It had only been light out for a few minutes on the sub-freezing early morning of Monday, March 13 when the black rented van pulled away from the curb in the Columbia Waterfront District. The van was bound for Albany, for the Carroll Gardens Association’s annual lobbying trip on behalf of itself and the statewide Neighborhood Preservation Program.
The Carroll Gardens Association (CGA), which in addition to providing affordable housing organizes and advocates for tenants and workers in Southwest Brooklyn, is one of New York State’s 205 Neighborhood Preservation Companies (NPCs). Other nearby NPCs include the Fifth Avenue Committee and the Gowanus Canal Community Development Committee. These groups receive state funding via the Neighborhood Preservation Program, which distributed nearly $8.9 million in NY State funds last year.
Last year’s budget was augmented by an additional $500,000 from a JP Morgan Chase legal settlement. CGA and its fellow NPCs are fighting to keep that $500,000 in their budget.
“Last year our allocation from the state was over $91,000,” said CGA Executive Director Vilma Heramia from the front seat on the way up. “A few thousand dollars could mean funding for one of our programs, like the street fair or the computer training classes.”
CGA’s lobbying trip, coordinated by the Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, was special in that it included six community members impacted firsthand by its efforts. The stakeholders were eager to make the 3.5-hour-each-way trip with mostly strangers, and included three members of the Southwest Brooklyn Tenant’s Union (SWBTU), a project incubated at CGA and founded last summer to support the voices of renters who felt they were being treated unfairly by their landlords; two members of Hopewell Care, a nascent childcare workers’ cooperative also incubated at CGA; and a tenant of one CGA’s 150 units of affordable housing.
The trip was organized by CGA’s Program and Planning Director Ben Fuller-Googins and Community Organizer Manon Vergerio.
“We’re hoping to develop the practice of lobbying organizationally and also with our members,” said Fuller-Googins from behind the wheel. “Moving forward, say if the Tenant Union wants to propose a piece of legislation, they’ll know how to do it based on experiences like this.”
Card-carrying SWBTU member Althea Morelli has lobbied before, and was eager to do it again. She wanted to share her experiences of homelessness, happily resolved in 2015, with her representatives.
“I joined the Tenant Union to see if I could contribute in some way, to have my voice heard and get the word out,” said Morelli. “I saw the Tenant Union developing, and I thought that was a good idea because it’s an important issue.”
“I always have hope and faith,” Morelli added on her expectations for the day. “The fight for affordable housing is everybody’s fight.”
In the Well
Once in Albany, the CGA crew found its way to “The Well,” a cavernous, marble area apparently designated for lobbying groups to consolidate their forces and coordinate their message before their meetings with representatives. All attendees received blue scarves to identify them with the NPC and sat down to hear a short series of speakers.
“This is a program that has worked for 40 years,” said Paula Gilbert, executive director of the Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, who spoke first. “For every dollar that we put into this program, you guys leverage about 45 dollars. This is a good investment. So make sure today when you have your meetings that your voices are heard.”
Joe Barden, President of the Board of the Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, spoke next.
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but my agency has gotten hammered by [cuts to] federal and city funding over the last couple of years,” said Barden. “We’ve had to restructure, downsize, lose programs, lose staff, it’s been a nightmare. The one shining light in our operating budget has been the Neighborhood Preservation Program.”
“We want all of our communities to be great, right down to each block and lot,” added Barden. “We want safe, decent, and affordable housing for all, not just for some. We want everyone to be proud of where they live.”
A series of New York State legislators followed, including Senators Betty Little from Northeastern New York, Liz Krueger from the East Side of Manhattan, and Andrea Stewart-Cousins from Westchester.
“It’s so important for you to come and talk to us, the legislators, about the work that you do in your communities,” Krueger told the crowd. “We are up here in Albany, and our job is to try to make sure we get the right laws passed to help you, and that we provide funding in the budget to make sure that you have the resources to do the work you do, but I don’t think any state legislator should pretend that we’re the be-all end-all experts because we aren’t on the ground the way you are.”
Assemblymen Stephen Cymbrowitz from Sheepshead Bay and William Magnarelli from near Syracuse also addressed the grassroots lobbyists.
“We know the devastating impact that federal cuts will potentially have on affordable and supportive housing programs in New York State,” said Cymbrowitz. “Housing is fundamental to our daily lives, and everyone deserves an opportunity to have safe, quality, and affordable housing…. An individual or family with secure housing can be an agent of community development and economic activity.”
Despite the frenetic pre-budget debates atmosphere in the statehouse, each representative CGA had appointments with made time to see the group in person.
First was Felix Ortiz, Assistant Speaker of the New York State Assembly and representative for District 51 since 1994. District 51 includes Red Hook and Sunset Park.
The meeting began with Ortiz’s legislative director Brian Early, Ortiz himself being delayed bt a budget conference meeting. The group sat around a conference table in a small room in the Legislative Office Building with a desk and a whiteboard tracking the progress of various bills in red and black.
After Heramia introduced CGA to Early with help from SWBTU member Maddie Rosenberg, Paulette Coston explained to Early some of the problems she had been having with her landlord, and how CGA had helped.
“My rent was $821 [per month], and it went all the way up to $1,116,” said Coston, whose rent at 63 Tiffany Place is supposed to be stabilized. “I didn’t know which way to turn, and I was so happy when I found out about the Carroll Gardens Association.” CGA connected her to a lawyer and brought media attention to the conflict.
