PKG Social Impact Internships: Caitlin Fukumoto (’24)

Data and Grassroots Organizing in the Fight for Affordable Housing

My name is Caitlin Fukumoto, and I am a rising sophomore majoring in Urban Studies and Planning. This summer, I am interning at Community Voices Heard (CVH), a grassroots organization that advocates for a racially, socially, and economically equitable New York State. As a data and research intern, my focus has been on projects centered around affordable housing in New York’s Westchester County and its largest city, Yonkers.

Westchester County is located in the Hudson Valley, just north of New York City. As is true for many metropolitan areas in the United States, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation institutionalized a pattern of segregation in Westchester County in the 1950s. Reinforced by zoning codes, Westchester’s segregation has led to a dearth of affordable housing, an issue organizations like CVH have been fighting against for decades. In the present, economic stratification in Westchester has increased as wealthy residents with the economic freedom to choose a home outside of New York City drive up the area’s average median income (AMI) and cost of living. Compounding the issue is the gentrification occurring at the hands of developers wanting to capitalize on this phenomenon.

The AMI in Westchester is currently $125,000, and some communities within the county, such as Scarsdale, are reported to have a median income exceeding $200,000. Meanwhile, I have heard from CVH members that they, along with many other middle- and low-income families who have lived in Westchester County for their entire lives, feel like they will soon have to find homes elsewhere due to the unsustainable cost of living.

In November 2019, CVH successfully pushed Westchester County to perform a Housing Needs Assessment, which quantified the need for affordable housing at 82,451 units. This means that there are 82,451 families in Westchester who are either in need of a home or currently live in problematic existing housing stock: housing that might be severely overcrowded or in which residents are rent burdened. People in need of affordable housing in Westchester are disproportionately seniors, disabled, or both.

The housing inequity I’ve witnessed in Westchester is a real world example of urban planning principles I’ve learned even in just my first year of studies at MIT. In 11.152 The Ghetto: From Venice to Harlem, we studied the history of segregation in urban spaces. Although my work in Westchester hasn’t crossed paths with any explicit ghettos, the county has a real legacy of segregation that can be seen in racial disparities across education, health, and environmental issues. In 11.001 Intro to Urban Design and Development, we learned about the conflicting interests that surround any development project. This was reflected in the research I did on Westchester and what I heard directly from residents. These conflicts were highlighted as my work got deeper into local politics and the claims of for-profit developers.

While acknowledging a history of injustice in any sphere can be disheartening, I have been fortunate this summer to witness and be a part of the slow but steady progress organizations like Community Voices Heard are able to celebrate. CVH combats the lack of affordable housing in Westchester using strategies for social change including community education and advocacy, and community organizing.

CVH identifies as a member-led, multi-racial organization, and its vision includes “a society in which the people most directly affected are the ones making the decisions.” Throughout the summer, I watched and helped my supervisors not just organize community members, but teach them how to organize. My staff organizer colleagues and I sat quietly in meetings we set up with city council members, supporting community leaders as they testified and directly held their representatives accountable. Instead of advocating on anyone’s behalf, the work I did this summer helped facilitate opportunities for community members to advocate for themselves.

In late June, after circulating petitions and reaching out to thousands of Yonkers residents to show their support at a public hearing, we successfully pushed Yonkers City Council to pass a new affordable housing ordinance with a 5-2 majority. We’re currently working to maintain this supermajority to overturn the mayoral veto of the ordinance. With some stipulations, the policy would require developers to set aside 20% of their units for affordable housing on all new construction. Though not the end of the road, it would be a step in the right direction to creating more affordable housing in Yonkers and could create a precedent for affordable housing ordinances in other cities.

This small success, coupled with CVH’s methods of leadership development and direct democracy, has taught me a lot about the type of social impact I want to be a part of in my professional life. As someone who hopes to have a future in urban policy and civil rights law, I strive to keep listening to the stakeholders who are most personally affected and let their words guide what I do.

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Tags: Racial Justice, Social Impact Internships, Social Impact Internships Summer 2021, Urban & Rural Planning

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