Running for public office is a daunting task. Meeting community members, fund raising, debating policies and platforms is intimidating.
The boyish-looking, 30-year-old Shaun Abreu is doing all of that in his bid to represent Upper West Side’s District 7 in the New York City Council. So far, his efforts seem to be working. Abreu elbowed out 12 candidates in the Democratic primary to win the coveted spot as nominee for the elections that will be held in November.
The City Council election is Abreu’s first public race. He was born and raised in the neighborhood he seeks to represent. A first-generation college graduate, his parents are immigrants from the Dominican Republic.
In an interview, Abreu says it is clear why he is running for office. Affordable housing is a key issue for him. He was nine years old when his own family was evicted from their home in 2000, and in the ensuing tumult, he was held back in the fourth grade.
“For me, politics has always been personal,” Abreu says. “I’ve seen the neighborhood change in many ways. The forces of gentrification are not to be taken for granted.”
Abreu went on to graduate from Columbia University and get a law degree from Tulane University of Law.
He is now a tenant’s rights attorney, having worked with the New York Legal Assistance Group and provides free representation to low-income individuals in housing court. Abreu sees a lot of injustice in his work where landlords fraudulently deregulating apartments and removing them from rent stabilization. “This has caused folks to move out. And these people are being replaced by folks who are willing to pay more. That is an injustice,” he says.
“Prices have skyrocketed which has most definitely caused folks to leave the place they’ve known their entire life,” he says.
According to New York City OpenData, since January 2017 there have been 66,493 recorded evictions and possessions out of which 972 occurred in District 7. However, this isn’t an accurate reflection of all evictions, as this official number only captures cases that were contested in the housing courts.
When pushed on why affordability has been high, Abreu blames Columbia University and high rents in the area.
The Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development (ANHD) recently published a report on affordable housing. According to the data, 37% of households in District 7 are rent-burdened.
“Columbia has been a big contributor to this,” he says. “That is undeniable.”
Abreu traces some of the problems to a community contract Columbia University signed in an effort to alleviate fears of gentrification. The Ivy League university expanded into Manhattanville, with the agreement of paying $150 million to benefit the local community surrounding the new campus.
“Columbia, manufactured an unjust community benefits agreement that really lacks a lot of teeth, in terms of enforcement,” he says.
“We should explore all aspects possible to make sure that we’re getting the benefit of our bargain, which, as of today, doesn’t seem to benefit the community,” says Abreu.
“It Could be Done”
Despite these issues, Abreu believes that there are ways to make housing more affordable and he shared some ideas.
“I support up-zoning neighborhoods throughout our city, to make sure that affordable housing is being constructed responsibly. It could be done,” Abreu says enthusiastically.
Dan Cohen, vice president of the nonprofit Housing Partnership and an affordable housing advocate who ran against Abreu in the primary, doesn’t see any specifics in his former opponent’s housing policies.
“I don’t know what Shaun’s housing plan is, he didn’t really have one [during the primary]. I’m not sure what he’s going to do,” says Cohen.
When discussing the closure of small businesses in the neighborhood, primarily due to COVID, Abreu agrees that more needs to be done. “We have to continue pushing to make sure that we are extending the moratorium [funding from the federal and state government] so that businesses who are impacted by the pandemic continue to stay open and operate.”
New York Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, whose district overlaps with City Council District 7, says he believes Abreu will win.
Even though he did not support Abreu initially, O’Donnell has since put his weight behind the Democratic nominee. He is particularly impressed with Abreu’s work as a tenant’s rights attorney. “I’m confident that he will fight to keep tenants in their homes. I am certain he will do a very good job of it,” he says.
For now, Abreu is focused on his race. “We will keep campaigning, listening to voters on what their concerns are, and make sure that we have a policy platform that reflects their needs,” he says.