The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: Tenants and Neighbors

Fighting for the Future: Lessons from 1520 Sedgwick

This is a video from a few days ago when we celebrated the return of 1520 Sedgwick to well-maintained affordable housing for low to moderate income residents in the Bronx. This was the culmination of a long, hard-fought campaign started by the tenants with the assistance of UHAB in 2007.

I wasn’t the organizer in the 1520 Sedgwick campaign, since I joined UHAB in 2008. But because of the importance of the campaign my formation as a tenant organizer was shaped through the lens of 1520 Sedgwick.

In 2007, residents of 1520 Sedgwick reached out to UHAB and Tenants & Neighbors because they had learned that their building had been sold to a landlord who intended to remove affordability restrictions and attract higher paying tenants to make up for the fact that he over paid for the building in the first place.

Sedgwick was the iconic predatory equity campaign: strong tenants stood up to fight for their homes in a historic building known as the “Birthplace of Hip-Hop.”   Tenants, with UHAB’s support, began pushing back against their landlord. Our earliest campaign goals at 1520 Sedgwick were to keep the buildings in the Mitchell Lama program and prevent a sale to real estate speculator Mark Karasick. Help came flooding in, starting with DJ Kool Herc, the father of hip-hop who started the cultural trend in the community room of 1520 forty years ago, but soon city leaders like Senator Schumer and Congressman Serrano, to name a few, joined the fight.

It was an emotional and impressive campaign. And, despite everyone’s best efforts, we failed. Big business profiteering off affordable housing won the fight. The building was sold to Mark Karasick, who bought it with a $7.2 million mortgage from Sovereign Bank, shortly thereafter it was removed from the Mitchel Lama program. Predictably, the building began to fall in to disrepair. However, rather than becoming discouraged, the tenants remained organized and continued to fight for what they knew their buildings could be.

That’s when Workforce Housing Advisors entered the scene, with an unconventional plan to purchase the mortgage and foreclosure on the owner. The tenants were ready to pick up the fight once again, and the second time around it was not difficult to find the support of city agencies and elected officials to help with this preservation option, and the building was recovered.

This recent celebration was the official ribbon cutting, post renovation of the building. The tenants and all their supporters who helped win this campaign came out to see what all the work was for, a beautiful affordable housing complex for the residents who fought so hard for their community.

While we are grateful for the support from all the organizations and agencies, we need to take a moment and specifically thank the tenants. Their struggle and their victory has taught UHAB’s Organizing and Policy Department so much over the past five years. When they reached out to us in 2007, we were in the early stages of predatory equity and were just discovering how financial malfeasance and mortgage over-leveraging based on speculation and gentrification, impacts tenants and their homes. Now, it defines our work. We learned about foreclosure at 1520 Sedgwick; Workforce Housing’s plan to purchase the mortgage and foreclose on the owner provided the inspiration for our campaign against New York Community Bank and created the framework for the First Look Program that came out of it.

Currently, while we continue to face the fallout of the previous housing bust, at the same time we see buildings being re-overleveraged. It’s disheartening to feel that real estate hasn’t learned from the failures of speculators like Karasic. Still, I look at the 1520 Sedgwick campaign and remember the resiliency of the tenants, their refusal to give up, and it reminds me that while it’s easy to be discouraged, the present isn’t permanent and the future is worth fighting for.

(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?

Tomorrow: May Day “General Strike”…No work, No School, No Housework, No Shopping, No Banking….

Tomorrow is May Day, marking the the126th anniversary of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, turning this traditionally Celtic holiday into a lefty labor rights anarchist immigrant rights prison justice anti-corporate Occupy everything holiday.  This year, there is a nationwide call for a General Strike – “A Day without the 99%” – encouraging people not to go to work, to school, to shop, or to buy anything.  Like in 2006, El Dia Sin Inmigrantes, the general strike will demonstrate just how powerful collective organizing can be. We see the power of collective organizing every day.  Tenants join forces through group lawsuits, building-wide petitions, and even by the simple act of coming together and brainstorming solutions to building problems, tenants improve their buildings and establish community. May Day is not only a time to assert people-power, but to assert labor and immigrant rights.  Tenants we work with are almost exclusively low-income immigrants or people of color, and all are effected by the racial implications of policies like “Stop and Frisk,” “Operation Clean Halls” and the would-be “Secure Communities” program.  Tomorrow is a chance to band together across racial and class lines to assert an anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-sexist agenda.  There will be a plethora of free food, music, art supplies, educational teach-ins allowing for us to live one day in without participating in the system (capitalism) which promotes policies that hurt our communities. Check out Occupy Wall Street’s website for a full list of May Day activities and organizational endorsers. A few events we wanted to highlight:
Tenants and Neighbors:

This May Day, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) will be voting on a proposed range of rent adjustments for rent stabilized tenants. Every year since it came into existence, the Rent Guidelines Board has voted to raise rents, usually to levels that are unaffordable to many rent stabilized tenants.  This year, join us in expressing our collective frustration with the Rent Guidelines Board and demanding that it be made to be more accountable to the millions of New Yorkers who want the city to remain affordable to low and moderate income people. The meeting is at 5:30 at 7 East 7th Street; we will be rallying outside at 5:00 PM. For more information or to RSVP for the rally, please contact Sam Stein at sstein@tandn.org or 212-608-4320, ext. 316.

