On Tuesday, Sept. 12 Lower East Side voters will be called on to decide whether District 1 City Council member Margaret Chin deserves a third term, or whether it’s time for a change. As a press release from Chin’s campaign noted, the Council member’s record was “the main focus” of a candidate forum held earlier this week at the Manny Cantor Center.
Chin faces three challengers in the Democratic Primary, which will decide who represents the Lower East Side and other neighborhoods throughout Lower Manhattan during the next four years. Dashia Imperiale, Aaron Foldenauer and Christopher Marte are trying to defeat the two-term incumbent in a district besieged by rampant real estate development.
The forum, the only one of its kind Chin has attended since the spring, was coordinated by the neighborhood’s settlement houses and TUFF-LES, a tenant coalition in the Two Bridges neighborhood. Melissa Aase, executive director of University Settlement and David Garza, executive director of Henry Street Settlement asked the questions.
In her pitch to voters, Chin cited a record of accomplishment during the past eight years. “We have worked together to build affordable housing and senior housing at Essex Crossing, said Chin, referring to the large development project in the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. She also mentioned successful efforts to save daycare programs and to boost funding for senior programs. “I want the opportunity to continue to serve,” Chin added, “so that I can use my skill, my experience and my passion to continue to advocate and preserve and build affordable housing, senior housing and to make sure that people who helped build up the neighborhood can continue to live in the neighborhood they helped create.”
Imperiale, a tenant activist on the Lower East Side and an independent filmmaker, called herself the “people’s candidate.”
“I’m running for City Council.” she said, “because I’m fed up with the current administration. I feel that this district has seen too much nepotism, cronyism, corruption. I want to be part of the change. ” As tenant leader several years ago at the Grand Street Guild apartments, Imperiale said she negotiated a new Section 8 contract for her complex. She attacked Chin, accusing her of “selling out” to the real estate industry. Imperiale asserted, “I think candidates that are bought and sold, they’re never going to change their ways because they’re not in public service. They’re here in donor service. Imperiale explained, “I’m someone who’s fed up, pissed off… (and) I want to represent the community I love because I feel it’s being destroyed.” Imperiale pledged to push the city to enact a sweeping zoning proposal from the Chinatown Working Group and to support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which is aimed at helping embattled mom-and-pop businesses.
Marte, also a Lower East Side resident, talked about his family’s decision years ago to come to New York from the Dominican Republic. On the Lower East Side, he noted, they found the, “opportunity to have a rent stabilized apartment, an opportunity to start their own small business, an opportunity to have their kids get a quality, affordable education, an opportunity to live around open space.” During Margaret Chin’s time in office, sad Marte, “we have seen these opportunities diminish. Our newly affordable (housing) units aren’t truly affordable. Our open spaces are being built on and our small businesses are closing. We need change.” If elected, Marte promised to hold town hall meetings, implement participatory budgeting (in which communities pick which projects are funded) and, “to protect our waterfront and open spaces.”
Foldenauer, an attorney and Financial District resident said, “I’m running for City Council because I see brokenness at all levels in government.” He cited poor living conditions in public housing, and called for a full audit of NYCHA. “I’m running,” Foldenauer added, “because we need to totally revisit our land use policies in this city. We need to totally transform our mass transit systems.” Foldenauer, who was once registered as a Republican, called for education reforms to end the “test taking culture” in the city’s schools. He also advocated a moratorium on new building along the waterfront until steps are taken to protect the coastline from future storms and climate change.
Here’s a recap of some of the big issues discussed at the forum.
Two Bridges Development
No issue will loom larger on the Lower East Side in the coming year than the construction of four massive residential towers along the waterfront in the Two Bridges area. The new District 1 Council representative will be called on to tackle the issue from his or her first day in office.
Residents are up-in-arms about Extell Development’s 80-story luxury condo tower on the former Pathmark site, as well as three proposed projects that will rival it in size. Council member Chin recently announced legislation to give the Council more control over the buildings and other future large-scale projects. She’s also backed efforts by local activists to pursue legal action against the city due to the mega-towers. During the forum, Trever Holland, a tenant leader in the Two Bridges neighborhood, asked Chin’s challengers, “What would you have done differently before the towers were proposed to stop these buildings and what would you do if elected?”
While the Two Bridges Urban Renewal Area expired before Chin was elected in 2009, Marte said he believes she should have taken action during her first term to enact restrictive zoning in the neighborhood. “On day one,” he argued, “she could have been proactive about it and put in some measures to protect our waterfront and our community.” Like Imperiale, he brought up the Chinatown Working Group zoning plan, which the city rejected in 2015 as overly broad. “There could have been height restrictions,” said Marte. “We need a Council person who’s going to take zoning seriously.”
