By Alexander Dworkowitz
Theresa Alleva, president of the Pomonok Tenant Association, takes pride in the housing project she calls home.
As she strolled the grounds, Alleva pointed to the work of the grounds crew that tends to the grass between the 35 buildings that house the 2,071 apartments of Pomonok Houses.
“It’s a very nice place, a very nice community,” she said. Alleva, the director of the Pomonok Senior Center within the complex, often goes through a day without stepping a foot off Pomonok, which stretches from 65th to 71st Avenues between Kissena and Parsons boulevards in Flushing.
But Alleva, who has lived in Pomonok for 27 years, has become upset at what she said has become a trend at the project over the last several years. The quality of tenants has gone down, leading to a rise in drug use and crime, she said.
“Quality of life is changing here,” said Alleva. “Tremendously. People are being transferred from other areas.”
A recent court ruling has spurred Alleva’s anger. On Jan. 3, a federal court decided to uphold an earlier ruling that forbid Pomonok from giving preference to working families applying for apartments in the project over those without a job.
Alleva is not isolated in her concern for the project. State Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn (D-Fresh Meadows) and former City Councilman Morton Povman have joined with Alleva and other residents to form Friends of Pomonok Housing. Their committee is looking to see that a working family preference is instituted in Pomonok, even if it means taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Pomonok was not the only city housing project affected by January’s decision. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled 2-1 that Pomonok and 13 other city housing projects could not adopt the working family preference. The court singled out the 14 projects because unlike almost all of the other 322 projects in the city operated by the New York City Housing Authority, they have a white population that makes up more than 30 percent of the residents.
Mayersohn attacked the decision.
“It is the most racist decision, particularly when you consider that most of the families on the Working Family Preference list are minority families,” she said.
The Friends of Pomonok have no small task ahead of them. They are seeking to overturn part of a landmark decision that attempted to desegregate city housing, one of the most controversial issues in New York City over the last half century.
In the early 1990s, the United States and several private plaintiffs brought action against NYCHA. During the investigation, NYCHA admitted that up until 1990 the agency admitted “racially steering” white applicants to white projects and black applicants to black projects.
In 1992, the federal court in Manhattan ruled in Davis vs. NYCHA that such “racial steering” was illegal. The court drew up the consent decree, which barred NYCHA from engaging in practices that denied equal access based on race, color or national origin.
The court also came up with a plan for desegregating public housing. The plan, known as TSAP, gave priority to poorer families.
In 1995, NYCHA proposed the working family preference. However, the U.S. court ruled that such a preference would continue segregation if applied to projects with a high white population.
In January, the appeals court upheld the 1995 ruling for 14 of the 20 housing projects it examined.
The appeals court referred to the earlier courts’ findings, which determined that desegregation, defined as being achieved once a project was less than 30 percent white, would be delayed at Pomonok by more than seven years if the working family preference was instituted.
“The desegregation delays that would be caused by implementation of the (working family preference) are legally significant” wrote judges Amalya L. Kearse and Rosemary S. Pooler.
Chief Justice John M. Walker, Jr. was the dissenting judge in the case.
“The practical effect of the majority’s decision is to deny housing to people who deserve it because of their hard work or other merit solely on the basis of their race and ancestry,” wrote Walker.
Alleva and other tenants have backed Walker’s stance.
“When I came here 50 years ago, you had to have a job, you had to be married,” said Ralph Calinda, a Pomonok resident. “But now everybody’s coming in.”
Part Italian and part native American, Calinda served in a black regiment when he fought for the U.S. Army during World War II.
Calinda shared Alleva’s concern for the project. “It’s getting worse everyday,” he said. “Today it’s terrible.”
Alleva acknowledged there was some racial tension at the project.
“Some people have told me that racial remarks were made to them,” she said.
Nevertheless, both Alleva and Calinda, who sits on the board of the Tenant Association with Alleva, said their concern was the employment status not the race of the tenants at Pomonok.
But Ken Cohen, president of the Northeast Queens NAACP, questioned whether the board of the Pomonok Tenant Association represented all of its residents.
Cohen, who has lived several blocks south of Pomonok since the days when rabbits populated its grounds, also debated the project’s commitment to integration.
While other projects integrated, “Pomonok stayed the same,” said Cohen.
Cohen said his primary concern was that everyone should have access to good housing.
Like Alleva, Cohen questioned the use of the term “segregated” to describe Pomonok.
“I wouldn’t go as far as calling it segregated,” said Cohen. “I couldn’t say it’s totally segregated.
“But is it equal? No.”
Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.