Housing Activists Mourn Passing of Louise Sanchez

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At a conference on the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program this March, a top city official discovered firsthand what could happen if you disagreed with Louise Sanchez.

Sanchez, a veteran housing activist, had just gotten big applause for saying government agencies weren’t doing a good job reviewing housing deals. John Warren, first deputy commissioner of New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, borrowed the microphone from Sanchez and asked her for names of buildings getting the questionable tax breaks she’d mentioned. He offered, “If you want to share the list with us….”

An indignant Sanchez grabbed the mike back, saying, “You’re asking us to do the job of the supervisory agencies!” Warren sat back in silence.

It was a memorable moment, but for those who knew Sanchez, not a surprising one.

A zealous and argumentative advocate for affordable housing and other progressive causes, Louise Sanchez died last Monday, Dec. 3, at age 83, after long-term respiratory illnesses and cancer. Toward the end of her life, she was unable to walk, dependent on a motorized scooter, and carried an oxygen tank. Physical disabilities didn’t prevent her from attending that Mitchell-Lama conference in March, however, or meetings of the Manhattan borough president’s Mitchell-Lama Task Force, gatherings with state housing officials, and other organizing meetings.

“She was a leader not just in New York City, but nationally,” said Shaun Donovan, commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Donovan met Sanchez almost a decade ago, when he was working in Washington, D.C., at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Sanchez was serving on the board of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT).

“You know the phrase, ‘speaking truth to power’? I would say Louise personified that, for me,” Donovan said in an interview Friday.

Sanchez’s refusal to give in, back down or “sell out” was one of her trademarks, and one of the ways she got results in dealing with local, state and national officials, according to friends and colleagues. She also had an endearing side that seemed to work magic on the officials she was negotiating with, according to colleagues who saw her in action.

And she “was a leader in connecting local tenants…in New York to the global housing struggle,” said Michael Kane, executive director of NAHT. She connected the dots – and helped fellow board members and organizers make the connections – between various levels of government and seemingly disparate housing problems.

“She was knowledgeable about HUD, and she was knowledgeable about the climate in Washington …she knew HUD tenants all over the country,” said Katy Bordonaro, a board member of the Mitchell-Lama Residents Coalition, which Sanchez co-chaired until her death.

In addition to her passion, negotiating skills and knowledge, she also had close relationships with prominent politicians and officials such as U.S. Representatives Charles Rangel and Jerrold Nadler, City Councilwoman Gale Brewer and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, to name a few. The upshot was that for more than two decades, Sanchez was a force in the housing world, helping to pass federal, state and New York City legislation, headlining press conferences and rallies, and energizing others working in New York policy and politics.

Dozens of friends, relatives and fellow activists gathered at a memorial service yesterday at Goddard Riverside Community Center on the Upper West Side, to remember the pugnacious woman. They recalled how she had a righteous anger that she unleashed on close friends and political officials alike, and how she shared her kindness and tolerance with them, as well.

In addition to Brewer and Stringer, a phalanx of friends and colleagues were in attendance from the organizations Sanchez took part in. It’s a long list: There is Tenants PAC, a city-based political action committee that campaigns for pro-housing candidates, which Sanchez co-founded in 1997. There is the Mitchell-Lama Residents Coalition, a group for residents in that state- and city-subsidized housing program, which has about 100,000 apartments in New York City alone. And at the state advocacy group Tenants & Neighbors, she served as a board member for nearly a decade.

There also is the national level, where Sanchez held leadership roles in NAHT. In 2002, as NAHT president, she testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Housing and Transportation on the topic of “affordable housing preservation.” In June 2006, she received the group’s lifetime achievement award.

Sanchez’s brand of aggressive housing and tenants’ rights campaigning has drawn attention in recent years, with New York City’s affordable housing stock shrinking and real estate prices skyrocketing. Housing advocates have launched an all-out political and social assault in response, with results. This year, Gov. Eliot Spitzer appointed a new commissioner for the agency overseeing Mitchell-Lama, and the agency issued new housing regulations. Also notable was the successful fight by housing activists and tenants to keep Starrett City, home to at least 12,000 low- and moderate-income residents in Brooklyn, in the Mitchell-Lama program for the time being.

Fellow housing activists say they feel Sanchez’s death is a difficult time for the community, especially since it follows the deaths of well-known housing activists Bob Woolis and Jim Garst, who both died one year ago, in December 2006. Woolis co-chaired the Mitchell-Lama Residents Coalition along with Sanchez, while Garst was a board member of the Mitchell-Lama Council, an organization for Mitchell-Lama co-ops. Garst was well-known for his deep knowledge of subsidized housing, and Woolis “helped a lot of tenants’ associations oppose rent increases,” said Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC. Like Sanchez, the two men were considered larger-than-life figures in New York affordable housing circles.

“I know that Louise would not want us to view this as the end of an era,” said Stringer at yesterday’s memorial service. But, he said of Sanchez, “they just don’t make ’em like this anymore.”