The city turned down a request from Chin last year to order a full land use review in the Two Bridges area. Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer have now renewed the request and questioned the city’s claim that the three new projects only require a “minor modification” of the Two Bridges Large Scale Residential Development Plan. In the forum, Imperiale said Chin waited too long to join the fight against the towers. “I’ve only been in this race for four months.” said Imperiale, “and I’m the one who has been bringing up the minor site modifications. You can look on my Facebook page. Only now has Margaret been fighting these towers… It’s a political sham.”
Henry Street’s David Garza asked Chin if there’s anything she would have done differently to battle the controversial development proposals. Chin did not reply directly, but responded, “I think one of the biggest frustrations I feel is that, in Lower Manhattan, there’s so much construction going on and a lot of it is as-of right (meaning developers require no special permission to build). Chin said she wants to change that. “In order to protect our neighborhoods,” she continued, “we have to have a full, comprehensive review.”
“I was hoping that the Department of City Planning would do their job,” said Chin. “How could they say with these towers coming in that it’s only a minor modification?… When they rejected us we had to find some other ways. It took a long time. I asked everyone in the City Council, our land use staff, to find a way to help us fight back. Referring to her proposed legislation, Chin added, “That’s the only way we can stop it, we can modify it, we can change it. I’m glad we’re doing it now, and we’re still fighting because it’s not a done deal.”
Imperiale brought up a related concern: that up to 20 seniors could be displaced from 80 Rutgers Slip, where JDS Development Group is planning to build on top of an existing low-income project. She said that Chin, as “chair of the (City Council’s) aging committee, should have (made the issue) priority one.” In the past, Chin has blasted two not-for-profit groups for, “attempting to reach a secret agreement with (the federal government) to displace seniors.” At the forum, however, she reacted strongly to Imperiale’s statement, saying, “I want to set something straight. The seniors in 80 Rutgers: Don’t scare them. They’re not being displaced and it’s not a done deal. Let’s be clear, because I have spoken to the seniors there.”
On the topic of affordable housing, Chin said it’s critical to preserve “every single affordable unit.” She highlighted a legislative package, recently enacted, to penalize landlords who harass tenants and touted new city funding to help tenants obtain legal representation in housing court. Chin pointed out that more than 500 new affordable apartments are coming to Essex Crossing, where development had been stymied for almost a half century. “The community came together and worked out a compromise,” she said. “We’re seeing senior housing being built, affordable housing being built.”
All of the challengers criticized Essex Crossing, saying the “affordable” apartments are not nearly affordable enough in a low-income community. Marte stated that applicants must earn an annual household income of $46,000 to qualify. Imperiale interjected, saying, “Fact check!” She asserted that it was actually $48,000.
It wasn’t clear where the candidates got their information. It is true that some of the rentals at Essex Crossing have been designated for middle-income residents, but there are units available for families in different income brackets. In a building opening next year at 145 Clinton St., for example, there’s a block of 2-bedroom apartments for families earning as little as $38,000/year, while another block is reserved for families earning $103,000-$119,000/year. A community task force determined the breakdown of low- and middle-income units. Elected officials, including Margaret Chin, then worked to implement the task force’s vision.
In evaluating affordable housing applications, the city uses Area Median Income (AMI), which is determined each year by the federal government. “When I am the City Councilwoman,” said Imperiale,”I will implement a (lower) AMI for the district… so that people can actually get affordable housing.” The challengers criticized the mayor’s affordable housing program. Foldenauer said, “We have a (housing) problem and all we’re getting are crumbs in return.”
Responding to Chin’s contention that she has a lengthy track record of preserving and building affordable housing, Imperiale said, “the only track record she has is building affordable housing that is not affordable. Margaret Chin’s legacy will be one of displacement and evictions in the next ten years because of the over-development that she has done in this community.”
A New School
All of the challengers noted that there’s space for a new public school in the Essex Crossing project. They criticized Chin for failing to secure funding for construction. The Department of Education has repeatedly indicated it sees no need for a new school on the Lower East Side.
Marte said Chin should have been sitting across from developers, saying, “we need our school first’ before your first building goes online.” In his view, it’s the Council member’s job to mobilize the community and to put pressure on the DOE. “When was the last time,” he asked, “that you went to a rally to actually build a school on Essex Street Crossing? No one has because it hasn’t happened.” Foldenauer said he would insist that developers contribute to a school investment fund before beginning new projects. Imperiale added, “Developers get millions of dollars in tax abatements. I think we can fund a new school.”
