Housing advocacy group fights for tenants’ rights

The legendary Melrose advocacy group, Nos Quedamos, says it’s time to harness the neighborhood’s community gardens and use them for the good of all residents.

Jessica Clemente
Nos Quedamos’ CEO Jessica Clemente shows off her plan for continuing to rebuild Melrose.

Challenges and opportunities abound in Melrose, says Nos Quedamos

Tenant advocacy group Nos Quedamos has big plans for greening Melrose and Mott Haven, but says that won’t distract it from its fight to preserve affordable housing for those who are being priced out of the neighborhood.

The Melrose-based nonprofit, which has worked organizing South Bronx tenants since the 1990s, says it is finishing a proposal that calls for constructing new buildings that would weave many of the neighborhood’s existing community gardens into the blueprint.

“We have to shield our community gardens from development,” said Jessica Clemente, the group’s CEO. Clemente, who took over in 2011 when the former director, Yolanda Gonzalez, was indicted for embezzlement, has a background in public health. She says growing nutritious food in the area’s small patches of green and on rooftops is an exciting way to harness the community’s assets while confronting its high rates of diabetes and asthma. Now that the group has slowly emerged from the shadow of the Gonzalez scandal, Clemente says, big changes are afoot.

“I have this big vision but I have to pace myself,” she said. The group’s new motto: Same mission, new vision.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s promise to create 200,000 more units of affordable housing is a start to helping low-income neighborhoods, said Clemente, but advocates will continue to have their hands full. Rising rents are just part of the challenge. Federal voucher programs, such as Working Advantage, no longer exist, leaving many South Bronx families even more vulnerable to callous landlords.

At El Jardin de Seline on 158th Street, one of 19 area buildings whose tenants Nos Quedamos works with, many renters’ primary source of income, through now-extinct government voucher programs like Section 8, is now gone.

“That’s a part of the conversation I’m not hearing,” Clemente said. Although President Obama has promised to restore Section 8, she is skeptical local tenants will be feeling relief any time soon. That will drive up the risk of homelessness, she fears, as tenants find it even harder to make ends meet.

While building continues to boom across Melrose, the city says average rents have risen by nearly nine percent in Community District 1. Area residents already pay up to 50 percent of their incomes on rent on average, housing advocates estimate. Yet the yardstick the city uses to measure housing affordability by average median income in the neighborhood is the same one it uses across the city, factoring in salaries from upscale Westchester and Rockland counties and the other four boroughs.

Nos Quedamos program manager Ana Melendez says the tenants she advocates for are routinely intimidated by landlords trying to evict them so they can command higher rents.

“They find creative ways to get money out of tenants, one way or another,” said Melendez. The landlord of a Morrisania building whose tenants she advises, has converted that building into a shelter, collecting far more money from the city than he could from tenants, to house the formerly homeless. Some tenants’ electricity has been cut off, and they have been told they must cough up hundreds of dollars to get their lights turned back on.

Tactics like that are commonplace among local landlords looking to cash in on the recent boom, said Melendez. And when landlords see the slightest grounds for eviction, she said, advocates’ options are limited.

“The only strategy we have right now is buying time,” she said. When time runs out and tenants are evicted, she added, there are few charities fiscally healthy enough left to help house displaced families.

Despite the emotional drain of dealing with constant crises, Clemente and her staff are excited at their impending projects, particularly the garden plan. They say they will team with researchers to study the strengths, weaknesses and quirks of the area’s many small gardens, to firm up their plan.

“The structure would be similar to that of food co-ops,” said Clemente, beaming at the thought.

Nos Quedamos’ founder, the late Yolanda Garcia, earned a reputation as a powerhouse during the decade she ran the organization, leading a furious drive to rebuild housing for residents on the area’s many formerly vacant lots. Now that the group has seemingly retrenched, Clemente says she is optimistic about its future.

“Visitors come from all around the world to see what we’ve done,” she said. “What we spearheaded was unprecedented.”