WESTY 2023 Honoree: Carmen Quinones, Lifelong Battler for Better Housing

Carmen Quinones, who heads the Frederick Douglass houses residents association, began extending her emergency food distribution operation to needy people beyond her own complex.

| 05 May 2023 | 01:02

Carmen Quinones says the Frederick Douglass houses saved her family half a century ago. She has been paying it forward ever since. Quinones is now in her eighth year as president of the Tenants Association of the Douglass Houses, the 17 building, 2,000 apartment complex that sprawls across an Upper West Side super block from 100th to 104th streets and Amsterdam to Manhattan Avenues. Her job, which she describes as “volunteer... but 25/7,” is to advocate for residents to improve conditions around everything from mold to busted boilers. But as the pandemic descended on the city and the country, a need even more basic than proper shelter took priority.

“When COVID hit this community, New York City Housing did nothing to make sure food was provided,” Quinones recalled, “so I sprung into action literally feeding our development.” Four days a week she can still be found at the food distribution point just off 101st street and Columbus. But she is also using her network of food distributors, including City Harvest and the Hunts Point Market, to help provide food to other housing projects and to anyone else in need.

“We don’t turn anyone away,” she said, emphasizing that inflation has exacerbated food insecurity for many in and around the Douglass houses even as the pandemic eases. For Quinones making sure everyone can eat is just how she was raised. “We come from real humble surroundings and we learned how to take care of each other and take care of your neighbor.” In 1970 she and her family were the ones who needed help. A fire destroyed their apartment in East Harlem. “We lost everything,” Quinones recalled with a vividness as if the trauma had occurred last week. “My mother had to separate us.” She, her brother and sister where sent off to relatives.

“Then in 1973 we got that apartment,” she says of the apartment she still lives in at the Frederick Douglass Houses. “I remember my mother kissing the floor and we were so happy to just be together.”

The news is filled with stories about the dysfunction and deterioration of New York City public housing. Quinones leads the choir on what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed. But she nevertheless illustrates how vital public housing has been for so many New Yorkers. “It was amazing,” she said of the apartment. “That’s why I love Douglass so much. Because it saved us.”

Her rise as a tenant advocate began with an encounter with the late Assemblyman Angelo Del Toro, Quinones recalled. “A lot of the residents here were suffering with repairs and stuff like that.” So she went to Del Toro. “I said, ‘I need you to help Douglass’,” she said of her plea to Del Toro.

“Angelo literally called me about three weeks later and told me, ‘Do you really want to help your people?’ I said, ‘Why do you think I came over?’ I was green and I had attitude.”

Del Toro said, “If you want to help your people, here” and he handed her the keys to his west side office. She became his west side chief of staff. “I’ve been running ever since,” she says.

When Del Toro died in 1994, Quinones ran for office herself and was elected a Democratic district leader and then a state Democratic committee woman. She ran unsuccessfully for City Council last year and is gearing up to run for state Assembly next year.

“What kills me is that I need to do more,” she told a visitor the other day during a break from distributing food. “And that’s why I really want to seek office. Because the people who are in office aren’t doing anything.”

Quinones worries about the young people all around her at Douglass Houses. “I have a lot of young people struggling and mental illness is alive and these kids are suffering in record numbers,” Quinones says.

“She has a good heart,” says her neighbor Carmen Ocasio.

“If there is a message it is to take care of your neighbor,” Quinones summarizes.