The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: brooklyn

Tenants Unite To Address Gentrification

Everybody’s talking about gentrification. The term has been on the receiving end of a lot of positive press from NY Mag and NPR. On the other side of the debate, some activists in Philadelphia are trying to get the United Nations to consider gentrification a human rights violation. And just this morning, the NY Times wrote about several cities that are using progressive tax abatement programs to fight gentrification.

On Friday, February 28th, over 75 tenants from across Crown Heights  gathered outside 1059 Union Street, a building that is home to 34 families and owned by BCB Properties, to protest the cycle of displacement and rent-overcharges. The demonstration announced the creation of the Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU), a resident led effort to demand community control over housing in Crown Heights.

Crown Heights (along with nearby Bedford Stuyvesant and farther north Bushwick) is ground zero in the struggle over gentrification in Brooklyn. The neighborhood is rapidly changing. According to Spike Lee,

Then comes the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here…I mean, they just move in the neighborhood. You just can’t come in the neighborhood. I’m for democracy and letting everybody live but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now shit gotta change because you’re here? Get the fuck outta here. Can’t do that!

Lee’s criticism is as valid as it is impassioned, and to us it demonstrates just how high emotions run when you speak about gentrification in Brooklyn. And the ensuing outrage reflects how difficult gentrification is to talk about. Obviously gentrification so painful because of it’s associations with displacement, fractured neighborhoods, and disintegration of an close knit cultural community. In lamenting the cultural disrespect that new neighbors can display, Lee neglects to make a structural criticism of the capital processes that drive gentrification, and he neglects to give listeners an idea about how neighborhoods can fight it.

That’s where the CHTU comes in. The CHTU is using an inclusive and resident driven model to identify the true drivers of gentrification (hint: brokers and real estate capitalists who use their power as landowners to re-brand neighborhoods to middle/upper class tastes), and then, to fight them.

CHTU uses the slogan “Unite and Fight” to signify the importance of long-term tenants and newer tenants coming together in solidarity against the cycle of displacement and rent-overcharges. A tenant-driven effort to get landlords across the neighborhood to agree to a list of demands, the CHTU believes that homes are for people, not for profit. Demands range from a five-year rent freeze to prioritizing repairs in old apartments over renovations in new apartments to limiting the ability of landlords to pressure tenants to leave via buyouts.

CHTU understands that the problem is systematic. As Michael Powell wrote in the NY Times a few weeks ago, “This is New York City in the age of real estate as oil wells. To speak of gentrification as a house by house renovation march is not to do this justice. This is turbo-charged, developed plotted, bank fueled, quite intentional and difficult to mediate.”  

The story of gentrification in Brooklyn is far from complete, and the good news is that there are many tenants who are working hard to write themselves into the history books. Tom Angotti, the Director of Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning and Development, recently wrote up a list of “5 Things You Can Do About Gentrification in NYC.” It boils down to two things: talk to your neighbors, and organize — the more than 75 tenants who rallied outside 1059 Union Street on Friday in the freezing cold weather can attest that the CHTU is doing both.

Donna Mossman of 1159 President St. puts it best:

Our neighborhood and buildings are undergoing major construction but the work being done is not for the long standing tenants. Our message to our landlords is clear: this is our home, we still live here and we are not leaving.  

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Join us at the next CHTU General Membership Meeting!
March 13, 7pm
727 Classon Ave (the Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation).

2014 Alternative Enforcement Program List Released

It is a strange suspense that tenant organizers feel once a year, as they scroll down the new list of buildings being added to HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP). Inevitably, our eyes scan the list for buildings we work in. And when we do see addresses we recognize, we are torn between disappointment that the buildings are in such bad shape, and hope that this might give us some leverage to improve conditions.

