Location East Village
Rent $686.42 (rent stabilized)
Square feet 720
Occupant Mary Spink (executive director, Lower East Side People’s MHA)
It just occurred to me after our extensive conversation that you have had the exact same evolution as the formerly wild and woolly East Village. It’s almost like the neighborhood is your twin sister, a place where you’ve had 14 apartments since 1964 after you got off a bus at the Port Authority from Schenectady. And you spent the next two decades in a world in which guns and people rolling around full of heroin—it was a lot cheaper back then, and 22 people coming out of a bathroom at once, and the expressions “hanging paper” and “scams” were not unfamiliar.
We’ll skip over some of the jobs. You had a shop on St. Marks, selling dashikis, old velvet dresses, and whatever, then you were a bouncer in a whorehouse, a go-go dancer, and you worked at a laundromat, a Jewish deli, and a “fried-chicken joint.” This was followed by that newsstand start-up with a man who taught you how to build boilers. Then—the pages of the calendar are turning . . . He said, “Listen, you’re already worth 50 bucks a day to me because you’re reliable and you show up.” The next day I’m on a platform 11 feet in the air with a three-foot wrench, threading sprinkler pipe. He was building the Tunnel, the club.
So began your career in properties. Then I became a super, 11th between First and Second. This little super’s apartment was a piece of shit, the air shaft, the exhaust from Veniero’s came in from the courtyard. Then I began to climb the ladder, they made me super of supers. During all this time I got involved in volunteer work. When you’re trying to change your life, the thing that scares you most is dealing with normal. It seemed like a great way to get into the society that I hadn’t been in since I was a child. I got on boards, D.A.R.E., drug rehabilitation, youth groups . . .
Now you’re the Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association executive director and . . . I can definitely empathize with my residents.
I read that one LESPMHA building was named after you saw an ad in an airplane catalog for a motivational poster called “Perseverance,” which told of Abraham Lincoln’s early struggles. Anyway, mutual housing associations started long ago in Europe, began in New York in the mid ’80s, and essentially are a variation on cooperative housing—tenant reps sit on a board. But with MHAs, people rent rather than own, and the boards include community and religious leaders. Typically the buildings are owned by a nonprofit. The key word when it comes to MHAs is multi. Individual low-income co-ops might fail. But with a lot of buildings, there’s strength in numbers. Because it’s shared assets, shared expenses, economy of scale. We develop, build, manage low- and moderate-income housing. The government calls low income anything below 60 percent of the median. A family of four can’t make over $37,680.
Is there hope for more housing? There’s very little space left on the Lower East Side. If everything goes correctly, I have enough buildings to build through 2008. We’ve had nothing to rehabilitate for years. Got to build from scratch. I’m a week away from closing two buildings on East 3rd. I have a funding commitment for two more. I’d say a total of 200 more units in the next five years. Two-thirds will be low income. If we’re lucky, we’ll do more. I’m pushing to extremes to do that. My last building had 30 units. We got 8000 applications.
This building is one of the early MHAs. Perfect white walls, wood floors. You have a thousand books. What do you like to read? I love mysteries. When my life was not great, I read a lot of horror. Now I don’t like horror.
Look, a courtyard! Those trees mean everything to me. When I was younger, I couldn’t have given a damn about birds.