TIL the Politicians Got Involved

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Instead of nice nonpartisan curtains, the tenants have shaded their windows with the smiling campaign-poster visage of one Adriano Espaillat, the young Dominican assemblyman who represents the district. The reason for Espaillat’s presence on the premises is that he and the city’s other Dominican elected official, Councilman Guillermo Linares, have decided, as part of their ongoing turf war, to wage a battle for this city-owned apartment building.

Over the last two years, the two rivals–along with a cast of supporting players that includes a handful of upper Manhattan’s better-known politicos–have swamped the tenants in a sea of confusing acronyms–NRP (the Neighborhood Revitalization Program) and TIL (the Tenant Interim Lease program) chief among them.

It all began in the summer of 1996, when the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) sent off letters to the tenants telling them they had been selected for NRP, a program that sells city-owned buildings to local community development groups. In this case, the local group was none other than the Community Association of Progressive Dominicans, known by its Spanish acronym ACDP, an organization with close ties to Linares.

The notice puzzled most of the tenants, except for a chain-smoking, rum-drinking fifty-something named Manny Alvarez, the unofficial tenant leader, who immediately decided that it sounded like a set-up. “It hit us like a ton of bricks,” he says, not hiding his basic suspicion of Councilman Linares’ motives. “They made deals over there. Linares was behind it.”

A key Linares ally admits Alvarez is probably right. “I can’t see ACDP doing it without Linares at least signing off on it,” says former assemblyman Brian Murtaugh, who lost to Espaillat in 1996.

Alvarez says he was wary of NRP’s reputation for hiking rents and relocating tenants while major repairs took place in a building. So he shared his opinion with his fellow tenants, organizing them to apply for TIL, a tenant ownership program that he says would have resulted in more modest repairs and no relocations.

There is some truth to this. NRP overhauls do sometimes involve gut rehabs and TIL repairs can often be done without the same level of disruption or displacement.

By December 1996, Alvarez convinced all but two of the building’s 23 tenants to sign a petition asking HPD to place the building in the TIL program. At some point he contacted Espaillat and enlisted his support–an easy sell considering the assemblyman’s longtime rivalry with Linares.

Then the counter-offensive by the pro-Linares forces began. Around Christmas that year, representatives from a local management company met with the tenants and made the case for NRP. Soon after, another vote was taken. This time nine of 19 tenants present reversed their TIL verdict and voted for NRP. Because 60 percent of a tenant association must vote “yes” on a TIL referendum, HPD officially rejected the TIL application.

Most of the tenants, however, remained thoroughly befuddled. “I don’t know anything, I don’t know,” says Pedro Palafox, who has lived in the building for 16 years. To this day he says he has no idea what either program would mean to his life.

Since then, the battle has continued, with an increasing number of tenants siding with the TIL camp–at the direct behest of Espaillat, who spends the occasional Saturday lobbying them personally. The dispute became even more intensely political, not to mention personal, when Linares decided to back Isabelle Evangelista, an ACDP board member, against Espaillat in last September’s Assembly primary. Up went the Espaillat posters at 515 West 174th Street; down went Evangelista in a humbling defeat.

Still, it appears that Linares and Evangelista will prevail. HPD has steadfastly refused to take the building out of NRP. The city hopes to begin moving tenants out in the next few months, but many of them now say they won’t budge.

To help them stay, Espaillat and Alvarez have enlisted the legal help of yet another local pol, failed State Senate candidate Daniel O’Donnell, brother of talk-show smurfette Rosie.

And so the guerrilla war continues, with most of the tenants telling City Limits they’re still confused. For his part, Alvarez has vowed to fight relocation until they drag him out in cuffs. “It’s a war,” he says.