The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: urban justice center

representMEnyc: First Hand Accounts of What New Yorkers want in a Mayor

Last night was the final televised debate in the race for the Democratic nomination for NYC Mayor. If you missed it there is ample coverage all over the internet; we don’t need to link it here. However, the question remains whether or not the current mayoral candidates accurately address needs of struggling New Yorkers. Michael Powell at the NY Times published a similar article on politics and inequality in the Bronx on Sunday.

The Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project has developed a tumblr called “representMEnyc” in which low-income New Yorkers are able to express what they want from the next NYC mayor. Helen Strom, legal advocate at UJC, shares the motivation behind the project:

During the Bloomberg years, while some sectors of the city have prospered, low-income New Yorkers have faced both official neglect and outright malice from the mayor’s office. We want the site to allow people to connect personally to the stories and desires of their fellow New Yorkers and to amplify the voices of low-income communities, which have been ignored and suppressed in the city for too long.

Through the tumblr, we are able to learn individual stories and desires of New Yorkers, and what’s important to them.  One child and his mother hold up a sign listing their priorities for the city.  They tell UJC staff:

“The mayor needs to worry about more than soda when people don’t have anywhere to live. I am thinking of moving out of state because of the living conditions here. I have been in that building 19 years and it’s time to go. The way they treat you here is like garbage if you are on Section 8 or something like that. If a new mayor comes, we need better housing laws because the housing is never up to code. My landlord is getting money but they never do anything. We are being abused by landlords with the living conditions here, how much more abuse can we take?”

Another woman writes:

“I need the next mayor to: budgeting the city’s money in a logical and fair way. Not just build housing, but REAL affordable housing w/out gentrifying neighborhoods. 80/20 is not fair and not good enough. Learn the AMI of neighborhoods you are rebuilding. Be more active in community events. Get to know those who vote for you. Understand minimum wage in no way can afford anyone a home/apt or proper housing single/married or especially family. The hiking of MTA and the lack of better service. Where is all of our fare going? When service seems to just get worse.”

She goes on to say:

“This issue has become more of an importance because I am head of household, because I am a mother. And not involved in a two income household where this city seems to tend to more. I need to build a security for my child so she does not have to experience the trials this city has inflicted on it natural born citizens especially. I was born/raised/educated in the city of New York and yet can’t afford a basic, comfortable living. I do not meet concierge/drivers/ and restaurants I can’t afford. I need housing/a decent paying job w/ skills I’ve strived to attain to be a part of the city I grew up in and be a working part of society and to not feel banished from it, by being PRICED out.”

Getting these stories out is crucial.  We need to make more effort as a society to make sure that this perspective is heard, and is being told by those experiencing it.

If you’d like to contribute to the tumblr, you are able to share your opinions directly on the page or by emailing UJCSafetyNet@gmail.com.

30 Percent Rent Cap: Improving Health and Reducing Evictions for HASA Clients

This month, VOCAL-NY and the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project collaboratively published “ More Than a Home: How Affordable Housing for New Yorkers Living with HIV/AIDS will Prevent Homelessness, Improve Health and Reduce Costs.” The report evaluates the HIV/AIDS rental assistance program administered by the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA.) Of the several rental assistance programs in New York, HASA is the only one that does not require standard affordable housing protections. Unlike other rental-assistance programs, such as Sec. 8, HASA does not provide a 30% rent cap, forcing their clients to pay upwards of 70% of their income on housing. Such a rent burden not only jeopardizes their ability to keep their homes, but it also endangers  their health.

To assess the impact of not having a rent-cap, researchers collected 82 surveys from and conducted 3 focus groups comprised of homeless or are unstably housed people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). The results illustrated that the absence of a rent cap led to increased homelessness as well as health deterioration.

