Meet Shaun Abreu, City Council’s Newest Member From Upper Manhattan
Here’s something that only a native New Yorker might notice: the grand pre-war apartment buildings that line Upper Manhattan don’t rub up against each other. They have light wells and old service entrances that were once a center of life for neighborhood children who had to stay within range of their parents’ calls. Those “alleys,” as Shaun Abreu fondly calls them, are where he used to play stickball with his friends as a kid. They’re a reminder of the kind of community that it’s possible to build in the city.
A tenant’s rights attorney, Abreu has spent his career helping his Uptown neighbors fight eviction and predatory landlords. The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic—his father was a janitor at Port Authority and his mom a clerk at Zabar’s—he spends a lot of time thinking about how people live, how hard they work, and how life in the city could be better. With his win in District 7, he’ll take a seat on City Council and expand his hands-on advocacy to tackling issues that include food and housing insecurity, educational opportunity, better infrastructure, and climbing crime rates.
“I am immensely grateful to everyone who voted, volunteered, and found a way to make their voice heard in this election," Abreu said on the morning after the election. "Together, we're going to make housing truly affordable. We're going to give kids a real chance to succeed. We're going to stand up for workers. We're going to make sure that next year is better than last year. District 7 did their part, and now it’s time for me to do mine.”
When looking back at his influences, Abreu credits Plato and Aristotle with introducing him to the possibilities of public service. “Reading them really made me think about my role in a civic society. How I can contribute to the immediate neighborhood around me. That’s what fueled me to get involved in my community board, making sure that I could help local students.”
He first came across the classical thinkers when, as a student at George Washington High School in Washington Heights, he enrolled in the inaugural class of Columbia’s Freedom and Citizenship program, a humanities-focused college prep initiative that equips young people with the tools to become informed, responsible citizens.
“I’m glad that program is still around today,” Abreu said. “I will do everything I can to make sure that opportunities like that are expanded and available for all of our students, particularly in our immediate community. One of my big priorities is to focus on after-school programs.”
In the Neighborhood
As a teenager, Abreu used to pass by Columbia every day on his way to his first job, shelving books and teaching older adults how to use the internet at the New York Public Library on 113th and Broadway. He didn’t think of the university as a place for a Dominican-American kid like him, but through Freedom and Citizenship, he went to live in the John Jay dorm. It was there that he realized, “that if we look out for opportunities and we’re hungry for these opportunities then the things that you imagine can become a reality.”
The guidance counselors at Columbia’s Double Discovery Center, which helps students find their way into and through college, told Abreu that he had the grades and encouraged him to apply to the university, so he did. He also wrote an email to the dean of Columbia College, Austin Quigley, to state his case and ask for a meeting.
“I didn’t address him as Dean Quigley. I addressed him with, ‘Hello, Austin,’” Abreu remembers. “I had a lot of learning to do. That meeting that I had with the dean didn’t guarantee an admission, but the fact that he was willing to meet with me really speaks to the openness of Columbia and how much they value hunger in our kids. And for me that was very inspiring.”
While a Columbia student, Abreu worked on Adriano Espaillat’s successful campaign for New York State Senator, served on his local community board, and was deputy campaign manager for Mark Levine, whose City Council seat he is assuming. “I’m very grateful to Congressman Espaillat and Councilmember Levine for their support. They’ve been instrumental, very helpful, and along with the community, they got me across the finish line.”
Abreu graduated from Columbia in 2014 with a political science degree. In 2018, he received a JD from Tulane University’s Law School. “I decided on New Orleans because it’s a place I had visited already and my uncle lives out there, my mom’s brother. I went there for one of the spring breaks and the food, the culture, the jazz; it’s really a place that’s fun. And to be able to have that balance between a very strong academic experience while being in a city that is so historic and diverse and different, for me it was an opportunity that I couldn’t squander.”
Abreu, who will be sworn-in this January, sees many opportunities for positive change here in New York. He’s working on plans for free Wi-Fi, universal after school, and building coalitions to bring an elevator to the subway station at 125th and Broadway and extend ferry service to the pier a few blocks away. “With the federal infrastructure bills that are about to pass, we need to make sure that of the $40 billion that would be assigned to New York City, that a lot of those resources would come to District 7. Those dollars are critical for places like Grant, Manhattanville, and Douglass houses. Folks are living in strenuous, uninhabitable conditions, and I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
Finding solutions is personal for Abreu. He will never forget his family’s eviction when he was in the fourth grade. It inspired his legal career. He’s spent much of the past 19 months in housing court representing people whose lives have been undermined by the pandemic. “I’ve been representing tenants facing eviction, helping them stay in their homes, negotiating favorable settlements,” he said. “Emergency rental relief is soon going to be capped. The funds are going to be exhausted. I had to step in and do that during the day.” After work, he collaborated with SOMOS Community Care, collecting and distributing food, masks, and PPE.
All of this work doesn’t leave much down time, but in the moments when Abreu focuses on himself, he enjoys watching LeBron James. “Now that the season is back I’m really excited for him. I also do fantasy football Sundays. I enjoy politics and I enjoy sports, those are my two things.”
His thoughts also turn to home and spending time with his parents, who he says taught him to be hopeful, “That’s something that my parents gave me and that keeps me calm, it keeps me sane. Whenever we’re facing struggles, I’m reminded that we will bounce back and that we’ll get through. It requires patience, knowing that the outcome of being okay is in sight. My mom and my father really inspire me every day to be the best version of myself.”