 2007. “Doar’s administration had signed off on a policy in early 2012 to require AIDS Service clients who wanted housing to be drug tested. If they didn’t comply they would have been cut-off,” he recalls. A group of 75 people, along with a marching band, showed up at Doar’s Brooklyn Heights brownstone on an early February 2012 morning to denounce the plan. Then, when Doar left to go to work, the protesters followed him onto the subway. “We escorted him all the way to his office,” Benjamin says. “The policy was ultimately frozen and did not get rolled out.”
Successful efforts like the one against Doar sustain Benjamin’s belief that he can help create an effective and creative housing justice movement in today’s New York City. “We give a lot more in tax breaks to developers than we spend on affordable housing,” he says. “This year there will be turnover in the city council and a new mayor will be elected. Two years from now, in 2015, the rent laws will be up for renewal. I believe that 20 years from now we’ll look back and say that 2013 was the year that changed everything. It will either be seen as the date after which few working class people could afford to live in New York or it will be seen as the moment we changed the tide, when we got together and organizations did what they needed to do to build a powerful force for change.”
That may sound a bit hyperbolic, but Met Council is indeed spearheading a 75-group coalition called the Real Rent Reform (3R) Campaign (realrentreform.org). Members include Asian Americans for Equality; the Brooklyn Center for the Disabled; the Bushwick Housing Independence Project; the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats; Communication Workers, Local 1180; DC 37 AFSCME; the Urban Justice Center; and the Working Families Party. The coalition’s broad agenda includes pushing for campaign finance reform to limit allowable contributions to candidates from corporate donors and the real estate lobby; opposing plans to build luxury housing on land owned by NYCHA; pressuring the mayor to appoint a tenant representative to the Rent Guidelines Board; and resisting caps on the real estate taxes paid by developers. The 3R Campaign is also pushing for a Tenants’ Bill of Rights that would inform renters of the law on everything from heat and hot water requirements to applying for a Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption.
Coalition efforts are essential if New York’s tenant movement is to be revitalized, Benjamin says, and he is doing everything he can to draw in disparate agencies and organizations. He hopes to team up with NY Communities for Change and the Working Families Party in pushing for tenant-friendly legislation in Albany.
His former colleagues from the H.I.V./AIDS community applaud his efforts and say that if anyone can kick-start the campaign for housing justice, it’s Benjamin. “Jaron is an incredible community organizer and an extremely hardworking and knowledgeable activist,” says Cassidy Gardner of Queerocracy.
For his part, Benjamin points to his phone, a massive pile of file folders on and beside his desk, and gestures that it is time for him to stop talking and get to work. There are tenants to call, community groups to reach out to, and legislators and policy makers to educate.