The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: city limits

7A Program Fades from Relevance, to Tenant Dismay

Yesterday, tenants gathered at 755 Jackson Avenue with newly elected Public Advocate (takes office January 1st) Letitia James to demand that the owner of their building, Stabilis Capital Management, walk away from the property. (Read about it in the Mott Haven Herald.) Tenants are hoping that Harry DiRienzo of Banana Kelly be appointed as a 7A manager of their building. The property is extremely distressed and effectively abandoned. That the city would appoint a 7A administrator for this building seems like a no-brainer.

However, tenants have reason to be wary. In order to secure a 7A, they have a long fight ahead of them. Last year, tenants from 1058 Southern Boulevard traveled from their homes in the Bronx to Mill Basin to evict their landlord. They were living in serious slum conditions: fuzzy black mold coated the walls of their apartments, their ceilings leaked and it was so cold inside the building that the water leaks froze. One apartment was so terrible that a reporter visiting the building to cover the tenants’ fight began to cry.

Tenants at 1058 Southern Boulevard were hoping to “evict” their landlord through the same 7A program. Unfortunately, the City and the Housing Court did not heed their plea, and slumlord Miriam Shasho still runs the building. (The building eventually got repairs though the City’s Alternative Enforcement Program, but the repairs are patchwork the building is already returning to a state of squalor.)

This morning, City Limits published an article detailing this same experience, but at different buildings, in the Bronx. In the buildings profiled by City Limits, the failure to bring a 7A action baffles even HPD. The 7A program is an amazing opportunity for organized tenants to hit landlords where it hurts the most: in their checkbooks. However, if the City and the Courts are unwilling to invoke this power, it takes a serious tool away from tenants. City Limits talks about how this changed:

In earlier years, when judges ruled in favor of 7As for troubled properties, landlords frequently stayed out of the way and new managers made critical repairs. Owners may even have been glad to have someone else worry about their building. But now, because of the sweeter financial prospects of most Bronx buildings, landlords don’t want to hand their profitable properties over even temporarily. So it takes an even greater push from activists and HPD, particularly when judges seem more reluctant to rule in favor of 7As when buildings that could benefit from the designation are not part of a community crisis.

Tenant leader Lisa Ortega of 1058 Southern Boulevard speaks of her experience fighting for a 7A bitterly:

Its quite obvious that Judge Klein is on the side of the landlords. Landlords with long histories of neglect to buildings are allowed to do and giving financial help and incentive. If a parent neglect or abused their child, the court would remove them immediately. Slumlords control the health and well-being of some of the city’s most vulnerable populations — Why is this not the same for them??

Lisa mentions an important point, one that UHAB has been fighting legislatively for some time. A landlord licensing program could prevent bad landlords and negligent property managers from buying up extremely distressed housing and treating like an ATM. How could something like that work? Only qualified developers would be able to purchase housing that meets a certain level of physical distress. The 7A program could be expanded, and automatic: one’s license to manage property could be immediately revoked if building’s level of distress meets a certain threshold. If a restaurant owner is serving up unsafe food, the Department of Health shuts them down immediately. Bad landlords are allowed to keep their property no matter what psychological or physical warfare they are taking out on their tenants. This doesn’t make sense.

Make sure to check out the article in City Limits, and stay tuned!

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.

Artists of a South Bronx Hip-hop Collective are Evicted

After being evicted, hip-hop artists participate in an open-mic outside of RDAC-BX.

After being evicted, hip-hop artists participate in an open-mic outside of RDAC-BX.

The Rebel Diaz Arts Collective (RDAC-BX) is a community space in the South Bronx comprised of 25 artists, teachers and organizers. Established by brothers Gonzalo and Rodrigo Venegas in 2008, the space was converted from a sugar factory into an arts center. Over time, the center has evolved into a Hip Hop Community Center, offering monthly open mic nights, media-making workshops, and a “radical library.” These activities and amenities draw in 500 to 700 kids from Mott Haven and Hunts Point each month, giving them an opportunity to channel their creativity and organize.

