The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

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Video: Crown Heights Tenant Union rally

Here is an amazing video of the Crown Heights Tenant Union’s first rally back in February, created by CHTU member Alex Roesch and Hunter Steinman. As Donna Mossman recounted in her Surreal Estate reflection piece after the rally, “It was freezing cold that Friday morning, but our hearts and our souls were on fire”.

We’re looking forward to even better energy (and warmer weather) at our next rally on June 7th. Stay tuned!

Three Borough Pool: Victory for Tenants, But the Fight Continues

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for tenants of the Three Borough Pool — a group of 42 rent-regulated and Project Based Section 8 buildings containing nearly 1600 units in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. The Three Borough Pool is emblematic of the crisis of predatory equity as it was purchased in the height of the housing boom and saddled with an unsupportable mortgage. Like many affordable portfolios affected by predatory equity, this risky financing lead to deteriorating conditions, harassment and foreclosure. Just last week, Three Borough Pool tenant leader Benjamin Warren was featured on Democracy Now to discuss this very issue! (See above.) Ben was joined in his interview by Laura Gottesdiener, who spoke about the impact that predatory equity has on New York City housing:

What’s important to see, both in this case right now that Benjamin is living through and that 1,600 other families are living through and in a slew of other past very high-profile deals, is that this has been something of a disaster not just for tenants, but also from a financial perspective. These are deals that they were betting big—these private equity firms were betting big that they could turn these buildings around by pushing out hundreds of thousands of families. They weren’t able to push out families, because families organized. And as a result of that organizing, these deals failed, and it made a situation where the broader housing market in New York City got hit and these tenants had to live in completely inhumane conditions.

UHAB joined a coalition of housing groups across New York City (New Settlement Apartments’ Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), Banana Kelly, Mothers on the Move, New York Communities for Change, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Tenants and Neighbors, and the Pratt Area Community Council) to fight alongside tenants for affordable housing in each of the 42 buildings in the portfolio. With the goal of forcing the buildings into the hands of a better, more responsible landlord,  tenants began organizing. Leaders collected a petition with over 300 signatures demanding the mortgage holder consider a preservation outcome for the buildings, and worked with Councilmember Ritchie Torres and others to hold a rally on the steps of City Hall. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opened an investigation into the portfolio, and began collecting interviews from tenants about their experience with harassment and bad living conditions.

So, when predatory equity owners Normandy and Westbrook began to circulating information that they secured a refinance and that the portfolio would come out of foreclosure, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman moved quickly. Using stories collected from the on-going investigation, the Attorney General forced the owners into an agreement that makes sure the negative effects of predatory equity will fall squarely on those responsible for it: the lenders and landlords who make absurd financial deals.

But the fight is far from over. As the housing market heats back up, the cycle of predatory equity is returning to the rent regulated housing market. (Read about it in The Nation.) The ridiculous refinance of the Three Borough Pool demonstrates this. Ladder Capital bailed out Normandy and Westbrook to the tune of $146 million in a three year loan. While we don’t know the terms of the mortgage, it is clear that this rescue mortgage bails out the private equity companies in the short term, but doesn’t provide the tenants with the solid underwriting needed for the buildings to provide long term affordable housing. Tenants are going to keep organizing, monitoring the agreements, and if (or when) the buildings go into foreclosure again, they’ll be ready.

Tenants from the Three Borough Pool, and this same coalition of advocates, will continue to work with the City Council, HPD, and DHCR to push for progressive policy reforms that discourage speculation on some of New York City’s most vital infrastructure.  For too long, predatory equity landlords have been able to thwart existing regulations to make their profits; by strengthening existing laws and closing loopholes that favor landlords, we can change the predatory atmosphere that surrounds the New York City housing market. Unless we can stem speculation, our neighborhoods will continue to be sold to the highest bidder — driving gentrification, undermining rent regulation laws, and diminishing tenants’ quality of life.

For more information, check out UHAB’s policy platform.

 

Three Borough Pool Press Conference

A few weeks ago, tenants from all across New York City came together in front of City Hall to demand that the Three Borough Pool, a group of 44 buildings in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, be taken over by a new, responsible owner.

The current owners (David Kramer, Normandy Real Estate, Vantage Properties, and Westbrook Partners) failed at paying their mortgage, landing all of the buildings in foreclosure. They’ve also failed at maintaining the buildings, resulting in horrific living conditions in apartments. If the lender, LNR, sells the buildings to a responsible developer who commits to rehabilitating the buildings and including tenants in decisions about their homes, this foreclosure can be an opportunity to preserve the nearly 1,600 units of rent regulated housing that are at stake.

UHAB created this video from our footage of the press conference. Follow the link at the end of the video to watch the tenants’ full speeches!

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

 

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