It’s a hot, humid summer evening in Brooklyn, the kind that would keep most people inside with the air conditioner blasting. But not Isiah James.
The towering 32-year-old veteran who’s running for Congress in New York’s 9th District, in the heart of Brooklyn, is walking with me down Flatbush Avenue, talking a mile a minute as he points to the luxury developments that have sprouted up amid the modest row homes and small shops of the Prospect Heights neighborhood.
“These used to be apartments for Caribbean American immigrants,” he says in a deep, booming voice, his arms sweeping across an intersection dotted with expensive cafes and an upscale donut shop. “But this is lower Manhattan now. You have Wall Street bankers moving in to apartments that cost over $3,000. People who’ve been living here their whole lives can’t afford that.”
He stops walking and points down the street, past the spaceship-like Barclays Center, a massive arena home to the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. “The four harbingers of gentrification are there: There’s a Chipotle, there’s an Apple Store, there’s a Starbucks, and there’s a Whole Foods.” This neighborhood “is no longer affordable for poor people. If you can’t afford to buy food in the neighborhood, you can’t afford to live there.”
The 9th District, like much of New York City and many large cities across the country, is in the throes of an affordable housing crisis. The district’s northern half, which includes Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, and Prospect Lefferts Garden, was once home primarily to working-class Caribbean immigrants and Orthodox Jews. In the last decade or so, rents have skyrocketed, with the median one-bedroom in these neighborhoods going between $2,000-$2,500 per month — more than half of what the median household in the district makes in income. Meanwhile, the city and state have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Prospect Heights’ Pacific Park development — which includes Barclays Center and surrounding luxury apartments.
In January, James launched his campaign to challenge Rep. Yvette Clarke, a seven-term incumbent and champion of the Pacific Park development, in the Democratic primary next spring. James, a democratic socialist, will also have to beat out Adem Bunkeddeko, who narrowly lost to Clarke in 2018 after earning the endorsement of the New York Times, for the progressive vote. (Alexander Hubbard, a tech worker, and Michael Hiller, a Manhattan-based attorney, have more recently filed as candidates.)
To pull off an upset in the style of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, James is banking on building a grassroots campaign with what could be the most ambitious plan in Congress’s history to guarantee quality, affordable housing for all Americans. Clarke has taken more corporate money from Amazon than any other New York City rep, and Bunkedekko has ties to predatory real estate developers. James, on the other hand, said that he would introduce a bill to fully fund all public housing authorities in the country as soon as he gets into office.
“Isiah James is far closer to where the activist base is within the district,” said Sam Molik, a campaign strategist who works with progressive candidates. “This guy genuinely cares about the average, everyday lived experience of his neighborhood. … That’s a level of care and understanding you just don’t see from most people running for office.”
Born in Riviera Beach, Florida — a working-class town serving the wealthy communities of Palm Beach — Isiah James is one of 11 children of Jamaican-immigrant parents. He did not have a privileged upbringing. “We were actually homeless at one point,” he told The Intercept. “We were really, really poor.”
After high school, James enrolled in the Army, serving three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He first began to question America’s presence abroad in 2009. One June day, James said, Sunni insurgents drove a dump truck containing 3,000 pounds of explosives into a packed Shia mosque in northern Iraq. His patrol was sent to clean up the wreckage. “We spent hours picking up body parts, trying to match them,” he said. “I was 22 years old. And I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”
Before being discharged from the army, James would be hit by improvised explosive devices and grenades a total of eight times. He left military service highly decorated but with difficulty walking, post-traumatic stress disorder, and permanent loss of hearing in his left ear.
After returning home, James took a firm stand against U.S. imperialism. “We’re spending 10 times as much on bombs and bullets as we are on books and backpacks,” he said, adding that, “We have bases all over the world … and we know what happens to empires. … They all fail.”
In 2013, James came to the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Brooklyn College while working with student veterans struggling with the transition to college life and organizing with activist groups like Make the Road New York and Democratic Socialists of America.
In January 2019, he went with a delegation of local progressives organized by Indivisible Nation BK to meet with Clarke. Her response to questions about Amazon disturbed James.
“I asked why she signed a letter asking Amazon to come here,” James said, citing a 2017 letter from Clarke and dozens of New York City politicians asking the tech giant to build its second corporate headquarters in the city. The letter became public in 2018 amid outcry over the $2 billion in subsidies offered to the company and concerns over rising housing costs. (Under pressure from Queens residents, Amazon scrapped the deal this February.)
