The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Reflections on a Season Gone By

Spring is now nestling its way into New York with the first green buds poking their heads out of the dirt and cracks in the concrete. At this crossroads in the calendar year, I find myself remembering the highs and lows of a wintry holiday season gone by: a time when lights adorned the streets, Christmas trees sat proudly in living rooms and office lobbies, and families bundled up in their homes to share festive meals and expressions of gratitude. This year, as some might recall, the white Christmas came a day late; but what it lacked in promptness it definitely made up in volume. As snow piled higher and higher, burying more remnants of streets and sidewalks, I found myself slipping into a delirious state somewhere between excitement and disbelief.

A native Californian, shoveling my way through my first blizzard in New York, I winced at my numbing toes and fingers. But as I carved a pathway out of my house and around the block, all the while gawking at the dramatic shift in the landscape of my neighborhood, I thought of the tenants I work with in the Bronx. What unnecessary trauma had they been subject to on that snowy day? I pictured the cracked windows and the leaky roofs in many of the buildings and hoped the superintendent had the heart, and the funds, to keep the heat supply steady and the snow from seeping into the building.

I doubted the decency and efficiency of the management companies and receivers. I imagined, correctly, that tenants took matters into their own hands to use meager resources to weather-proof their homes and keep their streets accessible. That would be the best case scenario, a reality only for the most organized and driven tenants. It wasn’t the reality for the woman who lives in a largely vacant building, and called on my first day back in the office after a brief holiday hiatus.

 

Residents in this Bronx building have been waiting on necessary repairs for years. The tough winter han't make the waiting any easier.

I remember how the desperation in her voice pained me as she wondered aloud who, if not the unresponsive management company, could get rid of the bugs crawling out from her broken tile floor, the mold growing in her bathroom, and the leaky valves that leave puddles in exchange for heat. I did what I could to reassure her by promising to return for a meeting in the coming weeks. I explained our desire to garner more tenant participation in exerting pressure on the landlord through collective action, possibly in the form of a lawsuit. She seemed eager but defeated; we both knew that the repairs she deserves won’t come overnight. When I did eventually make it back to that building, meeting attendance proved too meager to work with, so we put the building campaign on hold in order to maximize our organizing capacity in other buildings.

Since then, the snow storms have come and gone, but the slumlords continue in their revelry and this tenant continues calling phone numbers that lead to unchecked answering machines. And I still spend my time brainstorming more creative and effective campaign strategies to ensure that New York City tenants come into this new season with renewed hope and assurance. That their days spent without the basic comforts of home won’t last forever.

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