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World Artisian Market Hosts Yelp Community Event

By Britney Trachtenberg

Credit: Britney Trachtenberg

The World Artisian Market in Astoria hosted a Yelp Community Event and launch party on Thurs., May 9. The participating restaurants— Arepa Lady, Hiro Ramen, Mister Everything, Urban Vegan Roots, Sala, Sotto La Luna, and Elevenses—  handed out appetizers to members of the Yelp Elite Squad and their friends.

The Yelp Elite Squad is a special group of locals who write Yelp reviews. Elites have a special badge on their profile and receive invitations to exclusive events at restaurants in their communities.

Each restaurant handed out their own appetizers. Arepa Lady gave out cheese arepas. Hiro Ramen served takoyaki, edamame, seaweed salad, gyoza, ube fries, dumplings, and fried shrimp. Attendees at Mister Everything ate chips and guacamole, mushroom risotto balls, and veggie spring rolls. Urban Vegan Roots plated vegan fish cakes— cleverly called “the not so crabby patties— and Korean barbeque wings made with vegan chicken. Sala distributed manchego and quince, croquettes, pan tumaca con jamon, pan tumaca, and a choice between rose or red sangria. Sotto La Luna dished out fresh cacio e pepe and samplings of different pizzas, while Elevenses served morning buns.

Samantha Cillemi-Berenz, Yelp Queens Senior Community Manager, said, “We are so lucky to be part of the most diverse borough in all of New York City. The World Artisan Market is an amazing representation of Queens and our community as it showcases an array of different cuisines. As the Yelp Queens Senior Community Manager I knew I had to play a part in helping bring awareness to this space in an effort to support all these incredible local businesses.”

David Segovia, General Manager of Sala, worked with the landlord to participate in the Yelp Community Event. He said, “We are an independent restaurant and we are following the lead of the landlord of the building.” 

Attendees had varying years of experience with writing for Yelp. Jamel Sweat of Jackson Heights created an account sixteen years ago when Yelp was a new company. Gerardo Aponte started writing reviews ten years ago after being inspired by his friend. Phil Harris of Sunnyside started writing reviews six years ago for fun. Nicole Karavas of Astoria began one year ago to get more involved with the community. 

Karavas said, “I live in the area and I pass this block many times, but I’ve never been to any of these and I’m so glad I came. Every place is so nice. The ambiance, all the people I’ve been meeting, the owners, the managers are just so amazing.”

Alana Kadison from Astoria said, “I live close by and I always pass it and I was saying ‘oh, I want to stop there [and] and I want to try it, but I never got to before.” She loved the pasta at Sotto La Luna and the arepa from Arepa Lady. When asked if she would come back to any of the restaurants, she said, “I’m definitely going to go back to Soto and try different kinds of pastas.”

Tablao Flamenco performed dances for attendees. Peter Basal from Forest Hills and spokesperson for the group said, “Flamenco has a lot of improvisational elements as everybody saw tonight. It has different forms and it [has] a lot of poetry. It talks about life. It talks about love.”

Credit: Britney Trachtenberg

Throughout the year, people can nominate themselves for the Yelp Elite Squad on Yelp’s website. The Elite Council reviews the applications.

ODTA and NYCHA sued for discrimination after deprioritizing residents for rent assistance

By Jean Brannum |

The Fordham Law Clinic filed a lawsuit on April 30 against the New York City Housing Authority and the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance due to its deprioritization of Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds for people in subsidized housing.

The complaint alleges that even though federal guidelines made many NYCHA residents eligible for Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funds, tenants were left with pending requests for two years or told they were not eligible due to being in subsidized housing. In addition, NYCHA did not reevaluate the income of families who lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“You could either apply and be put at the back of the line, or you were discouraged from applying at all at the point where the money was dwindling,” said housing advocate and Fordham Professor Norrinda Brown. 

According to the complaint, the ODTA was in charge of distributing ERAP funds to people who were having difficulties paying rent after pandemic-related job loss. The ODTA was supposed to help people regardless of whether they were in subsidized housing or not. 

Danielle Johnson, who lived at Astoria Houses in Queens and is one of the plaintiffs, met the federal eligibility criteria for ERAP.  She was laid off from her role as a medical biller during the pandemic. The widow was the only source of income for the unit she shared with her son.  She was allegedly discouraged from applying and never told she was eligible, according to the complaint.

ERAP applications opened in June 2021 and most of the funds were committed by October 2021. Brown said that while the amount of money was significant, there was not enough left for those receiving housing assistance. 

“It was no surprise that the money would run out, and the money did run out before subsidized tenants could receive any aid,” Brown said

Out of the 39,000 applicants for ERAP from NYCHA housing, only 15,000 were approved as of April 2024, the complaint says. 

The lawsuit also alleges that the ODTA’s and NYCHA’s prejudice was a violation of the state’s lawful source of income protection. The lawful source of income protection means that people in New York cannot be discriminated against due to receiving government assistance, including housing assistance. 

People can also not be discriminated against due to race, which is another part of the suit. 

As of February 2023, rental data says 44 percent of NYCHA tenants are black and 45 percent Hispanic. Brown said that since most residents affected by the deprioritization of ERAP were of this demographic, this is grounds for racial discrimination. 

“If what happened was that NYCHA and the state had said, all black people will have to wait until whites and others are paid, and if there’s any money left, your hardship can be considered,” Brown said. ” We all have a gut reaction to that and realize that that was illegal and against the law.”

Tenants Were Expected to Pay Rent Based on Income They No Longer Had

In addition to being denied assistance available to everyone else, the complaint alleges that NYCHA did not adjust the rent for many residents who lost their jobs due to pandemic layoffs. 

According to the NYCHA FAQ page, rent for residents is adjusted based on income to no more than 30 percent of gross income. If someone is unemployed, then the rent should be adjusted to zero. The rent adjustment is supposed to be adjusted by the first of the month after the income change if the resident reports the change within 30 days, the NYCHA website says. 

Plaintiff Wanda Baez was a teacher but her school ceased operations during the pandemic. She applied for ERAP but was deemed ineligible to apply due to her living in a NYCHA residence. During this time she experienced illness and her sister died from COVID-19. She applied in August of 2021 not knowing that her application would remain pending until this day. 

On top of that, NYCHA left her responsible for her rent based on a $55,000 annual income, which was no longer the case after she lost her job. She emailed NYCHA twice about her application for rental assistance. The lack of communication and income readjustment left Baez “alarmed, confused, and helpless.”

She eventually heard back from NYCHA but in the form of a consumer debt lawsuit for not paying the rent adjusted to her not-ceased income source. Her case is pending and proceeding to mediation according to court filings in February. She owes over $46,000 to NYCHA for her residence in the Bronx from March 2020 to November 2022. 

Johnson also has a consumer debt case against her for the $28,000 she amassed in rent during the pandemic. Like Baez, her case is pending. 

James Rodriguez from the Residents to Preserve Public Housing, an advocacy group and one of the plaintiffs in the case, said that he sees NYCHA “pointing the finger” at residents for many issues they could not help, including unpaid rent and long-needed maintenance. 

Brown also said that NYCHA leaders have blamed residents for unpaid rent when they were ineligible for federal assistance and lost their income source. One of her reasons for filing the class action lawsuit was due to the NYCHA media stories about unpaid rent and debt. 

The State Admitted to This Mistake

A New York State Comptroller’s report from July 2023 said that people in public housing were not prioritized in the rental assistance program. The report acknowledged that many in public housing have not received any funds and that New York was one of the last states to finish distributing funds. 

As a result, the state reportedly provided $356 million in additional funds for ERAP applications existing at the time of its release but said that it may not have been enough to address the high rent burdens affecting residents. 

In June of 2021, the ODTA page for ERAP said that those in public housing would only be considered for assistance after all other applications. This was not consistent with the federal guidelines from the treasury department, which said that public housing residents should be considered along with other applicants. 

The Fight for Justice

The class action lawsuit has only just begun and Brown said that there was a long process ahead, but Rodriguez said that the fight for help has been ongoing to the point that it took time away from other priorities with his organization. 

Brown has filed an injunction to keep ODTA and NYCHA from pursuing evictions and consumer debt cases until after the court reviews the complaint. Meanwhile, Brown said that NYCHA can still recertify income changes and provide retribution for those who fell behind on rent during the pandemic. 

“This whole scheme is sending families further into deep poverty when it could have been handled so so much differently,” Brown said.

NYCHA and the ODTA denied a request for comment citing a policy against commenting on pending litigation. 


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