By Andrew Buemi
As the reality of the next four years under the most un-presidential and autocratic leader our nation has ever seen sets in, one can empathize with those who wish to bury their heads in the sand and presume that the worst of what’s to come won’t or can’t impact them directly.
But the rich history of activism and political engagement in the West Village, at least, remains strong, and is being driven in part by young voices.
Erik Coler, age 25, was recently named the youngest President of the Village Independent Democrats (VID), which is among the oldest reform Democratic clubs in the City, and the Village’s oldest.
Born off of Waverly Place, Coler grew up in the Village and attended P.S. 41 and the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI). He then went on to study political science at SUNY Fredonia, which is situated in a rural enclave in western New York.
In college, Coler became involved in local politics in order to lend a voice to the Democratic Party within the Republican-dominated Chautauqua County. He was given several leadership roles involving running campaigns throughout the County, serving as field director for congressional races, and helping to manage various State, Assembly, and Senate races.
Upon returning to Manhattan, Coler became the deputy chief operating officer at an investment fund, but remained entrenched in progressive political reform. He’s been a member of the VID for a year and a half, having served as its Vice President before becoming President; he is also an executive member of Manhattan’s Community Board 2 (CB2).
Some of the most pressing issues concerning Coler and the VID are affordable housing, the environment, voting rights, and better healthcare options (like better access to a Level I Trauma center).
“From a Village standpoint, a key issue has got to be affordable housing,” said Coler. “One of the biggest issues we’re going to focus on is enforcement,” to hold accountable those landlords who fail to comply with stipulations attached to the J-51 tax abatement program for building renovations.
Landlords benefitting from J-51 are required by law to keep the units in their buildings rent stabilized, but the City does a poor job of tracking and enforcing the law, which has led to an epidemic of illegal rent hikes. As little as 1 in 300 landlords who violate the law are actually fined.
Coler indicates that 385 apartment units in the West Village alone are in violation of the J-51 housing credit; he’s currently working on preparing a class action lawsuit to help the victims in one particular building re-stabilize their rent.
For Coler and the VID, there’s more on the line than holding landlords accountable. “[The Village] is the crux of New York City—if you can’t create communities here, you won’t have people who are passionate and connected to the neighborhood,” he noted, explaining that generating a sense of long-term community—rather than forcing tenants to move every year—must be an issue that’s confronted City-wide.
Sitting in on a recent VID meeting on Christopher Street last month revealed that, despite the changes the Village has seen since its Bohemian days, a robust spirit of activism and political engagement holds strong. In a particularly encouraging sign, a handful of the roughly 75 attendees were in their 20s and 30s.
In addition to tackling pressing policy issues in the year to come, Coler wants to expand the VID’s 150-member community and incorporate some fun, like regular trivia nights and a summer BBQ.
According to Coler, there are many ways to get involved in local policy issues, like volunteering for early voting efforts and joining your local community board, but it’s important to start somewhere, he says. “A lot of times people get caught up in the larger issues and look past the small things, but it’s the smallest things that can affect your life the most.”