Spending 18 hours in the Dallas County slammer was the best thing that ever happened to Dina Levy, a tenant organizer who was charged with criminal trespassing at a run-down affordable-housing complex.
The 1997 incident and a similar occurrence that led to an arrest in California were among the catalysts for a nationwide law giving tenants the right to organize.
“It was cool,” said Ms. Levy, who was working for the Texas Tenants’ Union at the time. “I got really hooked.”
A fraternal twin who’s a native of Maplewood, N.J., Ms. Levy wasn’t politically active as a student. But, she said: “I had this thing for fairness and justice. I am driven by trying to undo inequity.”
In 2001, back from Texas, Ms. Levy joined Newark Community Development Network, where she was given the task of improving conditions at affordable-housing complexes. Within 18 months, she rescued Brick Towers by getting the City Council to stop a planned demolition.
Ms. Levy admits that her “rough, caustic style” irks landlords. But her approach has paid off. Since joining UHAB seven years ago, she has saved 15 federally subsidized housing complexes in New York City from going into foreclosure and potentially losing their affordable status.
She was among the first to spotlight the fact that private equity companies were snapping up affordable-housing complexes and letting them fall into disrepair while laying plans to convert them to market-rate projects and then flip them. Last year, she was instrumental in helping tenants of Ocelot’s dilapidated South Bronx property find a new owner that would rehabilitate the 14 buildings.
“Dina is a tremendous resource for tenants in this city,” said Daniel White, deputy chief of staff for Bronx Rep. José Serrano. “She is at the center of a lot of preservation work in New York, and she is relentless.”