On Roosevelt Island

How "Team Rebecca" Helped Westview Tenants to a Walk-Off Win

Updated 3 years ago David Stone
Westview Nears the End of Mitchell-Lama
Westview Nears the End of Mitchell-Lama
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

The story behind Westview tenants' big win with a wildly popular affordability plan begs to be told. Tenants who wanted to stay on Roosevelt Island needed help. They got it from a newcomer, rookie legislator Rebecca Seawright.

Getting Onboard with Team Rebecca

"Rebecca Seawright and her team were incredible," recalls Westview resident and Daily OpEd contributor Eileen Gardiner.

Seawright took office in the State Assembly on January 1st, 2015. Roosevelt Island sits the eastern fringe of her 76th District, an outlier shuffled in with wealthier Upper East Side neighborhoods.

Suggestions for Westview's exit from the Mitchell-Lama Program and its affordability protections percolated for nearly two decades without definitive results. One by one, tenants in the other three WIRE buildings forming Roosevelt Island's original community negotiated and voted their way out.

Then, on May 1st, 2015, the popularly elected Westview Taskforce produced a plan to pave the way into privatization.

That offering, casually referred to as the "Red Herring," was received unhappily by many tenants.

Among other unattractive features, it stuck renters who hoped to stay in their homes with an immediate 14.9% monthly increase, an especially painful blow for seniors who had raised families here and helped settle the community, a riskier proposition in the 1970s than it is now.

Lead by Marie Fullington, a band of seniors opposed to the Red Herring quickly formed. One of their first acts was to send a letter out to political leaders, one of which found its way to Rebecca Seawright's desk.

Only four months on the job, bringing on a fresh staff, learning the legislative ropes and assuming office under difficult conditions after her predecessor, Micah Kellner, was forced out prematurely, Seawright could be excused for acting cautiously or even shuffling the letter to a remote corner where it might get lost.

But that's not the style for "Team Rebecca," as the Assembly Member calls the activists in her office.

Seawright along with Legislative Counsel Rebecca Graham set up a first meeting with Fullington's group on July 15th.

The State Assembly Member's gift for team building put muscle into the initiative, right away. With help from Borough President Gale Brewer, Jennifer Berkley of Tenants and Neighbors and Katy Bordonaro, a Mitchell-Lama Housing Programs’ expert and the person who led the West Village Houses conversion, were recruited to educate and prepare the Roosevelt Island group.

Gardiner reports that the biggest breakthrough came when Seawright's team "...set up a meeting between us and Mark Colon and John Stellar of HCR on September 18,2015."

HCR is New York State Homes and Community Renewal, an agency whose mission is "...to build, preserve and protect affordable housing and home ownership across the state."

Forces Joined

"We could not have done it without them," Gardiner reported when asked about Assembly Member Seawright's team.

"We had the opportunity to make our case that, because of vacant apartments and the closed transfer lists (leaving many people, particularly seniors, in apartments from which they had wanted to downsize since their families were no longer living with them), it was unfair to put a 14.9% immediate rent-increase burden on the people who would remain as renters."

In a message to the Daily, Seawright sees it in more personal terms.

"Among the numerous Westview residents I met," she wrote, "there is a retired, senior married couple who moved to Roosevelt Island more than thirty-five years ago, raised their children here and established deep roots in this community. They were frightened for themselves and their neighbors as the initial proposed offering plan was too costly for those on fixed incomes.

"They did not know what the future held for them and their neighbors," she added. "This couple invited me into their home and introduced me to their friends and neighbors. I listened to their fears and concerns."

Seawright sought assistance from Brewer as well as State Senator José Serrano, but she also worked to build bridges by arranging meetings with the Westview Taskforce, which, she notes, legally represents the Westview Tenants.

Communications had been poor and trust eroded. Bridges needed to be built.

Over the coming months, "Rebecca Graham was constantly available to let us know about the deadline extensions (to respond to deficiencies) requested by and granted to the sponsor by the Attorney General’s office," says Gardiner.

"These were smart people who understood what you said and remembered it from month to month. They cared about doing the right thing. Rebecca Seawright and her team were truly extraordinary. They really deserve a big pat on the back."

End Notes for Westview and Roosevelt Island

When voting ended on October 1st, concessions sought by Marie Fullington's tenant group with muscular assistance from Team Rebecca led to overwhelming approval of a refreshed affordability plan offered after negotiations between the building's sponsor/owner and Westview Taskforce's negotiating committee.

As Seawright points out, "Residents who will continue to rent (will see) that their initial rent increase will not exceed 6.16% rather than the initial proposed rent increase of 14.9%, and at the same time the purchase price remains affordable for the residents who choose to purchase their homes.”

"I am relieved and thrilled," she adds, but with a note of caution: "This is a work in progress and I am committed to ensure that my constituents have the necessary information and government resources available to them during this very significant housing transition."

The determined group of Westview tenants who challenged the Taskforce deserves a lot of credit as does the Taskforce itself. Trying to please everyone from the middle can be exhausting as well as unrewarding.

And Assembly Member Seawright who excels at sharing credit shines a light on numerous individuals and groups who stepped in to help with this win. But what's missing is something that should concern us all.

Although their published statement reads, "It is the mission of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation to plan, design, develop, operate, maintain and manage Roosevelt Island," not one person we contacted mentioned RIOC, even as a minor player. 

Just as the State public benefit corporation recently abandoned Manhattan Park tenants in a sub metering dispute, it appears to have taken a passive role with Westview. A sclerotic board, made up mainly of residents, and an administration that acts as caretaker and entertainment committee leave Roosevelt Islanders with no choice to but to look outside for assistance.

We can be grateful for the good fortune of having Rebecca Seawright on our side along with a rich inheritance of community activism. Identifying our allies will help us as inevitable changes continue to challenge us.

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