At what would turn out to be the midpoint of her life, a woman in her late 30s was seeking a new direction. Still grieving from the loss of the father with whom she shared a bond that she would never replicate, recently graduated from St. John’s Law School, and in the process of setting up what would become a successful immigration law practice, she stumbled on a new neighborhood in Lower Manhattan.
In 1982, the only building that had been completed in Battery Park City was one of the towers of Gateway Plaza, then known as the “400 Building,” and now called 375 South End Avenue. On an impulse, Linda Belfer decided to move to this place she had never heard of.
At the time, Battery Park City was a frontier outpost, and Lower Manhattan was (in residential terms) a ghost town. When she returned to her new apartment the night after moving in, she told the Broadsheet in 2007, “I made the mistake of deciding that I would buy a quart of milk when I got home, instead of going to the store near work and carrying it back.” After wandering in circles for an hour, Ms. Belfer was exhausted and nearly hysterical. “I walked into a liquor store on Cedar Street,” she remembered, “and the owner told me to shut up and sit down.” Leaving Ms. Belfer alone in the store, he walked around the corner to a restaurant, “and came back with a pot full of milk, covered by a lid.” Then he handed Ms. Belfer a complimentary bottle of wine and said, “welcome to the neighborhood.”
Thus rooted in what became her home almost until the end of her days, Ms. Belfer quickly began doing in her private life, without compensation, what she was paid to do in her professional life: defending pretty much anybody who needed her help. Within a few years, she had joined Community Board 1 (CB1), had helped to found the Gateway Plaza Tenants Association (GPTA), and got herself elected District Leader, an unpaid post that represents local residents to government agencies and elected officials. She would serve in all of these capacities for decades.
While Battery Park City established itself as a residential enclave, demands soon arose for amenities like schools, the ballfields, a public library, and more. As chair of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, Ms. Belfer helped to advocate for all of these.
As president of the GPTA, she helped to negotiate multiple agreements that preserved a semblance of affordability in that complex. When the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) initially wanted to install in Wagner Park a sculpture resembling a giant wall, which would have blocked the view of the Hudson River, she threatened to organize protestors to lie down in front of construction equipment. The Authority relented.
Paul Goldstein, who knew Ms. Belfer first as CB1’s district manager, and later as a senior staff member for then-State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, recalls, “just as the United State had its Founding Fathers, Lower Manhattan also had trailblazers, who helped to establish our local residential community. Linda Belfer was absolutely a member of that group. When I began my tenure at CB1 in 1983, Battery Park City was just becoming more than a sandy landfill, with Gateway Plaza opening its doors. Linda became a member of the Community Board soon after and quickly became the voice of that community.”
“Linda was never a quiet wallflower,” Mr. Goldstein recalls. “She was always boisterous and outspoken. I can still see her going toe to toe with the likes of [BPCA president] David Emil and other leaders at the Authority. And while that style certainly did rub some the wrong way, I believe she was an effective leader, whose actions helped her fellow residents. She successfully lobbied our local elected officials to maintain the affordable rents enjoyed by thousands of Gateway residents to this day. She was also active and helpful in the aftermath of September 11, in the efforts to rebuild Battery Park City and all of Lower Manhattan.”
CB1 member Tom Goodkind recalls, “Gateway Plaza management has often displayed the insatiable greed of a non-caring building owner. The BPCA has often shown an insensitive disregard of residential needs. Unlike anyone else, Linda Belfer presented herself as the one unmovable and impervious obstruction that scared into submission these and other groups who opposed tenant needs: She stopped them from carrying out many short-sighted plans. Linda’s arrogance was our best weapon.”
Paul Hovitz, vice chair of CB1 says, “I served with Linda for a score-plus of years. She was a force to be reckoned with, a leader among those who goal was and is community service. In particular, to be a voice for those who are often too timid to speak up for themselves.”
