The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Crown Heights Tenant Union To Meet This Thursday

Photo: San Fran.'s Tenant Union

Photo: San Francisco Tenant Union

Crown Heights is gentrifying.  Everyone knows it, but how does it actually play out on the ground? When a neighborhood gentrifies, where are the people who used to live there?  (Often, those experiences are lost and made invisible.  San Francisco’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is working to bring this issue into the public eye through sidewalk stencils.)

Along with gentrification comes harassment and illegal activity.  When landlords project that property values will rise, they purchase a building for too much money, assuming they’ll make it back through the high rents that they’ll be able to charge.  Unfortunately, what they don’t take into account is that many New York City buildings are rent stabilized, and that rents can’t just be raised willy-nilly.  So they use other tactics: Harassment,  Major Capital Improvements,  Lack of repairs, Buy-outs.  Anything to force long term tenants out to bring in new, higher paying ones.

In order to pay back a too-big mortgage, landlords don’t stop with the illegal activity after getting a long term tenant to move out.  Instead, they illegally overcharge new tenants, often young people who are also unaware of New York City rent laws.  Some landlords (like ZT Realty) overcharge unsuspecting newbies thousands of dollars.  And the worst part is, they get away with it!  (And they continue to buy more buildings!)  This is the cycle of predatory equity when it works for landlords.  Because the debt levels on these buildings are so high, if landlords were to actually abide by rent laws and respect tenant rights, they wouldn’t be able to pay back their mortgages and the buildings (like so many that we see) would fall into foreclosure.

A group of tenants in Crown Heights have begun meeting as a Tenant Union, hoping to organize and make demands to landlords, lenders, and the City.  Many of the tenants have lived in the neighborhood for decades, and have been experiencing landlord harassment and decreased services, and want to speak up for their rights.  Others have lived in the neighborhood a year or two, and don’t like what they’ve been seeing or are personally being illegally overcharged.

UHAB has been organizing with small, distressed buildings in this neighborhood for years, and have seen this same pattern play out over and over.  We decided to team up with the Crown Heights Assembly to jump-start the Tenant Union and launch a campaign to protect tenant rights and preserve affordable housing.  Join us for the third meeting of the Crown Heights Tenant Union.  We’ll be meeting Thursday evening, 7:00 at 805 St. Marks (between Brooklyn and New York Ave).  

Housing Will Never Be Affordable Until There’s a Living Wage

strike

Today, thousands of fast food workers are striking in over 100 cities to demand $15/hour wage and the right to organize! We were going to write a long, passionate article about the connections between today’s fast food strikes and the housing justice movement.  We were going to talk about how the same people who are struggling for better conditions and affordable homes are the same people who are forced to work in sub-standard conditions and get paid below living wages.  We believe all this strongly, but Eviction Defense already published it in an article titled “Fight Forward: Why Fast Food Strikes are Important for Housing Justice.” 

Here’s what we think is one of the most important point:

The struggle to make housing affordable and available is the struggle to eliminate class barriers to it. On the one side we struggle to take housing out of the marketplace and a good controlled democratically by the people, but on the other end we still live in an economy ruled by capital and if wages are too low to afford anything we cannot meet in the middle just by focusing on the housing sector independently. Instead, this is a multi-front fight that needs to be engaged in a number of sectors simultaneously, and the ability for low-wage workers like fast food employees to see a living wage opens up their access to housing almost immediately. This empowers us in the housing justice movement since it means that workers who are now seeing moderate housing financially accessible can begin finding stable communities, and we can then fight to keep rents and mortgages within financial reach and to protect people who lose their jobs or are still finding it difficult to make ends meet.

And also

What these strikes really remind us is that the housing justice movement is not centered on the issue of housing on its own, though things like rampant fraud and discrimination are rampant on their own. Instead, this is a fundamental issue of class struggle that roots itself in the unequal distribution of resources and economic power. Fast food stands as a beacon of an exploited workforce, where people are underpaid and does not allow people to engage equally in the things we all need. If we are really to target the unequal distribution of housing in this country, then it is always going to come down to the fundamental inequalities inherent in capitalism. To really confront this we need movements that take direct action in multiple sectors, where workplace struggles are one of the most important ways to target the sources of this oppression right at the point of production. Labor struggles are an indispensable part of the economic project we need to target if we are to ever get close to our dreams of equal access to housing and community control over the sector as a whole.

Preach it!  To support the fast food workers, and the struggle for better conditions and access to resources for low-income people everywhere, join us today at 4:00 in Foley Square!  See you in the streets!

Documentary Release: “Faile St: The Human Cost of Foreclosure”

We are excited to announce the release of a powerful documentary by Elaisha Stokes and John Light highlighting UHAB’s Organizing and Policy Department’s work in the Bronx. The documentary highlights two buildings, 836 Faile Street and 553 E. 169th Street, both in the Bronx. UHAB has been organizing and working with tenant associations for a preservation outcome in these properties since 2011. At the making of the documentary, both buildings were in foreclosure, trapped in the cycle of predatory equity, and tenants were living in deplorable conditions.