Take Back the Land:

The Free University at Madison Square Park is an open invitation to educators around New York to participate in May Day. Lectures, workshops, skill-shares, and discussions will be held — all open to the public. University professors will bring their classes to the commons. Join Robert Robinson,  representatives from Take Back the Land and from Organizing for Occupation for a teach-in and conversation about the current housing crisis and the growing movement of communities taking positive action to collectively secure the human right to housing.

positive action (direct action) to collectively secure the human right to housing

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice:

2pm – JFREJ joins GOLES to support Public Housing residents taking their struggle to the streets! Meet: NE Corner of Houston and Avenue D, New York Sick and tired of being left out of decisions that affect the future of their homes, Lower East Side residents have decided to take to the streets — marching from Houston to 14th street to raise awareness about the New York City Housing Authority’s proposed policy changes that will affect the future of public housing. The LES has always been a safe haven for immigrant and low-income families – public housing is one of the few affordable housing options left. Protect what we have! March with LES public housing residents to Union Square where we’ll join the masses for the Unity Rally.

For the massive solidarity rally, we will be meeting at 4pm in Union Square, and at 5:30 we’ll be marching to Wall St.! We hope to see you there.

New York State Legislators and New York City Council call for Rent Guidelines Board Reforms!

Picture via Capital New York

Yesterday, we stood with State Senator Daniel Squadron, Assembly-Member Brian Kavanagh, City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Tenants & Neighbors and tenants and neighbors from around the city to urge New York State elected officials to pass legislation to reform the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB), ahead of the RGB’s annual vote to adjust rents.

The Rent Guidelines Board was established in 1969 and is mandated manage the persist housing shortage in New York City that puts low to moderate income New Yorkers at risk of losing their home. New York City Council and New York State legislature have both recognized that under conditions of less than 5% vacancy rate, an unregulated rental market causes “severe hardship to tenants” and forces the “uprooting [of] long-time city residents from their community.” By establishing the annual rate at which rent in regulated units is allowed to rise, the Board’s mission is to create fair rent levels in a market driven by chronic scarcity.

Under current law, the RGB is made up of nine members, all appointed by the Mayor. These nine members are charged with investigating the economic condition of the real estate industry in NYC, including average cost of operating a multifamily building and the average income and cost of living for residents each borough. Two members are appointed to represent tenant interest, two members are appointed to represent owner interest, and five members are appointed to represent the general public. The RGB is consistently under fire from tenants and the NYC affordable housing advocacy community for regularly raising rents despite data that suggests landlord income is going up and affordable housing is scarce.

The proposed legislation (S741A/A6394B), sponsored by Senator Squadron and Assembly member Kavanagh, would require City Council confirmation of the Mayor’s appointees to the RGB, bringing necessary checks and balances to the system and making the appointment process more democratic. The bill would also open up appointment to a wider array of professionals – including those who work non-profit and urban policy – and ensure that more diversified views are represented on the RGB.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn expressed support for the bill, pointing to the fact that the council already has the authority to provide oversight to various NYC agencies and boards that are arguably less important to New Yorkers. “The question becomes…why hasn’t this happened? Why is this one board that is so important, so central to the life of so many New Yorkers, only appointed by the executive with no input from the legislature?”

Like Tenants and Neighbors, we agree that the RGB is consistently pro-landlord, taking little cue from actual data or tenant experience in New York City. These days, nearly everyone is weighing in on whether or not the housing market is rebounding. (We have our own thoughts – stay tuned.) People don’t seem to argue that years of homeownership struggle have caused on influx of new renters to the market. Basic economics tells us that rents will naturally rise. But unemployment isn’t dropping nearly as quickly as rents are rising and tenants in the Bronx and Central Brooklyn are still struggling with high rents and low pay. Even though the “market” may be doing better, we know that the people who live in this city are still struggling. By bringing accountability and democracy to the RGB, we hope that the board can become a stronger ally for affordable housing and NYC tenants.

To join this fight, follow Real Rent Reform on Twitter (@realrentreform) and like them on Facebook! Even better, get on the van to Albany on Wednesday to support the Assembly Housing Committee vote on R3’s priority bills: preferential rent reform, RGB reform, MCI reform, rent control reform, and the decrease in the vacancy bonus. Help R3 and Tenants and Neighbors put weight behind these bills! The van leaves from 236 W. 27th Street in Manhattan. RSVP to Sam at sstein@tandn.org.

For more on the RGB, visit their website: http://www.housingnyc.com . Stay tuned to this important fight for NYC tenants! Check out Capital New York for more on this story and yesterday’s announcement.

Farewell!

After two and half years, I am saying goodbye to UHAB and hello to my hometown of San Francisco, CA.

But before I leave, dear tenants, allies, advocates, and readers – I’ll tell you a little bit about the stuff I learned in hopes that the lessons will be useful.

1) Focusing a large campaign on a single target works. 

2) New York tenants are sharp, tenacious, and down to fight injustice.

3) Foreclosure is a terrible process for renters, particularly because receivers generally do not receive funding from the bank to deal with distressed conditions created by the prior owner. This generates even more dangerous conditions in a building and a confusing situation for tenants who are not sure which party is responsible for their significant maintenance needs.

4) Predatory Equity is still happening, with many new over-leveraged loans being made on multi-family buildings. This second round of further speculation will continue to have punishing effects on neighborhoods if legislators do not take significant action.

4) Responsible banking ordinances, public participation in CRA reviews, and meetings with bank regulators seem to present lasting strategies to encourage better bank behavior.

6) A Landlord License Law is one of the most interesting and powerful new policy initiatives that could preserve and protect NY’s affordable housing stock.

5) Amazing work is happening in NY around fighting predatory equity. This work would not be nearly as successful without all of UHAB’s amazing allies – Legal Aid Society, Urban Justice Center, Legal Services New York, New York Communities for Change, Community Action for Safe Apartments, Pratt Area Community Council, Tenants and Neighbors, Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, the many great landlords and developers in NY, journalists and reporters, and of course the amazing and courageous tenants of all five boroughs.

THANK YOU everyone who has made my last few years memorable, exciting, positive, and inspirational. I will miss you.

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