The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

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Crown Heights Residents, State Assemblymember Walter T. Mosley, and Affordable Housing Advocates Call on Crown Heights Landlord to End Displacement

Crown Heights residents rally in front of BCB Property's office

Crown Heights residents rally in front of BCB Property’s office

“My stove was not working for many months,” said Donna Mossman, tenant leader and resident of one of the rent-regulated buildings that BCB Property Management has recently purchased in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “Three times BCB brought me a new stove, and three times I had to call the fire department because of carbon monoxide leaks. I finally gave up and bought my own stove.” Faced with this type of harassment or enticed by cash offers, many other low-income residents, however, have been giving up and moving out.

Tenants, advocates, and elected officials claim that BCB is systematically displacing long-term residents from their buildings in order to deregulate these affordable apartments or illegally rent them at much higher market rates. Since BCB acquired more than 100 units of rent-regulated housing in Crown Heights, tenants have been complaining about severely deteriorating conditions in their homes and unrelenting pressure to leave. The real estate firm’s response? A deafening silence.

So yesterday tenants and affordable housing advocates, including New York State Assemblymember Walter T. Mosley—armed with letters dating back a year requesting meetings with BCB—attempted to visit the firm’s Manhattan office to schedule a discussion. As Mosley led a group of tenant representatives up to the BCB office, demonstrators gathered outside the building chanting, “Don’t displace us! Come out and face us!” However, when Mosley rejoined them, he announced, “They refused to talk to us today.” But he added, “We’re not giving up. This is a fight for the long haul.”

The Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) has supported the Crown Heights Tenant Union since its founding in October 2013. The CHTU is now comprised of tenant associations of some 40 buildings. These neighborhood residents have come together to bring about stricter enforcement of existing tenants’ rights as well as new, stronger protections against the down side of rampant gentrification.

As the New York Daily News reports, residents content that their buildings have become construction sites—with continual renovations to upgrade vacated apartments—yet existing tenants are hard-pressed to have basic repairs done. When problems are addressed, the results are often subpar and sometimes even life-threatening, as Donna Mossman discovered.

“This harassment and rapid displacement of long-term, low-income tenants is a systemic problem and it has to stop,” Assemblymember Mosley told the crowd of tenants and advocates. He noted that in 2015, New York rent regulations will be up for renewal and he will be exploring how laws can be adjusted to curtail the predatory practices that are fueling this displacement.

“I’m not against gentrification,” Patricia Jackson, tenant leader with the Crown Heights Tenant Union, said. “But hard-working people should not be driven out of their homes in the process.”

For further information about UHAB’s affordable housing efforts, contact Kerri White, Director, Organizing and Policy, UHAB: 212-479-3371 or kwhite@uhab.org.

The Day After, By Guest Blogger Donna Mossman

This post is written by Donna Mossman, an organizer and member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union.  Donna has been with CHTU since the very beginning and has been a constant presence at the Rent Guidelines Board hearings and votes this year — she wrote this the day after the final vote, one week ago today. For more information about CHTU, visit http://www.crownheightstenantunion.org.

1% increase for a 1 year lease and a 2.75% increase for a 2 year lease.  A 0% Rent Freeze is not far behind!

This was thanks to the excellent work of the Crown Heights Tenants Union, other tenant groups, and tenants from all over NYC who took a united stand, refused to be bullied and banded together.

Donna Mossman testifying at the Brooklyn RGB Hearing on June 18th.

Donna Mossman testifying at the Brooklyn RGB Hearing on June 18th.

A 0% Rent Freeze Victory is not far away. Kudos to all who fought a good fight! For those politicians who stood by the tenants, you must work harder to garner the support of your colleagues.

This is the lowest rent increase in the history of the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB). Hearing how rents were raised in past years unfairly and the financial burden it placed on tenants was heartbreaking. But we found out that this new RGB Chair is not afraid of a 0% Rent Freeze. We found out that she has three allies on the board who want to stand for tenants. They heard our Stories of Suffering and had compassion for tenants and understood the hardship that high rents are costing tenants. One of CHTU’s demands is for a 5 year rent freeze.  This demand may seem unthinkable and unreachable to some — but think about where your rent is going to be in 5 years if we don’t fight for it.

We all have to work harder this year. Each and every person who attended the RGB hearings in 2014 must vow to bring one new person to the next round of hearings. We will travel to Albany and we will fight to strengthen the rent laws, and in 2015 we will be back, and our numbers will be doubled.

We are already scraping the bottom of the barrel to pay our rents and without a rent freeze next year, there will be no bottom left to the barrel.

