The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Three Borough Pool Press Conference

A few weeks ago, tenants from all across New York City came together in front of City Hall to demand that the Three Borough Pool, a group of 44 buildings in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, be taken over by a new, responsible owner.

The current owners (David Kramer, Normandy Real Estate, Vantage Properties, and Westbrook Partners) failed at paying their mortgage, landing all of the buildings in foreclosure. They’ve also failed at maintaining the buildings, resulting in horrific living conditions in apartments. If the lender, LNR, sells the buildings to a responsible developer who commits to rehabilitating the buildings and including tenants in decisions about their homes, this foreclosure can be an opportunity to preserve the nearly 1,600 units of rent regulated housing that are at stake.

UHAB created this video from our footage of the press conference. Follow the link at the end of the video to watch the tenants’ full speeches!

We Need More Resident Control of Our Neighborhoods!

After years of organizing in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, a few things have become all too clear. Tenants are being forced out of their homes and communities in order to make room for higher paying tenants.  Landlords skimp on repairs, force tenants into buy-outs, ask tenants to switch neighborhoods to another one of their buildings, and renovate buildings while lowering the quality of life for longer term residents.

The end goal is, of course, landlord profit. In NYC, the rent on a stabilized apartment can be raised about 4 to 7%, depending on the length of the lease, and what the Rent Guideline Board determines for that year.  If a tenant moves out, however, rent can legally be raised 20% through vacancy decontrol, plus 1/40th of the amount spent of “rehabilitating” the unit. When the legal rent hits $2,500 and a tenant moves out, that unit is forever out of confines of rent regulation laws and landlords can charge whatever they want!

Essentially, there is lots of money to be made by convincing long term, low paying residents to move out of a neighborhood.

We see this happening all over New York City.  In Queens, tenants in 6 buildings in foreclosure with Stabilis Capital are being falsely charged with nonpayments. In Upper Manhattan, tenants are charged fees in addition to their rents (washing machine fees, air conditioning fees, etc.) Eventually, those fees add up and a once-affordable apartment suddenly becomes unaffordable. Even in the Bronx, where we imagine most low income housing is located, areas are becoming unaffordable for current residents.  A recent article in Crains NY highlights the problem of gentrification in the Bronx, particularly in Highbridge and along Grand Concourse. Tenant, Lucia Davis, told Crains that “You’d think you could afford to live in the Bronx…But the prices are going up, and a lot of people are moving out.”

And of course in Brooklyn, especially in the neighborhood of Crown Heights, we’ve seen landlords use every tactic under the sun to force out long term residents.  What’s the solution?  Organize! We need to band together to fight for the following changes:

  1. Rent Freeze: the RGB is gearing up to determine how much rent stabilized rents should be raised.  Mayor de Blasio ran on a platform calling for a rent freeze, and we agree!  Rents are too high and too unaffordable for NYC tenants.  Until wages are going up, rents should be frozen.
  2. Displacement Free Zone: About 10 years ago, Fifth Avenue Committee established a displacement free zone within a 100 square blocks of Park Slope. Ben Dulchin, then Director of Organizing, explained:
    “We developed a systematic campaign where we marked out a 100 square block center of the neighborhood and put up posters all around saying, ‘This is a displacement free zone. Different set of rules here. If you’re a landlord in this neighborhood and you’re kicking out tenants because you want to triple the rent, we’re going to target you,” says Dulchin. “We’re going to get so much publicity that we hope that we not only win in some cases, but that we proactively keep away those landlords who would evict people and then raise rents, before those landlords even come to the neighborhood.” We need to declare the entire City a displacement-free zone.
  3. Education of tenant rights: Tenants are given rights by law, but those rights are only recognized as much as tenants themselves enforce them.  If a landlord refuses a rent regulated tenant a lease, that tenant should know that it his/ her right to a renewal lease. Without that knowledge and confidence to speak up, there is greater risk of displacement.  Through tenant associations, tenant unions, block associations, and workshops, we can educate ourselves and our communities about our rights so we each feel empowered to collectively enforce them!
  4. Repercussions for landlords who are breaking the law: Time and time again we encounter landlords who are just not following the law.  They don’t do repairs. They harass long term residents.  They even abandon buildings for months at a time.  And what justice do we have?  Lawsuits take forever, and are not even successful all of the time.  We need a better system to hold landlords accountable and stop them from continuing to profit.  For example, a landlord licensing law would prevent known bad actors from continuing to purchase new property.  Why should a landlord who has 3 buildings in AEP be allowed to purchase new rent regulated property?  That ain’t right!
  5. Raise the Minimum Wage: If we expect tenants to pay rents that are continuously going up, minimum wage also needs to go up.  More and more, low income tenants are paying enormous percentages of their income on rent, and eventually their housing situations, even rent stabilized housing, will be unaffordable to the majority of New Yorkers.  We need to raise minimum wage in NYC to reflect actual cost of living.   In the short run, workers should be able to earn what they are owed and not forced into doing things like working off the clock (Read about wage theft here.)
  6. Keep organizing!  Form a tenant association, join a community group!  If you live in Crown Heights, come out to our next meeting of the Crown Heights Tenant Union on April 17th at 7 pm at the Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation.  For more concrete assistance with organizing, check out our resources tab, and feel free to write to us at thesurrealestate@gmail.com

Reflection on Crown Heights Tenant Union Rally by Donna Y. Mossman

The following was written by Tenant Leader and Crown Heights Tenant Union organizer, Donna Mossman.  Her piece is a reflection on the rally held on February 28th in front of 1059 Union St.

donna

 

We decided it was time to FIGHT! We decided we were not going to take it anymore.

