Saturday Night Live cast member Michael Che has decided to weigh in on New York City’s public housing crisis by organizing a comedy benefit show this Friday, where he’ll perform with Michelle Wolf and a "secret lineup of comics." The 35-year-old comedian, who went from selling his own T-shirt designs on the street to teaching himself stand-up comedy, frequently jokes about gentrification, racism, and other issues plaguing the city.
Che grew up in the New York's public housing system on the lower east side of Manhattan, where he passed time in places like the Alfred Smith Houses, which had some of the highest crime rates in the 80s. Decades of overlooked deterioration in public housing has piled up to an estimated $32 billion in repairs, and the city is facing the possibility of a federal government takeover at the end of the month.
The proceeds from Che’s show and an accompanying online fundraiser (which already raised over $23,000) are going to the Fund for Public Housing non-profit, which provides services for New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents. The city's 600,000 NYCHA residents regularly lose heat and hot water in the winter. And as the online fundraiser points out, "already this year 35k residents are without and that number is expected to go up." It would be herculean for the event to truly make a dent in the city’s massive repair needs, but it’s provided an opportunity to shed light on the conditions that officials are trying to address.
In a New York Times interview on Wednesday, Che opened up about what public housing was like when he was a kid. “You go without heat. You go without food. You go without doorknobs. You go without everything," he said. "Elevators don’t work. There was grease and oil inside the elevators to keep off graffiti, but then you couldn’t touch the wall.” He added, “My whole family’s from public housing, so you think all elevators smell like pee. You just think that’s the way it is.” Some of Che’s family members still live in public housing today.
He also touched on how much worse it was in the 80s during the city’s crack-cocaine epidemic. “You remember the people sleeping outside. You remember the murders of people in their teens and 20s, people making tons of cash who weren’t making tons of cash the day before. It’s a very familiar story.” In the Alfred Smith houses, the building’s own NYCHA manager told the Times in 1988 that residents were “afraid to answer their apartment doors because they don’t know who’s knocking.”
NYCHA housing wasn’t always that way though. As a stunning NYT photo essay laid out in July, it was once a selective desirable option for middle class families prior to the 1960s. But once restrictions were eased to be more inclusive and low income minorities filled the projects, they became associated with crime and lacked proper investment from the city. Now, Mayor De Blasio is trying to negotiate a plan to better fund NYCHA with the U.S. attorney’s office before their next court date on January 31 to avoid a HUD takeover. City Hall warned that by allowing the federal government to take over in the Trump era, it could result in HUD downsizing public housing altogether.
As for Che, he’s hoping Friday’s lineup of comedians can brighten the mood for people that have been invested in this nerve wracking dilemma. Even so, he's keeping the lineup under wraps so that attendees are there truly for the cause. “I want people who really want to be there and really help,” he said.
“It’s important to keep in mind how close we are, many New Yorkers, from needing public assistance and from needing public housing,” he added. With a cold winter still underway, perhaps the event and Che's outspokenness will direct more attention to the overlooked communities that are just as much apart of the city's identity as big institutions like SNL.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Taylor Hosking on Twitter.