The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

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

 

Long Term Residents of San Francisco Pushed Out of City

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New York City is criticized for its rent stabilized laws, and how they negatively hurt city growth.  But as tenant organizers, we see rent stabilization as a powerful means to protect the diminishing affordable housing in our city, and to keep long-term and low income residents from being displaced. We are also familiar with the myriad of ways, both legal and illegal, that landlords subvert the rent regulation laws. From state sanctioned MCIs to excessive non-rent fees, there are numerous ways that landlords can raise rents above the prescribed amounts. 

Advocates often draw parallels between the San Francisco and New York City housing markets. They are both extremely expensive, and tenants in both cities are facing enormous gentrification pressures. Both dense cities have rent regulation laws.

In San Francisco, these laws are subverted by the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to essentially evict all their tenants by “going out of business.” In a city that has seen enormous influx of high-income residents, the Ellis Act is used to evict long-term, low income tenants and convert a building to condos or other more lucrative uses.  Tenants are evicted under this act at an alarming rate: according to a 2013 report from the city’s Budget and Legislative Analyst, there was a 170% increase in Ellis Act evictions over the past three years, and 38% increase of evictions in general.

Tenants who are evicted under the Ellis Act are entitled to $5,261 per tenant up to a $15,873 limit, and slightly inflated amounts for elderly or disabled tenants. Last week, San Francisco supervisor David Campos proposed a measure that would require landlords to pay the difference in rent for tenants displaced under the Ellis Act for a comparable apartment for two years. In the proposal, according to an article in the SF Gate, “An evicted tenant would receive either the $5,261 or the difference in rent, whichever is more.” San Francisco also recently passed legislation that would prioritized those evicted under the Ellis Act for affordable housing in the city.   While all these measures are in place, the fact remains that low-income and long term residents are being forced out of the city, and the Bay Area altogether.

Airbnb is also providing landlords in San Francisco incentives to displace long term residents, Chris Butler was evicted from his rent-controlled apartment under the premise that his landlord needed the apartment for a family member to move in.  According to another article in the SF Gate, “Instead, he said, the owner shuffled around existing tenants and listed two of the four units in the building on short-term rental site Airbnb for $125 and $145 a night – considerably more than the $1,840 a month Butler paid.”  Studies are beginning to show that landlords in San Francisco as well as other cities are using Airbnb to skirt rent laws and displace long term residents.  (PLUS, read more about the sharing economy and how it may serve to reduce wages and decrease affordability here.) 

Living up to its history of activism, tenants in San Francisco have not been standing idly by as capital-seeking landlords displace them from their homes. There’s been a huge amount of resistance, from blocking buses taking tech employees to work from their homes in Oakland and San Francisco, to bus ads encouraging tenants to fight back against evictions, and an upcoming day of tenant action on February 18th.

New York City tenants living under rent stabilization and rent control have a great deal of protections, and are not subject to laws like the Ellis Act.  Tenants always have the right to a renewal lease, and can stay in their apartments, no matter who owns the building.  For this reason, tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers have retained the right to stay in their homes, even in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn where the housing worth has skyrocketed.  

Unfortunately, landlords in New York City do find ways to skirt rent stabilization though harassment such as buy-outs, decreased services for rent-stabilized tenants, and through overcharging newer residents.  Tenants in Crown Heights have identified these issues and are fighting back against these tactics.  Join the Crown Heights Tenant Union at our next meeting!  

When: Thursday, February 20th at 7:00 pm

Where: Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in the Atrium; 520 Prospect Pl (at Classon) in Brooklyn

We’ll be planning for our own action on the morning of February 28th in Crown Heights.  Save the date and join us!

State of Emergency at Stabilis-Owned 755 Jackson Ave!

Walking into 755 Jackson Ave. feels like walking into a nightmare.  The stairs which had caved in 6 months earlier remain treacherous, the sign warning tenants about asbestos on the roof remains, and tenants’ health, mental and physical,  is worsening as a result of the state of the building. Tenants, who are not being issued new leases, report a hostile and negligent management.  Tenants are fined thousands of dollars in Con-Edison bills, falsely.  It’s a mess.

The good news is tenants are organizing and they’re not giving up!  Affordable housing is a vital to New York City communities and tenants are fighting to make their homes a better place to live.  Alongside Banana Kelly and UHAB, they are petitioning the City to appoint  a 7A Administrator.  This would take the building out of Stabilis’s hands and into the hands of someone responsible.  See below for the tenants’ letter to HPD.

