Volume 80, Number 51 | May 19 - 25, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Janet Freeman, 60, tenant activist

By Lincoln Anderson

A dedicated community activist who focused especially on housing issues, Janet Freeman died on April 29. She was just shy of 61. A heavy smoker, her cause of death was reportedly lung cancer.

A resident of Elizabeth St. in what today is known as Nolita, Freeman was a longtime member of the Coalition for a District Alternative, or CoDA, political organization.

“Janet was an unrecognized Lower East Side heroine,” said Valerio Orselli, director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association. “She and I first got together when we and others helped organize the Justice for Lincoln Swados Coalition. Lincoln Swados was the brother of playwright Elizabeth Swados. He suffered from schizophrenia, which caused him to jump in front of a subway train, losing an arm and a leg on opposite sides. He lived his last few years in a storefront at 99 E. Fourth St. until the building changed owners and was converted into a co-op. When Lincoln failed to move out by an agreed-upon date, the owner basically built a shed around his home — effectively walling him in. Lincoln was subsequently found dead.”

According to Orselli, the Lincoln Swados Coalition was able to convince the New York State Attorney General’s Office to sue the owner for harassment leading to Lincoln’s death.

“The case was lost, due to the judge’s ruling that one case of harassment doesn’t constitute a pattern; hence, it was deemed insufficient cause,” Orselli said.

Subsequently, Freeman helped to organize the Lower East Side Co-op Watch to try to protect tenants from phony co-op conversions — used to get buildings out of rent regulation — and helped mobilize tenants to preserve rent-stabilization laws during the Pataki administration and to oppose the privatization of public housing during the Giuliani era.

After that, Freeman became active full time with the Citywide Task Force on Housing (now Housing Court Answers), which provides free legal services and advice to tenants facing eviction.

“For all this work, Janet never collected a salary,” Orselli said. “She did it because she believed in tenant rights.”

Freeman was also involved in the community effort in 2007 that beat back Ivan Kane’s plan to open Forty Deuce, a burlesque-style strip club, on Kenmare St. She kept a close watch on East Village development projects, such as 515 E. Fifth St., where, in 2006, Ben Shaoul was renovating the building with some tenants still in place, while adding a disputed extra story on the roof.

A memorial service, arranged by Janet’s sister Pixie, and her close friend Enid, will be held on Sun., May 22, at the Chinatown Head Start School — which Janet was closely involved with — at 180 Mott St., at 2 p.m.

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