Rosie Mendez talks about the challenges of her new job and also what pisses her off
BBY CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
Rosie Mendez, 43, took office as the City Councilwoman for the Second District on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in January. Formerly the chief of staff for her predecessor, Margarita Lopez, Mendez grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where she began her lifelong passion for tenants’ rights.
Part of a cadre of Puerto Rican lesbian activists, Mendez completed her law degree when she was 30 and worked for Brooklyn Legal Services and then the People’s Economic Opportunities Project of the Lower East Side. She was a Democratic district leader for four terms before her election to the City Council.
Aside from her new responsibilities on the Council, Mendez is on the board of the Washington-based Mautner Project, founded in 1990 to serve lesbians living with cancer and their families.
Mendez is currently single.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: Do you care to comment on Margarita Lopez recently being appointed by Mayor Bloomberg to the board of the New York City Housing Authority?
ROSIE MENDEZ: She certainly knows public housing. She’s been an advocate on the issue in this city for decades. I think the appointment was based on the merits and on her qualifications. I know she will serve the tenants of public housing well in this position.
CM: Do you and Margarita both still live in the same building in the East Village, the former Homesteader Program tenement?
RM: Yes. To tell you the truth, I don’t see too much of my neighbors these days. I rarely see Margarita in the building, maybe in passing. It’s a small building, seven units, but it’s a building of people that treat each other like family.
CM: How is it being a new councilmember?
RM: It’s different than being a chief of staff. Sometimes it’s a little daunting. But when you do certain things and you see their impact not just on your district but on the city at large, you realize why you were willing to sign up for the job. For many of us who are activists, it’s about using electoral politics as another tool for effecting change.
CM: Are there any specific things that are harder or easier than you thought they would be?
RM: I used to see Margarita be tired at the end of a long day and then, in a second, she would be on it, focused and energized. She can turn it on. For me, that’s hard. The media, for example, can come up and ask you a question, and I can’t turn it on that fast.
CM: What’s it like being “the other lesbian in the City Council,” as you call it?
RM: That’s my other title. Christine Quinn is the most powerful Democrat in the city. While she is very busy as speaker, she always makes time and has her staff check in with me on important issues we should be working on for the community, especially since our districts share a border. She’s been awesome. I’m so proud and happy to see her in the job of speaker. I’m proud to be on the City Council with her so she’s not the only lesbian there.
CM: Do you think you and she being on the Council together now has shifted the calculus of LGBT issues in New York City politics?
RM: I don’t know. We’re already knee deep in the budget process, but we’ll continue to work very closely together to target specific issues that we want to drive forward.
CM: What are your major goals for your first term in the Council?
RM: I want to try to make some changes that affect the lives of tenants in this city. I think housing is the most important issue for everyone, not just in my district, not just in Manhattan, but for all the boroughs at this point. It doesn’t matter what your income bracket or ethnicity or sexual orientation is, housing is a major issue. We need to preserve and create affordable housing. I’d like to have a hand in doing that.
CM: You’ve talked about the impact of conversions and buyouts. What are the forces impacting the shortage of affordable housing?
RM: Several things have happened that have had a powerful impact in making the housing situation in the city rise to crisis proportions, particularly in Manhattan. One of them is all these affordable housing programs that have “opt-out” provisions, like so-called Section Eight and Mitchell-Lama housing. After 20 years, the owners can opt-out of the program, taking the rents immediately to market rate, and consequently tenants get displaced. Certainly, in areas like along Avenue C and even along First Avenue near the hospitals and shelters where some people were unwilling to live previously, every inch of Manhattan is now prized property. Market rate rents are now three to four thousand dollars for a two bedroom apartment.
The individuals in Section Eight buildings or in Mitchell-Lama—middle income folk—there’s no way they can afford those rents after an owner opts out of the program. Some have been able to stay in place if they are seniors and they qualify for another program. Some others apply to the feds for help, but those vouchers are not plentiful, and they come at the discretion of the president. As we all know, he has a war he’s been subsidizing for a couple of years now and he’s diverting money from Housing & Urban Development and other essential service programs to fund that war.
On another level, what’s happened here in New York State is that back in ’97 when the rent laws were renewed, they were weakened. The new Rent Regulation Reform Law had provisions called “high rent decontrol” which meant if your rent hit say $2,000 per month, you were no longer subject to rent stabilization. What we’ve seen is many landlords speculating and harassing tenants to leave. Some will make limited improvements just to tip the rent over the high level mark. It’s led to a lot of tenants being displaced.
CM: Another important issue right now that impacts the queer community more than people might think is immigration.
RM: We as a queer community have always gotten the short end of immigration law. We cannot sponsor our partners to come and live with us in this country, unlike other individuals who can marry their partners. Sometimes the pretext of someone having a disease like HIV is used to keep people from crossing our borders. This country has always been a country of immigrants that then looks for ways to oppress them.
CM: As we look toward our upcoming celebrations in June, what are some of the major challenges to our LGBT pride we struggle with now?
RM: The relationship between HIV/AIDS and crystal meth in this city is still very much a problem. We need to remain vigilant and do education and talk to our friends if we see them having a problem. If you love someone, you need to tell them, “Be safe.”
CM: Back from the political to the personal, what ways has your new role impacted your personal life?
RM: What personal life?. [Laughs.] You try to make the best of certain situations. I’ll have a dinner meeting with someone, or meet someone down the block from where I live in the evening where we can share a beer or a glass of wine. Then you can relax and enjoy someone’s company while still being productive. I think it’s all about multi-tasking.
CM: What’s something that’s pissing you off right now and something that’s inspiring you?
RM: There’s a lot of things that piss me off, it’s more a matter of degree. Today’s small thing can be tomorrow’s big thing. For example, today I found out that a building we were trying to landmark, the owner is going in there and destroying part of it. That’s terrible, but smaller, all things considered. On a larger scale, it’s social, economic, and racial injustice, how in this country we always have to find a reason to oppress someone else. While New York is a melting pot and there is lot of diversity here, it’s still disappointing to me as an American that I get discriminated against, as well as my neighbors and my friends. That’s what gets me up every morning.
CM: What keeps you energized for that struggle?
RM: When we have a victory. Like last week when two grandmothers from my district involved with Grannies for Peace were arrested for protesting the war, I went to the courtroom to see civil rights attorney Normal Siegel give his summation. He was eloquent and persuasive and I was confident that the judge would let our grannies go and he did.