The Bloomberg administration created the Alternative Enforcement Program as a way for the department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to identify the most distressed buildings in the city and enforce the necessary corrections. As well as the total number of violations, HPD looks at the severity of the problems, which are categorized as A (non-hazardous) B (hazardous) C (immediately hazardous) and I (court ordered to correct, or order to vacate). Once a building enters the program, it is inspected for violations and the owner has four months to do sufficient repairs. If they do not satisfy the requirements by then, they are subject to fees and liens against the building. In some cases, HPD will do the repairs themselves and send the bill to the owner.

We found two buildings whose tenant associations we work with on the 2014 AEP list: 1253 Franklin Avenue in the West Bronx, and 1159 President Street in Crown Heights. We also work with tenants (alongside PACC) in 1059 Union Street, also in Crown Heights. 1059 Union Street and 1159 President Street are both owned by BCB Properties: a landlord the newly formed Crown Heights Assembly Tenant Union has opted to target.

Brooklyn took the lead with 103 new buildings added to the program, 27 of which are in Crown Heights. The list continues with 55 buildings in the Bronx, 19 in Manhattan, 10 in Queens, and none in Staten Island. Only 187 buildings fit the requirements to enter the program this year instead of the usual 200, but according to The Observer, HPD cautions against reading too much into this.

The Observer article begins with a contrast between these distressed buildings and the luxury NYC housing that seems to exist, unscathed, in a separate realm – recalling Mayor De Blasio’s “tale of two cities” theme. As we wait to hear the mayor’s  appointments for several HPD positions, we hope this will be a new chapter in the enforcement of building maintenance and repairs, which is a crucial part of preserving affordable housing stock. We will be fighting on President Street and on Franklin Avenue for the owners to take responsibility for their buildings and provide decent, safe homes for tenants.

If you live in an AEP building or just want to learn more, check out these resources:

AEP Frequently Asked Questions

AEP office:  (212) 863-8262

Tenants Fight Back in Seryl LLC Foreclosure

Over the past couple of months, UHAB organizers have been working with tenants in 10 Westminster Road, a building near Prospect Park South whose mortgage is owned by Seryl LLC, the same private equity company that owns the mortgages on 545, 553, and 557 46th Street. With an HPD violation count of 205 for only 21 units, 10 Westminster is in the Alternative Enforcement Program. The building is in foreclosure and under the control of a receiver named Harry Horowitz who, according to tenants, is doing nothing to improve conditions. On the contrary, there is evidence that he may be trying to illegally raise rents.

Living here has been a long, rough journey for many tenants. Orazio Petito, the building’s landlord landed the building on Bill de Blasio’s Worst Landlord Watch List. One tenant had a ceiling fall in on her, sending her to the hospital and making her unable to work. Some of the apartments once went without running water for five days straight, others have gone without power for hours at a time, and when trying to contact management about such problems, tenants are treated disrespectfully.

The good news is, the people of 10 Westminster have not given up hope. With the help of South Brooklyn Legal Services, several of them are now in the process of entering the foreclosure case so their voices can be heard in court. We support the families in this building as they fight to make their home liveable, and to have some control over their surroundings. Seryl cannot get away with its irresponsible action! Stay tuned as this campaign moves forward!

That’s a Wrap – The Report from the Primaries

After months and months of campaigning, primary season is finally over. While the federal government shut down on Tuesday, NYC held the run off election for Public Advocate. Letita “Tish” James won, and with a lack of a Republican challenger, she became the first black woman to be elected to city-wide office. So, the dust has finally settled. Its time to take a quick peek into how the best tenant rights advocates did!

Our friends over at TenantsPAC endorsed candidates up and down the ticket with a great success. TenantsPAC endorsees receive three key things from TenantsPAC: a public endorsement, tenant-based fundraising, and plenty of on-the-ground Get Out The Vote effort. An overwhelming majority of TenantsPAC endorsees won their primary races.

Here is a  list of endorsees that move ahead to the general election on November 5th, where the chances of victory are extremely high.

