The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

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.”

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!

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