Last month, the collective was evicted from their home at 478 Austin Place in Hunts Point on non-payment and vandalism charges. According to DNAinfo, the collective owed back rent dating to September 2012, leaving them over $10,000 in debt. The non payment is due to a dispute: the landlord, Joseph Pogostin, proposed a $1,000 rent increase (from $1,400/month to $2,400/month.) Unable to pay the increased rent and maintain their programs, the Venegas brothers chose to not accept Pogostin’s proposed renewal lease.

Rooftop political graffiti has also been a point of contention. Many of the collective members believe that the eviction case is partially motivated as an attack against their politics. The landlord, however, claims otherwise.  In a City Limits article, the landlord claims that the collective is responsible for instigating the newly created graffiti in the neighborhood. Rebutting the accusation, a collective members insists, “We were always having strong dialogues with any of our youths or individuals who came through our doors about respecting our neighborhood.”

Like many NYC neighborhoods, the South Bronx has been gentrifying rapidly: rents have skyrocketed and new, middle-income tenants have moved into the area. RDAC-BX’s rent increase and subsequent eviction speak to the intersection of gentrification and the criminalization of hip-hop in NYC neighborhoods.  In the mainstream media, hip hop is seen as a threatening genre of art, riddled with violence, illicit drug use, and misogyny. But hip-hop can also be a transgressive and subversive medium which attempts to dismantle oppressive structures and demand liberation. At the RDAC-BX, hip-hop gives youth a voice. The gentrification of the neighborhood – experienced by the RDAC-BX by their landlord’s attempt to raise rent – is threatening hip hop’s positive impacts on the community.

Since the eviction, collective members and allies have banned together in protest. On the first Friday of March, when the collective intended to have their monthly open-mic night, members still gathered for the show and held it outside of their building. Taking a note from Venezuela’s political history, one of the collective members wrote a song entitled, “Work Like Chavez,” which protests the eviction of RDAC-BX. Here are the song’s opening lines:

“I can’t front, I’m upset that they took our buildin’/ Next thing the Comandante man I know they killed him/ Something goin’ on, I gotta read the signs/Somethin’ telling me that it’s about that time/ Time to step it up cause I smell sulfur/ Still smell the money in this capitalist culture”

RDAC-BX has also started a campaign to pay for a new space. To support their organizing efforts as well as preserve creative and accessible spaces in the South Bronx, click here to donate.

The Heightened Devastation of Superstorm Sandy on Undocumented Immigrants

Photo by the Huffington Post

Undocumented immigrants have been among the populations most impacted by Superstorm Sandy in New York City.

The federal government recently granted New York City $51 billion in aid for Sandy recovery. Of the initial $1.8 billion installment, $350 million has been distributed to 9,300 low-to-moderate income single-family homeowners, and $250 million has been allocated to low-to-moderate income tenants living in 13,000 units of houses and apartments. When the storm made landfall, homes and businesses were destroyed, sustaining nearly irreparable damages. In an effort to reclaim destroyed homes, lost possessions and steady employment, survivors turned to the federal government for support, but this has been no easy task for the undocumented population.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires that in order to access relief funds, one must present his or her Social Security number.  This, of course, is a problem for most undocumented people, and has prevented thousands from accessing much needed post-storm relief. In addition, many businesses were destroyed in Sandy’s aftermath, causing many workers to lose their jobs, many of whom were undocumented. Again, FEMA required that in order to receive unemployment benefits, one must present their Social Security number.  This, of course, created the same problem.  Without access to FEMA’s unemployment benefits, many undocumented workers found employment in construction (regardless of what they were doing previously.)

FEMA’s sheer presence in disaster areas has struck fear in many undocumented communities—FEMA employees dress in military uniforms and, while they are supposedly there to help, the uniforms can insight fear rather than comfort.  Many undocumented people who have stepped out of the shadows to receive FEMA relief funds or other assistance reportedly were denied assistance without explanation. Clearly, something is not right with the way that relief funds have been handled for the city’s most vulnerable populations.

