In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a massive wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and Asia combined with limited housing stock to create a severe home overcrowding crisis in New York City. Many among the City’s political classes were unaware of the problem before 1890, when muckraking photojournalist Jacob Riis offered the world a glimpse into the squalid living conditions inside the City’s tenements in his classic exposé, How the Other Half Lives. Riis’s work helped spark efforts to clean up life inside the City’s slums. Laws were passed demanding, for example, better ventilation, more exposure to natural light, and improved plumbing in living quarters. While these reforms had some positive impacts on public health, the city’s tenements remained severely overcrowded. Unfortunately, if government reformers realized that building more affordable housing was the real solution to the problems of crowded slums, it would be another three decades before they acted on this realization.
A century later, a startlingly similar scenario is playing out on a smaller scale here in Port Chester. Like Gilded Age NYC, today’s Port Chester has been transformed by immigration. And just as the immigrants photographed by Riis found little alternative to crowding into cramped tenements, so too do Central and South American and Caribbean immigrants arrive in Port Chester to find limited housing options and resort to squeezing into confined quarters. Port Chester leadership has thus far followed the unfortunate example of Gilded Age New York officials by attempting to fix the overcrowding problem without adequately addressing the underlying lack of workforce housing.

In this context, the termination of Port Chester’s professional firefighters seems especially misguided. The Village’s Illegal Dwelling/Overcrowding Report (available at
www.portchesterny.com/Pages/PortChesterNY_CodeEnforcement/REPORTS/0238637B-000F8513) shows that inspectors repeatedly find fire safety issues while investigating reports of home overcrowding. Fire hazards were rampant in Gilded Age New York’s tenements as well. Thankfully, for all their faults, Tammany Hall did have the good sense to create and maintain a professional fire department. Why don’t we have the same good sense? By getting rid of our professional firefighters, we are taking dangerous risks with the lives of our most vulnerable residents.

I urge the Board and Mayor to take a lesson from history books. Restore the professional firefighters and do not grant Starwood tax breaks and a lucrative rezoning until the company agrees to replace the 133 units of workforce housing at 999 High Street that it plans to destroy. The Westchester Planning Board, the Westchester Workforce Housing Coalition, the Sustainable Port Chester Alliance, Human Development Services of Westchester and others have all called for workforce housing to be included in the redevelopment of the United Hospital site. Starwood has responded that Port Chester already has more federally subsidized units of workforce housing than the other communities in Westchester. This is an irrelevant and absurd comparison. Not only does Port Chester have the greatest need for workforce housing, as evidenced by our home overcrowding problem, but Starwood compares us to other communities in a county facing ongoing scrutiny and a federal settlement related to its historic lack of affordable housing! Starwood would have us settle for simply being the best of the worst and continue to leave our most vulnerable populations crowded into substandard living quarters. I can only hope the Mayor and Trustees are more far-sighted.

Jeffrey Lopez
Port Chester