Met Council on Housing’s grassroots campaigns during the 1960s addressed issues of urban renewal, discriminatory evictions and increasing residential segregation that affected neighborhoods throughout the city.
The founders of Met Council on Housing were brought together by their neighborhood struggles against urban renewal in New York City during the 1950s. Directed by planning czar Robert Moses, urban renewal sought to remove substandard housing and stimulate downtown economies. However, the process involved the widespread demolition of working class neighborhoods in favor of middle class housing developments. By 1959 sixteen massive projects had displaced over 100,000 people, who were disproportionately African-American or Latino. By the late 1950s “Save Our Homes” organizations across the city were successfully exposing the pain of wholesale neighborhood destruction and the role of urban renewal in perpetuating racial segregation. While opposing the destruction of neighborhoods, campaigning for the removal of Robert Moses, and creating alternate plans for redevelopment, Met Council on Housing brought together the work of organizations such as Yorkville Save Our Homes, the Chelsea Coalition on Housing, and the Cooper Square Committee.
Public housing has always been a fundamental part of Met Council on Housing’s political goals. In New York City, large-scale public housing projects contributed to the displacement of low-income families, as neighborhoods were razed for new developments. Met Council on Housing proposed a more radical solution to the housing crisis: a ban on the destruction of livable housing, the strict enforcement of existing housing codes and the construction of small-scale public housing projects on vacant land (termed “vest-pocket” housing). Met Council on Housing published these suggestions in the 1964 report A Citizens’ Survey of Available Land, which documented 122 vacant sites on which low-income housing could be built without displacing residents.
Tensions between Columbia University and neighboring residents in Morningside Heights and Harlem had been simmering since the early 1950s, when an urban renewal project displaced thousands of residents north of 122nd Street. Columbia University continued its expansion into Morningside Heights throughout the 1960s, evicting tenants who were disproportionately African-American or Latino, and leading to a New York City Human Rights Commission investigation. Met Council on Housing member Marie Runyon, co-founder of Morningsiders United, led the fight to preserve low-income, integrated housing in Morningside Heights. Morningsiders United, with support from the activist organization Students for a Democratic Society, challenged Columbia University’s policy of keeping apartments intentionally vacant by reclaiming these buildings and preparing them for occupancy. Met Council on Housing also worked with student and neighborhood activists to successfully oppose the construction of a university gymnasium in Harlem.