By Sabina Mollot
There is no one in New York City who would deny that the rent is too damn high, but in the view of one candidate running for the City Council, tackling that one issue is so important that it would also solve others facing Manhattan’s District 4, like growing retail blight and homelessness.
That candidate is Bessie Schachter, who’s also a state committee woman with the Lexington Democrat Club, and up until recently, an aide to State Senator Liz Krueger.
“It all overlaps and comes back to affordable housing,” she said.
Schachter, a self-described progressive, said her campaign was fueled by the calls she’d get from Krueger’s East Side constituents two or three times a week that were from tenants who were being priced or pressured out of their apartments.
“It’s what I almost exclusively dealt with,” said Schachter, who filled the role of Krueger’s director of community outreach until quitting on December 1 to focus on her campaign. But Schachter’s reasons were also personal. She could relate to those desperate callers since for the last year, the Upper East Side resident and her family have been in Housing Court. Her landlord, she said, tried to evict her for non-payment even though she’d always paid the rent for her market rate apartment. Although she doesn’t know why she was targeted, Schachter’s troubles with the owner began after she had her daughter, Jessica, who’s now 14 months old. “It’s a strange turn of events,” she said, explaining that previously, she and the landlord had a good relationship. Additionally, she now wonders why her apartment isn’t rent stabilized, noting that some other units in the building are.
“I’ve lived in the neighborhood a long time and I love living here,” said Schachter, as she sat with Jessica napping in a stroller nearby at Juan Valdez coffee bar on East 57th Street. “We want to stay where we are but we’re in this unfortunate position of being forced out. I’m seeing this happen to (other) people and I don’t see anyone doing enough about it.”
As for what she’d like to see done, Schachter said if she wins the council seat currently occupied by Dan Garodnick, she’d have every property with affordable housing in the city audited.
“We need a full audit of affordable units to make sure they’re getting rented appropriately,” she said. She referred to a ProPublica article last year that said as many as 200,000 rent-regulated apartments in the city could be unaccounted for. “We need to find out what happened to those units. This is what’s driving up the cost.”
Schachter also said she wanted to audit the J-51 and 421a tax break programs for developers and see some affordable housing built for seniors.
Additionally, she supports pending legislation authored by Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson that would provide attorneys for low income tenants in Housing Court.
“I really want to see that bill passed but expanded so it’s fully funded,” said Schachter, “so people who need repairs or are getting harassed don’t have to fight for representation. The number of times I’ve heard a story similar to mine… court is something to be held up against (tenants) as a threat.”
She also has gotten the impression that part of the problem is that many people facing eviction are too afraid to talk about it and this also inspired her campaign.
“People say, ‘Look I don’t want to get into trouble.’ I’m running for office so I can talk more broadly about this. There are a lot of things you can do to protect yourself,” she said.
In her neighborhood, one problem, she said is the absence of any grassroots organization aimed at helping the community, other than the citywide ones, for the past decade. “If people have questions, they don’t who know to ask; sometimes they call the senator’s office.”
That neighborhood would be where the Upper East Side borders East Midtown. One knows where one is, though, she quipped, by the garbage cans. “You can tell by the trash cans changing names and some of the street poles say Upper East Side historic district.”
Another problem facing the community, she noted, is a growing number of storefront vacancies, especially along Lexington Avenue. Asked if she supports the Small Business Jobs and Survival Act, which is aimed at providing retailers with an automatic 10-year extension when their leases are up, Schachter said that, while familiar with the bill, she doesn’t have a strong opinion on it. Again, she reiterated the importance of affordability.
“It all comes back to affordable housing,” she said. “If you encourage people to stay here, the shops become more profitable. It means people have money, not to spend on Housing Court, but to spend at neighborhood stores.”
Along with landlord/tenant conflicts, Schachter said other common woes she’d hear were from seniors who’d have $50-$100 to live on for the month after paying rent and bills, meaning they sometimes would go without eating. Other times, she’d hear from older tenants in walkups who were no longer able to manage the stairs, turning them into involuntary shut-ins.
“That we’re letting people live in that situation is not okay,” she said.
In her campaign pamphlet, she notes that she is also focused on keeping classroom size small and retaining quality teachers in public schools. She also wants to create more parks and open spaces.
As state committeewoman, she has met with others in the same role (the committee is made up of 300 people) twice a year on issues affecting the state. The position is an elected one, although those running don’t appear on ballots unless they’re being contested. Instead, individuals get voted in through signatures, with the minimum amount being 500.
Schachter said so far the toughest part of attempting to replace Garodnick, who’s getting term limited out, is finding a babysitter so she can get out to interact with voters. This is because her sitter recently went back to school. So, she explained, choosing to leave her job and run wasn’t an easy decision.
“For me, the harder path is almost always the one that’s more right (but) I don’t think I would’ve been comfortable doing less than this,” she said. On Garodnick, she called him “an amazing representative.”
Schachter also said she’s not intimidated by the fact that it’s already a somewhat cluttered race.
“You shouldn’t be intimidated if you have something to say, and we’re lucky we have so many people willing to do it.” As for the other Democrat candidates, “We’re very good friends. I know they’re wonderful people. I’ve known Keith (Powers) and Marti (Speranza) and Jeff (Mailman) for years.”
Referencing the recent presidential election, Schachter added, “Politics should not be a mudslinging contest.”
It helps her though that she’s gotten some support, she said, with endorsements from Upper East Side/Midtown East Assembly Member Dan Quart, Assembly Member Ron Kim of Flushing and State Senator George Latimer of Westchester. In terms of campaign cash, she’s so far amassed a $24,000 war chest.
Schachter, a native of Texas (with no hint of an identifying accent), studied history and politics at University of Texas before moving to New York for graduate school. As a graduate, she studied politics at New York University. She’s lived in the fourth district for the past decade, six of those years in her current apartment. Her husband, Cory Evans, teaches philosophy at Baruch College and along with a daughter, they also have a samoyed pooch named Varessa.