All too often tenants are denied their rights and unjustly evicted from their homes. Join us as we give Stabilis a taste of their own medicine and evict them!

To Whom It May Concern:

We, the tenant association members of 755 Jackson Avenue, are writing to urge an expedited approval of the 7A administrator appointment process for our building. In late November of 2013, we requested that Harry DeRienzo, the executive director of Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, a local community development nonprofit organization, be appointed as the 7A administrator. We are grateful for your support and ask that you continue to stand with us in our struggle for safe housing.

Ever since we publicly began putting pressure on Stabilis, through a press conference on December 3rd and a series of accompanying news articles, they have made superficial fixes to our building. However, the deep structural issues that pushed us to request the 7A still remain. Our heating system does not work at the coldest hours of night. The stairs are still dangerous to walk on. In the places where Stabilis’ contractors painted, they covered over possible led paint without removing it. Many individual apartments have experienced periodic loss of water, and many have broken kitchen appliances that have not been fixed. And we know that there is asbestos on the roof that has not been removed.

Meanwhile, Stabilis has been attempting to collect rent from each apartment. However, none of the apartments have a legitimate lease, and multiple requests to receive these since the beginning of their ownership have gone unanswered. We believe that they are attempting to charge much higher than the legal rent on our rent-stabilized apartments.  All these problems take place after Stabilis ignored the building from their initial purchase in June, 2013 until the press conference in December.

Appointing a 7A administrator with all due haste would allow us, the tenants, to begin paying a fair rent and receiving the repairs that we so desperately need. We are deeply appreciative of the steps that have already been taken in the process, and we urge you to allow no further delay and begin the legal proceedings to appoint the administrator immediately.

Sincerely,

The Tenant Association of 755 Jackson Avenue

Victories on Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Leave!

The fight for housing justice is not in a vacuum: There are many economic, social, and political forces at play when thinking about how to preserve our city’s affordable housing.  When a tenant is working a minimum wage job without sufficient benefits, how can that person sustain their family while paying over half their income towards rent?  In NYC, this is all exacerbated.  We live in an expensive city, and the housing market deals with huge influxes of wealthy gentrifiers who raise the value of housing constantly. It’s a mess!

Our very own Cea Weaver, the assistant-director of UHAB’s Organizing and Policy Department, was quoted yesterday in the Nation’s series on the first 100 days of Mayor de Blasio, touching on these very issues.  How can wages remain  low while the Rent Guidelines Board continues to raise rents on affordable housing year after year?

great if the RGB prioritized things beyond operating costs in determining increases. In the last few years rent has continued to climb while wages have stagnated, and the RGB should take that into account.

But as  the same article notes: rent doesn’t cause income inequality, income does. And higher income would make it infinitely easier for working class New Yorkers to afford sky-high rents. While national momentum to raise the minimum wage is high these days, it’s as hard as ever to pass anything legislatively in Washington.  For this reason, President Obama announced today that he will issue an executive order to raise federal worker’s salaries to adhere to a $10.10 minimum wage!

This will tangibly impact thousands of low-income workers, particularly those who work minimum wage jobs on army bases.  Over 600 economists recently signed on to a letter suggesting that a $10.10 minimum wage nationally will help the economy, as well as bring 5 million people out of poverty.  To support raising the minimum wage on a national scale to $10.10, sign this petition.

In other news, Newark will pass a law ensuring 5 sick days per year for all private- sector employees, including in food care, child care, and direct care services, industries that have historically been left out of some labor laws.  The paid sick leave trend is expanding: Newark is the eighth city to pass a this type of law, and many more bills are working their way through local legislative systems.  No one should have to choose between their health and their ability to pay their rent or support their family.  In one of their first moves at the helm of the City, Mayor Bill Del Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark Vivierto announced their intention to expand New York’s paid sick leave law by requiring businesses with 5+ employees to provide sick days. While business owners fret, experience from other cities shows that paid sick leave bills work extremely well.

Paid sick leave and an increased minimum wage directly impact tenants we work with, and their ability to pay their rent, and remain healthy and employed. So let’s keep the momentum going on passing these progressive bills!

Finally, we wanted to give a quick shout-out to folk-legend and activist, Pete Seeger, who passed away on Monday.  His radical politics got him in trouble time and time again but never strayed from his values.

“My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

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