Lower East Side Residents Join Forces

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:15

Frustrated residents band together to form Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side

Lower East Side Residents on the Lower East Side are banding together to form a new tenants' organization focused on the specter of overdevelopment and lack of affordable housing.

The six-member board of Tenants United Fighting For the Lower East Side, or TUFF-LES, invited local and state officials to their recent inaugural meeting.

Their primary concern is achieving "actual representation," by which they mean they'd like tenants in their buildings speaking out on issues affecting their community on the Lower East Side ? Two Bridges, Lands End 1 and 2, and the Vladeck, Smith, LaGuardia and Rutgers Houses, along with Gouverneur Gardens and Knickerbocker Village.

"We've not developed a means of reaching out to the much smaller multi-family dwellings along Madison, but as we build capacity we hope to consider ways of broadening our base," said board member Marc Richardson, who lives at Lands End 1.

So far, the six board members live in the two Lands End buildings and the Two Bridges Tower, but they're talking with tenant leaders in the other buildings.

Richardson said this group is different because a typical tenants' group will only represent residents in a single building or development, while the aim of TUFF is to bring together representatives from all the buildings. To the best of his knowledge, he said, such a group is "unprecedented" on the Lower East Side.

Richardson said board member Tanya Castro deserves credit for starting the group after reaching out to several tenant leaders in January.

"She really sparked the discussion between all the different tenant associations," he said.

Castro said she started the process in January after seeing the impact that development in the area was having on her and her neighbors.

"We have debris, we have construction, we have losing of the parking, a lot of tenant and resident issues coming to us and no answers," said Castro, who is also part of a new tenants' association at Lands End 2.

She then reached out to now-fellow board member Trever Holland, who lives in Two Bridges, and tenant leaders in other buildings. "I said, wait a minute, Lands End 1 has been through so many other issues similar to what we're going through, let's reach out to them."

TUFF has been contacting tenant leaders throughout the Lower East Side with a vision of unity and coherence of message. "If we all get together and create one voice, maybe we'll be heard, maybe we'll make a difference," said Castro.

Holland has his own reasons for helping form TUFF.

"I just didn't feel like this neighborhood wasn't being represented," said Holland. "Whenever anyone would ask about this area you never heard from residents, you always heard from a particular group, and we just wanted to make sure we have a voice in what's going on so we don't walk outside one day and notice that the street is completely changed and we had nothing to do with it."

As for issues in the community, Richardson pointed to creeping gentrification and the proliferation of development on the Lower East Side as reasons why TUFF formed.

As evidence, fellow board member Grace Mak said the neighborhood's only affordable supermarket, a Pathmark that used to be on Cherry Street, was demolished after being acquired by Extell Development, which plans to build a 68-story residential tower on the lot.

"Basically they took away our major lifeline," said Mak of Extell.

Mak said the community is anxious that an upscale gourmet supermarket, which might not accept WIC or SNAP benefits, will move into the ground floor retail space of Extell's residential tower.

Aaron Gonzalez, another TUFF board member, said from 2000-2012, rents in New York have risen 75 percent, a tough economic situation made worse by low wages. Gonzalez called for new development projects to include at least a 70/30 percent split of market rate and affordable units, and said affordable housing must be achieved with dignity.

"We need real affordable housing, for us," said Gonzalez. "And none of this poor door city-sanctioned segregation."

Gonzalez was referring to other developments in the city, including one on the Upper West Side being built by Extell, that have separate entrances for tenants who live in the affordable units.

Holland said the community needs a ferry service catering to them, for transportation and for evacuation purposes, as TUFF expects an influx of 3,000-4,000 residents with development projects that are already underway.

He also highlighted the need to formulate and enact an evacuation plan for Lower Manhattan, and said such a plan does not exist two years after Hurricane Sandy.

"Right now, if a flood happens, we're in trouble," said Holland.

Board member Daisy Echevarria talked about crime issues in the neighborhood. In April, a man was shot nearby on Cherry Street across from a school, and last week, a group of two men and two women committed three armed muggings within an hour, she said.

A neighbor in her building at 257 Clinton Street was shot recently while defending a woman in front of the building, she said, and another neighbor was robbed by kids riding bikes. Lastly, said Echevarria, a security guard leaving the building was recently assaulted and mugged.

Echevarria noted that several years ago the NYPD removed a surveillance tower that was a significant crime deterrent at the intersection.

"Drug dealers left the area because they felt watched," she said. "There was a huge difference, Madison Street felt safer."

Echevarria said there's a need for increased patrols in the neighborhood, and said she was told by a precinct captain on the Lower East Side that such an initiative would be difficult due to a lack of funds. She also called for the surveillance tower to be returned to Madison Street and Rutgers Street.

Several representatives of local and state elected officials attended the meeting, including Gov. Cuomo's office, Council Member Margaret Chin, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Comptroller Scott Stringer, among others. A representative from Community Board 3 also attended the meeting.

Board members said the next order of business is to bring tenant leaders from other buildings into the fold, and investigate rumors of an East River waterfront conservancy they heard was forming.

"There's apparently an effort to start a conservancy and there's no residents on this group, we found out by accident," said Holland.

Holland said he was tipped off when someone in his network was accidentally caught up in an email chain about the prospective conservancy, which already has a steering committee, and has since tried to find out more information about the group with limited success - further illustrating the need for a group like TUFF.

More information on TUFF-LES can be found online at www.tuffles.org.