Urban Legend: Damaris Reyes

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Seven years ago, Damaris Reyes thought of nothing but making enough money at her cozy telecommunications job to get out of the public housing project she’d lived in her whole life.

She wanted to achieve the American dream of “striking it rich,” she says.

But in 1996, when she heard that members of Congress were drafting a law to eliminate the cap on rents in public housing, she dropped her plan, dug in her roots at the Baruch Houses and began speaking up for tenants’ rights.

“It’s one thing if you wanna go,” Reyes says. “But to know that someone could come and pull the rug from underneath you…”

She volunteered with a coalition of tenants to battle the bill–and they won.

Now, as a coordinator at Public Housing Residents of the Lower East Side (PHROLES), a grassroots tenant advocacy group, she is taking on the debate over how to redevelop lower Manhattan.

To figure out how she and her neighbors can play a significant part in the planning process, Reyes traveled to Europe in November as part of a New York to Europe Study Tour organized by the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development. The excursion took 50 New Yorkers–from labor leaders and manufacturers to small business owners and Trade Center family members–to Berlin, Munich, Bologna and Morena to learn how low-income people engage in development projects in western Europe.

More typically, this third generation public housing resident spends most of her days focusing on the tenants of the Lower East Side, and how they can land construction jobs in their housing projects or navigate their way through housing court.

Organizing tenants, or as Reyes, 31, puts it, “giving them the tools to fix their own problems,” became her full-time job in 1998 when she got a job with City Councilmember Margarita Lopez. Reyes worked to get tenants to learn about and testify on the New York City Housing Authority’s annual plan, which she says is “the one chance a year to have your voice heard and participate.”

Three years ago, she joined PHROLES. “She’s so good at relating to people,” says Legal Aid attorney Adriene Holder, who, with Reyes’ help, is offering workshops at PHROLES to teach hundreds of local public housing residents how to negotiate Housing Court and to understand their disaster relief benefits.

At a workshop at Lillian Wald Houses, in a stuffy, cement-blocked room, Reyes teaches about 50 tenants how to file a complaint against the city Housing Authority. “Listen,” Reyes reasons, without mothering, “we are in a serious housing shortage and we can’t afford for one person to not know your rights.” Every day, Reyes sees residents who lose their homes, she says. Those evictions, she adds, are a loss that “we absolutely cannot afford.”