Tenants and housing organizers descended on The Water Club, a plush East River restaurant, calling for Bronx State Senator Pedro Espada, Jr., who was inside addressing a lobbying group made up of some of New York City’s wealthiest landlords.

He did not come out to greet them.

Chanting and holding signs (“End Vacancy Decontrol,”  “Espada, We’re Watching You” read two of them) against a backdrop of Mercedes sedans and luxury SUVs, the protesters’ message was clear: Support the tenant protection bills sitting on your desk in Albany or we will vote you out of office.

“No support! No votes!” they chanted, shaking their fists at nervous diners who watched the protest unfold outside through the restaurant’s numerous windows.

Espada, who ousted indicted incumbent Efrain Gonzalez last fall (see p. 2), was handed the plum Housing Committee chairmanship after controversially withholding his support for Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith. 

Now, with Democrats holding a majority in both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in decades, tenants and affordable housing advocates want him to support and push through a series of bills aimed at boosting tenant rights and preserving affordable housing.

But Espada, whose district (33rd) includes some 76,000 families living in rent-regulated apartments, will not commit his support to the bills. He spent last Thursday addressing the Neighborhood Preservation Political Action Fund, which is supported by some of the city’s wealthiest landlords and lobbies against rent regulation. (Representatives of the Fund could not be reached by press time.)

While acknowledging the protests didn’t look good for the senator, Espada spokesman Steve Mangione said his boss wouldn’t “buckle under pressure from anyone.”

Mangione said Espada wanted to carefully weigh all sides of the housing issue. “Unfortunately, [tenants and advocates] view his not acting on their interests as: [Espada’s] against them. He’s not pro-tenant, he’s not pro-landlord, he’s pro affordable housing.”

Michelle O’Brien of Housing Here and Now, an umbrella organization of pro-tenant housing groups, said Espada’s claims of being pro-affordable housing “rings hollow.” The Neighborhood Preservation Political Action Fund “has done more than any other political group in the state to legalize the destruction of affordable housing,” she said.

Since the rally, Espada has indicated he may be moving toward supporting some of the pro-tenant rent laws. At a pro-tenant press conference in Albany on Tuesday, Espada said he would consult with pro-tenant groups, including the Working Families Party and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition on affordable housing legislation.

But he stopped short of throwing his support behind specific bills. Still, it marked a victory for pro-tenant groups.

Tenant advocates argue that if he’s for affordable housing, he should back their measures, including the repeal of vacancy decontrol, which allows landlords to increase rent (beyond the standard increase) in vacant apartments and also lets apartments fall out of regulation once they hit $2,000 per month. (Other bills include a reform of the rent increase system, increasing protection for former Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 tenants and restoring home rule powers to the city. Mangione says Espada does support the strengthening of tenant harassment laws and also the outlawing of discrimination against Section 8 tenants.)  

On April 30 at New York University, Espada held what he says will be the first in a series of “housing summits.” There were panel discussions on a range of housing issues. Espada wanted “academics and think tank researchers,” on the panels, not advocates, Mangione said.

But Mangione said housing advocates were invited to participate in the discussions. O’Brien refutes this assertion, saying the forum was poorly publicized and that none of the housing groups that have lobbied Espada since he came into office were invited.

Myra Goggins, a member of the pro-tenant Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, attended the forum and the Water Club protest. She said the forum panels were stacked with pro-landlord and pro-development voices who disparaged rent regulation. “It’s a sham and a farce and they’re all in cahoots,” Goggins said.

At the protest, Millie Colon, who lives in a Bedford Park building owned by private equity giant SG2, said she has to take her landlord to court just to get routine maintenance done. Pointing to the Water Club and addressing Espada, she said, “It’s no wonder you fail to act on these bills. You’re in the pockets of the landlords.”

Doug Cunningham, the minister of New Day Church, lives in the Bedford Park building Espada claims to use as his primary residence. (Cunningham says he’s seen him once, last fall, for what appeared to be a fund-raising event. Others in the building say they’ve never seen him and a recent piece on CBS reported that neighbors see him at his home in Westchester County nearly every day.)

He participated in the protest and hoped the imagery would have an effect. “To see wealthy landlords inside enjoying their lunch and to have the tenants outside asking for basic rights,” Cunningham said, “it was clear where Espada was sitting.”

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