A New Yorker Fighting for Fair Housing for All
An Interview With Julian Morales, Senior Housing Strategist at the NYCLU
New York counts more than 90,000 people as unhoused on any given night, with at least 60,000 in New York City alone. At the same time, skyrocketing rents across the state amplify the crisis, increasing the outlandish number of rent-burdened New Yorkers and pushing more and more people closer to eviction, where the odds are further stacked against them. These imbalances and failures in housing policy are a racial justice issue, and the NYCLU has supported the housing movement in New York State via the Good Cause Eviction bill and right-to-counsel protections, among other efforts.
Senior Housing Strategist Julian Morales is a passionate advocate for fair housing for all New Yorkers. As an organizer, he has developed the NYCLU’s strategic plans; engaged with volunteers, coalition partners, community groups, policy organizations, and legal partners to build relationships for housing advocacy; and created educational materials for workshops and town hall meetings to build awareness around housing issues. Julian’s background in community relations and public policy includes work with the Good Old Lower East Side, the New York City Council, and the Participatory Budgeting Project. A former professional carpenter and fantasy football devotee, Julian lives in Woodside, Queens, with his wife and four children.
We spoke with Julian about the origins of his activism, the housing movement’s key priorities, and the importance of stable housing in a just society.
NYCLU: You focus on trying to achieve better, fairer housing for vulnerable New Yorkers. How does this effort fit in with the NYCLU’s mission to advance and protect civil rights and civil liberties?
Julian Morales: Stable housing is a critical civil right. When you think about education, employment, infrastructure, children’s well-being—having stable housing is at the heart of any of those issues that we work on. So we’ve been identifying ways to keep folks in their homes and find solutions for our unhoused community throughout the state.
You grew up in the Red Hook Houses, a public housing complex in Brooklyn managed by the New York City Housing Authority. Did those experiences impact your desire to become involved in this larger housing movement?
JM: Absolutely. I grew up in public housing in the late ’80s and ’90s, and I can’t stress enough how much that has shaped me. I can go on for days about the history of public housing and how it was intentionally defunded by the federal government when there was a migration of communities of color coming in. I will say, as someone who lived in public housing, the towers-in-the-park model was a phenomenal concept with regard to having lots of open space for folks to recreate and be in community. But as I became a young adult, I started to realize that the conditions were subpar and I was intrigued by why it was taking so long to get repairs done and why standards weren’t being upheld. And I got involved with a local organization in my neighborhood that low-key was building out an organizing program.
A big part of your work for the NYCLU has involved interfacing with communities directly through town hall meetings and workshops, walking tours and trainings. How is that approach crucial to the housing movement?
JM: That’s the heartbeat of organizing and making change: having the folks most impacted by an issue at the forefront letting their legislators know that they’re here to hold them accountable, that their needs are important. I’ve seen over the years that once we’re able to identify some leaders who are impacted by an issue like fair housing, they bring their experiences and stories to the work and are able to change the minds and hearts of folks in power.
You’ve recently shifted from field work as an organizer to a full-time policy position. How will this change NYCLU’s housing work focus?
JM: This is a newish role for the NYCLU. I’ll be spending a lot more time in the state capitol meeting with and lobbying state legislators and their teams—particularly staff on the housing committees—to build rapport and let them know our priorities. But I’ll also continue ongoing work on housing issues with partners and in coalition spaces. We’ve been working with a large upstate-downstate coalition known as Housing Justice for All that is leading the effort on Good Cause Evictions. The other is the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, which was the first to pass right to counsel in 2017 for folks going through eviction proceedings, and now they’re on the quest to get this passed statewide. The law hasn’t been upheld as much as it should be because there’s a shortage of lawyers and legal service providers to meet the demand, particularly post-pandemic when we have almost 200,000 people in eviction proceedings.
Looking at the near-future landscape, what’s the biggest challenge area and where is the greatest opportunity for progress?
JM: Last year, real estate entities spent over $8 million to push back on these initiatives, so that’s what we’re up against: they don’t want extra protection for renters and they want the ability to increase rents unchecked. On right to counsel, 90 percent of landlords and real estate folks have legal representation, compared to five percent of tenants at best. So we’re going up against big-time money. But one of the big things these coalitions are thinking about is how to increase people power in innovative ways. Particularly in a pandemic world, thinking about more virtual settings because that’s a tremendous burden for folks to trek it all the way to Albany. Also, how we utilize social media in these legislative efforts, which has become a really strong tool in moving the needle on policy.
How does housing fit into the racial justice picture?
JM: If you think about white flight in particular, public housing was created not for Black and Brown people but for white people coming back from the Second World War. And then in the ’50s and ’60s, when people of color started to migrate into public housing, white residents were able to move to and revitalize the suburbs and they were eligible for loans that communities like my own could never dream of. We’re constantly seeing [discriminatory] big banks and big lenders—recently, City National Bank on the West Coast had to pay this historic settlement—and so, whether you want to be a renter or a homeowner, or be housed for that matter, clearly it impacts Black and Brown communities in a much larger way than it does our white counterparts.
Why is the NYCLU a good fit for your goals as an activist?
JM: The NYCLU has worked in housing issues for decades, since the ’70s on exclusionary housing in Long Island. We’re a well-resourced organization that really cares about issues impacting Black and Brown communities. There’s so much work to get done on the housing side and we bring a unique skill set as an organization to work with groups that need support or training in moving legislators in Albany. That’s where I see myself in this role. We want to be good partners in the housing movement, but we also want to have a big impact.
Why is this work important to you?
JM: I first got introduced to this kind of by accident about 16 years ago. I had just landed this carpentry gig at a high school through the union and a friend of mine was like, “Oh, you should come to this meeting on policing.” I went to the meeting and caught the eye of the executive director at the time and they were creating an organizing training program. About a month and a half into that program, we had the opportunity of a lifetime to go to the first ever United States Social Forum in Atlanta, Georgia, in June 2007. That trip really shifted the paradigm. I got to meet Black Panthers and Young Lords and hear about their stories, but I also got to hear from high school students in Boston who were doing kick-ass work. And it opened my eyes to this realization that nothing gets done—particularly for Black and Brown communities—unless we get it done. And the rest is history. Now years later I have children, and I think about what kind of world I want to leave them, what kind of barriers I want to break down for them so that they don’t have to go through what we’ve had to go through or what past generations have had to go through. That’s what keeps me going.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)