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Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

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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!

CROWN HEIGHTS TENANTS RALLY AGAINST ATTEMPT TO FLIP ILEGALLY PURCHASED BROOKLYN HOMES

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Jan. 15, 2014

Contact:

Ismene Speliotis, 718-246-8080 ex 203
Kerri White, 212-479-3371

CROWN HEIGHTS TENANTS RALLY AGAINST ATTEMPT TO FLIP ILLEGALLY PURCHASED BROOKLYN HOMES

BROOKLYN (Jan. 15, 2014) – Residents of two decrepit rent-regulated buildings in Crown Heights and their supporters rallied today to demand that the new owners – who illegally bought the foreclosed-upon homes — stop trying to make a quick buck on the backs of the tenants.

“For the past three years, tenants in all four of these buildings have fought for their homes while suffering unconscionable living conditions,” said Kerri White, Director of Organizing and Policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which is helping the tenants, along with New York Communities for Change.

“There is a preservation deal ready to move forward, it has been funded by the city and is supported by the tenant associations. (Broker Sanford) Solny and his investor friends must drop their opposition to the foreclosure immediately. This is a fight they cannot win: their protracted and frankly ridiculous interventions only force tenants to suffer for longer.”

The deteriorating buildings, which have been in foreclosure since 2009, have racked up 319 code violations on just 12 units.   There are holes in walls, water damage and other violations.

The way we are living here, they are treating us like animals,” said Pinkrose James, Tenant Association representative. “If Bernard Neiderman’s friends think they can get our buildings back from the tenants, they are wrong. We are here to demand that the foreclosure move forward so the Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY) can begin work on our homes, and to tell let anyone interested in buying these buildings to back off.” 

In March 2012, the Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY) purchased the mortgages on the buildings with the intentions of becoming owners once the properties wound their way through the foreclosure process. MHANY bought the mortgages with the support of the tenant associations, housing advocates, and city officials. The 25 year-old non-profit organization has plans that include a complete renovation in the buildings, funded by the Department of Housing Preservation in Development.

However, in the fall of 2012, slumlord Bernard Neiderman illegally sold the deeds to 230 and 232 Schenectady Avenue to a group of investors based in Borough Park. It is illegal to sell buildings that are in foreclosure. These investors, working through broker Sanford Solny, hope they can flip the buildings, buying out MHANY’s interest and making money off the top. This speculative behavior has slowed an already glacial foreclosure process, forcing tenants to wait longer for the repairs they desperately need. The buildings are both in the City’s Alternative Enforcement Program. The tenants rallied outside Solny’s office in Borough Park to demand that these investors drop their baseless and speculative opposition for the foreclosure, and allow the preservation deal to move forward.

“Unfortunately, many neighborhoods that low- and moderate-income New Yorkers have called home for generations have increasingly been affected by the speculative real estate market.  As buildings are sold at speculative prices amongst uncaring and unscrupulous investors — prices that cannot be maintained with the legal residents and legal rents — the greatest victims are the tenants themselves,” said Ismene Speliotis, Executive Director of the Mutual Housing Association of New York.

“MHANY ‘s plan to purchase the note, oversee the completion of the foreclosure, rehabilitate the buildings, and provide decent and affordable housing to the residents is still intact.  We are working with all parties to complete the foreclosure and take care of the residents and the buildings, preserving another affordable housing asset for the Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights community.”

Stabilis Press Conference

Here is  a video with footage from the Stabilis press conference and building tour on December 3rd. Letitia “Tish” James, who will become our Public Advocate in just a few days, spoke beautiful words of solidarity with the tenants. Tenants spoke about the hardships and appalling conditions they have endured while living in a building with a negligent landlord. Then the tenants lead a tour of the apartments to show some of these conditions. Please watch and share!

We Fought Back and We Won!

Tenants celebrated a major victory at 1520 Sedgwick on Friday. After over five years of fighting, they can finally say that they have wrestled their buildings from the hands of a private equity company into the hands of a landlord that they picked, renovations are completed, and tenants are home at last. 

1520 Sedgwick is widely known as the Birthplace of Hip Hop — something that Borough President Ruben Diaz noted brought hope to the Bronx in the darkest days of the 1970s. Parties at 1520 Sedgwick, he said, gave people of the Bronx something to believe in. 

We’re inspired by the amazing preservation battle the tenants waged — and thrilled that they have been victorious. Check out coverage from the Daily News, and see the photos below via Anthony Collins Photography. 

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Press Release: Organized Bronx Tenants Visit Housing Court to Demand Freedom From Harrassment

On Wednesday, April 17th tenants from the 1058 Southern Boulevard Tenants’ Association and their allies outside of Bronx Housing Court demanding that their landlord immediately discontinue unjustified housing court cases against the residents.  The tenants are being supported by their Councilmember, Maria del Carmen Arroyo, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, and the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center.

In January, tenants made their landlord, Miriam Shasho, aware of their plans for file a 7A action. If successful this would remove the building from the landlord’s control. Since that time, organized tenants have felt harassed at the hands of their management company, including threats of eviction, unlawful refusal to renew leases, and summons to housing court. Following the rally, tenants who have received non-payment petitions will join together to answer their cases before a judge.

In addition to bringing their landlord’s tactics into the limelight, tenants are hoping to draw attention to the systematic inequalities within the Housing Court. Tenants often lack representation and as a result are shut out of the complex and alienating Housing Court process. According to a new report released by CASA and UJC, tenants are frequently even denied their right to go before a judge, signing confusing stipulations in the hallways rather than in a courtroom.

“The tenants from 1058 Southern Boulevard have been brought to court over and over again. Our building is in terrible condition and we desperately need repairs. We didn’t have heat or hot water all winter. We feel our landlord is harassing us and we would like the court to recognize these tactics are unfair and harmful to tenants.” said Lisa Ortega, representative of the Tenants Association.  

Tenants in this 55 unit building have lived side by side with housing conditions that threaten their health and safety for years, including no heat and hot water, black mold and mildew, severe leaks, rats, and roaches. The building was recently entered into HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, an aggressive enforcement tool reserved for the city’s 200 most distressed properties.

“Once again, I congratulate the tenants of 1058 Southern Boulevard for their diligence and efforts to ensure the owner of 1058 Southern Boulevard provides quality and safe housing,” said Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo. “In their latest efforts, they have joined forces to answer the landlord’s claims that tenants owe rent and in most cases, they do not owe back rent.  I support the tenants in their efforts and will continue to work with them to ensure the owner is held accountable for improving the deplorable conditions of the property.”

 

“We have seen buildings where landlords employ harassment tactics to try and discourage tenants from organizing,” said Kerri White Director of Organizing and Policy at UHAB. “The tenants of 1058 Southern Boulevard know their rights. They will stand up for their homes and families, no matter what obstacles they may have to face.” 

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