BY KELLY MARIE MANCUSO
Lawmakers, elected officials and residents gathered to discuss ongoing local matters at the first annual Ridgewood Legislative Forum, hosted by the Ridgewood Property Owners and Civic Association (RPOCA), on Thursday, Oct. 1, at I.S. 93 on Forest Avenue.
Councilman Antonio Reynoso joined state Senator Joseph Addabbo in an open forum question-and-answer session aimed at tackling some of the community’s biggest issues. Topics ranged from housing and neighborhood preservation to improvements in transportation and education. One of the biggest concerns dealt with maintaining affordability in Ridgewood amid the uptick in development and skyrocketing rents.
According to RPOCA president Charles Ober, buildings throughout Ridgewood have been falling prey to unscrupulous developers seeking to capitalize on the neighborhood’s recent growth and popularity by illegally converting and subdividing units. Ober explained that local tenants are being pressured into vacating their apartments, while landlords are also being harassed by developers looking to purchase their homes.
“They’re coming in here and breaking the rules. It’s not good for the neighborhood,” he said. “They’re buying up six-family houses, harassing the tenants and clearing out the buildings. They’re offering low amounts of money to get the tenants to leave. These tenants are rent-stabilized tenants. They’re part of the backbone of this neighborhood.”
In an effort to curb such harassment and prevent illegal conversions, RPOCA has teamed up with local tenants unions, as well as the Department of Buildings (DOB), to form a special task force aimed at identifying problematic locations and developers. According to Ober, the DOB will inspect suspicious locations for illegal conversions while mapping other potential buildings of concern.
In addition, the city recently passed a set of laws making such harassment illegal. Under the new laws, landlords can issue a written notice of “no sale” to developers, after which they cannot be contacted again for a period of six months. According to Reynoso, a developer can face arrest if the terms of the notice are violated.
Both Addabbo and Reynoso advocated for property tax reform as a way to maintain affordability in the neighborhood. Soaring property taxes were cited as a possible reason why so many homeowners are opting to sell and relocate. As a member of the City Council’s budget negotiating team, Reynoso agreed to draft a letter on behalf of RPOCA asking the city to make changes to the existing tax code.
“This is a very controversial thing to discuss,” he said. “When I looked at it, it’s very clear that people who have houses that are worth a lot more than what the people in Ridgewood have are paying the same taxes. That is inequity.”
Senator Addabbo also advocated for the expansion of the SCREE program in an effort to prevent retired seniors from eviction. He also spoke in favor of legislation that would require that landlords inform their senior tenants about the program.
“SCREE is a program that works,” Addabbo stated.
Both Addabbo and Reynoso also tackled issues plaguing the city’s education system, including the embattled Grover Cleveland High School. According to Reynoso, the City Council invested the most money in education over the past decade. However, according to Addabbo, New York State has fallen behind in the funding of the city’s schools. Reynoso estimates that his district alone is owed $11 billion in funds from the state. As a member of the Senate’s education committee, Addabbo explained that he in engaged in the “Campaign for Fiscal Equity” in Albany in an attempt to secure these funds.
“This problem is bigger than Grover Cleveland High School,” Reynoso added.
Reynoso estimates a whopping 70 percent of the city’s students are under proficient, with only 30 percent of fifth-graders performing at a proficient level. The councilman attributes this to a lack of resources, as well as a disparity in education among the city’s immigrant population.
“The system doesn’t care about distinctions,” Reynoso added. “Immigrant students are at a disadvantage.”