Alum panel discusses NYC affordable housing crisis

Housing advocates Leah Goodridge ’04 and Jenny Laurie ’80 spoke on the affordable housing crisis in New York City during “Priced Out,” a panel hosted by the CDO. Courtesy of Sarah Kopp.

On Oct. 30, the Career Development Office, along with the Office of Alumnae/i Engagement, the Geography Department, the Urban Studies Department and the Sociology Department, sponsored the lecture “Priced Out: the Affordable Housing Crisis in New York City.” Guest panelists and Vassar alumnae Leah Goodridge ’04 and Jenny Laurie ’80 spoke as part of the event.

Goodridge is the supervising attorney of the Housing Project at Mobilization for Justice (previously known as MFY Legal Services), which defends tenants against unfair practices, and a board member of Housing Court Answers, which provides information about Housing Court to people without lawyers. In 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Goodridge to serve on the New York City Rent Guidelines Board, a mandated group that establishes rent adjustments for rent-stabilized units. Laurie is the Executive Director of Housing Court Answers and has worked there since 2008.

Both Goodridge and Laurie were English majors at Vassar, where they came to be interested in politics and social activism. As Laurie said, “It was really at Vassar where I had my political awakening.”

After graduating Vassar, Laurie realized she wanted to go into a career in housing when she and her roommates were kicked out of their New York City apartment for paying their rent a few days late. She explained, “It was that experience with my apartment that made me realize that I could combine both things, like my interest in political organizing and having a job that could pay my bills.”

Goodridge credits her desire to get involved in housing to her status as a New York City native, since she watched rent prices jump from when she was young to when she wanted to live on her own after graduate school. She found it challenging to live affordably in Manhattan after graduating and wanted to do something to change that. Goodridge also attributes her interest in housing law to classes she took while in law school at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Through their work, Goodridge and Laurie seek to address urgent social realities in the city they both call home. In New York City, 63,000 people sleep in shelters each night, and apartments with monthly rent under $1,100 are almost impossible to find. Furthermore, since New York is primarily a renter city, it is challenging for people to find apartments to buy.

This fight for affordable, fair housing for all people in New York City is what drew Goodridge and Laurie to the New York housing issue. At the lecture, they both spoke of public housing versus rent-regulated housing, which are essentially the two main forms of housing in New York City.

Laurie additionally detailed how the situation has changed since she got involved in the issue in the 1980s. At the time, there were only around 10,000 homeless people in New York City, whereas now there are upwards of 63,000. Laurie also said that the issues in housing have changed dramatically since the 1980s: In the past, affording hot water may have posed a challenge to a potential renter, but now people simply cannot even afford an apartment in the first place. Gentrification in different neighborhoods has also caused the rent of apartments to rise dramatically.

Goodridge and Laurie are involved in other issues besides housing affordability. In recent years, a common problem has arisen in which landlords find loopholes in contracts to make it appear that tenants are violating the agreement. Additionally, both Leah and Goodridge support tenants in issues such as a rat infestation or a lack of hot water. Another problem they deal with is public housing repairs.

In all of these cases, Goodridge stated, “An attorney can [significantly] help the tenant win the case.” Further, Goodridge spoke about what kinds of clients she tends to see: “About 80 percent of my clients are people of color, and most are low-income.” Goodridge noted the intersections of race, gender, citizen status and class in the housing crisis. She says that there is a common theme of building owners treating low-income people differently; Goodridge tries to fight for these individuals to receive the benefits for which they pay.

In terms of values, Laurie reflected, “Honesty, authenticity and organizing are the most important things in what I do.” Goodridge concurred, stating, “I try to understand the plight of my clients [in order to be able to better argue for them].”

Goodridge and Laurie closed the lecture by speaking of how widespread and prevalent the affordable housing issue is and how important their work is. After the lecture, attendee Tiara Coleman ’22 said, “I definitely enjoyed it. Honestly, it hit me personally because I am from New York City and I am a product of public housing, so that’s why I wanted to be here…when I go back home I think about my mom and where I was raised.”

Goodridge and Laurie felt that such a relevant topic would appeal to students desiring to live in New York City post-graduation. Their work in supporting New York City tenants indicates that, while housing is not always easy or fair, there are still people dedicated to defending the right to live in a safe and affordable residence.

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