The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: Rent Guidelines Board

We Demand a RENT FREEZE!

There is a routine that is all-too familiar to New Yorkers living in rent stabilized apartments. Every year or two,  depending on your lease, rent goes up. Every year, the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) sets a percentage that the landlord can raise rents by. (This year it’s 4% for a one year lease and 7.5% for a two year lease.) No one asks tenants if they got a raise that year, or if their grocery bill has mysteriously gotten lower. Crucially, no one asks what services are like in the apartment buildings. Rents can go up and up and up, based on a city wide price index, while building services go down.

This year, tenants are demanding an even more radical change – at a rally on Thursday, we are calling for a RENT FREEZE.

Over the past few years, rent has gone up way faster than income in New York City. Landlords are spending less and less on building maintenance, something that shows in building conditions. Tenants are not getting the services to justify the rental increases they are facing, and they don’t have the income to support it either. At a time of apocalyptic homelessness in New York City, we need to keep more people in their homes — we don’t need to make homes more expensive than they already are!

Tenants have historically demanded more input in the rent setting process: something that UHAB believes would lead to truer and deeper affordability. Last year, the RGB didn’t even hold public hearings in the outer boroughs, prompting tenant advocates to hold an alternative “People’s RGB,” demanding more tenant input in the rent-setting process.  Candidate Bill de Blasio met with the People’s RGB, and joined tenants in their call for a more fair process, and even said he would support a rent freeze. Now the candidate is mayor — a mayor whose administration understands that so so many rent stabilized tenants can barely afford rent as it is. The decision the rent guidelines board makes this year will either push low and moderate income tenants towards evictions, or help them stay in their homes. Join us in calling on the administration and its appointees to stand with tenants!

Thursday, at 9AM at 1 Centre Street — near City Hall — to rally outside the first RGB meeting of the new administration to demand a rent freeze! 

UHAB Organizers: News Round-Up

We’re firing on all cylinders here at UHAB and the media is taking notice! There has been so much going on that we thought we’d give a quick summary of the articles that we’ve been featured in.

UHAB is one of the most established institutions when it comes to affordable housing in New York City. We work citywide on housing issues that run the gambit from limited equity cooperatives to building strong tenant associations and addressing multifamily foreclosure, and we’ve been around since 1973. For that reason, we’re uniquely suited to speak to some of the myriad housing issues that low income New Yorkers face.  Last week we were quoted in two articles written about the current affordability crises.

The New York Times wrote a broad piece about housing affordability in the city, focusing on those who bought apartments decades before the neighborhoods became “desirable.” Some of the people in the story claimed succession rights, like Josh Schaffner, who pointed out the insanity behind it all:

“What other 25-year-old keeps a file box of every statement, every tax return?” Mr. Schaffner said. “I felt like I had been working toward something and I’d finally won it, which is a weird feeling to have, because it’s a place to live — it shouldn’t be something you win.”

Our Executive Director, Andy Reicher, made the broader point that those who stood by their buildings through the hard times and helped usher in a new era in their neighborhoods are now the ones who are feeling the most pressure to leave their homes.

“These were the buildings where the front lights were on, the door was locked,” said Andrew Reicher, the executive director of Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, an advocacy group. “They helped spur the redevelopment of neighborhoods, and now that the neighborhoods are gentrifying, they are the only affordable buildings that are left.”

The Nation Magazine had an analysis of whether or not Mayor de Blasio will be able to follow through with his promise of 200,000 new or preserved affordable housing units.  They made the point that much of it comes down to who the new Mayor appoints to the Rent Guidelines Board, which sets the rate of increase for rent-regulated units in the city and has the power to institute a rent freeze. Our very own department’s Assistant Director, Cea Weaver, chimed in:

“Coming off the Bloomberg years, any appointees who are committed to rent stabilization and do not simply represent real estate interests would be an improvement,” writes Celia Weaver, the assistant director of organizing and policy at the Urban Homesteaders Assistance Board, in an e-mail. She’d be happy just to see RGB hearings in the outer boroughs. And she adds: “It’d also be great if the RGB prioritized things beyond operating costs in determining increases. In the last few years rent has continued to climb while wages have stagnated, and the RGB should take that into account.”

Democratic inclusion and resident controlled housing are fundamental to UHAB’s mission. That’s why, in the Organizing and Policy department, we translate these broad policy struggles (gentrification, rising rents, etc.)  to real campaigns, where we fight alongside low income New Yorkers in distressed or otherwise at-risk housing.

As we’ve talked about on this blog before, our biggest organizing campaign right now concerns a portfolio of 42 buildings with nearly 1600 units stretching across the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. The New York Daily News gave it a great write-up  last week, delving into the nitty-gritty details of tenant harassment by the managing company, Colonial Management and the danger of refinancing on the mortgage.

