Altman was raised in a working-class Greek Jewish community in the East Bronx. Her grandparents, Anna and Zadick Coffino, were Romaniote Jews, emigrated from what was then the Ottoman Empire to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, before settling in Hunts Point Her father, Jack Altman, an Ashkanazi Jew who married Sarah their daughter, was a plumber. She has one older brother Stanley Altman, who is now a professor at Baruch College.
Altman attended the all-girls' Hunter College High School and credits it with changing the course of her life. She received her B.A. in Political Science from The City College of New York in 1967, and a Master of Professional Studies in Health Services Administration from the New School for Social Research in 1982. In 2014 Altman was awarded the City Colleges' Alumni Association's Townsend Harris medal for outstanding post-graduate achievement.
While working at New York City’s Planning Department, Altman participated in developing the Master Plan for the city. In New York’s Health Services Administration, she played a leading role in upgrading prison health services. As the Director of Community Development for Co-op City (hired by the residents in the aftermath of the largest rent strike in American history), she organized and directed human service providers and mounted a wide array of cultural programs. As Deputy Director of Montefiore Medical Center’s Building Program, Altman worked with hospital administrators, architects, the City Planning Commission, and community representatives to help plan the reconstruction and expansion of its physical plant. For ten years (1973–83), Altman served on Manhattan’s Community Board 7, and was the co-chair of its Social and Health Care Services sub-committee, for a number of those years.
In 1987, Altman began working at the UJA-Federation and spearheaded the first grant proposal to fund “A Jewish Response to the AIDS Epidemic,” which helped establish training and educational programs and create service programs linking hospitals and community-based agencies. UJA-Federation became one of the five founding members of the New York AIDS Coalition, which emerged as the largest AIDS advocacy organization in New York State.
Altman also played an instrumental role in its embrace of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs), as environments in which to organize communities with substantial senior populations. As Altman herself puts it, an increasing number of seniors must be enabled “to age in place.” Altman was instrumental in promulgating the program concepts pioneered at Penn South, a union-sponsored, moderate-income housing co-op in Manhattan's Chelsea community, There, a program with the express goal of helping senior residents to remain living in their own home, even as they grew older and frailer, was organized. This supportive service program (SSP), mobilized the community and built partnerships between senior residents, housing management, and health and social service agencies to achieve that end.
With the support of the Robert Wood Foundation, the program was successfully replicated and in 1994 the New York State Legislature passed the first NORC-SSP legislation in the country, providing matching grants to an original 10 programs. This was followed in 1999 by the establishment of the New York City NORC funded by its City Council. Today in New York State there are over 50 publicly funded NORC-SSP communities with over 60,000 senior residents living in supportive communities.
In 1993, Altman convened a group of authorities in related fields to address the question of domestic violence in the Jewish community. This resulted in her founding the professionally led UJA-Federation Task Force on Family Violence, which in 2001 received the New York State Governor’s COURAGE award. Altman herself was honored for this work in 2008 when she received the Woman of Valor award from the New York Board of Rabbis.
Altman also founded the UJA-Federation Task Force on People with Disabilities which became a vehicle for planning, learning and advocacy that has brought, in partnership with the J. E. & Z.B. Butler Foundation and its agency network the transformation of services for people with disabilities and their families in many communities throughout the New York metro area.
During her work with the UJA Task Force on People with Disabilities, Altman recognized that policy needed to go hand in hand with changes in public perception and culture: “We are in the midst of a civil rights movement. People with disabilities are increasingly making their voice and presence known and wanting us, the rest of the society, to step up to the plate.” She believed that films could be an effective medium to help create wider public awareness about people with disabilities. In partnership with the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, she founded ReelAbilities: New York Disabilities Film Festival. As a UJA-Federation press release put it, it was and remains “the brainchild of Anita Altman.”
ReelAbilities is now the largest film festival in the country dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of people with different disabilities, with 13 cities currently sponsoring festivals in their own communities. Altman herself has said, “It is a festival with a social mission, namely to change public perception and understanding of who are people with disabilities.”