The City Council’s 7th District (Manhattan Valley, Manhattanville, Morningside Heights, Hamilton Heights) has deep issues with socioeconomic inequality. Though most constituents are from low-income communities or communities of color, the district’s whiter and more affluent communities tend to dominate its political representation.
Former City Council Black, Latino/a, and Asian Caucus (BLAC) Executive Director Corey Ortega (D) hopes to address this inequity in his bid to succeed Councilmember Mark Levine (D) next year.
The son of a construction worker and a schoolteacher from the Dominican Republic, Ortega grew up in the same rent-stabilized apartment on 134th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway. In the early 90’s, his mother got into tenant organizing after someone burned a mattress in the lobby of their building.
“We’re 99 percent sure the landlord hired someone. She became a tenant organizer by necessity,” he recalled. “That’s when she really taught me and my sister the power of strength through numbers and took the landlord to court. We got everything repaired.”
Ortega shared other challenges he faced growing up, ranging from blatant disrespect he and his mother received from social workers when they applied for public assistance to being stopped-and-frisked by police officers while on the way to get chicken from the supermarket. The experiences helped shape his political philosophy, which he described thusly: “low income is not synonymous with low quality.”
“These are experiences that are not just about me. These are the shared experiences of the majority of this district, and these are the experiences that guide me to make the decisions,” he said. “Whether it’s legislation or budget resources that have to go back to the community with me, it’s about equity.”
On policy, Ortega emphasizes canceling rent amid the coronavirus crisis, refunding social services, and securing the Right to Counsel for all tenants facing evictions.
“When the courts are finally able to take these eviction cases, landlords’ attorneys are gonna copy and paste the petition to every tenant they have in their buildings,” he explained. “And a lot of tenants aren’t going to know that there’s a safe harbor act that protects them is, uh, because of course, they lost income. They can’t pay the rent. That’s something that they have to claim in court. If you don’t know the legislation exists.”
Ortega insisted that since the government enacted the economic shutdowns, they have to take responsibility for the damage done to small business owners and renters.
“The same way the government had to shut down businesses for safety, the government has to take responsibility for the safety that caused unemployment and lost income,” he said.
He also made it clear that despite the prevalence of such progressive talking points from local electeds and candidates, he wants to be the one who is able to make them a reality.
“If you don’t know how to do these things, step aside and support someone who does,” said Ortega. “Because given black and brown communities getting hit by COVID, like worse than cancer dying off by the by, the by the hundreds of thousands. You’re telling me that you’re just gonna come with open ended statements that we need more, but you don’t have a plan? The stakes are too high.
“We need someone that listens. And I’m not saying I have all the experience of the world, but I have lived experiences that has helped me to make these decisions, to come up with these policy positions and know how to execute them. A lot of people just reiterate the problem and don’t give the solutions, and that’s what I’m worried about. I want to make my case that I know what the issues are. I’ve lived all these issues, and this is the solution that I have.”