Here are some of them:

  • More than half of the respondents (56%) were behind on their rent when they lost their apartment. A majority (60%) of the respondents had fallen into arrears of more than $1,000.
  • About two-thirds (65%) of respondents reported having to choose between paying rent and other basic necessities.
  • About half of the respondents were not able to afford food (46%) or transportation (48%).
  • One in three (34%) respondents said they had trouble paying for healthcare expenses such as co-pays for medical appointments or prescription drugs that were not covered by health insurance.
  • Over two-thirds of survey respondents (67%) said that it has been harder to take care of their health since losing their apartment and entering the emergency shelter system, with six in ten reporting that their health has deteriorated during this time.
  • More than half of respondents (54%) said it has been harder to keep medical appointments since becoming homeless, and slightly less than half (47%) said it had become harder to take their medication.
  • More than half (52%) had visited the emergency room and 38% had actually been admitted to hospitals since becoming homeless and entering the emergency housing system.

Without a rent cap, HASA clients cannot afford to pay their rent as well as cover their daily expenses — especially in city as expensive as New York. To improve this program and provide better protections for PLWHA, HASA clients are asking that Governor Cuomo and the state legislature to institute a 30 percent rent cap. Such regulations would make housing more affordable, which would lessen the likelihood of evictions as well as emergency shelter occupants. In doing so, the health of PLWHA would improve, and the cost of emergency room and hospital visits to the state would shrink. We, at UHAB,  stand with HASA clients in demanding that the state legislature recognize that “housing is healthcare” implement a 30 percent rent cap!

“Don’t Forget Shelters’ Role in Homelessness Crisis”

In New York City, 50,000 people live in emergency shelters. To address this issue, each mayoral candidate has illustrated their plans to expand the affordable housing stock. However,  they have yet to divulge their plans to improve shelter policies. Hannah Biskind, a Legal Advocate at the Urban Justice Center‘s Safety Net Project, published an article Friday in City Limits deconstructing the ways in which the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) perpetuates homelessness and the need to revamp shelter practices.

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Don’t Forget Shelters’ Role in the Homelessness Crisis        by Hannah Biskind

On April 10th, former Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Commissioner Robert V. Hess published an article in City Limits calling on New York City’s next mayor to address the City’s growing homelessness crisis. In his piece, Mr. Hess touts the work of his former organization, DHS, and argues that the next mayor must utilize multiple city agencies to provide better access to shelters and an exit strategy out of the cycle of homelessness.

He asks a good question.  What is the next mayor going to do about homelessness? He asks the same question ringing in my head. As a Legal Advocate at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project, I work with homeless families every day and I worry about what this next mayoral election means for my clients. I have yet to hear or read anything from mayoral candidates regarding this issue, yet over 50,000 of their constituents are in emergency shelter.  And even more families who should qualify for emergency shelter are thrown back out on the streets every day by DHS.

I agree with Mr. Hess’s statement that homelessness needs to be a campaign issue.  But let’s address the ways that DHS can make the needs of homeless families a priority, as well.  Homelessness is the result of multiple failures in the system, such as the lack of affordable housing and living wage jobs.  But that does not let DHS off the hook and negate DHS’s responsibility in this current crisis.

I agree that the solution to homelessness lies in a citywide, multi-agency effort.  I agree that affordable housing and the creation of a new city housing subsidy program should be of top priority.  I agree that we need more living-wage jobs. Yet, while DHS does not control affordable housing and living-wage jobs, it does contribute to the number of street homeless families that are left out of DHS’s shelter census every night.

I work with families everyday as they apply and try to enter the emergency shelter system.  While the initial reasons my clients have nowhere to go does not directly implicate DHS, the reasons my clients must apply for shelter time and time again does.  These families seek out my help because, after providing what documentation they have of their required one- to two-year housing history, DHS has denied them emergency shelter.  While Mr. Hess is somehow able to compare the shelter system to both the Marriott and the hospital emergency room, I have sat next to my clients time and time again as DHS tells them that no, they will not get the help they need from the shelter system.  New York City’s right to shelter for its homeless population dates back to the 1980’s but homeless families must prove that they must have nowhere else to go.  I listen to DHS tell my clients over and over again that they do have somewhere to go, that they are not really homeless despite compiled evidence to the contrary.