“I would like to see these landlords sell the buildings to someone who cares,” said Benjamin Warren, a 35-year resident of 1521 Seridan Ave. in Claremont [in the Bronx]. “Someone who can keep them affordable.”

If the landlords are to be believed, that doesn’t appear likely.

The firms that own Warren’s building and the others in the pool say they’re on the verge of closing a new loan that would enable them to maintain their ownership. Tenants and housing advocates say that would be a disastrous outcome.

“It’s simple: We don’t want the banks to finance a slumlord,” said Warren, 72. “We can’t force the owners to sell. What we want is to stop the banks from refinancing the current plan.”

Then on Monday, Bronx News 12 covered a Tenant Association meeting with three of those buildings on Franklin Avenue that featured their new Councilwoman, Vanessa Gibson who came out to hear from tenants about overt harassment tactics and utter neglect of the buildings. Check it out to see some great VIDEO of the meeting and tenants!

We’ve also been working closely with the Crown Heights Assembly and Pratt Area Community Council to create a Tenant Union in order to fight displacement of long-term tenants (as we’ve written about before as well!) We’ve been working alongside tenants in 1507 St. Johns Place and 1059 Bergen St since their buildings were in foreclosure last year. The two extremely distressed buildings  were purchased — while in foreclosure and against tenants’ wishes — by Barry Farkas: principal of Vasco Ventures.  Since purchasing the properties, he has aggressively tried to push existing tenants out. Vasco’s website (which opens to a quote from robber baron Andrew Carnegie) says they acquire properties with “maximum potential for growth in value.” That’s landlord-speak for “push out rent regulated tenants and destabilize the building.” The New York Daily News wrote about some of his ugly tactics in Harlem, mentioning “The landlords also own at least one of two buildings in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where tenants have formed a coalition to fight similar conditions including a collapsed ceiling.” Its not all that surprising that  Farkas is buying housing in Harlem in addition to Crown Heights, as the neighborhoods rival each other for most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City.

All this media coverage is a crucial aspect to putting pressure on slumlords and keeping New York City affordable. We’re going to win these fights, one article at a time!

Victories on Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Leave!

The fight for housing justice is not in a vacuum: There are many economic, social, and political forces at play when thinking about how to preserve our city’s affordable housing.  When a tenant is working a minimum wage job without sufficient benefits, how can that person sustain their family while paying over half their income towards rent?  In NYC, this is all exacerbated.  We live in an expensive city, and the housing market deals with huge influxes of wealthy gentrifiers who raise the value of housing constantly. It’s a mess!

Our very own Cea Weaver, the assistant-director of UHAB’s Organizing and Policy Department, was quoted yesterday in the Nation’s series on the first 100 days of Mayor de Blasio, touching on these very issues.  How can wages remain  low while the Rent Guidelines Board continues to raise rents on affordable housing year after year?

great if the RGB prioritized things beyond operating costs in determining increases. In the last few years rent has continued to climb while wages have stagnated, and the RGB should take that into account.

But as  the same article notes: rent doesn’t cause income inequality, income does. And higher income would make it infinitely easier for working class New Yorkers to afford sky-high rents. While national momentum to raise the minimum wage is high these days, it’s as hard as ever to pass anything legislatively in Washington.  For this reason, President Obama announced today that he will issue an executive order to raise federal worker’s salaries to adhere to a $10.10 minimum wage!

This will tangibly impact thousands of low-income workers, particularly those who work minimum wage jobs on army bases.  Over 600 economists recently signed on to a letter suggesting that a $10.10 minimum wage nationally will help the economy, as well as bring 5 million people out of poverty.  To support raising the minimum wage on a national scale to $10.10, sign this petition.

In other news, Newark will pass a law ensuring 5 sick days per year for all private- sector employees, including in food care, child care, and direct care services, industries that have historically been left out of some labor laws.  The paid sick leave trend is expanding: Newark is the eighth city to pass a this type of law, and many more bills are working their way through local legislative systems.  No one should have to choose between their health and their ability to pay their rent or support their family.  In one of their first moves at the helm of the City, Mayor Bill Del Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark Vivierto announced their intention to expand New York’s paid sick leave law by requiring businesses with 5+ employees to provide sick days. While business owners fret, experience from other cities shows that paid sick leave bills work extremely well.

Paid sick leave and an increased minimum wage directly impact tenants we work with, and their ability to pay their rent, and remain healthy and employed. So let’s keep the momentum going on passing these progressive bills!