This is a victory for all tenants because this year, even as we still have to dig in our pockets to pay our rents, even as we still have to scrimp and save, even as we still have to worry about a place to live, we remember we were not pounded and crushed with a 7.75% hike like last year.

We know if a 0% percent increase is not put in place next year, the homeless rate in NYC will be greater than any other time in NYC’s history. We know what we have to fight for, and we know what we can achieve together.

We are thankful but still fearful.  We are fearful but hopeful. We are hopeful that next year the RGB will make a bold statement and render a righteous vote, and deliver a 0% rent increase.

Connecting Predatory Equity and the Need for a Rent Freeze

The movement for a Rent Freeze for the one million rent regulated units in New York City is the largest its ever been. Over 300 tenants gathered at both the Bronx and Brooklyn Rent Guidelines Board Public Hearings. That’s more than 600 tenants from every walk of life standing up and having their voices heard. Each of the hearings went way past 10pm even though they were scheduled to end at 8pm — tenants refused to leave while they still had testimonies to give.

It was an incredibly empowering sight to see.

The difference in narratives that tenants told between the Bronx and Brooklyn is worth noting. Bronx tenants told harrowing stories of utter neglect by their landlords and supers who were totally unresponsive. They told the RGB that their landlords did not deserve a raise after another year of refusing to provide heat, hot water, and proper repairs. For them a Rent Freeze would be a welcome economic relief as well as a signal to landlords that they don’t get more money for doing less work.

In Brooklyn however the stories were different. Tenant after tenant talked about “being forced out” of their apartments, homes, and neighborhoods. With a full understanding of our backwards rent laws, they told the RGB that every time that there is a rent increase, it gets their apartment a tiny bit closer to being deregulated. This in turn gives their landlord more incentive to harass them into leaving in order to raise the rent in the hopes that the unit can soon be at the market rate levels. For them, a Rent Freeze would also be a welcome economic relief and would be a moment where they are no longer simply reacting to their landlord’s actions but going on the offensive in this battle for their homes.

Both of these narratives — of utter neglect in the Bronx and purposeful harassment in Brooklyn — are part of the cycle of Predatory Equity that we’ve seen sprout up in New York City and beyond in the lead up to the foreclosure crises of 2008. Its happening all over the city and until we strengthen our rent laws when they are up for renewal in 2015, it will continue to happen. We can put a bandaid on the damage with a Rent Freeze this year, but in the end, its about what happens in Albany next legislative season.

Below is an article that our Deputy Director of of Organizing and Policy at UHAB, Cea Weaver wrote for the Metropolitan Council on Housing’s Tenant Newspaper about the connection between stronger rent laws and predatory equity:

In the years leading up to 2008, private equity firms with access to large pools of privately raised capital worked together with lenders to grossly overleverage multifamily housing. Assuming that they’d be able to increase revenue and make a financial windfall, “predatory equity” companies took out enormous mortgages to purchase rent-regulated buildings. When tenants refused to be pushed out of their rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments, these new landlords took a more aggressive approach: they increased harassment and reduced spending on maintenance. Buildings deteriorated and went into foreclosure across New York City.

As the housing market heats back up, predatory equity is returning to rent-regulated buildings. Meanwhile, tenants and advocates are still reeling from the first round of speculation, harassment, deferred repairs, and foreclosure. Last month, the owners of the Three Borough Pool, a group of 42 buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx that contain almost 1,600 rent-regulated apartments, were able to get a rescue loan from a private equity company called Ladder Capital. The Three Borough Pool is the largest portfolio of multifamily buildings to go into foreclosure since Stuyvesant Town.

 Normandy Real Estate and Westbrook Partners, the co-owners, are also private equity companies that were some of the most notorious actors in the first round of predatory equity. Their obtaining refinancing is a sign of the dangerous return of pre-2008 lending practices to the city.

Thanks to tenants’ organizing, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began investigating harassment complaints from tenants. This investigation led to a deal with Normandy and Westbrook, announced April 15, that significantly increases oversight over maintenance and management in the Three Borough Pool. Tenants will get $600 each in rent rebates, a total of $1 million, and a new management company. While this ensures that the negative effects of such predatory and irresponsible real-estate deals will fall squarely on the private equity companies and landlords who chose to make them, we still need policy changes that address the root problem of speculation on rent-regulated housing and that address predatory equity at a systemic level.

New York’s rent laws are a key tool in our struggle against speculation and predatory equity. By limiting rent increases and insuring the right to a renewal lease, rent stabilization provides organized tenants with the protections they need to stand up to landlords who see their homes as gambling chips. We need rent laws that further limit landlords’ ability to drive low-income and working-class families out of their homes. We need to limit major-capital improvement increases, individual-apartment improvement increases, and the sneaky tools that landlords use to make bad financial deals work to the detriment of tenants. For too long, predatory equity landlords have profited by thwarting regulations. By strengthening existing laws and closing loopholes that favor landlords, we can change the predatory atmosphere that pervades the city’s housing market.

