Tag Archives: Brooklyn

Wisdom from my Coworker

7 Mar

As my coworker Martha and I got on the bus together one morning, a tiny old woman in a big overcoat sitting at the front of the bus waved at Martha. She waved back, smiling wide. The woman said something I didn’t catch in Spanish and Martha nodded vigorously, saying, “Yea, yea, yea!”

“I don’t remember who she is,” she muttered to me a few moments later, and I laughed. As we exited, another person waved and then a tall man in a puffy blue jacket stopped to talk to us on the sidewalk. Martha hugged him and asked about his mother, the Laundromat she runs, and the hair salon that he runs. We got stopped on the street two more times this way on our way back to the office.

Martha knows everyone, or knew everyone at some time, or treats everyone like she knows them. After 17 years as a housing counselor at St. Nicks Alliance, it is no wonder that she knows so many people in the neighborhood, and that she can’t keep track of them all.

What’s more, she adores strangers. When we call to order pizza for a meeting, she banters with the pizza man as if they’re old friends, then admits she has never met him. She flirts with the cab driver and gives her dinner to him, pollo y arroz con gandules, wrapped up in styrofoam. She spends an extra minute at the bodega counter as we buy ice, checking on how the worker’s week has been.

One evening in October she told me something simple that still sticks with me. Walking out of the office together, Martha waved at three men who always hang out on a certain stoop on Powers Street, cursing and smoking. They all waved back, calling “Marta!” fondly. As we got out of earshot, she told me:

“Kelly– always be friendly to everyone in your neighborhood, even if you don’t know them. You never know when it will save you.”

She told me about a time that she was visiting the tenants in a building across the street from the bodega where we buy ice. As she left, the landlord confronted her on the stoop, yelling at her about talking to the tenants about their rights:

“He was two inches from my face,” Martha said, “and raising up his hand as if to strike me, and the man at the deli saw and came out to the sidewalk, and yelled, ‘HEY! What’s going on!?’ And the landlord went inside real quick, you can bet.” She laughed.

“People usually won’t go that much out of their way for strangers– they won’t get involved. But if they know you, it’s different.”

I laughed with her, so proud to be walking beside her in a world of people that seem to love and need her so.

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Martha at our office holiday party.

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A Roof over their Heads

8 Jan

A young woman called me at work in the first week of December.

“I’m not sure if you remember me, but I wanted to let you know that we found an apartment,” she said.

Of course I remembered her. She was one of the first tenants I counseled at St. Nicks. She came into the office in September, frazzled, holding a blonde toddler boy in a big puffy coat, who proceeded to squirm and attempt to crawl all over the office in the hour that we sat together. She kept apologizing for him in a lilting, sad voice.

A year ago, she moved from Romania with her two young sons to join her husband, an American citizen who has been working a low-wage job in Brooklyn for the past few years. While they struggled to pay the rent (of around $1000 per month, which is relatively low in this area), she could not work herself because they could not afford childcare.

In that first meeting, she told me that the landlord had started an eviction case against them and that their court date was yesterday. She pulled out a settlement paper, which I read with dismay: they had signed an agreement that the family had to be out of the apartment by October 31st. By then, she’d need to find another apartment.

When I needed to find an apartment in New York, I had it easy. Without a family to support or house, I could devote a large percentage of my stipend to rent and split a multi-bedroom apartment with multiple people. (Federal guidelines recommend that people spend no more than 30% of their income on rent, an increasingly difficult feat in New York City– I spend about 65%.) I also didn’t need to look for a place that I could stay in for multiple years without fear of being priced out of the apartment, as families seeking stability reasonably want to do. It took a few weeks of persistence on Craigslist, talking to acquaintances, and hopping on the train after work to visit apartments, but I never doubted that I would end up with something habitable that I could afford for the year.

But I worried about this woman. Her family’s income was about $10,000 per year, a figure that would make any landlord squeamish. Very few apartments (even studios) rent for less than $1000 per month. Almost no rental subsidy programs continue to accept new applicants. The waiting list for public housing is multiple years long. The rent-stabilized housing stock, which offer lower, more steady rents, are generally occupied– and vacant ones are quickly being converted to regular, market-rate apartments.

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Highly coveted and highly elusive apartments in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn

That first day, I helped her apply for various affordable housing lotteries, gave her multiple referrals to benefits agencies and rental assistance programs, and gave her instructions for how to get the court to extend the move-out deadline. But when she thanked me and left, I had a sinking feeling that she would not find anything. We checked in over the phone a few more times since then, and I learned the judge had agreed to allow them to stay until the end of November. But I was still nervous.

I don’t know how she found the new apartment. The rent is $1100, so they are still going to have trouble paying it. But for the time being, she, her husband, and her two sons have a roof over their heads. I accept this as a victory, however partial it may be.

After all, that afternoon, I sat with two more tenants who were on the long hunt a new affordable apartment.