Sanchez, a short woman with elfin features, was born Louise Rebecca Dronsick on June 12, 1924, in the Bronx, the child of Eastern-European Jewish parents. She grew up in that borough and, except for a few years in Hawaii, San Francisco and the Lower East Side, lived in the Bronx all her life. She attended Russell Sage College, an all-women’s college in upstate New York, for two years, but didn’t graduate, according to her son, Victor Sanchez. After that, she entered the workforce, he said.

In roughly the early 1940s, she was a ship-to-shore operator, handling vessel-to-land communications, in Hawaii and was involved with a maritime union, “one of her early union involvements,” according to Victor, who is 52.

Back in New York, Sanchez became involved with Socialist and Communist causes. “She was a Red,” her son said. She was a member of the Communist Party in the U.S., according to accounts from both McKee and Kane – but she got kicked out of the party for having too-wide a circle of friends. At the same time, Louise had Communist friends and fellow tenants who had to “go underground” because of political harassment, Victor said.

Despite some worries about the personal consequences of her politics, Victor said, “she reveled in what was a very strong and very deep left-wing culture in New York City at the time,” from the 1940s to 1960s.

Louise became part of a couple with Victor Sanchez in 1951. They didn’t actually marry, likely because Mr. Sanchez couldn’t get a divorce from his prior marriage. Their daughter Lisa was born in 1953, and Victor arrived in 1955. At the time, the relationship was unusual not only because they were unmarried, but because they were an interracial couple – Louise was Polish Jewish, and Victor’s family was from Puerto Rico and Barbados. “That marriage, that relationship shaped a lot of her worldview,” said the younger Victor. The couple separated around 1963.

In addition to her antiwar and pro-education activities, Sanchez worked as an administrator and clerk for a number of unions from the 1960s until roughly the 1990s.

They included the National Maritime Union, Furniture Workers Union, Restaurant Workers Union and Local 1199 (known as 1199SEIU). She retired from the Typographers Union, Local 6, in the 1990s, Victor remembered.

Sanchez’s housing advocacy started in her early days in HUD housing, in the 1970s, when she organized a sit-in for River Park Towers tenants on no less than the Major Deegan Expressway. But her advocacy really took off in the 1990s. She remained active – in New York City and at the national level – until just weeks before she died, according to acquaintances and friends.

Sue Susman, president of the Central Park Gardens Tenants Association, spoke with Sanchez soon before she died. “She wanted to be conferenced in when we talked with the DHCR commissioner the next time,” said Susman, who said that Sanchez was used to being teleconferenced into meetings.

As far as the state’s top housing agency was concerned, Sanchez “knew everybody at DHCR,” said Susman, referencing the Division of Housing and Community Renewal. “She’d paid her dues, and she’d earned the respect that she had.”

Susman, 60, knew Sanchez through the Mitchell-Lama Residents Coalition. At an executive committee meeting in 2004, Susman, a retired lawyer, proposed strategies on regulations related to Mitchell-Lama housing – the so-called unique or peculiar regulations. Sanchez wasn’t immediately convinced of the need for action on “u or p.” According to Susman, Sanchez told her, “‘What are you, a Johnny-come-lately? This is not a priority for us.’” But Sanchez quickly realized the importance of “u or p” reform, which was enacted by Gov. Spitzer’s administration earlier this year.

In general, Sanchez didn’t take differences of opinion lightly or accept advice easily. In story after story, for example, friends tell of how she refused to quit smoking – even after she had to use oxygen.

But when it came to lessons that Sanchez taught the housing rights community, there were several. One was that “you’re only a leader if people follow you,” said Susman. Sanchez also staunchly pushed for volunteer tenant leadership – rather than leadership solely by professional organizers – in organizations such as the Mitchell-Lama Residents Coalition.

“Community control,” or neighborhood control of schools and government, ranked high on her list. So did tenant involvement. “She fought for…a seat at the table for residents” at all times, recalled HPD Commissioner Donovan.

He said that at one point, probably about 1999, Sanchez and NAHT pressed HUD to release the Real Estate Assessment Center scores for HUD-assisted housing. Tenants had the right to access the scores, said the NAHT activists.

“They convinced us, and we began posting the scores for the buildings, in the buildings,” said Donovan, who was deputy assistant secretary for multifamily housing at HUD from 1999 to 2001.

After Donovan returned to New York and accepted the city’s top housing post, he met with Sanchez on a variety of issues. Some of the successes of those collaborations between HPD, Sanchez and other activists include arranging financing programs to preserve Mitchell-Lama housing, and passing City Council legislation to protect residents after buyouts (though that was subsequently overturned by the courts).

Donovan also remembered Sanchez’s personality. “She had a warmth, a wicked sense of humor,” he said.

And, Sanchez was “never, ever…afraid to speak her mind in a very forthright way,” said Susman, who witnessed Sanchez’s approach over the years.

Dina Levy, director of organizing and policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, remarked that it was impressive that Sanchez – despite her serious illnesses and age – was active in housing politics until about a week before her death. Coming from a younger generation of activism, Levy, 36, felt the loss strongly. “Amazing,” she said of Sanchez. “She was amazing.”

Sanchez is survived by her son Victor, daughter Lisa Sanchez-Rahim, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

– Rachel Nielsen

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