By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Candidates running to replace term-limited City Councilmember Rosie Mendez met to discuss the central issues of their campaigns at the Boys & Girls’ Republic on the Lower East Side this past Monday night. District 2 covers the area west of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village to Fifth Avenue, covering Flatiron, the East Village, Alphabet City and parts of the Lower East Side, and stretching up to Kips Bay.
Democrats Ronnie Cho, Juan Pagan, Carlina Rivera, Jasmin Sanchez, Mary Silver and Jorge Vasquez and Republican Jimmy McMillan appeared at the forum to talk about affordable housing, small businesses, issues important to seniors and education. Democrat Erin Hussein is also running for the seat but was unable to attend the debate.
The Henry Street Settlement, along with the Women’s Political Caucus of New York, sponsored the event and Henry Street executive director David Garza moderated the discussion among the candidates. Garza started the conversation by asking the candidates to outline what they feel is the most important issue for the district and what they plan to do.
“I have a feeling I’m going to hear something about rent,” Garza joked, as McMillan, founder of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party and a former candidate for governor, had just led the crowd in a chant of his party’s famous catchphrase.
High rents and preservation of affordable housing was a major issue for other candidates in addition to McMillan.
Pagan, a former Assembly candidate from the Lower East Side, said he feels that Councilmember Mendez has not done enough to support NYCHA and the residents living there because of poor management.
“NYCHA has been allowing the deterioration of their buildings so they can turn them over to private developers,” he said. He criticized Mendez’s approach because she supports NYCHA’s NextGeneration plan, meant to preserve and protect public housing, which Pagan feels doesn’t address the gap in funding to make the necessary repairs on existing buildings. One solution he suggested is a one to two percent tax on new construction.
Rivera, a former staffer for Councilmember Mendez, agreed with Pagan about the management of NYCHA. She said that this issue, as well as predatory landlords, has caused some of the major problems with housing in the city but praised the recent guilty plea that landed developer Steve Croman in jail for a year-long sentence and hoped it was a sign of progress in favor of tenants.
“I don’t wish Riker’s on anyone but that is a message to other (predatory landlords),” she said. She added that she would also work on funding for legal services and would work with community-based organizations to help vulnerable tenants such as undocumented immigrants and seniors.
McMillan argued that one of the main problems caused by increasing rents is evictions.
“We need to make some changes because it’s getting easier for tenants to get evicted,” he said. “This isn’t gentrification. It’s population control.”
He claimed that evictions have become more prevalent because judges in housing court are appointed rather than nominated and are biased in favor of landlords, and one change he proposed was that the judges be nominated by public vote.
“Affordable housing is the issue of our time,” said Cho, a former President Obama staffer who now lives on Avenue C. He said that he supports permanent rent stabilized housing and holding predatory landlords accountable.
“We need a luxury tax for the highest, most expensive condos,” he added.
Cho said that another one of the issues most important to him is the SCRIE rent freeze program for seniors, because the neighborhood is so under-enrolled.
“We need to expand programs like SCRIE that aren’t being utilized,” he said. “Programs like SCRIE help seniors stay in their apartments.”
Vasquez, an attorney from the Lower East Side, said that disappearing small businesses is the biggest issue for him and that it’s connected to a number of other problems in the city.
“When small businesses close, the neighborhoods change,” he said. “Crime and rent go up and our neighbors are in more danger.”
Vasquez said that he supports the Small Business Jobs Survival Act so that local businesses have the right to lease renewals.
“All they’re asking for is fairness,” he said. “We want to ensure that our youth have a place to grow and interact with their community.”
Sanchez, a non-profit founder from the Lower East Side, said that small businesses are a focus of her campaign as well and proposed a Loisiada Business Improvement District (BID) to help them stay in the community, covering the area between Avenues A to D from East 14th Street to East Houston.
“No one has invested in mom and pops and we need to focus on keeping them,” she said. “Advertising will bring more businesses here and we can help them remain here.”
Silver, an education advocate and attorney, said that she considers herself the education candidate and first got involved in the issue while her now-grown daughters were attending public school.
“If kids aren’t given an education, they get derailed,” she said. “Our teachers care about their students and they need to be asked what the path to success is. There can’t be winners and losers in the classroom.”
Sanchez said that she became passionate about education when she had a poor experience with local public schools for her foster children and she said that she has been working in youth development through non-profit organizations.
Garza also gave some young residents spots on the panel to ask questions and middle school student Jason Rojas asked the candidates what they would do about homelessness in the district.
Sanchez said that she has a background in advocacy for the homeless, as she previously worked with nonprofits to create care packages to hand out to people in Tompkins Square Park and expanded to neighborhoods in Brooklyn. She added that there are a number of abandoned spaces that could be redeveloped and used as temporary housing.
“There is a bathhouse in Baruch Houses that closed in 1975 and that space could be redeveloped so homeless people in the neighborhood have a place to go,” she said.
Rivera said that she would focus on finding funding for eviction prevention.
“Eviction prevention is very important in homelessness prevention,” she said. “We also need to make sure we provide supportive housing because that is the only way to reduce recidivism.”
Questions directed at McMillan, regardless of their content, primarily received answers related to his party’s main tenet, to the frustration of some of the residents.
In response to a question about funding near the end of the forum, McMillan only responded that none of his fellow candidates had convinced him to vote for them.
“City Council is nothing but a joke,” he said. “They don’t do anything that works. They can’t talk about affordable housing because the rent is too damn high.”
More than one attendee shouted out from the audience asking him to answer the question, with one asking, “What’s your plan?” but McMillan declined to elaborate.
Previously, McMillan told Town & Village that he wanted to see the rents halved across the board and that he hoped to accomplish this by pushing the state legislature, which oversees the rent regulations, to act.