Peter Harrison isn’t paying rent for his apartment. A resident of Stuyvesant Town for the past 11 years, he’s decided to join millions across the country in refusing to fork over money to landlords during a global pandemic.
Harrison is taking his career-long criticisms of the real estate industry to the doors of congress, joining a crowded field of progressives attempting to unseat Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who represents New York’s 12th Congressional District, which includes Greenpoint and parts of Williamsburg.
For Harrison, this race is especially symbolic. The very same real estate and investment firms Harrison has critiqued throughout his years of advocacy have filled Maloney’s coffers with donations.
Greenpointers chatted with Harrison to hear his beliefs on housing, racial, socioeconomic and climate justice issues, as well as to learn about how Harrison plans to turn his critiques of the real estate industry into legislation.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
To voters who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself and explain why you’re running for Congress?
I’ve been living in the district for 14 years. I am a long-time housing activist with my tenant association and Housing Justice for All. I advised on presidential housing plans for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Julian Castro. I’m also a Democratic Socialist and faculty member at Baruch College, teaching in the MBA program on information technology.
I am running for Congress because I think cities are where the future of our country and planet will be won or lost. They are the best defense against economic inequality, racial injustice and climate disaster, but we don’t have any leadership in the Democratic party at the national level centering cities. I know what kind of structural change we need to solve it, which is taking on the real estate industry, Representative Maloney’s third biggest donor. The idea of not having somebody in Congress who’s an urbanist, who’s fighting for urban-centric issues is just unacceptable for New York 12.
What would be the first piece of legislation you’d push for if elected to the U.S. Congress?
It’s the one I’ve got to work on, which is the Homes Guarantee, a national progressive plan to solve the housing crisis. Representative Ilhan Omar has introduced both the broader goal of Homes Guarantee but also the emergency bill to cancel all rent and mortgages and utilities.
Just to clarify, assuming you’re elected to Congress, the immediate economic fallout from COVID-19 would be months behind us. Would you be cancelling rent indeterminately?
In the short term, I’m advocating for Representative Maloney and others to cancel rent and forgive back payments and mortgages. When I get in, that’ll be passed in theory, so my focus will be solving the long-term pre-existing housing crisis, which is the Homes Guarantee. It is not cancelling rent, but it is capping what rent could be for a person’s income. It is building more social housing. It’s ending homelessness and providing supporting housing services. It’s addressing the systemic racism in real estate, Most importantly, it’s about adjusting the financial system of real estate that rewards speculation. If you tackle the housing crisis, it’s a way to fundamentally change economic and racial inequality and climate disaster. It’s not a single issue. It’s an issue that touches every other issue.
The 12th Congressional District cuts across Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. What do you think is the most pressing issue here in North Brooklyn? What do you think is most important in Greenpoint?
There isn’t a neighborhood, there isn’t a door to knock, that isn’t impacted by the housing crisis. From the work we’ve done in Greenpoint, we know that it’s a neighborhood that has been deeply impacted by gentrification and development around the river. The Latino population has started to vanish. Long-term working class folks have been displaced.
Certainly the other one I hear about is climate justice. Newtown Creek is a superfund site. There’s a lot of residual and environmental risk associated with that. That’s an issue that’s not as “sexy” as others, but it’s something that deeply impacts a lot of folks in Greenpoint. It’s not just about these big broad strokes with the Green New Deal that I support and helped work on. It is about redressing existing environmental damage, and that is unfortunately not happening in Greenpoint.
Another thing I hear about too is related to climate justice but focuses more on traffic and pollution and damage around that. There’s that pipeline that was just cancelled.
A quick fact check. I don’t think the National Grid pipeline was cancelled, but work temporarily stopped because of COVID-19 and is now resuming.
Yes, sorry. It’s mostly been paused because of the pandemic.
These are global issues due to climate disaster, but they are impacting neighborhoods like Greenpoint. One way you address some of these issues is through a much different approach to housing, stopping speculation in real estate and starting to address how you make resiliency a cornerstone of any development, how you have smart growth, how we start to reorient our street grids away from cars.
Have you participated in the protests sweeping across the city? What would be your advice to protestors in your district?
Yes, I have been out in a number of the protests up by Gracie Mansion, down in East Village, joining in solidarity with some of my comrades in NYCHA.
Have you been to any of the McCarren Park protests?
Actually, no. I know there’s been some protests out there. They’re great because some are black led. There’s been some very strong efforts by white allies to defer to that leadership.
I do feel like this is different. I feel like the public is much more aware of police violence against black lives and black and brown communities. There is so much more momentum and oxygen for change.
People should continue to participate and continue to try to do so responsibly with as much social distancing as possible. If the police don’t wear masks, I think it’s incumbent upon us to do so responsibly. I’ve seen this at every protest that I’ve been to personally, and if we keep that up, then we’ll be able to effect change in this city but not put people at risk. Again, COVID disproportionately does impact black lives.
Is there anything you’d like to communicate to voters?
Representative Maloney and Suraj Patel have a lot of money and have sucked up a lot of the oxygen. They have been doing the same old cheap politics. I represent a break from that. I bring the policies and values we need. I think a lot of voters maybe want change, but aren’t sure what that looks like. We need to find ways to bring people over to our ideas. It’s not my job to radicalize people. It’s my job to normalize our positions.
The one thing I will say too is that it’s important to parse out who’s actually progressive and not. The Amazon headquarters deal was in New York 12. It would have been the most consequential economic policy decision in our generation. I was the only one in our race out there on the ground protesting it. We can‘t just check boxes and say we’re progressives. We have to have a record of going out there and fighting for values, particularly if they’re controversial or even unpopular. I’ve done that, and I’ll continue to do that in Congress.