By Mark Hallum
Tenants of the Westleigh building in Jackson heights have been moving out of their community in large numbers, according to residents who stood beside Democratic dtate Senate candidate Jessica Ramos at a Monday news conference.
Ramos slammed her opponent, Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst), for not passing any rent reform during his time in office as both a mainline Democrat and a member of the breakaway Independent Democratic Committee.
The IDC was scorned by mainline members of the party for negotiating with the Republicans, who hold the majority in the state Senate, to get progressive legislation through.
“I’m a lifelong renter here in Queens. The diversity, inclusivity, and affordability that always kept me in the neighborhood is disappearing before our eyes—all because rents are skyrocketing,” Ramos said. “Sen. Peralta has long claimed that he is committed to protecting affordable housing. But for the last eight years, he has failed to pass any real rent reform by siding with Republicans to block legislation. And he has done this because luxury real estate developers are the biggest funders of his campaign.”
She added, “Enough is enough—we need to keep Queens home to working families from every corner of this earth who are looking to make it here in New York City.”
Ramos is a community activist from Jackson Heights whose family migrated from Columbia.
According to a spokesman from Peralta’s campaign, about 15 percent of his contributions, which are capped at $7,000 for primary elections, were from landlords and real estate interests out of around $157,000 in his campaign account as of January.
The remaining approximately 85 percent was from unions and members of the community, the spokesman said.
“Campaign donations have no influence on Sen. Peralta’s legislative agenda,” the spokesman for Peralta said. “Sen. Peralta has been a staunch advocate for tenants in the Senate, fighting for rent reform and legislation that would prohibit increases in preferential rent upon the renewal of a lease, eliminate the vacancy bonus, and fight back against MCI. Over the years he has also secured funding for community organizations to provide free one-on-one legal assistance to tenants and educational workshops in the community. Instead of attacking someone with a history of tenant advocacy, Ms. Ramos should be explaining her absence from this fight before she decided to run for office.”
In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and leading members of the IDC announced plans to bring the mainline party back together in an effort to create a unified front against the Trump administration and push forward the mutual desire to win back the majority in the Senate once and for all.
The IDC, which included Peralta and Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) from Queens, was formed in 2011 with the intention of passing progressive legislation in the face of the conservative Republican majority in Albany.
“I’ve lived in this building for 25 years. Just in the last week, three apartments have been vacated by tenants who can longer afford the rent. Two of them are not only leaving the building and the neighborhood—they are leaving the state. Rent is the biggest issue that affects the diversity of New York—it is the issue that brings us together,” Mitchell Smith, resident of the Westleigh building, said. “Senator Peralta was at a forum a few weeks ago and demurred— ‘Well, were out of session until January anyway. What are we supposed to do in the meantime?’ But none of them had actually done anything about this problem year after year when they were in session. Thank you, Jessica Ramos, for putting this building—and the disgraceful things happening in this building—at the center of your campaign.”
According to a spokeswoman from the Ramos campaign, the rent at the Westleigh building has jumped between $40 to $80 per room in units depending on major capital improvements by the landlord, which can increase the cost of living even for rent-controlled tenants indefinitely.
The state approves MCI rent increases and tenants can challenge these applications on specific grounds.
The perception that the IDC caucused with the Republicans had been a talking point of their opponents for an extended period of time, and a not completely accurate one, according to Peralta at the time of the reunification.
“We as IDC were in a separate room [from Democrats and Republicans] talking about what the Republicans wanted and what the mainline Democrats wanted and then we talked about how it was important for our communities, our districts,” Peralta said in the interview. “So we were in a coalition with them, but they never needed us… They had the magic number of 32 [the majority].”
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall