Marcela Mitaynes is a tenant organizer in Sunset Park whose family lost their apartment to a predatory landlord. She has led groups of predominantly working-class immigrants to Albany for many years to plead with their legislators to overhaul the state’s rent laws. One of the legislators she would lobby was Assemblymember Félix Ortiz, who has repped Assembly District 51 in Sunset Park and Red Hook since 1995 and is currently the Assistant Speaker.
Now the Peruvian-born immigrant is running for Ortiz’s job with the support of tenants she has organized with over the past 14 years.
“He and his staff always agreed with us, but there were always excuses as well,” Mitaynes said of her opponent.
Mitaynes won’t have to worry about that if she prevails over Ortiz and two other candidates in the June 23 Democratic primary.
This interview was edited for length and concision.
Tell us about your personal history; how you came to New York, how you became a tenant organizer, how you became politically active?
I immigrated from Peru to New York as an infant. My dad came before and then called for his mom who came with me. When I was five, we moved to Sunset Park. The rest of the family came one by one. We all stayed together in a two-bedroom, rent-stabilized apartment before people became independent and branched out on their own. At one point, there were four generations of my family living within a five-block radius in Sunset Park. Then in 2006 my 35-unit, rent-stabilized building got a new owner and within six months he was able to displace half of the families in what was a predominantly Latino building.
‘The grassroots power we’re building is going to be the change. We’re planting a seed for the future.’
I didn’t understand what was happening. I ended up losing the apartment I shared with my family for over 30 years. I got connected with a community organization, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, that does tenant advocacy and organizing. I met my neighbors who were going through the same displacement pressures. We learned the laws that existed, how politics works. The real estate industry had a really big hold on New York politics. We started organizing.
I eventually transitioned from participant to staffer. We worked for years to build coalitions to the point that last year we won historic rent law reforms.
It took many years of losses to make us realize that we also really needed to get involved in the electoral process. As long as the folks who pretended they were our friends ended up stabbing us in the back, we weren’t going to get any legislation done. So we realized we needed to focus on making sure those guys were no longer in power and that we were putting in people who support our agenda. I have been advocating and organizing for tenants for over a decade. So when I thought about where my next path would take me, running for office made sense.
What are the main issues that are of concern to the people of your district?
Housing is a big issue, particularly with folks not having incomes. Another big issue is healthcare. This pandemic is highlighting the way the current system is not sustainable. There’s also immigration. I want to make sure that folks feel secure and aren’t targeted by their landlords because of their immigration status and that those who are facing deportation have access to legal assistance.
You are a tenant organizer running on a slate of democratic socialists that includes a public school teacher, a nurse, a community organizer and a foreclosure counselor. What is the significance of this?
We directly understand the experiences of our constituents. That’s really important when you are making decisions that are going to affect communities and families for generations. Right now, we’re seeing elected officials who are disconnected from their communities and who prioritize the needs of others. That’s what we’re trying to change. We want to make sure that we are taking care of the working class.
How do you foresee having an impact in Albany? Even if everyone on your slate wins, you will be a minority among business-as-usual Democrats.
Some of the things we want are not going to happen overnight, but we know that little by little, we need to start replacing the incumbents who are not working and representing the people as a whole. The grassroots power we’re building is going to be the change. We’re planting a seed for the future.
Over those years, you had direct conversations with Félix Ortiz, the incumbent that you’re now running against.
Yes, all the time through my everyday job as a tenant advocate and organizer, whether it was reaching out to his aides or taking tenants up to Albany to his office there and having a conversation about important legislation that they wanted him to support.
He and his staff always agreed with us, but there were always excuses as well. What we needed was someone who would take the lead and start building support but there was no coordinated effort to work together. It was very different from what I would see with other organizations in other communities where their elected official would work together with them to pass their legislation. That was what was lacking and it was lacking because housing justice wasn’t important to him. He gets real estate money from lobbyists.
So is he off the hook after big rent reforms were passed last year? Can he say, “Hey, I got it done.”
He’s trying to, definitely. He’s taking credit for stuff that he just wasn’t a part of. It’s insulting to the tenants and their sweat and tears and sacrifices to be a part of this struggle to make this happen. He might have voted for it that day but that was about it.
What I see with other elected officials is they support and they push the bills. They participate in actions. They hold town halls to get more people involved. There’s a working relationship, as there should be. The elected officials should be pushing on the inside while the people are pushing on the outside. And it should be a collective, working relationship that’s constantly growing and changing as you achieve something and come across a new issue and figure out how to fix that. So that’s what I see missing. That’s not what’s happening. There’s a disconnect when he’s up in Albany making decisions that are not benefiting us, his constituents.
The tenants that you’ve worked with over the years through your group, are they involved in your campaign?
They helped collect signatures for the ballot petition. They’re helping spread the word. Because of the quarantine, we’ve adapted and are focusing a lot on social media, on sending out mailers and doing a lot of phone banking.
How has the coronavirus altered your campaign?
When the pandemic began, we had a serious conversation about how we react. We had an infrastructure in place that we put to good use providing mutual aid. We took that opportunity to check in with folks — folks that live alone, folks that are homebound, folks that have been quarantined and are happy to have someone call them and just have a conversation. We have been able to plug them into assistance and resources and get them the help that they need. Some folks are doing okay and some folks are having a harder time.
Finally, what’s your vision of what New York could be like in, say, five or 10 years from now if you and more socialists like yourself can win office?
I hope to see a more affordable New York. We can’t go back to the way things were with people living paycheck to paycheck. We are in a position where we can make changes, dismantle the infrastructure that we know isn’t working and rebuild it and let the people who are most impacted lead those changes. There’s a lot of hope and possibility at this moment if we come together to make those changes.
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