The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: harlem

Friday News Round-Up

Hello all. Here are some things going on in the New York City housing world this week:

  • NY Daily News wrote an article on what it touts as “the smallest apartment in New York” – a 100 square foot apartment in Harlem going for $1,275 a month. Residential rooms must be at least 150 square feet according to City Housing Maintenance Code, but the developer, Shanghai Holdings, is filing to convert the building’s single-room occupancy status, and is advertising to single students and young professionals who might be willing to deal with the cramped space in exchange for relatively low rent.
  • Mayor Bloomberg has set aside $732 million for public housing repairs. Work has already begun at Kingsborough and Kingsborough Extension in Brooklyn. This effort is part of the New York City Housing Authority’s five-year public housing roadmap, Plan NYCHA.

“Unlike other cities around the country, our Administration is deeply committed to preserving and improving our public housing system, despite the major budgetary challenges involved in doing so,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “We’ve found creative ways to generate capital and reduce the backlog of repairs, and this bond issuance will further that progress.”

  •  Taconic Investment Partners, L + M Development partners, and BFC Partners were chosen by the city to redevelop the Seward Park urban renewal area on the Lower East Side. Their plans include 1,000 low, moderate, and middle-income apartments, an urban farm, a bowling alley, an Andy Warhol museum, retail space, and office space for tech companies. The site is in a gentrifying area that has a history of displacement – 2,000 families lost their homes when the tenements there were demolished in 1967. A community task force created a list of demands and they say this new proposal meets many of them – including a mix of market rate and affordable units and storm-strengthening of the buildings, which are not far from the East River.
  •  The Census Bureau released data on Thursday that confirms that New York City’s poverty rate is climbing. The percentage rose from 20.9% in 2011 to 21.2% in 2012, a difference of 1.7 million people. With wages staying the same, this means a lot of New Yorkers are struggling as the income gap widens. However, to get a broader perspective, among the 20 largest cities in the country, NYC has dropped from the 6th highest rate of poverty to the 13th since 2000.
  • A brownstone in Park Slope is up for sale for the first time in 50 years, after the death of its previous owners, the Ortners. The couple were involved in Park Slope’s revival, carefully renovating their brownstone, hosting a “back to the city” conference, and being instrumental in the landmarking of the Park Slope Historic district. The Observer wonders whether all of the Ortners’ restoration work will be scrapped in favor of a more modern, sleek, luxurious look for the new owners, who will be moving into a very different neighborhood than the Ortners did in 1963. “Never again, never again, never again will houses of this quality be built for the middle class of the city,” Mr. Ortner once said. We are determined to prove him wrong, as we work towards quality housing for all.

Have a great weekend as we officially transition into autumn!

Diversifying Gentrification

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Is gentrification only actualized by whiteness? Not anymore.

Bronzeville, a black neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, began gentrifying about a decade ago.  At that point, boarded-up homes started undergoing construction, public housing projects transformed into high-rises, and property values began to soar. While the socio-economic status of the neighborhood changed drastically, the racial demographics remained the same- black.

When folks refer to gentrification, they imply that a place has been gradually taken from one group and claimed by another. Ordinarily, the “taken from” refers to low-income people of color, and the “taken by” refers to upper-middle class white folks.

In contrast, the gentrification of Bronzeville follows a different model.  According to an article published in The Atlantic Cities, the gentrification does not necessitate displacement, but accommodates the upward mobility of its inhabitants. The residents of newly renovated property in this neighborhood are either lifelong residents that have achieved upward mobility, or former residents that have climbed the income ladder elsewhere and have returned to their old neighborhood.

Furthermore, the area has been deemed a “Black Metropolis,” serving as a haven for black culture and history. Bronzeville was the final destination for many black folks during the Great Migration, as well as home to many blues singers, including Muddy Waters and Louis Armstrong. With such strong history, the community leaders want the neighborhood to become a quasi-tourist destination, where folks can consume black history and culture.

However, this aspiration hasn’t been achieved. The Atlantic Cities article attributes the lack of “ethnic consumption” to the space’s “historic ‘blackness’ … overwhelm[ing] any sense of its identity as a neighborhood on the way up.”  Bronzeville illustrates the arduousness of escaping cycles of racial stereotyping and, in turn, inequality. This unique species of gentrification in Bronzeville is as much about the upward mobility its lifelong residents as it is about the resistance white folks have about moving into a stereotypically black neighborhood.

Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly’s text, Gentrification, identifies similar patterns of change in New York City. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance transformed Harlem into a historical and cultural haven.  In the 1980s, Harlem was met with an influx of more affluent black folks who wanted to partake in the historical relevance of the space.  As a result, racial divides did not emerge, but class divides did.  The emergence of upper-middle class black folks “paved the way for accelerated gentrification by the wealthier, white middle class that followed…” While the same trends have not manifested in Bronzeville yet, the probability that they will in the future is quite high.

