The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

We Need to Organize, People! By Guest Blogger, Keisha Jacobs

This post is written by Keisha Jacobs, an organizer and member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union.  Keisha acted as MC for Saturday’s march and picnic where the CHTU targeted several landlords to sign onto the CHTU demands.  For more information about CHTU, visit http://www.crownheightstenantunion.org 

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Hello and welcome. Welcome everyone. I’m so glad to see all of you here this afternoon. We are here today to show our solidarity as long standing tenants and new residents against the negative changes in our Crown Heights community. Predatory practices by banks, landlords and building management are forcing rent stabilized tenants out and overcharging new residents.

The stack of small injustices, the clerical mistakes on your rent receipt the administrative errors like cashing your rent check late. The miscommunication, repeated unreturned messages. Come on folks! You know that it looks like. They say they’re coming to FINALLY fix your sink. You take a valuable the day off only to have them never show up. Or the ceiling in your bathroom that’s coming down around your ears, but you see workmen fixing your new neighbors apartment because they pay twice as much as you do.

These things are not just oversights. It’s not incompetence.  It’s not mismanagement. This is not just a simple screw up.  It’s systemic. It’s tactical. You are being targeted.

There are speculators betting on our neighborhood, people. The predatory equity practices by the banks have placed a gamble on our homes. Our landlords have huge mortgages on the buildings we live in. Values set by appraisers using some arbitrary figures of which your rent controlled or rent stabilized apartment is not a factor. In order to cover their bets, your apartment needs to bring in a higher price. So to make up the difference they skimp on services. No heat or hot water for days during the coldest times of year. Major infrastructure items like plumbing, furnaces or water heaters don’t get repaired or replaced. The lobby and halls haven’t been painted in a decade. And repairs in your apartment go undone. All the while we are being dragged back and forth to housing court in an effort to evict us, or being harassed, or offered paltry buyouts to move us from our homes.

We need to organize, people. This is organizing. Get your neighbors together and if you haven’t already get your rent history and start your tenant association and join us.

On June 18 we will be at the Brooklyn rent guidelines board meeting at borough hall and we DEMAND A RENT FREEZE! We are here to fight. Enough is enough. Hands off our homes!

Join tenants from all over Brooklyn at Borough Hall on June 18th from 5:00 to 8:00 to demand a rent freeze!  If you’d like to travel with the Crown Heights Tenant Union, we’ll be meeting at 6:00 at Franklin and Eastern Parkway.  

Friday UHAB News Round-Up!

It’s Friday and though it’s been a while, we’re back with a Friday News Round-Up!  This week, we thought we’d take advantage of all the work UHAB has been doing with press and highlight our campaigns in the news over the past couple of weeks. Check out the following articles pointing to UHAB’s work with organized tenants fighting back!

 Stabilis Capital:

Ridgewood tenants seek city assistance to wrest control of six buildings from Stabilis Capital,” NY Daily News, 5/12/14

Melrose Tenants Still in Limbo,” Mott Haven Herald, 5/12/14

Bronx Tenants Protest Building Conditions NY1, 5/6/14

After Foreclosure Crisis, Renters Suffer Under Wall Street Landlords, ” Al Jazeera America, 4/20/14

 

Crown Heights Tenant Union: 

Tenants Fight to Save Their Homes in Up and Coming Crown Heights,” Epoch Times, 5/15/14

Desperate Forces Align Over Affordable Rents,” The New York Times, 4/28/14

 

Three Borough Pool: 

Garodnick Calls for Citywide Action to Stop Predatory Equity,” Capital New York, 4/22/14

 

Putnam Coalition:

Renters ‘Sold Out’ by NYC’s Pensions Press de Blasio on Housing,” Bloomberg News, 5/14/14

 

We’re proud of our work and excited to continue mobilizing and growing tenant power throughout NYC!

 

Accepting Money to Leave

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Predatory equity takes place when landlords buy buildings based on the “projected” rents of a building rather than the current ones, subsequently paying huge amounts of money for rent stabilized affordable housing.  The only way the finances will work is by forcing out long term residents and bringing in higher paying ones.  This process, also known as gentrification, is taking place in rent stabilized, affordable housing all over New York City.

Predatory landlords do everything in their power to get long terms residents to leave their apartments such as ignoring tenant rights, decreasing basic services, or offering buy-outs.  While asking tenants to accept money to leave isn’t illegal, it almost always is against the tenants’ interests.   (Check out our one-pager on how to decide whether or not to accept a buy-out)  One super at 725 4th Ave in South Slope, Brooklyn spoke with the Gothamist about his experience asking tenants to accept buy-outs to move:

“He said he was hired with a mandate to clean up the building,” so he did.  It was his job.

After the fourth of fifth [buy-out], Duarte said, “I felt like I was doing wrong,” but people kept coming, and if he wanted to keep his job and support his family, he had to continue paying out. Twenty families left in the first round…Some tell Duarte that taking a buyout was the biggest mistake of their lives. He is sympathetic, but said, “I never pushed anybody out. They asked me, and I made an offer. I hoped they didn’t take it.

Long term residents living in Crown Heights, Bushwick, and other quickly gentrifying neighborhoods have their own stories of being offered buy-outs.  Most often than not, tenants who accept money to leave will have a hard time finding a new apartment in the neighborhood in a similar price range.  Families and communities are uprooted.  Furthermore, each time a family leaves, the price of an apartment unit increases, and the precious stock of affordable housing diminishes.

This crisis is not just a trendy Brooklyn one.  At 836 Faile St. in Hunts Point, tenants have been offered $3,000 to move out of their rent stabilized homes! (Likely this is to produce a cluster-site homeless shelter and allow private developers to profit off of evicting long term residents and exploiting the homeless crisis).

The more tenants understand their rights and the pros and cons of accepting buy-outs, the more they are determined to fight for their homes.  To learn about how to fight back against predatory landlords, come out to the Crown Heights Tenant Union meetings every 3rd Thursday of the month at 7:00 pm at the Center for Nursing the Rehabilitation.

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.

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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

 

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