“She told me she didn’t want Amazon to come. She said, ‘Don’t go telling people I signed anything,’” James said. “I couldn’t believe it. Either she doesn’t know what she’s signing, or she lied right to my face.” (Clarke’s office denies she said this.) When James recounted the meeting to his wife that night, she suggested he run against Clarke in the next primary. By the end of the month, James had officially declared his candidacy.
“You know, I didn’t really know how to do this,” James told me of his decision to run. “But the stuff I see every day in the district convinced me.”
James, who is seeking endorsements from DSA (of which I am a member), Justice Democrats, and Indivisible, has a platform that includes democratic socialist staples like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, tuition-free public college, abolishing ICE, and so on. But his most distinctive plank may be his housing platform.
His platform has three main components. First, he is calling for the federal government to allocate billions of dollars for safe, quality public housing, by fully funding local authorities like the New York City Housing Authority. Such entities have long depended on federal funding — roughly two-thirds of NYCHA’s operating budget comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD — but it has steadily declined for decades. And since the Nixon administration, the federal government has put a moratorium on using its funds to build new — rather than replace existing — public housing (one of James’s “day one” priorities is to pass a bill overturning that ban).
James is also touting an affordable housing model called community land trusts. With CLTs, residents own their own housing, but the government or a nonprofit trust owns the underlying land. Residents can sell their housing, but only under terms that guarantee it is affordable to the new owner-tenants. In this way, CLTs preserve affordable housing that would otherwise be bought up by speculative developers, razed, and flipped into luxury condos — as has been the case across Brooklyn.
The second plank of James’s housing plan is developing a bill that would guarantee interest-free, government mortgages to low-income buyers. “Veterans get little-to-no-interest home loans through the VA home loan program. We need a program like that expanded for working-class and working poor people in this country,” James said.
The third plank is getting HUD to abandon the area median income, or AMI, calculation. Eligibility for much of the country’s affordable housing is determined by percentage of AMI; for example, subsidized units may be available to households making 60 or 75 percent of AMI. AMI is based on a large metropolitan region, including both poor neighborhoods and wealthy suburbs. That’s why in New York City, where AMI has been the central metric in Mayor Bill De Blasio’s struggling program to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, there are government-subsidized “affordable” units with rents over $3,000-per-month, available to households making six-figure incomes. In Crown Heights, there are “affordable” apartments going to households making more than twice the neighborhood’s median income.
Anthony Beckford, a City Council candidate in Brooklyn and president of Black Lives Matter Brooklyn, is optimistic about James’s grassroots campaign. “Bunkedekko stepped into the scene a year ago and received many Anti-Clarke votes and that had a lot of people talking,” he told The Intercept in a Twitter DM. “Now, many people in the community are talking about Isiah James, who is an Army Combat Veteran that has a presence of leadership, sincerity and integrity.” He added, “As a Community Leader, I met Isiah James at a few rallies and townhalls in the community, regarding issues that community members take very serious. These issues are Housing, Education, Immigration, Jobs and Healthcare. Myself and others, view Isiah as a very viable candidate.”
Clarke, on the other hand, has been a champion of the controversial Pacific Park development, which made headlines this summer for being behind on building hundreds of affordable apartments it had promised the state in exchange for sizable tax cuts. And the housing section of her campaign website emphasizes her role in fighting the Trump administration’s efforts to cut funding for affordable housing vouchers (though Clarke did tell The Intercept she is considering new legislation to address the misuse of AMI).
While Clarke has co-sponsored many hallmark progressive bills, such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — and was an early supporter of abolishing ICE — James thinks she hasn’t been aggressive enough. “She’ll raise her arm for the Green New Deal, but we should be leading on this stuff. Clarke is passing bills to name post offices.”
“Why hasn’t Rep. Clarke held a town hall in every NYCHA building in the district [during the August recess]?” James asked. James points out that state Sens. Julia Salazar and Zellnor Myrie, who represent Brooklyn, both marched in the streets to expand protections for tenants this spring. “Where was Yvette Clarke in that fight? Why was she not marching … beating the drums saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ She was missing in action.”
“[Rep. Clarke will] raise her arm for the Green New Deal, but we should be leading on this stuff. Clarke is passing bills to name post offices.”
Clarke, whose mother served on the City Council, is a longtime member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and represents one of the safest Democratic seats in the county since being elected to Congress in 2006. But despite this, she has few signature legislative achievements to speak of. Near the end of the first year of her freshman term, she made headlines for being the only one of her 54-person class to have yet to introduce a bill, amendment, or resolution. Clarke has said that helping to pass the Affordable Care Act was one of her most significant accomplishments in Congress.