“It’s terrible the way the landlord is treating us,” added Coston. “Without them, we wouldn’t know where to go, we really need them.”
Ortiz arrived shortly after Coston had finished. Sitting jauntily on his desk, he told the group about ways in which legislators can work together and the inner machinations of the budget process.
“I know the great work that you do. I let the governor know myself, because as Assistant Speaker, I’m one of the five in the leadership position, which allows me to really connect and direct my issues to the governor and the speaker and the president of the senate. We are putting a lot of pressure on the governor as we speak right now.”
Ortiz assured Coston that he could assist her.
“They never will pull you out,” said Ortiz. “If you contact me directly, I will bring help to you.”
After going into Ortiz’s office for photographs, Silvia Reyes told him about her experiences with CGA in Spanish.
“I am learning many things to improve my work situation, about things I can do and things my employers shouldn’t do, but many others in my position don’t know these things, and accept things the way they are because they need to work and because they don’t have other options in this moment,” said Reyes. “And so it’s great to keep on supporting CGA so that they can keep on supporting us. I’m only one woman who could come today, but there are 25 of us in the organization, that couldn’t be here.”
Ortiz responded in Spanish as well.
“I have worked with CGA for more than 20 years, and it’s always been one of my priorities to respect their requests,” he told Reyes. “Thank you for your comments with respect to this organization, this organization is well respected.”
He ended the meeting by thanking everyone for their presence in Albany.
“In order to get what you want, your presence here is very important. And your advocacy helps us,” said Ortiz. “Don’t feel that, whatever happens, you wasted your time here. You have made a presence that has impacted the people in this building. Because when you keep yourself silent, that’s what you get. But when you make a presence, and you connect, and you mention where you come from, that resonates heavily, and that helps us to justify our case even better.”
The group then went into the Capitol proper to meet with Daniel Squadron. Squadron is a Carroll Gardens resident who represents NY Senate District 26, covering lower Manhattan, Governor’s Island, and the Brooklyn Waterfront from Greenpoint to Hamilton Avenue. He arrived just a few minutes late, and sat at the head of the long table by the door.
After introductions, Audrey Gooding spoke about the role CGA has played in her life as her landlord, and the value of the organization. “Thanks to CGA we get to learn about the people behind management,” she said. She went on to ask Squadron about an idea of hers, to make stabilized or subsidized rent dependent on a person’s net income, rather than gross.
Squadron agreed that there is much to be done about affordability.
“Unfortunately, now with Donald Trump as President, a lot of the fight flips from being about expanding affordable housing, which is what we need in New York City so badly, to fighting to just stay in place, which is a terrible thing,” said Squadron. “New York State could do a lot more… the truth is that Senate Republicans have blocked affordable housing in New York City for years.”
Gale Johnson spoke next about her experiences as a childcare worker.
“I am so happy to be a part of the cooperative,” said Johnson. “With an organization like that, you don’t have to work by yourself, you’re not just a fish moving on your own. You’re organized, you’re part of a team… Keep on funding the Carroll Gardens Association to keep them going, so they can keep on helping us.”
Squadron, himself a Carroll Gardens parent, was enthusiastic about the cooperative. “[Childcare work] is a profession, like any other job,” said Squadron. “It’s really a great idea to collectivize this issue.”
Squadron said he was eager to support funding for the Neighborhood Preservation Program, but said that due to being part of the minority in the senate, he isn’t able to set the agenda for the budget.
“In some ways, I’m just like you in that I’m an advocate. I don’t actually get to decide what happens in the budget,” Squadron told the group. “The good news is that we’re pushing really hard for you and for this issue. It’s an issue that’s already a priority.”
He echoed Ortiz in his gratitude and appreciation for the CGA group having made the trip.
“There’s a lot of issues and it’s easy in the state budget to lose focus, but when you have this many people come up and make a push in this way, it makes sure that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle,” said Squadron. “Go and meet with folks that are less convinced than I am, and don’t forget that even if you’re not changing minds, you’re putting it at the top of minds, and that’s really worth it.”
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery was the last scheduled meeting of the day. She represents NY Senate district 25, which includes Red Hook, Fort Greene, and much of the area around Atlantic Avenue as far East as Bedford-Stuyvesant.
This final meeting took place just outside the State Senate chambers in a long hallway lined with booths with velvety green cushions. After listening to the overview of CGA’s background, Montgomery asked for specifics on what the group was looking for, and praised the NPP.
“It’s not about how I feel about the NPP, the fact of the matter is that the NPCs, for the last 25 years, have been the source of revitalization of communities,” said Montgomery. “Before the developers ‘discovered’ Brooklyn, it was the NPCs. Thank God for them.”
She advised the group to coordinate with other organizations, specifically around the issue of homelessness.
“We have to really push, not only for securing you in this budget, but also once we do this, we need to come back together again, as a movement,” said Montgomery. “Because without that, I don’t know where working people are going to be at least in the City of New York, over the next ten years.”
After this discussion, Senator Montgomery brought the group into the Senate Chambers, which the community lobbyists were much impressed by. Then the CGA crowds went down to the food court to debrief about their experiences and eat some sandwiches. Then they drove back down to CGA.
The State Budget is due to be finalized on April 1. Many groups from all over the state make the Albany pilgrimage in March. Hopefully, the CGA trip will bear fruit come springtime.