Like many long-time Lower East Side natives, Jennifer Sweet, age 49, is a struggling artist and a single mother who has watched her neighborhood shift from one extreme (squats, riots, drug addicts and Hell’s Angels) to the other (Starbucks, doormen, boutiques and yuppies) over the past three decades. Jennifer, who lives in an apartment on 10th street and avenue A, suffers from severe, chronic asthma causing her frequent hospital visits and leaving her incapable of holding a full time job. Two years ago, when her landlord raised her rent unexpectedly “yet again,” she was sure she was powerless to stop him. After speaking to a friend in a similar situation, however, Jennifer decided to go to the tenants association, located on Twelfth Street and avenue B in Manhattan. There, she found out about the GRIE program, a legislation that prohibited people with disabilities rent from being raised. She promptly confronted her landlord, “threatened to sue his ass” and never saw a rent hike again. “I’ve been living in this apartment since I was seventeen and it wasn’t until I was almost fifty that I learned my rights as a tenant with disabilities” she sighs.
Unfortunately, Jennifer’s story is an anomaly. As district 2 undergoes rapid development and gentrification, many tenants—especially the elderly and disabled—are unaware of their rights and inevitably forced out of their neighborhoods. These locals feel that they are intentionally bullied and “left in the dark” when it comes to their rights as tenants.
District 2 New York City Council Member Rosie Mendez hopes to change this.
Born and raised in New York City, Rosie grew up in a housing development in Williamsburg. She attended N.Y.C. public schools her entire life and later graduated from New York University and Rutgers Law School. Since then her entire working and volunteer life has been dedicated to community service, beginning as a tenant organizer, becoming a housing specialist at the Parodneck Foundation, and later working as an IOLA Legal Services Fellow at Brooklyn Legal Services. She became a member for the United Auto Workers Union. Prior to her election to the Council, and eventually became the Democratic District Leader Manhattan’s second district in January 2006, according to the New York City Council website.
Mendez’ work has focused primarily on improving locals quality of life, restricting zoning and noise pollution, as well as maintaining and improving low income housing “by introducing the legislation necessary to renew rent regulations in New York City and other bills to prevent owners from evicting tenants under the false pretense of a building demolition, to require city agencies to publish material for renters in multiple languages, and requiring owners of large residential complexes to notify the city prior to sale.”
Although Jennifer learned about her rights in time, many other East Village and Lower East Side natives aren’t so lucky. Antonio “Chico” Garcia, age 46, decided to leave the Lower East Side housing projects when rumor spread that they were being turned into condos: “The neighborhood is really changing” he says, “It’s getting expensive…it might be good for some people, but not for the poor. The poor, they’re getting kicked out…so, where they gonna send them? To Brooklyn? To the Bronx? And Manhattan’s for the rich? That’s what’s happened.” Chico pauses, takes a drag from his cigarette. With a defeated shrug, he adds, “The essence of the neighborhood is gone, its been gone for a while, I can’t tell you how many years…but people are not helping, not providing for each other, now they’re just blocked out, like, ‘I don’t know you, you don’t know me.’ Everybody’s trying to fend for themselves.”
While Mendez is arguably overly idealistic in her fight to take back this ever-changing neighborhood, she is able to recognize and voice growing tensions and fears for many New York natives like Jennifer and Chico. Since 2006, she has introduced and improved important legislations such as the DRIE (Disability Rent Increase Exemption), protecting disabled tenants, the SCRIE (Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption) as well as several other low-income programs which can be found on the Access N.Y.C. website: