In Broad Budget Debates, Local Services Hit Hardest: Ridgewood Group Among Few Left Standing

When Clarise Sciallo’s apartment was sold 10 years ago, she started having problems with her new landlord. He wanted to raise her rent and change some of her appliances, such as her decades-old washing machine. The two had a series of confrontations. Worried she would be forced to move from the house she had called home for 42 years, Sciallo visited the nearby offices of Community Board 5 to see Angela Mirabile.

Mirabile, executive director of the Greater Ridgewood Restoration Corporation (GRRC), has been counseling tenants and landlords for more than 25 years, helping negotiate rent freezes or file eviction paperwork. But budget cuts could be forcing free social services such as those offered by the GRRC into extinction.

Mirabile helped Sciallo get a rent freeze on her apartment. A decade later, Sciallo’s cherished washing machine is still running just fine. “[Mirabile] let me know my rights,” Sciallo said. “She made me understand that [my landlord] is the boss, but that he has to respect the tenant too.”

Sciallo visits the CB 5 office almost every week to see Mirabile. The GRRC works from the office each Thursday to help residents of the district fill out housing paperwork. Often, Mirabile said, clients visit for other services as well.

“People come in for everything,” she said. “People learn to trust you, and they bring in medical bills, electric bills, anything.”

Originally, the GRRC took part in what was known as “One-Stop Day,” where representatives of the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) visited the CB5 office to help residents obtain food stamps, file for Medicaid, pay bills or mediate housing issues. Because of budget cuts and the declining economy, HRA staffers began to participate less and less, and by the mid-1990s Mirabile was the only one remaining.

More than a decade later, the few remaining counseling services in the area are drying up.

The Queens Multi Service Center, part of the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, provides Medicaid, food stamp and social service assistance for senior and disabled citizens. Because of budget cuts, the Myrtle Avenue office will likely be shuttered soon. According to one person in the office, the close is almost inevitable. The center’s directors could not be reached for comment.

After attending a community dialogue with Queens Borough President Helen Marshall in May, the GRRC released a statement noting that there was a clear need for counseling services within Community Board 5. They also said it was apparent that few constituents knew of the services they offered.

The GRRC is contacting various community organizations such as churches, civic associations and schools, offering to hold a counseling session at their locations. According to Mirabile, the GRRC has been hit hard by a tighter city budget as well, forcing them to cut back on several services, including a graffiti clean-up program. But Miraiele said the free counseling services are needed now more than ever.

“We’re seeing a lot of local offices close, and a lot of these people aren’t going to travel far for services,” Mirabile said. “There are still foreclosures and [people who owe] back taxes; the unemployment rate is still high. As that situation increases, people are going to need more assistance.”

To expand funding for their service, the GRRC has been seeking grants from banks and donations from the public.

The GRRC traditionally received both state and city funding, largely from the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) and the New York State Neighborhood Preservation Coalition.

Last year, the HPD’s Community Consultant Program—which provides funding to the GRRC—was halved, a $415,000 cut. In this year’s budget, the program was eliminated. The NPC program that provides funding to the GRRC was cut by 38 percent.

The majority of funding now comes from elected official’s member items—the congressional pools of money available to each representative for discretionary funding in their districts. But in the past few years, the GRRC has received no member item funding from the state. Right now, the counseling service is almost exclusively funded by member items from Councilwomen Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) and Diana Reyna (D-Bushwick).

The council has had fewer funds for pet programs because some money now goes to larger Mayoral projects, such as Teacher’s Choice, Crowley said. While a project like Teacher’s Choice might cost $12 million, each member has only about $110,000 in member items for their own projects, she said.

“There’s no indication that they’ll lose those funds,” Crowley said. “They just may not be as large as they once were.”

According to CB 5 District Manager Gary Giordano, member items are too often disregarded as frivolous spending. “A lot of people consider this pork, and maybe so, but I wouldn’t consider it budget fat when senior citizens need to figure out how to get services,” he said.

Giordano said he would like to see services such as Mirabile’s funded from city agencies’ regular budgets, but across the board cuts don’t account for how money is being spent.

“Decisions are never being made as to the waste, or what government spends money on,” Giordano said. “They need to find the real waste, and cut that. … It’s important [for senior citizens] to be able to get expertise to help navigate complexities.”

Giordano said he has seen Mirabile’s program help hundreds of seniors—and many others—over the last two decades.

Sciallo, who is in her 70s, said she wouldn’t know what to do without Mirabile’s assistance. She said Mirabile does all her paperwork, and always with a smile. As for her landlord, she said he’s “as good as gold,” because now “he knows I know what to do.”

by David J. Harvey


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