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!

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