By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Stuyvesant Town resident Peter Harrison is the latest candidate to challenge Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney for her seat in the 12th District, with a campaign centered on the housing crisis.
“I’m a housing person, both as an activist and as a policy person,” he said. “And there’s a moment right now in this district to talk about housing as this lens for other major, major issues. The narrative of the campaign really is centered on housing as this focal point for talking about economic justice, climate justice and racial justice.”
Harrison moved in Stuy Town as a market-rate tenant in 2009 with some friends and less than a year later, they received a letter saying that they were members of the Roberts class-action lawsuit. That prompted him to get involved with the STPCV Tenants Association.
“There was an amazing opportunity to learn how to organize tenants because it was a ton of effort, and a huge capacity left for the TA,” he said. “So I really got thrown in, became a building captain and was knocking on hundreds and hundreds of doors, learning a lot about it.”
He was forced to get even more involved when he and his roommates suddenly received an eviction notice shortly after, and said that he and his roommates were harassed by management. His experiences in housing court had an impact on his activism as well, not necessarily just because of his own situation but in seeing other tenants there having to fight for their homes with little to no resources.
“With my experience about how scary housing court was as someone with relative privilege, there are a lot of people who really couldn’t fight back,” he said. “That’s kind of why I decided to do something in housing and figure out a way to do more. It’s what I decided go back to grad school for and it set me up on this crazy journey that brought me here.”
Harrison said that when he was in graduate school at Columbia for urban planning, with a focus on housing, he volunteered for then-Councilmember Dan Garodnick but admitted that his own politics were “kind of out of the mainstream.” That mindset shifted and he thought more about running for office, he said, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset incumbent Joe Crowley in the 2018 primary.
“There was a tweet from her that housing is a human right,” he said. “I never heard somebody running for any office anywhere ever say that. It was really exciting because it was this energy post-2016 that what’s been the status quo of the Democratic Party is clearly not working. It’s representative of the working class. So she really changed my mindset about just what’s possible politically.”
Harrison previously canvassed for and volunteered with now-State Senator Julia Salazar, as well as for Tiffany Caban in the Queens District Attorney race, in addition to other candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). He got arrested in Albany earlier this year during a civil disobedience action for the Universal Rent Control Campaign in an effort to keep Governor Andrew Cuomo from derailing negotiations on the rent laws before they were renewed this summer.
Harrison said that he while he was involved with the DSA, the Universal Rent Control campaign and local politics during the last election through other candidates in 2018, Maloney’s seat wasn’t really on his radar until he realized how much of the vote challenger Suraj Patel had received (41%). In the 2016 Democratic primary, Maloney handily defeated challenger Peter Linder, who got 9.9% of the vote.
Harrison was, however, aware of Patel for other reasons as well.
“I was one of the people catfished by his campaign,” he said. Patel gained some measure of notoriety during last year’s primary when some of his staffers went on dating apps to lure potential voters by engaging with people on the apps and then revealing himself as a congressional candidate.
Harrison has also been a senior housing advisor at progressive think tank Data for Progress, helping to create a national report on housing and working with the presidential campaigns of Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker to examine different housing proposal ideas.
“I’m a local activist, but having some policy experience on the federal level, I just think there’s such an opportunity to change the narrative on housing and say that the housing crisis is a national emergency and needs national action,” he said.
Harrison said that he’s “pretty, pretty aggressively pro-transit,” meaning that he thinks that the system should be free, at least partially based on the argument that the fares the MTA collects support less than 40% of their operating costs. The issue of fares and fare evasion in particular has a disproportionate effect on communities of color, he argued.
“It’s absolutely an economic justice issue, racial justice issue, climate justice issue,” he said. “That’s also what I’m talking about when I talk about housing, but to have better housing options, you need better transportation options. You have a much more sustainable and resilient green economy and have to put the emphasis back on transit and not on car ownership.”
He noted that the busway on 14th Street getting canceled was “absolutely atrocious” but also feels strongly that the city needs more train and bus service, in addition to implementing federal congestion pricing on cars and trucks.
“I have this idea that the MTA, New Jersey Transit, ferry system, should all be one single fare-free regional system,” he said. “It’s completely possible logistically, it’s just political will. A lot of lot of places in the world have done those. It’s not not crazy stuff. It’s locking up poor black and brown people to make a point.”
In addition to his housing activism, Harrison also has a background in start-ups after he helped found two different companies since he started graduate school almost 10 years ago. The second company, which he is still involved with, is an app called homeBody that combines his housing activism and tech background. The tenant communication app helps residents connect with their neighbors to solve ongoing problems, track maintenance issues and collect data to help hold landlords accountable.
The first company that he co-founded with friends was called Bright Box, which they started working on about nine years ago. The company provided secure boxes for people to charge their phones in public places, and he and his friends got the idea as bartenders when customers kept asking for places to charge their phone. Harrison said that Bright Box became his full-time job by the time he graduated from Columbia in 2013 but ultimately it didn’t work out.
“It was kind of a cliche, Silicon Valley story where we all basically took too much money and lost control of the board. And then I got fired,” he said. “It’s really hard to tell your mom that you got fired from a company that you started.”
Using the tech startup experience he had from working on Bright Box, he co-founded homeBody, making it a public benefit corporation. His experience in tech also came in handy when a friend asked him to fill in to teach a class at Baruch focusing on politics and technology in 2016, which lead to a longer relationship with CUNY.
He later worked as the director of an accelerator program for startups at CUNY and while working in that program, could continue working on homeBody, but he said that funding to the CUNY program was eventually cut and he got laid off last year. But he is currently still an adjunct professor at Baruch, teaching classes on technology and entrepreneurship.
Harrison’s parents are from Bay Ridge and recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Harrison grew up in Connecticut, the youngest of four siblings, and is planning to get married next year. He said that while he generally goes by Pete, he made a conscious choice to run specifically as Peter Harrison.
“I wanted to honor my grandfather,” he said. “My mom wouldn’t support my campaign if I went by Pete because Peter is my grandfather.”
The primary election is next June.