The final RGB vote is just a few days away…Monday, June 23rd! Join us as we stand up for a Rent Freeze in the lead up of the campaign for stronger rent laws.

It’s Crunch Time: We Need a #RentFreeze!

There are certain moments when you simply have to ask yourself, “Wow. Is this really happening?”

When the NY Daily News reported that the Rent Stabilization Association was putting out advertisements advocating that New Yorkers support a rent increase, I experienced one of those moments as I tried to get my jaw off the floor.

This is no small time advertising push. This is a six-figure ad buy that will cover the costs of over 700 TV and Radio ads ahead of the June 23rd final Rent Guidelines Board vote. The Rent Stabilization Association, which claims to represent the 25,000 landlords of rent-stabilized buildings in the city, is as the Daily News put it so eloquently: “trying to do the impossible — convince New Yorkers that the rent is too damn low.”

via NYDaily News

via NYDaily News

These same landlords who refused to make repairs or keep the heat on in hundreds of thousands of rent stabilized units across the city are now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to persuade their tenants that they deserve a pay raise.

These same landlords that over-leveraged countless buildings and took sledgehammers to apartments when doing “repairs” in order to harass tenants out of their homes are telling us to pay up!

As we tell every tenant association that we work with, power comes in two forms: Organized money and organized people. Clearly the Rent Stabilization Association has organized money — since they don’t use it on repairs and services for their tenants, they have to use it somehow, right?

But we have organized people.  For the first time in recent memory, the RGB — the Mayoral appointed board that votes on how much the rent should change from year to year in rent stabilized units — is having hearings in the outer boroughs and in the evening so that working people can have their voice be heard.

This past weekend, nearly over 300 tenants in the Bronx and Brooklyn marched for a Rent Freeze, gearing up for the upcoming few weeks of hearings. Tonight is the first one, in the Bronx at Hostos Community College! (A full schedule is below.)

Never in RGB’s history has it voted for a Rent Freeze. And with the May 5th preliminary vote of a 0-3% increase, for the first time in history, a Rent Freeze is within reach! Its up to us to grab it.

The landlords are scared. Over time they’ve grown used to the rents going up every year — now that this is under threat, they are coming out swinging, doing everything they can to stop this movement. They’ve had their allies at REBNY pressure Mayor de Blasio to walk back on his campaign promise to support a Rent Freeze. They’re now putting hundreds of dollars into a campaign to convince tenants that they don’t pay enough in rent. You better believe they will be at these hearings, claiming that they’re barely getting by with the rents being what they are now.

We’ve got to fight back.

The questions is: Will you be there to show the RGB otherwise? Will you share your story about what a Rent Freeze would mean for you and your family? If you don’t want to testify, will you be there to support your fellow tenants as they give their testimonies?

We need each and every single person to show up and show the RGB that we need a Rent Freeze!

Below is a list of the coming hearings the RGB is hosting. We’ll be at them all. Will you join us?

If you can’t make it in person, you can still be involved by calling the Mayor (212-788-3000) and Deputy Mayor (212-788-8510). You can also participate on twitter, by tweeting at them using the #RentFreeze (@BilldeBlasio, @DMAliciaGlen, @MMViverito)! 

Thursday,
June 12, 2014
Public Hearing
(Public
Testimony)
Repertory Theatre of
Hostos Community College/CUNY
450 Grand Concourse
Bronx, NY 10451
Map & Directions
Campus Map (Repertory Theatre is located in Building C – East Academic Complex)
Agenda
5:00 – 8:00 P.M.
Monday,
June 16, 2014
Public Hearing
(Public
Testimony)
Emigrant Savings Bank Building
49-51 Chambers Street
(between Broadway and Centre Street)
New York, NY 10007
Map & Directions
2:00 – 6:00 P.M.
Wednesday,
June 18, 2014
Public Hearing
(Public
Testimony)
Brooklyn Borough Hall
209 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Map & Directions
5:00 – 8:00 P.M.
Thursday,
June 19, 2014
Public Hearing
(Public
Testimony)
Queens Borough Hall
120-55 Queens Boulevard
Kew Gardens, NY 11424
Map & Directions
5:00 – 8:00 P.M.
Monday,
June 23, 2014
Public Meeting
(Final Vote)
The Great Hall
at Cooper Union
7 East 7th Street
at corner of 3rd Ave. (Basement)
New York, NY 10003
Map & Directions
6:00 P.M.

 

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 

keisha1

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.  

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