The Investigative Fund‘s article “Rebuilding After Sandy” discusses the ways  that the country handled undocumented populations in post-Katrina New Orleans. The workforce responsible for rebuilding that city was predominately Latino and 54 percent were undocumented. During this period, Bush’s administration waived certain aspects of the immigration law around hiring undocumented people to ensure a well-populated workforce. While this waiver created more opportunities for work and capacity for rebuilding efforts, undocumented immigrants were paid much less than documented worker ($16 with papers, $10 without papers) and were forced to work in unsafe conditions. To better address the needs of undocumented workers impacted by Sandy, we must take some direction from New Orleans regarding immigration law waivers while simultaneously implementing fair labor practices for undocumented workers (no matter their jobs).

The disproportionate impacts of Sandy on undocumented immigrants is devastating and speaks to a much broader xenophobic sentiment that exists in the United States. To change this reality, undocumented immigrants and allies are rallying around immigration reform in Washington D.C. this Wednesday, April 10th . With 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, immigration reform is absolutely needed more than ever! To support immigration reform and, in turn, improve Sandy relief efforts for all New Yorkers, attend the rally in D.C. this week!

Needed: New Mayor to End Homelessness in NYC

homelessness nyc 2

Rates of homelessness in New York City are still rising. As of January 2013, Coalition for the Homeless reported that 50,100 people were homeless. Of  those who were homeless, 12,000 were families and 21,000 were children. These statistics illustrate the highest rates of homelessness since the Great Depression.

Since Mayor Bloomberg took office in January of 2002, 61 percent more folks are sleeping in shelters.   And beyond these statistics, thousands more are sleeping in public spaces, including subways, park benches, and sidewalks, each night.

Many attribute the heightened rates of homelessness to Bloomberg’s unwillingness to target the root causes of poverty. Throughout Bloomberg’s 11 year tenure, he has notoriously implemented band aid fixes by funneling more money into the shelter system while simultaneously cutting programs like Work Advantage. City Limits cited that since January of this year, the Department of Homeless Services has created 12 new homeless shelters, costing the city $722M. These costs are exorbitant and unnecessary. To save money and lessen rampant poverty, deviating from Bloomberg’s ‘crisis management’ tactics is imperative.

In the same City Limits article, the increase in homelessness is also attributed to the increase in eviction rates. West Bronx Housing, a community-based non-profit that works with tenants to prevent unnecessary evictions, has witnessed this increase firsthand. Between the months of July and October in 2010, West Bronx Housing supported 137 tenants battling eviction. Exactly one year later, they supported 240 tenants battling eviction. While the study’s sample size is small, the figures offer a snapshot of multiplied homelessness in recent years.

Many of the evictions are correlated to the loss of jobs as well as cuts in public benefits. Last week, the New York State Department of Labor released new data stating that 9.9 percent of New York City residents are currently unemployed. This statistic is even higher than unemployment rates from one year ago. Additionally, a major blow to housing in New York was when the City cut the Advantage program last year.  According to the NY Times, the program benefited 15,000 families by providing them stable housing in private multi-family buildings.  With the elimination of this program, many of these families were forced to return to the shelter system. We need new tactics that prevent homelessness and permanently remove people from the shelter system.

With an upcoming mayoral race, we are looking forward to a new mayor who will radically change Bloomberg’s homeless strategies.  A few of the candidates have already offered their ideas. Speaker Christine Quinn, a longstanding proponent of affordable housing, is hoping to reopen lists for federal housing programs, such as Section 8 (there has been a freeze for years), as well as create more rental assistance programs to support folks as they leave the shelter system. Alternatively, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio would like to reinstitute the Advantage program and use city pension funds to create new affordable housing.  As Bloomberg’s tenure ends and a new mayoral term begins, New York has an opportunity to reconstruct homeless intervention programs and expand affordable housing. Stay tuned for more about mayoral candidates’ plans for much needed affordable housing in our city!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,168 other followers

%d bloggers like this: