Though for decades Washington Heights has been a haven for new immigrants particularly from the Dominican Republic, many of the most recent arrivals to the area are already New Yorkers and are increasingly white, young, and middle-class.
Some long-time residents say that the latest wave of newcomers is driving up rents.
"After 9/11, we have seen many people from midtown and downtown moving here," said Roberto Lizardo, one of three Democrats challenging incumbent City Councilmember Miguel Martinez this fall. "It is beautiful and the rent is affordable, but our community cannot compete."
Roberto Lizardo, who lost to Councilmember Martinez in 2001 by some 340 votes, said that not only are rents going up, but much of the existing housing is in poor condition and, if elected, he said he would fight to get more building inspectors and tougher eviction laws.
Ydanis Rodriguez, another Democratic candidate who finished third in the 2001 campaign, agrees. "When I see how people are living, it's incredible," said Rodriquez, who recently visited an apartment on 167th Street to find its ceiling was collapsing. "When I looked at the other apartments in that building, most were in the same condition."
In response to concern over housing issues, both Ydanis Rodriguez and Roberto Lizardo vowed not to accept donations from the real estate industry, so as to deal fairly with tenant-landlord conflicts if elected.
Councilmember Miguel Martinez, who has made no such promises, maintains that the key to affordable housing is to create opportunities through job growth and new construction, while fighting for better rent control laws.
Martinez is involved in a plan to rehabilitate abandoned waterfront along Sherman Creek on 201st Street and 10th Avenue to build new housing and commercial business space, as well as parkland. "We need more protection for businesses," said Martinez. "Many merchants up here pay more per square foot than they would on Wall Street."
Martinez noted that he had sponsored legislation to reform the Rent Guidelines Board to give the City Council power to review the mayor's appointees to the board. Martinez was also one of a dozen members to vote against a program that gives developers incentives to build housing because it does not adequately target neighborhoods like Washington Heights.
Another key issue for the area is education. Candidates talk of some schools being so overcrowded they hold classes in converted bathrooms, closets, and hallways.
"The budget keeps getting cut more and more as the classes get more crowded," said Jose Adames, another Democrat who works as a school paraprofessional. "The council member is satisfied with getting a piece of the pie, but not fighting Mr. Bloomberg's cuts."
Roberto Lizardo suggests that the large corporations based in Washington Heights – the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, Bell-Atlantic, and Verizon – unite to create a vocational school that would prepare students for future careers.
Ydanis Rodriquez, who helped found an alternative school for immigrants in the area, said parental involvement and after-school programs are essential to success. "It's too easy to blame the schools," he said.
However, Councilmember Miguel Martinez warned that the power of the council is limited in the area of education. He also said that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's educational reforms have created "total chaos" in the school system and he would keep pressure on the administration to ensure that it does not violate the law.
Another immediate issue is transportation. The 191st Street 1 and 9 subway station stop is closed for repairs until December 31, 2003. Ydanis Rodriguez said that MTA's $50 million renovation of the station is welcome, however, the authority provided "no alternative plan for 24-hour transportation," only shuttle buses during rush hour. Rodriguez recently held a rally to protest.
It will be difficult for the challengers to unseat the incumbent. By mid-July, Councilmember Martinez raised over $120,000, six times more than Roberto Lizardo and Ydanis Rodriguez, who have both raised around $20,000. Felix Figueroa, who is Republican, could not be reached for comment.
Adames, who has lost races for State Senate, City Council and even the president of the Dominican Republic in the past, said the campaign would be difficult for the challengers. "I don't know if I have a chance," said Adames. "But someone has to keep fighting for our community."
Posted July 28, 2003
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's executive order allowing police officers to inquire about a person's immigration status has become a campaign issue in district 10. Roberto Lizardo refuses to be seen with the mayor. He has accused Councilmember Miguel Martinez of not being a "proactive leader" and criticized the council member for appearing with the mayor on several occasions.
Martinez told the New York Times, however, that he will not appear with the mayor in the future. "But if we are at the same place, like the Dominican Day Parade, I will give him the respect that he deserves," said Martinez.
Martinez has raised by far the most money, with $131,285 in contributions and an additional $28,760 in matching funds, which he has not yet received. Lizardo has raised $36,707 and will receive $24,473 in matching funds. Rodriguez has raised $28,737 and will receive $18,702.
Updated August 29, 2003