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New Community Board Members Zero In on Housing, UWS Quality of Life Issues

By Emily Frost | April 9, 2013 9:23am | Updated on April 9, 2013 11:09am

UPPER WEST SIDE —  Community Board 7 has seven new members — a mix of lawyers, public housing and disability rights advocates, as well as several lifelong New Yorkers.

Board Chair Mark Diller said the spots on the board an all-volunteer local advisory organization — were highly coveted and fiercely competitive.

"It was an amazing and diverse talent pool [this year] with every possible background and experience," Diller said.

The new additions were appointed by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

One of the rookies to the team is Madelyn Innocent, 56, a public housing advocate and a member of the Frederick Douglass Resident Association who said she plans to play a key role on the board's housing committee.

After working with the board in recent years, Innocent said she has been wowed by the role the board plays in local issues, especially regarding NYCHA's plan to redevelop some of the parking lots inside the Frederick Douglass Houses complex.

Innocent said she thinks CB7 is an important ally to have in fighting NYCHA's proposal. 

"Knowledge is power. Power gives you a boost of confidence," she said.

Innocent is also hoping that her membership will change perceptions of public housing residents and help her neighbors feel empowered.

"People are so afraid to get involved," she said. "You need to encourage them to fight for what’s right."

Howad Yaruss, who is in his early 50s and, like Innocent, a lifelong New Yorker, is also making housing a focus of his new role on the board.  

Housing "is a big deal for people here," he said.

"There are real limitations to housing in New York City. It’s important that the city takes steps to make housing as tolerable as possible, given the expense," Yaruss said. 

Yaruss is now working as a professor and a consultant in the legal field after leaving his job as head of the legal team at the Radian Group, leadership experience he believes will help him negotiate a variety of neighborhood interests. 

Another new member, Genora Johnson, is heavily involved in housing justice in the city. 

Johnson is a member of the Frederick Douglass Houses Resident Association, too. She and Innocent are advocates at Community Voices Heard, a group advocating for quality of life issues for low-income New Yorkers. 

Together, Johnson and Innocent formed Caring Residents of Public Housing, to help residents have a voice in public housing debates. 

Several of the new members are full-time workers who are adding board membership to their plate. Brian Jenks, for instance, is a Manhattan Valley residents who works as an attorney at Cravath, Swain & Moore, LLP.

Meanwhile, Jaye Bea Smalley is a healthcare and pharmaceuticals professional and is co-president of Citywide Council on Special Education, while Melissa Hunter is a historic preservation consultant and architect and a former member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The new members live across the neighborhood: some hail from Manhattan Valley, while others live in Lincoln Square.

And their reasons for joining the board vary as much as their professional backgrounds.

For Yaruss, even though the board has an advisory role, it's still incredibly significant.

"[Board members] sign off on so many changes to the neighborhood that affect our daily life," he said. 

Yaruss added that he's keeping an open mind about changes to the neighborhood and sees the glass as half full. 

"I've had a really good life here. I want to preserve that for future generations," he said.