By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Life-long Lower East Side resident Carlina Rivera has been involved in local politics since as young as age 12, so it should come as no surprise that her next move is running for City Council. Until recently, Rivera was the legislative director for Councilmember Rosie Mendez, and she left the position to focus on running to fill the seat in District 2 that Mendez will vacate this year due to term limits.
Rivera’s introduction to politics at such a young age was thanks to tenant advocate Marie Christopher, who lived on the first floor of her building on Stanton Street when she was growing up.
“She was an amazing tenant advocate, always pushing issues of public safety and preservation of NYCHA,” Rivera said of Christopher, who died in 2013. “She brought me to my first community council meeting. She knew that the community was an ecosystem, and she knew the importance of working with elected officials but also holding them accountable.”
Throughout her involvement in local government, Rivera said she feels that regardless of the issue, relationships with neighborhood organizations are important for progress within the community. She and her husband, Jamie Rogers, met in 2011 on Community Board 3 where Rogers is now the chair, and they bonded over their mutual respect for community organizing.
“Finding neighborhood solutions to hyper-local problems is where it starts, at the grassroots level,” she said.
At Marist College, Rivera studied law and journalism and was able to combine her interests when working for the Lawyer’s Alliance for New York, which serves other non-profits by providing legal services for them.
“It gave me an introduction to larger nonprofits, helping with specific issues within different communities,” she said. “That’s one of the helpful things I can bring into the City Council. Knowing the different groups that do specific kinds of work is instrumental to the process.”
Rivera worked with Mendez for the last year and a half and said that although the district covers four different community boards, the concerns of neighbors are always the same: good schools, housing, open space and quality of life issues. But her experience in Mendez’s office taught her about some of the nuances in the particular communities.
“In the Community Board 6 area, it’s more about homelessness, healthcare, Stuyvesant Town affordability and East Midtown rezoning whereas in CB3 it’s more about the changes in the East Village and the displacement of long-time residents,” she said. “Different neighborhoods have slightly different priorities, but I’ve worked with all four boards.”
One of the main issues that Rivera is focused on for her campaign and for the district is education. Working on an after school program with Kaplan K12 Learning Services exposed her to the inequality at schools in the district.
“There is a lot of inequity in the neighborhood but we also have some wonderful schools and we need resources to bring them to their full potential,” she said. “We have a segregation problem. The community education councils have been trying to figure out an admissions policy that would be representative of the communities where the schools are, and one of my priorities is this imbalance.”
Before working in Mendez’s office, Rivera worked as the director of programs and services for neighborhood organization Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and also focused on tenant rights, consumer rights and civic engagement during her time there. Affordable housing and tenant rights are another focus of her campaign, and she feels that an important aspect of being a Council member is direct service with constituents rather than just communicating with residents through email blasts, especially in regards to these issues.
“You are a legislator but the number one thing is constituents. That’s the main part of being on the Council,” she said. “As a council member, you need to provide information in different ways, like helping with eviction prevention, giving out information on benefits assistance, helping older tenants who were targeted by predatory landlords and organizing town halls.”
Rivera has been part of the efforts to indict Steve Croman, a landlord in the East Village who has been accused of harassing rent-controlled tenants, and has been active in the fight against landlord Raphael Toledano, who has been accused of intimidating East Village tenants with aggressive buyout offers.
“The city must hold predatory landlords accountable for harassment tactics and deprivation of services,” she said. “Working on the Stand for Tenant Safety legislative package is also important to preserve existing affordable housing.”
Rivera said she feels tax credits are necessary to create more low-income housing in the neighborhood.
“Negotiation and expectations are needed with developers building and buying with no further investment of funds to improve the surrounding community,” she said.
Related to affordable housing is homelessness in the district, and Rivera said that her previous experience with neighborhood nonprofits could be beneficial in dealing with this concern.
“One of the issues is that we don’t have enough apartments or housing for the mentally ill,” she said. “We don’t have the services to support them. Knowing the organizations which fund that work is so important.”
The plight of small businesses is another priority for Rivera, and she praised the work of the current borough president, noting that problems like gentrification affect small businesses in the neighborhood in addition to the residents living there.
“I appreciate the work that Gale Brewer has done and (previous Borough President) Scott Stringer improved diversity (on the community boards) when he was borough president,” she said. “Retail diversity may be improved by looking at special zoning. There need to be special districts for retail diversity because each neighborhood has different needs. You can’t just do blanket zoning.”
Rivera added that she supports the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which aims to help small businesses keep their spaces.
“The Small Business Jobs Survival Act goes a long way to put power back into the hands of small business owners when they go to the negotiating table with their landlord,” she said. “Entering a commercial lease begins a serious long-term professional relationship with legal implications. This contract must be based on fairness and benefit both parties. The law should be implemented to create the guidelines for supporting New Yorkers that are so vital to the fabric of our communities.”
Rivera said that in addition to the specific issues she’s fighting for in the neighborhood, her main reason for running is her commitment to the community.
“We’re known as being a very progressive district. We all care about people,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to this sanctuary city (because of President Trump’s executive order committed to blocking funding) but thankfully we have some of our own funds we can use to make change and continue the great work of previous elected officials.”
Local political club Coalition for a District Alternative (CODA) has endorsed Rivera for the City Council seat. She also recently received endorsements from State Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick and former State Senator Tom Duane, in addition to an endorsement from Mendez. Hoylman noted that it was unusual for him to endorse a candidate so early in the race but felt strongly enough to support her now.
“Carlina has a lifetime of block-by-block knowledge of our neighborhoods in the East Village and Lower East Side and a deep commitment to a progressive agenda, at a time when we need it most to combat Donald Trump,” he said.
Rivera and Rogers live in the building on Stanton Street where Rivera grew up (although not in the same apartment) with her 10-year-old pug Yoshi and turtle Freddie, who Rivera got on her eighth birthday from a storefront in the East Village that has since become a boutique hotel.
“It was a classic piece of old New York: a shared lease that was a bike shop on one side and a pet shop on the other,” she reminisced. “You don’t see that anymore.”