And she has raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors, including from Steven Roth, the CEO of Vornado Realty Trust, New York City’s largest corporate landlord. (When I asked James if he’d taken donations from landlords, he responded, by Twitter DM, “Helllllll no. Not one cent.” James has only recently begun fundraising and is currently just under the FEC’s $5,000 threshold to report individual donors. He expects his first filing to be publicly available next quarter.)
And as recently as this April, Clarke has taken thousands of dollars in donations from Amazon, according to FEC filings. Since 2017, she’s taken more money from Amazon’s PAC than any other New York City representative. And last year, Clarke’s chief of staff, LaDavia Drane, joined Amazon as a lobbyist, focusing on the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Any organization that gives me contributions is very familiar with the positions that I’ve taken,” Clarke told me when asked about her Amazon donations, citing her early support for abolishing ICE, which maintains contracts with Amazon. “And if they choose to support me for reelection — that’s on them,” she added.
Like James, Adem Bunkeddeko is refusing to take corporate PAC money and supports ambitious housing proposals like federal funding for community land trusts. He, like James, is also a relative newcomer to the district, having lived in Crown Heights for about 10 years.
At the same time, Bunkeddeko has come under fire from local activists for his support of charter schools, though he told me he believes their teachers should be able to unionize. A child of Ugandan refugee parents in Queens, Bunkeddeko said that he went to “pretty bad schools” before winning a scholarship to an elite boarding school which would ultimately “change the trajectory” of his life. Speaking of charter schools — of which there are dozens in Brooklyn — Bunkeddeko said, “I’m never going to tell a black or immigrant family to deny their kids any opportunity for a better education.”
And Bunkeddeko’s connections to New York City developers call into question his commitment to affordable housing. Before going to Harvard Business School, Bunkeddeko worked for the Empire State Development Corporation, the business arm of New York State’s government. ESD has been behind some of the most controversial luxury developments in the city, including Pacific Park and Amazon’s ill-fated Queens headquarters. “He’s nothing but Yvette Clarke in low-calorie form,” James said of Bunkeddeko.
In 2018, Bunkedekko pulled in thousands from New York’s largest private property owners. This cycle, he says that he’s “not taking a dime” from “big real estate developers.”
While Bunkedekko says that he’s “not taking a dime” from “big real estate developers” in this election, campaign finance disclosures show that for his 2018 race, he pulled in thousands of dollars from donors like Jerry Speyer, founder and chairman of commercial developer Tishman Speyer, New York’s third-largest private property owner, and Ron Moelis, CEO and founder of housing developer L+M and the man housing activists call the “gentrification king of New York City.” Moelis is one of the biggest beneficiaries of De Blasio’s housing plan, netting over $119 million in developer fees and government subsidies for building luxury apartments with a certain number of affordable units in working-class neighborhoods.
When I asked Bunkeddeko about these donations, he told me that his campaign “should not have accepted them, and we returned them immediately,” and that his 2020 campaign will not accept any money from real estate. FEC filings suggest the campaign only returned a single real estate donation, and even that came more than a year later, nearly three months after the 2018 primary election. The campaign did return donations from six other donors — again, after the election — including Home Depot co-founder and Donald Trump backer Kenneth Langone and charter school advocate and health insurance executive Joel Klein.
Even after discounting the returned contributions, more than 25 percent of Bunkeddeko’s campaign funds in the 2018 race came from the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors. One of his three individual donors reported so far this cycle is from the financial sector.
Whether such donations will make a difference to potential voters remains to be seen. Bunkeddeko insists that these donors have had no impact on his policies or vision. “Everyone who gave us a check could go on the website and look at the platform and what we stood for.”
Julia Salazar, the Brooklyn state senator and democratic socialist, said that while it’s “really ideal to run without taking any dirty real estate money,” it’s important to keep the numbers in perspective: Bunkeddeko took in the tens-of-thousands-of-dollars range, but Clarke’s career donations from real estate are over $170,000.
Richard S. Brookshire III, an activist and co-founder of the Black Veterans Project, is less equivocal. “Elected officials and those vying for elected office cannot in one breath claim to represent the needs of working class constituents, already struggling to keep their homes and raise their children in a district being plundered by developers — and accept money from those same exploitative forces to fund their electoral campaigns,” he told The Intercept.
“James offers a contemporary and necessary platform,” Brookshire continued. “NY-9 needs a fighter in office, not candidates selling what they advocate for to the highest bidder.”