Upper East Side — Manhattan's well-heeled Upper East Side is not generally considered a hotbed of tenant discontent. Yet the neighborhood took a step toward upping its activist profile this weekend as 500 residents and advocates gathered at the Julia Richman Education Complex on East 67th Street to discuss local needs and how to address them.

The crowd of mostly senior citizens heard from officials and activists about the overlap of unique neighborhood concerns with broader initiatives. The educational forum came on the heels of a flurry of introductions of pro-tenant bills in Albany. A bill to repeal vacancy decontrol (S2237/A2005) was introduced in the senate earlier this month. According to the Real Rent Reform Campaign, which includes NYS Tenants & Neighbors, as many as 300,000 apartments have been removed from regulation since 1994 because of vacancy decontrol.

Those numbers are particularly meaningful in state Sen. Liz Krueger's district – the bulk of which runs from East 87th Street down to East 29th Street – which includes 71,173 rent-regulated units: 67,317 rent-stabilized units, and 3,867 rent-controlled units (out of citywide totals of 1 million and 43,000, respectively). Krueger, whose office hosted the event to launch the East Side Housing Coalition, called on the audience to organize to pressure their representatives. “I’m not the leader, I’m the target,” she said.

Other legislation to increase harassment fines against landlords and raise the threshold for high-income decontrol was introduced in the Assembly on Feb. 2.

In a discussion moderated by Village Voice columnist Tom Robbins, three panelists –veteran activist and Tenant PAC treasurer Michael McKee, Legal Aid lawyer and tenant representative to the Rent Guidelines Board Adrienne Holder, and new state Sen. Daniel Squadron from lower Manhattan – echoed Krueger’s call to organize.

“The number one issue is vacancy decontrol,” Squadron said to applause and nods. “As long as it exists you have all the other problems that come with it,” including stronger incentives to implement large Major Capital Improvement rent increases to push rent towards the $2,000 decontrol mark.

“I don’t know the answer about if it’ll get passed. I do know with organizing we have a real shot," Squadron said. City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin of the Upper East Side, along with staff members of several other elected officials, also attended.

Holder, one of two tenant members on the Rent Guidelines Board, echoed the call for putting pressure on elected officials. “I can feel it – this is the year of change. We will push, we will target [the Democrats] who are not with us,” she said, referring to senate Housing Committee Chair Pedro Espada Jr., Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Sens. Carl Kruger and Jeffrey Klein – all Democrats from New York City – who have not signed on to S2237.
        
Senators Espada, Kruger and Ruben Diaz Sr. are members of the “gang of three” who initially refused to submit to Smith’s leadership. Unlike his cohorts, Diaz supports S2237.

McKee explained that the tenant movement can only count on between 26 and 28 of the total 32 Democratic votes. This is partly because landlord lobbyists are “walking around Albany with their checkbooks open trying to get Democrats to sell out,” he said.

McKee invited audience members to help phonebank Klein’s Bronx and Westchester constituents next week. Espada, whose Bronx district holds the third-largest number of rent-regulated units in the state, is also being targeted by organizers.

Though the focus was largely on Albany, Mayor Bloomberg was criticized for appointing pro-landlord members to the Rent Guidelines Board, which Holder called “biased, unfair and corrupt.”

“Raise your hand if you’re thinking about voting for someone other than Bloomberg,” called Robbins to the audience. A roomful of arms shot up.

The event also paid tribute to Dawn Sullivan, leader of the defunct East Side Tenants Coalition. Following a short film chronicling her life, Senator Krueger presented a posthumous award to Sullivan’s three grown children.

Ten elected officials and a dozen community organizations cosponsored the launch. “We saw it as a natural complement – we organize congregations and they’ll organize individuals,” said Father Mark Hallinan of East Side Congregations for Housing Justice. Other cosponsors included Gray Panthers NY and NYS Tenants & Neighbors.

"We desperately need an organization like this on the east side of Manhattan," added McKee.

Helen Call, a local rent-controlled tenant who has lived in her apartment for 40 years, attended the gathering on Sunday, Feb. 22 because she was concerned about the city’s development projects. “If the mayor could put a football field in the middle of our neighborhood he’d do it,” Call said.

Guenter Haselein, a 91-year-old rent-stabilized tenant who lives on 83rd Street, came because he worries about being able to pay his rent. “I didn’t know about the organization before, but I signed up to become a member,” he said with a smile and a shrug.

Event organizers say a follow-up meeting is scheduled for next month. Holder encouraged the crowd to attend this season’s series of Rent Guidelines Board meetings, which begins on March 24.

- Chloe Tribich

To contact the East Side Housing Coalition, call Lauren Mariotti or Alice Fisher at (212) 490-9535, or e-mail e.sidehousingcoalition@gmail.com.