CB1 chair Anthony Notaro remembers, “Linda was the first person I meet on CB1, 17 years ago. She was gracious enough to help me, but she had a commanding presence. Linda stood unflinchingly for her community first and foremost. She would debate the issue and often found compromises that worked, but she never backed down.”
James Cavanaugh, president of the BPCA for almost a decade when Ms. Belfer was at the height of her influence, reflects that, “community leaders fall into a couple of categories: diplomats and charging bulls. She was a charging bull. That made her very effective. You could not ignore Linda, even if you wanted to. She was a great advocate for the community, and she got things done. During her days as a civic leader, we at the BPCA sat up and took notice when Linda spoke. What she said and thought mattered a lot to us, and to elected officials. She was very effective at making sure that the community was not ignored.”
In the decade after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Ms. Belfer’s health began a long decline, which she attributed to exposure to toxins during the disaster, and in the months that followed. As she became progressively more disabled, Ms. Belfer’s law practice withered and she fell upon hard financial times. She continued to fight on behalf of the community, however, focusing in later years on rising rents not just Gateway Plaza, but also at other buildings that were pricing out the middle-class residents who had helped establish Battery Park City as a residential community.
But as her income fell and savings dwindled, she became one of those residents for whom the community no longer had room. When Ms. Belfer’s failing health led to her being hospitalized in 2012, “I got a call from [then-CB1 chair] Julie Menin,” recalls former CB1 member Rick Landman, who is also a distinguished real estate lawyer. “I didn’t really know Linda, but Julie asked me to see if there was anything that could be done to help her stay in her apartment.”
Mr. Landman did some legal research, and realized that the “quasi-rent stabilization” that governs affordability at Gateway lacks two crucial provisions. While it limits rent increases, it does not require the complex to participate in the New York City Rent Freeze Program, which consists of the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and the Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE). These programs prevent any further increases in rent for qualifying elderly or disabled residents of rent-stabilized apartments, and compensate the landlord with a property tax credit that covers the difference between the lower, frozen rent and the higher, stabilized rent. Qualifications include age, in the case of seniors (at least 62 years old); certification of disability, in the case of handicapped residents; and limits on household incomes (at $50,000) for both groups.
Ms. Belfer’s age, financial situation, and disability status would have qualified her for both categories, and, according to Mr. Landman, might have enabled her to remain in Battery Park City. But without these protections, “it was clear that she couldn’t go back.” Gateway began eviction proceedings, and while arrangements were made for her to move to a nursing home in the Bronx, Mr. Landman, along with other friends of Ms. Belfer’s, helped clear out the apartment to which she could never return.
“After that, I called her every sabbath,” he remembers. “She would talk a lot about the lack of concern that people give you when you’re no longer in charge. She felt like, the the minute you’re gone, nobody remembers or cares.”
After more than four years in the Bronx nursing home, Ms. Belfer’s health worsened further in early April, which caused her to be admitted to Montefiore Hospital. She died there last weekend.
Ms. Menin, who stepped down as CB1 chair in 2012 and went on to serve as the City’s Consumer Affairs Commissioner, and then Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (a post she still holds), reflects that, “Linda’s indomitable spirit will leave a lasting legacy in the Downtown community. She was a fearless fighter for her beloved community and fiercely guarded the rights of Downtown residents, particularly in the aftermath of September 11th. Her tenacity, perseverance, sense of humor, and boundless dedication — often in the face of difficult odds — will be sorely missed.”
Mr. Goodkind reflects, “there is really no one who can take Linda’s place.”
Mr. Hovtiz adds, “we are lessened by her loss, but grateful for having known and been served by her.”
Mr. Notaro observes, “she will be missed, and her presence will be felt by many in Lower Manhattan. We hope that there will be other Linda Belfers.”
Mr. Landman notes, “it is sad that people like Linda, who give so much, are forgotten.”
Ms. Menin concludes, “she faced a lot of adversity at times, but she always maintained her unwavering strength of spirit and determination.”