Raised in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Houses, Zinerman says she wants to see more secure and better-funded developments in the New York City Housing Authority, and to support local tenants and property owners.
State Assemblymember Stefani Zinerman wears her pride for Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights North on her lapel. Her pin represents Brooklyn’s District 56, an area she refers to as “the vibrant 56.”
In November 2020, after defeating primary challenger Justin Cohen, Zinerman, who has a background in business and government affairs, was elected to the State Assembly to succeed Tremaine Wright, now chair of the New York State Cannabis Control Board.
Raised in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Houses, Zinerman, a renter, says she wants to see more secure and better-funded developments in the New York City Housing Authority—a notion she shares with her June 25 primary opponent Eon Huntley, who also has roots in public housing—and to support both tenants and property owners in her district.
Zinerman’s daughter went to public school. But while her adversary is critical of charter schools, Zinerman says district families should have the choice to opt for either.
City Limits spoke with Zinerman by phone and email about her time in the Assembly so far, the Democratic Socialists of America—a political organization of which Huntley is a member—and how she would amend pending legislation that could help tenants challenge both rent hikes and eviction absent an established “good cause.”
The conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.
How would you describe District 56? What makes it stand out in New York City?
I call Brooklyn the mecca, but specifically, our district is the heart of art and culture.
Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights are two historic districts, majority Black districts, civil rights districts…. [A] lot of folks were redlined into that district. But they worked together and formed landmark districts and built great institutions and support each other.
I am blessed to have 13 NYCHA developments in my district as well. And people don’t think about it, but there are legacy families in NYCHA as well, who contribute to our ecosystem through tenant associations and family days and all sorts of other things that we do together.
You grew up in the Gowanus Houses. What is your relationship with the NYCHA developments in District 56?
The relationship is really a shared history. I recently asked a question of our folks to just lift up all the things they love [about] living in NYCHA. We’ve got major challenges there because of a lack of maintenance over time. But there is a history of families connecting people from one neighborhood to others. Everyone can say they have cousins in another NYCHA development.
That’s just how [my family] did. Growing up, [NYCHA] brought us together whether that was a family day or basketball tournaments or talent shows. That kind of brought us together across the city.
I grew up in Gowanus, so they call that ‘the Big G’. My cousins were in Fort Greene and my god sisters were in Tompkins. It’s a citywide family.
My parents grew up on Quincy Street across from each other in Bed-Stuy and got married. Back then, the idea was if you went to this new public housing system, you’d be able to save money and invest in a home. That’s why it was transitional. NYCHA management helped young couples learn how to save and invest in their future.
Going back to your family day or Old Timers’ Day is a tradition that I’m so happy they continue. There’s nothing like running into someone you used to go to school with or you lived next door to and kind of just take you back to the joys of your childhood.
Public housing should not be viewed as the bottom of the barrel. It has become that because we haven’t invested in it consistently the way we should have.
What are your views on the NYCHA funding models of PACT and Preservation Trust?
First of all I’m a person who listens to my constituents. Some people are totally against RAD [the national program of which PACT is a local iteration].
And you have others who have understood that we had a point in time that we had to do something and this is what’s being made available through federal grants. And so let’s move forward.
For me, I am in support of individual developments opting in or opting out. That is their choice. I can support how I can on the state level.
I love the fact that there are the tenant associations and the tenants themselves have the ability to choose who is going to do the work in the developments, which is good. It certainly helps people take ownership of where we live.
Now, my preference would be in any model that we use non-for-profit and community-based developers… rather than going to large developers. I want any developer to come to the table to know that we’ve got a value system in our neighborhood, and you must listen to the residents because that’s who you’re building for.
How do you plan to reach NYCHA tenants during your campaign?
Tenants are my constituents and I regularly reach out to them via bi-weekly e-blasts to share legislative updates and resources they may need. Additionally, my office is available to assist tenants who are experiencing homelessness, violations of their housing rights, and harassment.
What challenges do homeowners face in your district?
So we ended up now with more tenants [than homeowners] for a couple of reasons. Some people lost their homes and they became tenants. And then we had these developers from out of state, and some out of country, who were able to buy up these homes off of these [tax] lien sales, and then turn them into multiple apartments at exorbitant rates.
