William C. Thompson Jr. has made many visits to public housing complexes in New York City over his years in public service. But he had never spent the night in one, until this past weekend.
Thompson, a former city comptroller and former president of the New York City Board of Education, was one of five candidates for mayor who spent the night in the homes of various residents of the New York City Housing Authority, the city’s sprawling complex of public housing units.
The overnight visits were organized by the National Action Network and its leader, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who sought to place attention on the challenging conditions affecting the 600,000 New Yorkers who live in public housing complexes around the city. So the five candidates, all of them Democrats, slept on couches or sleeping bags at the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem to get a sense of the concerns of residents.
For a night, they saw first-hand a wide range of horrid conditions, from mold growing out of control and holes in the walls to peeling paint and repairs that have never been made.
Some New Yorkers undoubtedly looked at the experience as something of an election year publicity stunt. After all, there is a highly competitive race for the Democratic nomination to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is barred by the city’s term-limit laws from seeking a fourth term. And the candidates are eager to do anything that gets them media attention before September’s primary.
But Thompson and the other participants in the sleepover said the experience was anything but a cry for a media spotlight for themselves.
“It was eye-opening in a number of ways,” Thompson said in an interview with BET.com. “There were many repairs that had not been made to the apartment where I stayed, things that were on a waiting list for years.”
Thompson said he saw areas of an apartment in the housing complex where mold had grown to a degree that he said was clearly unhealthy for the residents, whose calls for service had gone without response.
“But what struck me was that the dignity of the people who lived there came through strongly,” Thompson said.
Thompson, who was the Democratic candidate for mayor four years ago, was joined in the overnight visit to the housing complex by fellow mayoral aspirants City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John C. Liu and former Congressman Anthony Weiner.
The candidates said that the experience was deeply moving for them.
“When you’re a politician, your experience with people’s lives usually stops at the door,” Weiner said, in an interview with BET.com “You don’t cross that literal and figurative threshold, and it’s dispiriting because you see conditions no one should have to live in.”
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(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)