Almost 2 years later, tenants at 553 E. 169th St. have a new landlord. 836 Faile St., however, remains in foreclosure with private equity company, Stabilis Capital Management as mortgage holder.  Tenants at Faile St. continue to organize, and are demanding that Stabilis transfer their building to Community Development Inc., a city-approved preservation developer.  They are are being supported by Bronx Legal Services, who will soon be filing a motion to enter tenants into the foreclosure case, and their Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo. Recently, UHAB has begun to build tenant associations in 7 other Stabilis-related buildings. 836 Faile Street tenants are working with tenants across New York City to demand that Stabilis Capital get out of the rent regulated multifamily housing business. 

Click here to watch the Earth Focus documentary about how tenants can come together to fight for quality affordable housing, and stay tuned to this exciting fight.

Talking Community Land Trusts with Talking Transitions

talking transitions

Monday, while many of us enjoyed the day off for Veterans Day, dozens of people got together to dialogue, brainstorm, and plan for the New York they’d like to see created.  And this wasn’t a one-time-thing. Through a forum call Talking Transitions, New Yorkers are gathering together to address issues from drug policies to community art to property taxes. According to their website:

Talking Transition is an open conversation about the future of New York City. Join New Yorkers online, in the streets, and in a new meeting place on Canal Street to help shape the transition to a new mayor. The election may be over, but you can continue to make your voice, your question, your idea, and your neighborhood heard.

A few of us from UHAB attended yesterday’s panel and community conversation on affordable housing, organized by New York Communities for Change.  Participants on the panel were people directly affected by various housing issues in the city: Someone currently living in the shelter system (from Picture the Homeless), a HASA tenant living in supportive housing (VOCAL-NY), and a woman in poor conditions facing harassment from her landlord (Make the Road Bushwick).  After listening to powerful stories which tackle the crux of the housing issues in NYC, we, the audience, got a chance to collaboratively brainstorm ideas to change the system.  The room was divided into subsections, each facilitated by a different organization specializing in the topic. The groups included: ending the homelessness crisis, preservation, and new development.

The UHABers at the event attended the inspiring group discussing Community Land Trusts, an exciting proposal to create permanently affordable housing and community controlled land.  Basically, City Council would pass legislation allowing for the creating of a CLT, a nonprofit organization run by communities.  The CLT would acquire land and the community would have control over how that land is developed and maintained.  Our group, facilitated by Picture the Homeless, gave a popular-education style rundown of what community land trusts are and how folks could become involved with making it a reality.  UHAB has been involved with the discussion of land trusts because we believe that neighborhoods and buildings should be controlled by those who live there. One way that the land trust could acquire land would be through coops opting to donate the land under them to the trust (not the building itself).  UHAB, of course, has access to hundreds of HDFC’s who care about the preservation of affordable housing and community control.

Not only did we walk away inspired by the possibilities of a Community Land Trust, but we also were amazed at Talking Transitions and the power of intentionally coming together to envision a better New York. Check out more on the Community Land Trust Initiative here  or here and Talking Transitions here.

Mapping a Tale of Two Cities

Everyone is talking about Bill de Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities.”  One is the rich New York, the other is the poor, working class New York.  That division can be seen on gender lines, racial lines, and political lines. But there is one uniting factor in all of BDB’s divided New York: everyone voted for him. Winning by a landslide, Mr. De Blasio will become New York City’s mayor in January and, with that, the platform of income inequality (Occupy Wall St, sound familiar?)

 Atlantic Cities published a map illustrating the two cities by percentage change in property values between 2008 and 2012.  The map essentially shows which neighborhoods were hardest hit by the housing crisis:

With a few exceptions, it’s Manhattan and adjacent sections of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx that have seen assessments go up in the data from the New York Department of Finance that Walker mapped, which encompasses 958,000 properties. In many of the working-class neighborhoods of the outer boroughs, the value of real estate has actually fallen.

 This map speaks to two main issues in housing: first, that low-income tenants residing in wealthier or gentrifying areas are being forced out of their homes due to speculation and predatory equity.  It also speaks to the ways that the foreclosure crisis has hit homeowners, specifically black homeowners, in a particularly hard way. It’s clear who suffers and who profits in these scenarios. Working class and middle class New Yorkers loose homes, equity, and stability, while wealthy New Yorkers (bankers, landlords, and developers living in high income neighborhoods) profit.

 In our work, we see mostly the tenant side of the story. We see low income tenants living in buildings and neighborhoods swept up in predatory equity.  Tenants are harassed through fees added on to their rents, through lack of repairs, though illegal rent increases. We see this is the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Ridgewood, but also throughout the Northwest and Central Bronx.

 While speculators may be throwing huge amounts of money into gentrifying neighbors, out of town private equity companies have not done their research on the “Tale of Two Cities.”  It seems like speculators assume that they can skirt rent laws, force tenants out, and bring in higher paying tenants.  Too bad for them, many tenants, especially the ones we work with, are organized and know their rights.  Bill de Blasio has promised to fight for a a rent freeze, something we’d certainly support and that would make the Predatory Equity model even more unsustainable. While Michael Bloomberg’s administration – by the own admission – doesn’t know what to do about gentrification a rent freeze would go a long way towards keeping neighborhoods affordable and discouraging speculation.

Speaking of speculation, journalists near and far are speculating whether or not a de Blasio mayoralty will live up to it’s progressive campaign platform. We hope so. Here’s another thing we know: if he starts to waver on his housing goals, there are organized tenants all over New York City ready to hold him to his promises. We’re with them.

 

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