I have a bill… [number pending] that’s calling for a moratorium on all foreign [purchases] of residential property… unless you plan on living in the property. If you are coming from Bermuda and you heard about Bed-Stuy and you want to buy a house and you can afford it, then we welcome you into the community. But if you’re there to speculate and buy up and flip a bunch of properties just so you can charge somebody $5,000 rent, you can no longer do that in our community.
And we have to put other measures in place until we can stabilize the rent.
People are paying more than 30 percent of their income and that’s another thing that’s good about the NYCHA proposals. It caps their rent at 30 percent of their income. We need income-based housing. This whole idea of affordable housing, we should just stop using the word because everybody has a different definition of what affordable is. We must get those rents in line with the people’s income that are currently living in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
And we have to change it to a community income. And every district has a median income… and we should go by that and then nobody should be able to charge a family of a certain size above that community median income.
It breaks my heart to believe that… some people actually cannot afford to rent in Bed-Stuy that have to go elsewhere. And I’m trying to hold on to as many people as I can. And so these measures are very important.
What is your stance on your colleague Pam Hunter’s Good Cause bill?
So as you probably know, I am not a co-sponsor of the bill. However, I have been an engaged and active participant in providing amendments to that bill, and I think that would be helpful.
Right now, there’s only a third of the Senate and a third of the Assembly that have signed on to that bill. So it’s not going anywhere until we are able to come to some sort of compromise. And I think that this year is the year that we’re going to do it. I really do.
We have some purists out there; they want the bill the way it is.
For me, I need them to… distinguish between community-based landlords, people who… own multiple properties, but they live in the community. They are there to help people [and] they have for generations. I mean, some of the wonderful stories of people—landlord and tenant relationships that are 40 and 50 years long. That’s the type of stability we want in our neighborhood.
So for me, I want to protect small community-based homeowners from being exploited. [Editor’s note: The bill as written would exempt owner-occupied buildings with fewer than four units.]
There’s all sorts of malfeasance in the system. But if we just try to lump all landlords in one bucket, they’re going to stop renting and then tenants are going to be no longer able to rent in our neighborhoods and we can’t allow that to happen.
Are there any other policy priorities that come to mind for you?
I’m always interested in making sure that my community is as sovereign as possible. And so economic development covers a whole lot for me. One is certainly working on career pipelines for young people…. I just passed the community hiring bill that targets ZIP codes with high unemployment.
I’m also a Black woman, so you know, Black maternal health is top of mind for me. The pay gap is crazy, that we are still having this conversation about being paid 80 cents to the dollar and I want people to have the same quality of life I enjoyed growing up.
Can you elaborate on your position on charter schools?
You know, I decided to send my child to a public school. And I still to this day support public schools…. But I’m also there with those parents who’ve chosen charters. Why? Because they are actively engaged, it’s their choice to send their kids where they want to go to school. Do I decide that I’m not going to support them because I don’t like some charter schools?
No, I like those schools that are doing well by my constituents. Those are schools that I support.
I was at the parent choice rally. People don’t like that either. But listen, nobody could have told me where to educate my child and I don’t think it is up to the government to tell parents where they should have their children, the same way I believe it’s a woman’s right to choose.
What are your thoughts on Eon Huntley’s campaign?
I was at a meeting two weeks ago and Mr. Huntley was there. I went to introduce myself and I always like to meet a new constituent. It’s very rare that there’s somebody who lives in my district that I haven’t met… or heard of. That’s number one.
I’m a Democrat. There are definitely differences between the… way we operate and the Democratic Socialists of America platform.
But what I say to people is that probably seven times out of 10 we’re on the Million Dollar Staircase here [in Albany] fighting for the same issues… this group [DSA] has voted against the budget with the Republicans for the last couple of years, but they still benefit.
He [Huntley] doesn’t live in this district, but they are wanting him in the district. [Editor’s note: According to Huntley’s team, 2023 redistricting put him three blocks outside of District 56, a change that still qualifies him to run. “Eon has lived in Bed-Stuy for 15 years and Brooklyn his whole life,” a spokesperson said.]
He’s probably a very earnest young person and he wants to fight for some issues. I’m saying join the team. There’s a lot that we still need to do, but there’s a lot that we have done and don’t be a distractor. Like, come to the table.
Read Huntley’s interview here.
Editor’s note: If you’re a candidate running for state office in the upcoming June primary election, we want to hear about your housing plans! Email email@example.com
To reach the reporter behind this story, contact Tatyana@citylimits.org. To reach the editor, contact Emma@citylimits.org.