At least two public housing tenants claimed last week that they were threatened with eviction by Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) employees for posting flyers taking aim at a proposed plan to rehabilitate many of the units in the public housing buildings.
HHA Executive Director Carmelo Garcia, the plan’s main proponent, denied issuing notices of eviction, as both tenants claimed. But he acknowledged that one of the two residents had been issued a “cease and desist” notice for posting flyers in the buildings.
The HHA, an autonomous agency that oversees the city’s federally funded low-income projects, has proposed “Vision 20/20,” a plan to demolish the HHA’s Harrison and Jackson Gardens old brick buildings in the southwest corner of town and replace them with mixed-income housing.
Garcia has touted the plan. Some public housing tenants have come to council meetings to support it. But allies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer have said that not enough public information is available on this project that will cost millions of dollars in government funds.
The debate between the project’s proponents and opponents has become heated at times. Now, it appears that Garcia and Vision 20/20 have new critics to contend with.
HHA resident Jessica Coco, who describes herself as an activist, revealed on Thursday that she represents a new group called “Save the Projects.” Last weekend, she went on WBAI radio anonymously and framed the Vision 20/20 issue as racial, saying she believes the plan is meant to ultimately remove Hoboken’s remaining minorities.
Coco said that on Thursday afternoon an HHA site manager threatened her with eviction on Thursday morning because of flyers she put up against the project. She also said that her car had been recently broken into and damaged. She said that she believed the events to be connected, and said she filed a police report on Thursday for damage to the car and the theft of her work identification card.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Coco said that an HHA site manager visited her apartment and asked her to sign a notice of eviction, which contained a statement of admission that she would take “sole responsibility for posting lying and malicious flyers.” Coco also stated that the HHA worker used her race against her.
“I was told that they knew it was me because I was white and I’m the only person smart enough to think of doing this,” she said. “I would have thought they’d come after me because I’m an activist, not because I’m white.”
Coco said that she has never been involved in housing activism before, but has attended anti-war demonstrations and other protests.
“I would have thought they’d come after me because I’m an activist, not because I’m white.” – Jessica Coco, an HHA resident
Another resident, who reached out to The Reporter on Wednesday on the condition of anonymity, said that she allegedly received a visit from two HHA workers who asked her to sign a similar notice of eviction. The woman declined to give her name.
“I’m afraid, and I shouldn’t have to be afraid,” the woman said.
HHA issued ‘cease and desist’ notice over flyers
Garcia maintained that no eviction notices were distributed due to the emergence of the Save the Projects group, which has still not revealed the names of its members (other than Coco) or the size of its membership. The “cease and desist” notice, he said, was issued after pro-Vision 20/20 residents witnessed Coco posting flyers and turned her in.
He said that the notice was justified because Coco allegedly violated a statute that Garcia says bars slander from being posted on HHA property.
He said that Coco’s cease and desist order was the only one that has been issued related to this matter.
Garcia also said that he is not confident that the Save the Projects “group” is a group at all.
“Once again, there seems to be a political or covert operation with an agenda to scare, divide, and confuse our community by employing 1990s tactics to spread lies about Vision 20/20,” he said in a statement. “Save the Projects seems to be the political tool of those opposed to the progress of Hoboken Housing Authority. We have reasons to believe it is a politically motivated attempt to discredit the authority and the executive director.”
The mayor is up for re-election in November, and Garcia is running for Assembly. The Vision 20/20 issue may influence either election or both
A Google search of a phone number used on the legitimate flyers for Save the Projects appeared to belong to a man who is involved in activist issues in New York City and has gotten involved in at least one local environmental issue.
Where will the tenants go?
Garcia said while he understood the concerns of some residents over displacement, no current HHA residents will be left homeless by Vision 20/20. A statement to this extent was included in the original 2010 plan’s Tenant’s Bill of Rights. While the number of units in the new buildings would increase to 1,002 from 806, those 806 units are required by the federal government to be used for public housing.
Garcia said the project’s breakdown by phase would prevent any displacement from occurring. The first phase, a 44-unit building on the corner of Harrison and Fourth Streets, would be constructed on a parking lot. Upon its completion, residents would be moved in, with others taking their place while subsequent buildings are demolished.
The Vision 20/20 project is still in the planning phase and can’t begin until the HHA can secure funding from state and federal housing subsidies. It would also have to go before the city’s Planning Board.
What part does race play?
Coco discussed her concerns about the project last Sunday on 99.5 WBAI radio. She called Hoboken a “racist city” and claimed that the project’s objective is solely to drive out racial minorities.
“What Vision 20/20 will do is and one of their agendas obviously is to make the city of Hoboken all white and rich,” she said. “The city of Hoboken is a very racist city. There's no place for blacks and Hispanics to live once these buildings are demolished.”
Hoboken’s median household income is $140,780.
Coco explained that she believes Vision 20/20 is aimed specifically at minorities because it seeks to demolish HHA property inhabited primarily by blacks and Hispanics, namely Jackson and Harrison Gardens. Fox Hill and Columbus Gardens, which are mainly senior citizen buildings, are not part of the plan.
Garcia said that both those communities, as well as the remaining HHA complexes, are much newer than the Harrison and Jackson Gardens, which were built in the 1950s.
Coco is not the first to use racially charged language. At a City Council meeting in May, 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo, who supports the project, said that Council President Peter Cunningham, who does not, “might as well poke two holes in a pillowcase,” a reference to the Ku Klux Klan.
On Wednesday, Eugene Drayton, the president of the Hoboken NAACP, said that race was hardly an issue in the debate over Vision 20/20, because although the projects are for the most part inhabited by African Americans, there are also many white and Hispanic residents. Carmelo Garcia is Hispanic.
“These are people in need, and they’re white, black, and Hispanic,” he said. “Why would this be a race issue?”
Garcia also weighed in on the race debate, expressing surprise that people would call the project racist, rather than the project’s critics.
“I would have thought that those accusations would be made against those who oppose us from outside the projects,” he said in a phone interview. “Obviously race plays a part, and so does class, but it’s really those who oppose the project that don’t want minorities in Hoboken.”
He made no specific accusations about the politicians opposing him, but in the past, Zimmer has referred to accusations of racism against her as “despicable.”
One of the later “fake” flyers distributed in the projects last week falsely claimed that Drayton, as head of the NAACP, is against Vision 20/20, and the other advertised a meeting of the Hoboken Fair Housing Association, an unrelated group. Drayton said that when he saw the flyers, he went to the police. Drayton said that he also had forwarded his complaint to the NAACP’s state and national offices.
Drayton filed a copyright infringement complaint with the city’s Police Department after learning of one set of flyers improperly bearing the group’s logo and containing false information about Drayton’s stance on Vision 20/20. The Hoboken Police Department would not comment on the complaint.
The flyers falsely claimed that Drayton said he is against the project in a recent Hudson Reporter political column. Drayton never told The Reporter he was against Vision 20/20, but said that he could not support it until he learned more about it and the potential for displacement.
“I was very upset to see [the flyers with the logo],” he said. “I met with Garcia yesterday to see his presentation on the project.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org