Chin noted that the School Construction Authority comes to the City Council every year with a five-year financial plan. “We will fight for a budget to build that school,” she vowed. Chin also said she’s been talking with Community Board 3 about establishing a school overcrowding task force (there’s been a similar task force in the Tribeca/Financial District area for several years).
It should be noted that the developers of Essex Crossing were required to reserve a spot for a school on Grand Street, but were not asked to cover construction costs. Community Board 3 has been strategizing for several years to persuade the DOE that a school is necessary and to lobby the State Legislature for funding.
Another contentious discussion concerned Rivington House, the former nursing home for AIDS patients. The city’s decision to lift deed restrictions on the building cleared the way for the $116 million sale of the property to luxury condo developers. “What happened at Rivington House,” said Chin, “was a criminal act. It was a criminal act against the community, against elected officials. We lost that precious resource. We’re not giving up. We’re going to fight to take it back.”
Foldenauer replied, “We had a city-owned asset there, and the city sells it in the middle of the night to a real estate developer, so we lose this beautiful old building, this school that’s serving our senior citizens.” Prefacing his remarks by saying he didn’t want to “attack people over Rivington House,” Foldebauer added, “Not only did we lose Rivington House under Margaret Chin’s watch, but the city also lost $72 million on the sale… We have to stop bad deals like that. I do wonder why Margaret Chin was so quick to endorse Mayor de Blasio when this all happened under the de Blasio administration.”
Marte, who announced his candidacy in front of Rivington House, also went after Chin over the loss of the community facility. “If Rivington House was a criminal act,” he asked, “why was Margaret the first person out of the gate to endorse our mayor. We’re supposed to have checks and balances. We need to investigate what he did and why his emails or his transactions weren’t given to the community when we demanded it,” an apparent reference to allegations that the deed was changed as a favor to campaign donors.
While Rivington House was located in a former public school building, Foldenauer incorrectly identified the property as a “city-owned asset.” It was held by VillageCare, a not-for-profit group that operated Rivington House, and then sold to the Allure Group, a for-profit nursing home operator. The Allure Group turned around in February of 2016 and sold the building to Slate Property Group, China Vanke Co. and Adam America Real Estate for a huge profit.
Chin has repeatedly said she did not know the deed restrictions had been lifted until The Lo-Down broke the story in late 2015. She played a leading role the previous year in efforts to keep the facility open under the ownership of a new nursing home operator. Multiple investigations found that the parties involved in the real estate transaction sought to conceal it. So in one sense it’s not surprising that the Council member was in the dark. Whether she and her staff should have done more in 2015 to follow-up with the new owner about the deed changes is a question for voters to decide.
Small Business Survival
In addressing the plight of independent businesses, the candidates discussed the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), a proposal to give commercial tenants some rights when renegotiating leases with their landlords. Margaret Chin is one of 29 Council sponsors of the legislation and she was the lead sponsor of a previous version of the bill. But the Small Business Congress, which has championed the legislation, has endorsed Marte and some community activists feel Chin hasn’t fought hard enough for the legislation.
Foldenauer said he supports SBJSA and spoke against the proliferation of big corporate stores, which aren’t invested in New York City neighborhoods. “We need to do a better job of supporting our small businesses,” he said. Foldenauer added, “29 Council members claim to be on record to support it, including Margaret Chin.” He said it’s puzzling that the Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, has not allowed the bill to come up for a vote. “I will not support any candidate for speaker,” said Foldenauer, “unless he or she promises to bring up SBJSA for an up-or-down vote. I would like to ask Margaret, you claim to support the SBJSA. Why has it never come up for a vote?”
Chin did not answer the question, nor did she address the fate of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act during the forum. In The Lo-Down’s Voter Guide, however, she did call SBJSA her top legislative priority, and she wrote, “Any candidate for Speaker will have to commit to a City Council hearing on this vital piece of legislation in order to gain my support.”
During the forum, Chin chose not to respond to most attacks from her opponents. She did, however, put out a statement the following day. “My opponents,” she wrote, “with the exception of Dashia Imperiale who is a former tenant leader, have no record of working for our community.” Chin added, “I have a record of achieving results for tenants, small business owners, and parents of school-age children. My opponents only have talk, and empty promises. I’ve fought for our community my entire life and will continue to do that in the years to come.”
To read The Lo-Down’s Voter Guide, click here.