Wronged Residents Form Their Own Salvation Army, June/July 1988

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In 1987, Renee Prespare was renting a comfortable room with a view of the Empire State Building at the Salvation Army’s Ten Eyck-Troughton Memorial Residence, in Murray Hill. Single women were supposed to find safe, affordable housing at the Ten Eyck. But in reality, says Prespare, “It was like a really sick girls’ school.”

The building’s administrator disliked the smell of cooking, so she renovated the communal kitchen–by removing the stove. Mail appeared in tenants’ boxes mysteriously opened, often accompanied by “nasty missives,” identifying tenants who were behind on their rent or accusing them of other violations. “They were heaping petty cruelties on people,” says Prespare. “They really didn’t care whether people ended up on the street.”

Prespare believes these harassment tactics were aimed at forcing out some tenants–especially older women who had lived there for well over a decade–to make room for younger women who would pay more. Ultimately, Prespare believes, they may have hoped to sell off the valuable building. (“I think some people were upset because they were asked to pay rent,” responds Salvation Army spokesman Craig Evans.)

But they were also creating a committed housing organizer. With about 40 other residents of the Ten Eyck, Prespare formed a tenant watchdog committee, seeking help from Jane Benedict–”a gifted teacher, the best,” says Prespare–at the tenant advocacy group Metropolitan Council on Housing. Though Prespare was financially able to move out in 1987, she wasn’t about to give up the battle that had just begun: “I stuck around,” she says, “because I hate to walk out on a fight.”

She got one. After Met Council became involved, harassment increased, as City Limits reported in 1988. One enraged tenant even attacked Prespare in the dining hall. Introduced to the volatile world of housing activism in New York City, Prespare began to attend rallies, protests and direct actions led by other groups of tenants in trouble. One day, while sneaking through the side entrance of a building during a protest, she met her future husband–his landlord had just been dubbed “Dracula” by the Village Voice. Inside the building, he put his finger to his lips, whispered “ssshh,” and tiptoed to the elevator. Once above the ruckus, they unfurled a red silk banner that said “Stop Warehousing Apartments!” The crowd cheered, and they turned to each other. She was smitten.

Prespare eventually moved from the Ten Eyck to her new beau’s home in Washington Heights. When the two housing activists decided to marry in late 1989, a mutual friend at Met Council suggested someone to perform the ceremony: Brooklyn housing court judge Margaret Kammer. In 1991, they made New York City history by getting married in housing court. Instead of the usual vows, Kammer wished the couple “health, happiness and safe and affordable housing.”

Prespare split amicably from her husband just a few years ago. “The marriage didn’t last, but it was a great ceremony,” she jokes. But one thing that has endured, she believes, is the tenant coalition’s impact at Ten Eyck. The harassment of residents stopped, and one apartment was eventually declared rent-stabilized. The building is still housing women in need of shelter.

“The testaments of people who live there now far outweigh complaints of people in the past,” says the Salvation Army’s Evans. “It’s a community. People are happy living there.” But without the efforts they made in the 1980s, says Prespare, “I really don’t believe the place would be there at all.”

Now she volunteers her time to fight against police brutality and for immigrants’ rights. But the Ten Eyck left its mark on her as well: “Affordable housing,” she declares, “should be considered a human right.”

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