District 8 Residents Call for More Protections for the Poor

El Barrio residents discuss the election of a new District 8 council member. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“They keep kicking poor people out of their homes here.” “Many businesses have been forced to close because the rents are impossible to afford.” “It is time for them to keep their promises.” These are only a few of the complaints heard among residents of New York’s District 8 – which comprises East Harlem, also known as “El Barrio,” and the South Bronx –  a few days before the primary election to choose who will run to become their new council member.

To answer some of these concerns and make their proposals known, the candidates will take part on Wednesday in a forum sponsored by the Hispanic Federation, Univisión 41, WADO and El Diario, to be held at the Julia De Burgos Cultural Center (1680 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10029) beginning at 6:30 p.m.

In the streets of this community – for years a Puerto Rican enclave now home to a mix of Puerto Rican, Mexican, African-American and white residents – disappointment and optimism take turns. Nearly 85 percent of District 8’s residents are Black and Latino.

Mexican-born Gloria Chaydez, who has lived in the area for 10 years, said that she has witnessed how East Harlem has been changing for the better, adding that there is more work to do.

“Through the years, it has improved significantly. When I arrived here, it was a godless, lawless chaos. We still need more security, particularly near the projects, and to stop landlords who are trying to kick us out to raise the rents,” said the mother of two.

Alicia López, from Guatemala and an employee at the Antojitos Mexicanos restaurant on 110th and Lexington, agrees. “Safety is what the district needs. Sometimes you feel scared to walk in certain areas, especially at night,” said the waitress, adding that she believes that affordable housing is another Achilles’ heel of the community. “Rents continue to go up and, like me, most people live here because they are poor and can’t afford those prices. It would be good if they protected us more.”

Alicia López, from Guatemala (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“Small businesses in crisis”

Still, housing and safety are not the only requests coming from the 125,000 District 8 residents who will cast their ballots to decide whether they support Hispanic candidates Diana Ayala (D), Robert Rodríguez (D), Israel Martínez (D) or Daby Carreras (R), or African-American Tamika Mapp (D) to replace Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito. Their final decision will be made in the November election.

“Small businesses are in crisis,” said a disappointed Gil Sánchez, form the Dominican Republic, at Sánchez Barber Shop, adding that the area’s politicians have not done enough for small business owners in the district.

“Businesses have left because they cannot take the rent. There is no protection,” said the barber, who has worked at the establishment for 23 years. “There were many businesses around here. They have also closed many places on Third Avenue because they suddenly want to raise the prices from $15,000 to $30,000, and politicians do not keep their promises to intervene to bring real help on that front. As always, they offer and then forget.”

Gil Sánchez (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

The lack of housing and the need for lower rents are not limited to the Harlem River side. They also exist across the river, in the South Bronx, also a part of District 8.

Resident Ana Torres, from Puerto Rico, expressed in a disillusioned tone that, even though the city often speaks about the way it is helping low-income tenants, landlords in her neighborhood continue to do whatever they want regarding rent prices.

“I see no change. They say it’s gotten better, but the truth is that it is exactly the same. We need more protection and better housing, because it is too expensive for us poor people. They are setting up apartments for which they want to demand a very high rent that we can’t pay. They are going to kick us out into the street if no one does something about it soon,” said Torres.

Ana and Lucy Torres (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Jason Cruz, who signed up to be a volunteer in Robert Rodríguez’s campaign, said that the district has to fight to prevent the poor from being pushed out of their homes.

“Affordable housing is the priority and the greatest need of this district, and we must work to preserve what we have,” said the young man.

Criminalization, health care, education…

Glenn Martin, director of the organization JustLeadershipUSA, based in District 8, said that the authorities need to manage that part of the city differently.

“We are quite concerned about the excessive criminalization of the residents of District 8, the quality of life and public health issues (turnstile jumping, mental health, drug abuse, etc.),” said the activist. “Most importantly, there is a significant representation of District 8 residents – a community that is 85 percent Black and Latino – in our criminal justice system and in Rikers Island.”

José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation, said that, after carrying out the expansive work the organization has done with the District 8 community, they believe that residents need better access to low-cost health plans, education, and access to food and housing.

“We have advocated for local and national public policy affecting affordable housing, health care [access] inequality and the educational needs of the families in this district,” said Calderón.

Ramón Caba, a community leader with the Exodus organization, which works with youths in the area, also said that education is one of the greatest needs suffered by that part of the Big Apple and that it is crucial to keep young people away from crime and give them better options in life.

“Many youths here live in projects where there are not enough opportunities and, when they reach out to existing programs, we see that they are capable of becoming leaders for change,” said the activist, adding that it pains him to see how violence has ended the lives of young people from the area who were trying to make a difference.

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