Finally, we wanted to give a quick shout-out to folk-legend and activist, Pete Seeger, who passed away on Monday.  His radical politics got him in trouble time and time again but never strayed from his values.

“My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

Friday News Round-up!

Your weekly news round-up from UHAB Organizers!

  1. On Thursday, the Rent Guidelines Board held a hearing to debate rent increases for rent stabilized units. Mayoral candidates Christine Quinn, Bill de Blasio and John C. Liu attended the debate and vehemently opposed the increases. Currently, rent stabilized apartments increase 2 percent when tenants sign a one year lease and 4 percent when tenants sign a two year lease. However, the board is now proposing a 3.25 to 6.25 percent increase for a one year lease and a 5 to 9.5 percent increase for a two year lease. At a time when affordable housing in New York City is scarce , such increases would exacerbate the problem. The Board will reconvene next Thursday to vote on these increases. Stay tuned as this story unfolds!
  2. As the mayoral election nears, Housing First, a coalition comprised of 35 affordable housing groups in New York City (including UHAB), is compiling a list of recommendations for the next mayor. Anticipated to be released next Friday, the proposal will outline an eight-year plan to create and preserve an additional 150,000 units of affordable housing.  The plan also includes a new deputy mayor position that would oversee the collaboration of housing and homelessness agencies. As seen with Mayor Bloomberg’s affordable housing plan, this proposal will hopefully have great influence over the next mayor’s strategy to increase the number of affordable housing units in the city.
  3. On Wednesday, a study was published, claiming that CitiGroup, Bank of America, JP Morgan, and Wells Fargo have been violating the terms of the $25B national mortgage settlement that was made last year. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, 2 of the 49 state prosecutors that brokered the deal, have been instrumental in evaluating the banks’ progress and elucidating their shortcomings. The most common problem is “failure to notify homeowners of any missing documents in their modification requests within five days of receipt.” While the report insists that some progress has been made in terms of communication, much has yet to be done in order to fully meet the agreement’s expectations.
  4. Yesterday, the New York State Assembly passed the Women’s Equality Act. Introduced by Governor Cuomo, the bill works to end discrimination and inequality based on gender. The bill’s stipulations include: achieving for pay equity, ending sexual harassment in the workplace, and combatting housing discrimination for survivors of domestic violence. The most contentious part of the bill is the abortion component, which protects women’s freedom to choose. Now, the Senate will debate and vote on the bill, and we shall see how this piece of legislation impacts gender equality in New York state and beyond. For UHAB commentary on the bill, check out this older post.
  5. An “affordable” apartment building in Chelsea, built on NYCHA land and subsidized by a variety of city agencies is now open. Income restrictions are nearly $200,000, and rents for a 2BR are nearly $3,500. Not very affordable if you ask me, or if you ask the New York Observer.

(Un)Affordable Apartments

Check out the below post on the problem with 80/20 housing from our friends at Tenants & Neighbors

A good apartment is hard to find. As two recent stories documented, even those supposedly “affordable” units included in large developments are out of reach for the average New Yorker.

 Curbed pointed out that the “affordable” apartments in one new TriBeCa tower are only available for households with incomes ranging from $73,166 to $150,325. That would exclude the vast majority of renters, whose average income is about half the low end of this scale. “Affordable” rents in this building begin at over $2,000, nearly double the average rent per unit citywide.
Washington Mews Uptown a bit, The Daily News found that the promised “affordable” apartments in the Hudson Yards development have not materialized in the promised quantities, and those that have been built are tiny. They write:

Many of those units are tiny studios and one-bedrooms of 400 to 600 square feet — often far smaller than similar market-rate units in the same buildings. At one site, the twin 60-story SilverTowers on W. 42nd St. and 11th Ave., developer Larry Silverstein erected a separate 88-unit ‘affordable’ building at the back of his complex.

The towers boast spacious and luxurious lobbies and the biggest indoor pool in the city. The affordable building has a dark, tiny lobby that faces the back of an MTA bus depot and the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel.

Community Board 4, when they first rejected this plan, described this housing as “separate and unequal,” saying that it has “the look and feel [of] the maids’ quarters for the rest of the project.”
It’s important to keep this in mind when people point to subsidized housing- often in “80/20” packaging- as an alternative for those priced out of rent regulated housing. The apartments created through these incentives are no replacement for affordable, integrated rent stabilized housing.
At the preliminary vote, a landlord representative stated that rent regulated housing is not the “housing of last resort” for poor tenants. If they are priced out of rent regulated housing, they are clearly not going to find a home in these “affordable” apartments. Waiting lists are growing for public housing. Where, exactly, should tenants go if rising annual rent increases price them out of rent stabilized housing?
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