DHS does not meet its legal and moral obligation to house every single individual and family that is truly homeless.  I have seen it with my own eyes.  And if we are going to address homelessness in New York City and do our best to transition our homeless population into stable, permanent housing, then DHS must uphold its moral and legal obligation to provide shelter to homeless families who have the legal right to emergency shelter.

Stable shelter is the first step for our already homeless New Yorkers and providing that is DHS’s responsibility.  I agree with Mr. Hess that the next mayor needs to address the issue of homelessness in New York. But in doing so, the next mayor must understand how existing DHS policies are actually contributing to our city’s crisis of homelessness.

Reforming these policies, in addition to expanding affordable housing and living wage job opportunities, is an imperative if our city is to truly deliver on its constitutional promise of shelter for all.

To read the article on City Limit’s website, click here.

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.” 

A Non-Exhaustive List of Tenant Organizing Strategies

As tenant organizers at UHAB, we work with tenants on campaigns of all sorts.  Those campaigns can be as small as an individual 6 unit building fight, or as large as a multi-building, multi-borough struggle against a multi-billion dollar bank to change its underwriting practices.  Whatever the fight, we think strategically about which methods would be the most effective for reaching our larger goals of building tenant power and ultimately preserving affordable housing in New York City.  We want to devote this blog post to laying out some basic strategies that we regularly use to give more insight into what tenant organizing looks like on the ground.  Once we have developed a campaign idea, we determine who our target is, and then focus our attention on which strategies would apply the necessary pressure on the target to change its behavior.

The following is a list of some strategies we encourage tenant associations to use to leverage their power:

  • Dialogue with the target, when productive: Throughout the campaign process, it is important to continue to be open to conversation with the target or about changing the target’s behavior in some way.  When UHAB organizers work with tenants to pressure a landlord into making repairs, we first invite the landlord to a tenant meeting, and continue to keep the door open for conversation.  Similarly, when we run a campaign against a bank, we attempt to set up meetings with the bank to allow for negotiation and change.
  • Coalition Building: Creating a coalition of tenants in several buildings facing similar situations or of tenant advocate groups can be useful for a campaign.  The more people there are putting pressure on a target, the more victorious the campaign will be.
  • Elected Officials: Tenant associations have the power to ask their City Council members or Borough President’s office for a meeting and (depending on the councilmember) that meeting can be really fruitful! We have also brought tenants to their State Senator, State Assembly-person, and even their U.S. Congressman and U.S. Senator. Elected officials are there to work for their constituents and have the status to pressure landlords, banks, and generally raise the profile of a building.  Building relationships is what organizing is all about!
  • HPD: There are several venues for tenants to work with the city agency for Housing Preservation and Development to improve conditions in their building.  Through calling311 and recording violations, tenants officially document conditions which can then be used in housing court or in further actions.   HPD’s Proactive Preservation Initiative allows tenants or advocates to refer a building to the Department of Neighborhood Preservation for investigation.  This can be an easy way to determine if the violation count accurately reflects building conditions.  The higher the violation count, the higher profile the building has with HPD and housing advocates.
  • Press: It might seem obvious, but pitching a good story to the press could make a world of difference for a campaign.  Whether the story is about tarnishing a landlord’s name, reporting on an action, or a larger story about foreclosure and the bank, press stories bring issues into the public realm.  A good public shaming might be just what someone needs to come to the negotiating table.
  • Legal: Tenants can work with lawyers from nonprofit law groups like Legal Services New Yorkthe Legal Aid Society, or the Urban Justice Center to file lawsuits that work for them.  Tenants can file a collective HP Action against their landlord or receiver to push them to make repairs.  They can advocate for a 7A administrator to be placed in the building, or file a Milbank lawsuit. The Milbank strategy was developed by Bronx Legal Services for our fight against the Predatory Equity group of the same name, and has been used across the city to force the lender to put money into repairing the building. Each of these lawsuits empowers tenants financially and emotionally and holds the landlord, the lender, or the city more accountable for making repairs in the building.

As stated, this is a non-exhaustive list! We work alongside tenants and are always open to suggestions and ideas for how to move a campaign forward. What thoughts do you have?

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