New York, NY—Rebecca Lamorte was 22 years old in 2013 when she was pushed by someone on the subway platform and her leg got caught in the gap between the platform and a 6 train. Accessibility and disability justice is one of the main reasons that compelled her to run for elected office in City Council District 5.
Lamorte was one of six candidates recently interviewed by the neighborhood group, the Sutton Area Community, where each had a chance to explain why they’re running for office and to state their position on issues important to the district and particularly Sutton Place.
“I’m running for New York City Council as a disabled New Yorker, a union member, a labor advocate and a proud Yorkville resident because here in District 5 working families need someone that’s going to go to City Hall every day to fight for affordable housing, fight for disability justice and fight for economic equality,” said Lamorte.
SAC board member Rachel Honig asked Lamorte if she could talk about what she thinks are the most pressing needs in District 5, to which Lamorte replied housing.
“When I’m out on the street people are stopping me all the time—how can we build more affordable housing, how can we protect rent controlled and the stabilized units that we already have and what do we do about Mitchell-Lama units that are aging out of affordability. So, housing is the number one issue,” Lamorte said.
She also wants to make sure that when development or a particular project is planned, community voices take precedent.
“Often, as a community board member we’re blue in the face advocating for change, wanting to see differences made in individual projects, and developers just don’t care—they’re not forced to listen to us, so part of this conversation is also about revolutionizing the ULURP process so that hyperlocal community groups like SAC have input that really guides decision-making rather than being advisory,” noted Lamorte.
Lamorte has worked for a labor union her entire professional career. She’s a lobbyist who is responsible for producing legislative and policy goals for construction workers. Construction workers obviously gain when supertalls are constructed because it means more job opportunities. Honig was interested to learn from Lamorte her position vis-à-vis supertalls.
“I’m supporting the 210-foot height cap. I do not agree with supertalls; I don’t want to see the supertalls in our community. Yes, I come from a construction background and obviously they like building big because that means more jobs, but I have been very clear with them that if it’s not affordable, if it’s not responsible, and it’s not contextual, it’s a non-starter for me,” said Lamorte.
SAC Board member Dr. Charles Coutinho then asked Lamorte whether there was anything that current District 5 Councilman Ben Kallos failed to deal with adequately during his tenure that she would have addressed differently.
“Accessibility is really what stands out for me,” noted Lamorte.
She recounted how she went to his office to inquire about increasing accessibility in the local public transportation network because before the 2nd Avenue Subway opened, there weren’t any accessible public transit entrances within the community, which prevented her from taking the subway for over a year after her accident.
Lamorte met with Kallos and his staff, and she proposed that one way to begin working on this initiative would be to earmark money, perhaps using the $1 million that Kallos received (and each council representative receives) yearly as part of the participatory budgeting process.
According to Lamorte, there just wasn’t the buy-in.
“I was told it’s so complex, it’s so difficult, it’s really not something we can do here locally. We need a more robust plan; it needs to be city wide. I am more than willing to have those city-wide conversations—there are over 1 million New Yorkers here in the city right now that are disabled, it’s 11 percent of our population. And so, accessibility and disability justice are something that I would absolutely do different from Councilmember Kallos,” Lamorte said.
In response, Councilmember Ben Kallos challenged Ms. Lamorte's characterization and said he's prioritized making the East Side and all of New York City more accessible since his first year in office.
“[I] introduced legislation to require the city to fix broken sidewalk ramps, which for years have made it difficult for many New Yorkers with disabilities to get around the city. Following advocacy around our legislation and a lawsuit by the Center For Independence of the Disabled, broken sidewalk ramps are now the city's responsibility to fix, and the work is getting done at last.
It is unacceptable that there is still no accessible elevator at the heavily trafficked 86th Street and Lexington subway station. Although the MTA is run by the state, we have prioritized this cause. When a developer sought to build a new building above the downtown entrance, we made sure an elevator was added as part of their new entrance. When we were told that because of the design of the station, we could only access the local 6 train, I met directly with NYC Transit Chair Andy Byford to discuss how we could redesign the entrance or secure the several million dollars needed for a second elevator. We also hosted a petition on our website to gather community support for an accessible entrance. The station has been prioritized for an accessibility investment in the MTA Capital Plan, but we need to continue to push to make this a reality. One of the many benefits of the 2nd Avenue subway and the new stations that were built is that they are all accessible, featuring escalators and elevators. Something I made sure developers knew was a priority.
As we recover from the pandemic, we can't settle for an 'old normal' that never worked for many New Yorkers, and that means fixing long-standing accessibility issues as we help businesses reopen. That's why I introduced legislation to provide restaurants with up to $250,000 in funds to bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act," said Kallos.
Lamorte is an organizer with Upper East Side for Black Lives Matter, which is in favor of the call to defund the police, which Lamorte also favors. She noted that if she was on the council last summer when it took the vote during budget proceedings to shift money away from the NYPD, she would have voted no because the defunding didn’t go far enough.
She believes that the city needs to re-imagine public safety completely, which, for starters, means removing the NYPD from homeless outreach and mental health or wellness checks, as well as writing traffic tickets.
“I do support defunding, and I think it’s a conversation that’s important to have for the larger societal impact. It’s a difficult one, but it’s one that we absolutely need to have,” said Lamorte.
Towards the conclusion of the interview, Lamorte elaborated on how her disability immediately affected her life. She says she went from being able-bodied, without thinking about society’s barriers, to not being able to leave her apartment for months because she lived in a walkup and could not physically get up and down the stairs.
She recounted a difficult story, but one she says illustrates why she is so passionate about accessibility and disability justice. Soon after her accident, she travelled to City Hall to meet with legislators. She walked with her cane across the plaza and prepared herself to walk up the steps to enter the building. But she struggled, and she says City Hall security told her that if she couldn’t ascend the stairs, she would have to turn back.
“That was the moment I said it stops now, it ends with me, I’m going to fight for all of us.”
This story has been updated with comment from District 5 Councilman Ben Kallos.