The gentrification of black neighborhoods by wealthier black residents is quite complex.  The issue calls into question notions of ethnic consumption and appropriation of black culture. While the article acknowledges that these Bronzeville gentrifiers are current or former residents that have achieved upward mobility, it does not illuminate the displacement of those that have not achieved similar economic success.   As gentrification continues to run rampant in Chicago as well as New York City,  it is necessary to preserve the affordability of neighborhoods while dismantling pervasive, racist perceptions.

NYC Worst Landlords Watchlist 2.0

Bill DeBlasio recently updated his worst landlords list in NYC. Check it out! If your landlord is on this list and you are a tenant that wants to organize – let us know.

DNAinfo reports that in

HARLEM — A vast majority of Manhattan’s worst buildings are in Washington Heights, Inwood and Harlem, according to a watchlist by Public Advocate Bill Deblasio, which details the worst landlords and their properties citywide.

Some 45 of the borough’s 56 buildings included on the list — for violations ranging from mold to lead paint — are located in the area, according to the report. Four of the five with the worst record are in Harlem, one is in Washington Heights and all have at least 240 violations each, the report said.

Topping the list is 307 W. 153 St. in Harlem, which has racked up 398 violations, while the second worst building, at 206 Audubon Ave., has 367 violations, according to the list.

The landlord who has racked up the most violations citywide is Josh Neustein of 1071 Home Corp., who has eight buildings, including four in Upper Manhattan, and a total of 1,187 violations, 753 of them considered hazardous, according to the list.

Read More

New York Times: “In East Harlem, ‘Keep Out’ Signs Apply to Renters”

The New York Times reported Sunday on East Harlem’s “haunted houses,” apartments that have literally been abandoned for decades by landlords.  What landlords are planning, we can only guess, but most likely they are waiting to sell the properties for high prices and gentrify the neighborhood when the time is ripe.

East Harlem has been undergoing a resurgence for two decades, yet the neighborhood is still pockmarked with four- or five-story walk-ups where the ground-floor stores are bustling and the apartments above are devoid of life. Their windows are boarded up, blocked up or just drearily empty, torn curtains testifying to no one’s having lived there for years.

Although the vacancy rate in Manhattan hovers at 1 percent, at least some of the landlords of these sealed-up buildings are deliberately keeping their buildings mostly vacant, content to earn income from first-floor commercial tenants rather than deal with the trouble of residents.
In some cases, city housing officials say, landlords are waiting for a revived economy to raise rents so that it makes financial sense to repair plumbing and electrical wiring. In other cases, landlords are “warehousing” apartments for the moment that a deep-pocketed developer comes along, as has happened in the blocks just north of 96th Street, East Harlem’s southern boundary. In still other cases, it is simply mystifying that apartments would be left vacant for decades, particularly since East Harlem has been a magnet for Mexican and other Latino immigrants, as well as young strivers looking for cheap space. More
As New York City continues to lose affordable housing at an alarming rate as a result of deregulation and predatory equity, it is a true shame to watch regulated units sit unoccupied and in disrepair. East Harlem deserves the affordable housing it has been provided with, and we hope it will generate new life soon; in a non-zombie way, of course.

Week #1 as a Tenant Organizer

Working as a tenant organizer involves a lot of acronyms.  This is the most important lesson I have learned so far in my first week of training as a tenant organizer with UHAB.  HCR, HUD, CMBS, AEP, even UHAB itself are swirling in my brain in a massive linguistic confusion.  Coming from Chicago, I moved here to New York City to participate in “Avodah: the Jewish Service Corps” like many other UHAB organizers before me.  In addition to working, I will be participating in programs on issues of social justice and Judaism, and will have an enriching and insanely busy year.  After college, I spent a year on the move: traveling in Israel/ Palestine, learning Spanish in Guatemala, and living in a multi-faith, social justice oriented retreat center.

This first week of training has been an overload of information on subjects which I haven’t really taken the time to learn before.  The crew of knowledgeable organizers at UHAB has been training me on everything from how banks and mortgages work, how to run a meeting, to UHAB’s campaign history and where the best lunch spots on Wall Street are located.  Hot topics like rent regulation in New York City and Predatory Equity are slowly beginning to make sense to me.

On my second day of training, I went to sit in on a tenant leader meeting at Putnam in Harlem, run by UHAB and our partner Tenants and Neighbors.  Three buildings in this unit are potentially facing submetering, which would put the heat and electricity in each individual tenant’s bill, rather than a standard sum in tenants’ rent.  These apartments currently have no way to control their heat temperature, but can only turn their electric heat system on and off.  On top of that, the apartments also tend to have poor insulation, and so submetering could substantially raise tenants’ rents.  Luckily, the buildings have strong tenant leaders who are motivated to have a loud voice in this process.  As a first example of an organizing meeting, this meeting of leaders illustrated to me a best case scenario in how organized buildings with committed leaders can look.

Walking around my new neighborhood of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, I have started to take note of the housing there, wondering what type of buildings and what type of rent regulations or subsidy programs are in place.  I hope this experience will help me develop a more critical framework for understanding housing and the way politics in New York City, how to be an effective organizer, and how to write bomb blog posts.

Elise

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