By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Assemblymember Harvey Epstein held his second annual town hall last weekend to address concerns in the community on housing, as well as disability rights, climate change, prison reform and education. The event was held in the Friends Seminary at 218 East 16th Street and US Senator Charles Schumer also made an appearance near the end of the town hall after a stop at the Chinese New Year celebration in Lower Manhattan in order to provide an update for residents in the community about the impeachment trial.
Advocates broke off into panels for the majority of the town hall to discuss each of the topics but housing was combined into one panel at the end of the afternoon. Yonatan Tadele and Alex Lee of Cooper Square Committee, Barika Williams of Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, and Munir Smith of GOLES discussed preservation of affordable housing and how tenants can protect themselves against predatory landlords, as well as what advocates still need to work towards after the success of last year’s strengthening of the rent laws.
Williams said that homeownership should be part of the conversation in addition to the discussion about the rent laws.
“Sometimes you’re like, I don’t want to have to fight this renter fight for the rest of my life, and maybe would like to purchase a home,” she said. “So we have to be able to think of those things and we’ve got to think about preserving our stock. There’s going to be a huge battle to make sure that that housing doesn’t all go to market rate because then we’re right back where we started fighting.”
Williams also said that one of the causes to continue fighting for regarding the rent laws that didn’t get addressed last year is just cause eviction, which would protect market-rate tenants when their leases are up for renewal.
“If you’re not rent-regulated, you have a question at the end of every lease year,” she said. “What just cause eviction would do is to say that [the landlords] have to have a good reason or justification for jumping a tenant’s rent more than a certain amount. We’re not going to keep putting tenants in peril every single time their lease expires.”
Tadele noted that tenant harassment is still an issue that needs to be addressed.
“There are many different things that landlords and property owners use to target tenants and so I think what we try to do is not just push the component of harassment in general but try to pick many different things that really lead to tenants feeling pressure to leave their homes, like construction is harassment and campaigns around targeting short term rentals, which can make tenants uncomfortable in their own buildings.”
The panel that discussed disability rights earlier in the afternoon, lead by Susan Scheer from the Institute for Career Development, focused on employment for people with disabilities, with Scheer noting that 70% of people with disabilities aren’t in the workforce.
“If you said 70% of any other demographic was not in the workforce, it would be a scandal,” she said. “This is the only group where this seems to be fine.”
Scheer said that Epstein has been an important ally on this issue, and the Assemblymember spoke at the panel about legislation he introduced the previous week that would establish goals for participation by people with disabilities in regards to state employment, state contracts, legislative employment and judicial employment.
“In New York, we have no oversight at all in regards to how much money is going to people with disabilities,” Epstein said. “On the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we need to see how we’re doing with the disability community and how poorly we’re doing so we can do more.”
While Schumer discussed the impeachment trial near the end of the town hall, one attendee did interject at a certain point because the senator was not discussing housing, but she was overruled by an overwhelming majority in the crowd who encouraged Schumer to continue providing information on the case against President Donald Trump.
Schumer emphasized that the case the Democrats were making was not a “fishing expedition” but was a straightforward and direct attempt to get the truth in a fair trial, which includes witnesses, research and documents.
“The four witnesses we asked for should all be exact eyewitnesses to what exactly happened,” Schumer said. “In fact, testimony from a few days ago said that [Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick] Mulvaney was [in charge]. Why shouldn’t he testify? […] [Michael] Duffey is the head of OMB, who was the one who had to do the order to cut the aid, and it later came out that 90 minutes after the ‘perfect phone call,’ he said to cut the aid and don’t tell anybody because it might be embarrassing. So we should have these documents. We asked for contemporaneous documents with those activities, so we’re not going on a fishing expedition. We are just seeking the truth.”