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.”

Back to the Old Neighborhood
By Alyssa Katz

December 1996
Empowerment Zones Out
By Gillian Andrews

October 1996
A Teen in Trouble Finds a New Hang
By Megan Costello

August/September 1996
In The East Village, Rehab Is a Family Affair
By Megan Costello

June/July 1996
The Founder of a Needle Exchange Dies from a Dose
By Julia Lyon

November 1991
The Grandmother of Loisaida Fights to Keep Her Title
By Hilary Russ

February 1990
A Homeless Mother Wrangles with the City
By Megan Costello

August/September 1990
Home Health Workers Take Care of Business
By Abigail Rao

April 1989
People with AIDS Suffer a Second Epidemic: Homelessness
By Daniel Hendrick

November 1987
City Condemns Concourse Apartments
By Seth Solomonow

November 1986
A Union for the Homeless Takes Hold
By Hilary Russ

March 1985
Job Training Opens Doors for the Homeless
By Daniel Hendrick

March 1980
Tenants Turn a Dump Into a Dream
By Larry Schwartztol

December 1979
Dilapidation and Death on Avenue C
By Seth Solomonow

February 1975
Adding the Final Touch: A Windmill and Solar Panels
By Abigail Rao