City-Wide Offices

  • Mayor: Bill De Blasio
  • Public Advocate: Tish James

Manhattan Offices

  • Manhattan Borough President: Gale Brewer
  • City Council: Mark Levine
  • City Council: Helen Rosenthal
  • City Council: Benjamin Kallos
  • City Council: Corey Johnson

Queens Offices

  • City Council: Daneek Williams

Brooklyn Offices

  • City Council: Antonio Reynoso
  • City Council: Carlos Menchaca

There is little doubt that all of these candidates will take office in January and be incredible advocates for tenants. This election has been a fruitful one for progressives hoping for an about-face from the past three terms of New Liberalism under Mayor Bloomberg. Some TenantsPAC candidates, like Letitia James, Gale Brewer, and Bill de Blasio, have been crucial allies in the fight to protect affordable housing for many years. More allies means more success, which for us means more affordable housing units in New York. We’re looking forward to working with them in the coming years.

CUNY Journalism Students Document “Bushwick Beyond the Brand”

bushwick

photo: City Limits, 2009

Bushwick is one of those neighborhoods in Brooklyn that brings up a lot of…emotion.  “Oh, Bushwick. Oh, you live there.” It’s the artsy, quickly gentrifying neighborhood that’s not Williamsburg. Yet. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s also a neighborhood with a history, with culture, and with a community that is quickly being displaced.  This month, a group of CUNY Journalism students explored Bushwick “Beyond the Brand” to write about aspects of Bushwick which often get overshadowed.

One article focused on asthma in Bushwick, and how asthma throughout the City is correlated with poverty. In addition to high concentration of pollution, the authors interview Dr. Natalie Langston-Davis who credits Bushwick’s older housing stock to breathing problems in Bushwick:

That’s the case with the poorly ventilated apartment Mora shares with her son. Asthma is also exacerbated by children’s allergies to rodent and cockroach droppings, Davis said.

As tenant organizers, we’ve seen the strong correlation between tenant health and building conditions in many, if not all, of the buildings where we work.  One tenant in a building in Ridgewood, Queens (just across the street from Bushwick) is undergoing chemotherapy while simultaneously battling a mouse and rat infestation in her building.  Even if she had the energy to extensively clean day after day, it would hardly be enough to prevent exposure to the dangerous germs in rodent dropping and dust.

Another hugely important topic that CUNY students explored in their project is the the relevance of the M train’s expansion in 2010 on Bushwick’s changing demographics.  When the M train was expanded into Midtown Manhattan, Bushwick (and likely Queens) experienced an influx of higher paying tenants interested in easy access to the city.  Between January and March of 2013, Bushwick rents rose almost 32%, and real estate investors believe those prices will continue to rise:

In 2012, Bushwick captured 28 percent of all multifamily building sales in Brooklyn by Ariel Property Advisors, the highest rate in the borough, according to  the  investment sales firm. “Investors not only believe in the strength of rental market, but can see these buildings as lucrative conversion opportunities in the future,” says Jonathan Berman, vice president of Ariel.

This is dangerous talk, the kind that leads to predatory equity.  When investors buy buildings based on rent “potential” rather than current rents, debt levels become dangerously high.  The only way to sustain the over-leveraged debt is to skimp on services and force out long-term tenants, thus leading to gentrification and the dilapidation of the rent stabilized housing stock. Over-leveraging can happen in rent stabilized multifamily buildings all over New York, but it’s much more likely to occur  successfully in quickly gentrifying neighborhoods like Bushwick or Crown Heights.

Some consider gentrification to be a byproduct, if an unpleasant one, of neighborhood improved and the influx of capital into previously distressed areas. However, it is often the result of choices made by specific actors who prioritize real estate speculation over the human right to housing. One such actor is broker company MySpace RealtyMySpace has recently come under fire from activists and organizers for colluding with bad actors who see harassment and neglect as acceptable behavior when it comes to established, rent regulated tenants.

To check out the other topics CUNY journalism students reported on, click here, and to view a 2009 photo essay published  in City Limits documenting Bushwick’s area code 11237, click here.

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