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Rent Battle Spurred Candidate to Challenge Longtime WaHi Assemblyman

 Kelley Boyd said she was motivated to run after a legal battle with her landlord gave her insight into tenant issues near her Hudson Heights home.
Kelley Boyd said she was motivated to run after a legal battle with her landlord gave her insight into tenant issues near her Hudson Heights home.
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Mark Manley Photography

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — When Kelley Boyd moved to Hudson Heights in 2007, she had no plans to run for political office.

The founder and former head of technology company Digital Lifestyles, Boyd, 53, started to think about running after a legal battle with her landlord left her concerned about the lack of guidance for tenants fighting predatory building owners.

After gaining experience by serving on Community Board 12 and volunteering for political campaigns for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, Boyd decided to challenge longtime incumbent Assemblyman Denny Farrell to represent the 71st District, which covers parts of Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights and Inwood. 

But with only a little more than $2,000 in campaign funds and without the backing of a major political club, she is in for an uphill battle.

Q: What are some of the major issues facing the district?

A: Education. There are some areas where charters are the only way to allow a reset of a failing public school. I get that but I am a staunch advocate for public schools and for funding public school appropriately. Decreasing class sizes, adding back in creative arts as well as physical activities: all of these are critical to a conducive learning environment.

I think we have lost touch with what purpose school serves in a person’s life. People are still looking at graduation and then going to college as the goal, when really finding a vocation that you love is the highest, best use for school. I am interested in expanding six-year curriculums in high schools for young adults to graduate with associates degrees and be career ready, as well as exploring expanding magnet schools.

Another issue is jobs. Increasing the proliferation of small business while growing the inventory of living wage jobs. This is tricky because we want to grow local ownership in business, but we also need the draw some bigger name shopping brands to bring the traffic to the smaller boutique, bespoke and artisan shops. I am thinking stores like Sephora, Bed Bath and Beyond, stores that carry things we don't really have up here. These stores will draw traffic that will feed coffee shops, restaurants, collectives with bespoke items made from local craftspeople.

Q: Why did you decide to make this leap into political life?

A: I moved in and signed a one-year lease in 2007 at $2,000. In 2008, my landlord gave me a renewal lease with a rent increase even though the rent was above market rate. That was when I started investigating what rent stabilization means and what is right.

There was never any investigation from the DHCR (Department of Housing and Community Renewal), even though its mission statement is to enforce the rent-stabilization codes.

In April 2010, they (DHCR) ruled against me. They wouldn’t wave the four-year statute despite the overwhelming evidence of fraud I had submitted. It’s not that the rent wasn’t illegal, it’s that it happened more than four years ago. 

I fought their decision. [The case went to NY Supreme Court and was appealed several times by both parties. In June 2014, New York’s highest court ruled against Boyd].

I feel I lost because the impact of me winning would have been overwhelming for the agency to actually investigate claims and also for landlords because so many of them have lied and cheated and stolen.

That’s the fundamental reason I’m running. Everybody that I meet in this neighborhood that I help [with housing issues], has gone to our local elected officials first. Are you seriously telling me that I’m better prepared as just a lady who lives in the neighborhood to help these folks? That’s their job.

Q: It sounds like housing is another major issue for your campaign.

A: Yes, both the lack of available inventory and predatory landlords.

I think we need to bring a new number into the mix: the Area Median Wage as opposed to the Area Median Income, which is currently the measure of how we define "affordable" housing. I think it’s important that people who work in our local stores should be able to live close. Teachers that teach in our schools should be able to live and raise their own families in the neighborhood. I don't think tax breaks to developers the way we are doing it now — 421-a or inclusionary zoning — is the best way to get what we want, which for me is building communities, not just apartments. For that reason I want to explore expanding Mitchell-Lama throughout our district.  

Predatory landlords have been in the news for well over a decade and it is shameful the lack of response from our local elected officials. Electeds are the only ones with the knowledge of what is happening to people on a daily basis. We must collect that info, and surface up patterns that we can then bring to the attention of proper authorities and get something done about the problem — harassment, overcharging, illegal and/or out of code renovations — and solve it, not just give it lip service.

Q: You’re a newcomer on the upper Manhattan political scene, whereas Farrell has been in the assembly since 1974. How do you run a successful campaign and fundraise in that situation?

A: The people who have contributed to my campaign are people I went to high school with and people I used to work with in the technology industry. You really don’t need a ton of money if you’re not hiring a bunch of consultants and feeding the machine. You need some money, but you really don’t need that much.

I originally wanted to raise $40,000, but then I realized that was ridiculous and I wasn’t going to be able to raise that money. I’m disappointed to learn that people in this neighborhood who are not politically involved but who signed my petition and say, ‘Go girl, go girl. You got my vote,’ they don’t get how important it is to put 10 bucks to that. In the end, if I don’t win, it’s not because I didn’t show up.

Q: How did you gather enough petition signatures to get on the ballot without the support of a political club?

A: Most of the people that support me and were willing to sign up and do some work couldn’t do petitions because they are registered as independents. I got over 900 signatures myself and I got them all over the district. What that means is that I personally talked to 900 people. I think that is a very big difference between somebody passing around a clipboard and saying sign my petition versus saying, "I’d like the opportunity to earn your vote. Here’s who I am."

Q: What are some specific things you would hope to accomplish?

A: My grand vision for my administration will be to have the most civically engaged community in New York City. This will be measured by the highest voter registration and the highest voter turnout at election time. 

In my experience it is ridiculous to have to work so hard to get your representative to do anything at all. They begin at square one each time a person comes in to the office and they try to do what the person wants done. I am a process person and there will be a tested process to go through to get something done, and we will simply do that together.

I will also deliver workshops to motivate citizens into action to solve community problems. I see a bunch of money going into the nonprofit space and I think much of it is wasted. I will deliver workshops for residents that allow them to learn how to do things for themselves and spend money that way.

Finally, I will implement internal systems to organize intake data, and track results to assure that we tighten our response and improve outcomes throughout my district and my entire administration. I will report this information in my newsletters — rather than just showing you pictures of all the hands I shook this month.

I don't need a law, or a big budget, or help from anyone to do these things. I just have to have the right systems, a motivated staff and good training, and we are doing it.