Some rent-controlled tenants living in the ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood of Manhattan Valley, just south of Columbia University, have been grappling with serious apartment woes. Like most New Yorkers facing such problems, few are familiar enough with housing law to battle for their rights. But in Manhattan Valley, tenants no longer have to fight on their own for safe, affordable housing.
Their champion is 29-year-old attorney Denise Tomasini, the Columbia University Goddard Riverside Tenant Assistance Fellow, who in the past three months has helped establish a novel University-funded program designed specifically to protect the rights of low-rent tenants and preserve the low-income housing stock in Manhattan Valley.
Founded and funded by Columbia in cooperation with Goddard Riverside Community Center, the Columbia University Goddard Riverside Tenant Assistance Project offers the expertise of public interest attorney Tomasini free of charge to low-rent tenants living between 100th to 110th Streets, from Broadway to Central Park West.
The Tenant Assistance Program was founded to balance the negative effects of building development and to help protect the integrity of a neighborhood undergoing change.
"This program is designed to address community fears about what some see as an irreversible tide of gentrification in this neighborhood," said Executive Vice President for Administration, Emily Lloyd, whose office teamed with Columbia Law School Assistant Dean Ellen Chapnick, coordinator of the Law School's pro bono program and Bill Scott, deputy vice president for Institutional Real Estate to realize the project. "With a new residential building going up at 110th Street and Broadway, we understand our contribution to such change. But it is our intention to do what we can to help existing residents stay in this diverse and dynamic neighborhood," Lloyd said. "Helping to protect the renter's rights of current Manhattan Valley residents is an important step toward addressing the issues that face this community."
Whether they are low-income tenants who speak little English, recent college graduates trying to make it on a first-job salary, or young professionals from Europe who are not familiar with renter's rights, many tenants in Manhattan Valley's rent-controlled and rent stabilized apartments share in the same struggles.
From her tiny office in the Goddard Riverside Community Center at 647 Columbus Avenue between 91st and 92nd, Tomasini is hard at work on her portfolio, 26 cases to date. Her days are filled with frantic phone calls, where in English or Spanish she explains renter's rights and offers advice to panicking tenants on the best way to resolve problems, such as unresponsive landlords. Meanwhile she juggles impromptu conversations with local residents who might drop by to provide paperwork to strengthen a case that will help them keep their apartment. There are also regular trips to housing court in New York City's City Hall downtown, where she represents clients fighting for safer rent-stabilized apartments, to protect tenants' rights to long-term leases or to save them from eviction. She also manages a group of Columbia Law School students who assist her with these cases as a part of their legal training.
"This innovative project is a perfect partnership for the Law School," said Chapnick. "It allows our students to work with an excellent young attorney and a trusted community-legal organization to serve people in Columbia's backyard. By doing community service, the students learn about their neighborhood and develop important skills while deepening their understanding of how the law affects low-income people."
According to Tomasini, some cases are a question of unfortunate circumstances, such as one Dominican resident who, before she received amnesty from the U.S. government, used an alias when she signed her lease more than 20 years ago. Today, a U.S. citizen, she must explain why the apartment is not in her name before she is evicted. Others are cases where landlords are charged with allegedly evicting or forcing low-rent tenants out of their apartments through lack of maintenance, which would enable them to bring in higher paying tenants and increase their profits. These are the situations that Columbia is targeting with this program.
"Columbia is striking a difficult balance between being a developer and community protector," said Tomasini. "It is proof that such organizations can and do embrace their civic responsibilities."
For people in the neighborhood, including a hand full of tenants at 106th Street, who have staged a six month renter's strike to get critical repairs to their apartments to no avail, Tomasini has given them hope in an otherwise hopeless situation.
"Denise knows the law and she is totally on our side," said one tenant at 106th Street. "We feel taken care of."
For Tomasini, who graduated from both Columbia Law School(LS '98) and Columbia School of International and Public Affairs(SIPA, '99) to practice international human rights law, working with low-rent residents is a natural extension of her interests.
"I actually went to law school to do this kind of public interest work," said Tomasini, who previously worked with legal services for New York providing legal assistance to the mentally ill. "The past three months I have seen this little piece of community actually empowered to do something about the conditions they are faced with. That is why I am here."
The program also provides an opportunity for Law School students to perform part of the required 40 hours of pro bono work in the communities immediately surrounding campus. Up to 12 Columbia Law School students in their first and second years will assist Tomasini with her cases as she does her part to help keep the area a good place to live for its residents over the next two years.
"I always wondered what kind of neighbor Columbia University was. Now here is something tangible," said Jorge, a resident at 106th Street who is battling his landlord for apartment repairs. "It is good that the University is doing this sort of thing."
The Columbia Goddard Riverside Tenant Assistance Project, which will be funded for two years, is one of several programs that bring services to Manhattan Valley. Others include ESL training and job fairs that have linked area residents with Columbia jobs.