We gathered in front of 1059 Union Street, a property owned by BCB Properties, Inc.

We had more than 25 buildings represented throughout the Crown Heights area.

It was freezing cold that Friday morning, but our hearts and our souls were on fire.

When I looked to my right and looked to my left, I saw people of different shades, people of different religions, and people of different economic means. I saw those who could afford the newly renovated apartments and those who could not.

There were approximately 75 of us but in my mind there were thousands. We were there to represent ourselves, we were there to represent each other but we were also there to represent those who did not join us but was joined with us in spirit.

We cheered and we chanted and we were heard.

We had Media Coverage because we are standing up to the injustice that is being inflicted upon the tenants in Crown Heights. We also stand up for all tenants, in all neighborhoods.

BCB Properties, Inc., tried to stop us. They asked HPD to ask us to call off the Rally, and HPD responded with HELL NO!

A tenant called me, shocked and dismayed that the night before our Rally, BCB put up the frame work for scaffolding. For no other reason than to TRY and stop us.

As the Rally heated up, the workers turned the corner with a flatbed truck full of planks of wood to finish the scaffolding to stop our Rally.

We then huddled together in unison.

One of our members spoke to the workers and they refused to cross our picket line. There is strength in having a union.

We then taped our posters to the poles of the scaffolding. Thank you BCB for providing us with a message board.

This is our Victory Celebration.

The owner of my building called me the Monday after the Rally.

The Superintendent of my building has spent 3 days so far in my apartment. The windows have been fixed; silicon caulking has been used to seal long abandoned cracks.

We decided it was time to FIGHT! We decided we were not going to take it anymore.

When I looked to my right and looked to my left, I saw people of different shades, people of different religions.

There may have been 75 of us but in my mind there were thousands.

JOIN US! AND THERE WILL BE THOUSANDS OF US.

 

The CHTU meets every 3rd Thursday of the month at the Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation at 727 Classon Ave.  

For more information on the Crown Heights Tenant Union, pleasevisit https://www.facebook.com/CrownHeightsTenantUnion

 

A Picture is Worth…$133 Million?

One of the most overlooked aspects of the foreclosure process is the utter neglect that already-distressed buildings experience. There are three layers of neglect at play: when landlords and banks saddle buildings with mortgages that can’t be supported by existing rent rolls, landlords don’t have money to pay for maintenance; during foreclosure, landlords have little incentive to maintain properties, and by the time a receiver has been appointed, buildings are so distressed that receivers – with no equity or long term interest in the property – have limited ability to make positive changes in upkeep; and finally, predatory equity actors target buildings for purchase that are usually already in pretty bad shape — and maybe have already gone through a couple rounds of predatory equity already.

In the Three Borough Pool, there is growing public pressure for LNR to cut ties with the four predatory equity investors who overleveraged the buildings and are now in default and foreclosure. Tenants and advocates are organizing and demanding that LNR sell the 42 buildings to a responsible actor with the experience necessary to rehabilitate these 1600 units while keeping them affordable for current residents. The four private equity companies are are looking for new investors to refinance their $133 million loan — and to do so, they need to demonstrate that they are responsible enough landlords to get that kind of money.

But this is how tenants are living. Repairs barely scratch the surface, and tenants are suffering every day. Do Vantage Properties, Normandy Real Estate, Westbrook Partners, and David Kramer deserve a second chance?

1229 Franklin, E4, hole in wall

1229 Franklin Avenue, Bronx

1229 Franklin, E4, broken window

1229 Franklin Avenue, Bronx

 ceiling, apt 2A

1270 Ocean Avenue, Brooklyn

IMG_6986

269 East 194th Street, Bronx

265 E. 194th 2D 2.13.14

265 East 194th Street, Bronx

269 E. 194th 4D 1.8.14

269 East 194th Street, Bronx

ceiling light

709-713 Fairmount Place, Bronx

floor

709-713 Fairmount Place, Bronx

We Demand a RENT FREEZE!

There is a routine that is all-too familiar to New Yorkers living in rent stabilized apartments. Every year or two,  depending on your lease, rent goes up. Every year, the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) sets a percentage that the landlord can raise rents by. (This year it’s 4% for a one year lease and 7.5% for a two year lease.) No one asks tenants if they got a raise that year, or if their grocery bill has mysteriously gotten lower. Crucially, no one asks what services are like in the apartment buildings. Rents can go up and up and up, based on a city wide price index, while building services go down.

This year, tenants are demanding an even more radical change – at a rally on Thursday, we are calling for a RENT FREEZE.

Over the past few years, rent has gone up way faster than income in New York City. Landlords are spending less and less on building maintenance, something that shows in building conditions. Tenants are not getting the services to justify the rental increases they are facing, and they don’t have the income to support it either. At a time of apocalyptic homelessness in New York City, we need to keep more people in their homes — we don’t need to make homes more expensive than they already are!

Tenants have historically demanded more input in the rent setting process: something that UHAB believes would lead to truer and deeper affordability. Last year, the RGB didn’t even hold public hearings in the outer boroughs, prompting tenant advocates to hold an alternative “People’s RGB,” demanding more tenant input in the rent-setting process.  Candidate Bill de Blasio met with the People’s RGB, and joined tenants in their call for a more fair process, and even said he would support a rent freeze. Now the candidate is mayor — a mayor whose administration understands that so so many rent stabilized tenants can barely afford rent as it is. The decision the rent guidelines board makes this year will either push low and moderate income tenants towards evictions, or help them stay in their homes. Join us in calling on the administration and its appointees to stand with tenants!

Thursday, at 9AM at 1 Centre Street — near City Hall — to rally outside the first RGB meeting of the new administration to demand a rent freeze! 

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