Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board
Avital Aboody has been working as a tenant organizer in the Organizing and Policy Department at UHAB since September 2010. She joined the team by way of an Americorps program called “AVODAH: The Jewish Serivce Corps”. Avital received a B.A in Peace and Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley in 2009. Throughout her time in school, she was a very active member of the Berkeley Student Coops. Avital spent the past year working for a non-profit human rights organization in Jerusalem called Breaking the Silence, and has previous experience as a group facilitator, community organizer, and activist with various social-justice themed organizations in the Bay Area and abroad.
The files are all transferred, the loose ends all tied up
I’ve parted ways with tenants, and tonight we’ll toast a full cup
To my wonderful year with UHAB, which today will sadly end
But the housing fight continues until the banks are forced to bend
I thank you faithful readers for giving us your time
And hope you’ve learned a thing or two bout organizing on a dime
This year we’ve had our share of ups and downs and in betweens
But as the tenants grow even stronger we know we can only succeed
Before this job I theorized about the trials of movement building
But this year I stood on the ground, chanting and poster wielding
Where I go from here is still unclear, but there’s one thing I know for sure
I’ll carry this experience with me; my conviction is deep and pure.
Housing is a human right! We won’t let you forget
That tenants have a voice and we won’t quit til needs are met!
I’ll sign off here and send my love to allies far and wide
Keep pushing, keep believing, because justice is on our side!
Have you ever considering being a tenant organizer? Still not totally sure what we actually do all day?
Well, lucky for you, the sleepless nights of pondering about organizing are over! Today I’m going to walk you through the ups and downs and the ins and outs of my work schedule from last week. I admit that this was not a typical week, and I apologize if I shatter your idealized view of organizing, but at least you’ll get a snapshot of some of the challenges. Cheers to reality checks! Get your Unlimited Metrocard ready because we have a long journey ahead of us…
Monday July 11– The week begins with a quick flyer run in Brooklyn. 266 Malcolm X Blvd is a short bus ride from my house and it’s only 9 units so I’m thinking I’ll be done and on my way to our Wall Street office in no time. But of course, what’s a Monday morning without a little drama? While flyering, I run into a tenant who questions why I even bother when nothing is improving and no one cares. She’s desperately trying to find a new apartment and I’m desperately trying to make tenants fight for the one they already have. And there we are, locked in this dance, mutually sympathetic yet unable to help each other achieve our opposing goals. A bit deflated, I finally get to the office to plow through a to-do list before my evening meeting in the Bronx. The meeting is at 1055 Grand Concourse, a building I’ve written about before. We are filing an HP Action against the landlord to deal with repair needs and this meeting is going to be our first in-person encounter with the lawyer that we’ve been communicating with by email and phone for months. My co-organizer and I are very excited. Fast forward: the lawyer’s a no-show and the tenants don’t do much better on attendance. Not the worst meeting, but still nothing much to write about. So I won’t.
Tuesday July 12-Ah, the hour and a half long morning commute to the Bronx! I drop off the flyers at 2239-41 Creston, try to ignore the discomfort of being covered in sweat from climbing 8 flights of stairs, and then attempt to get into the building across the street that I recently discovered is under the same ownership as 1055 Grand Concourse (yes, the building from the previous night). No luck, but I did get a resident from the building on the phone for a good conversation, in which she warns me of what we can expect to see from the landlord, Steve Finkelstein.
Wednesday July 13-9:30am (early for organizers) we are in court in Downtown Brooklyn. The tenants from 230-232 Schenectady are with us hoping for some justice today. Three hours later, our attempt to get New York Community Bank to front some money for critical repairs is shut down. The best we get is a promise from the management company to do their job and a future court date in September. It’s a real blow to our anti-NYCB campaign. Later in the office I’m starting to feel that not all my efforts are in vain when I get calls back from several elected officials who I called to invite to the meeting at 266 Malcolm X. A representative from State Senator Montgomery’s office confirms her attendance and a few hours later there were are. Just me and the representative. No tenants. No support from the representative either. Eventually two tenants show up, but they are just as disinterested as the representative. Rough night.
Thursday July 14– I make a pit stop in Crown Heights to return some documents to tenants and then run to the office for just one hour before I have to jump on the train to meet tenants at 1255 Longfellow in the Bronx. The Longfellow tenants have an appointment with Bronx Legal Services to do intake and affidavits (this is the fifth building attempting to sue a lender for repair money during foreclosure). I meet the tenants only a bit behind schedule and go with them to the lawyers’ office. It’s pretty smooth sailing, especially given the fact that tenants who were scheduled to go earlier in the week forgot to show up. From there, I wander around the Bronx in search of food before my meeting in another Bronx neighborhood. Bad lasagna and some coconut water later, I begin my meeting at 2239-41 Creston Ave. After a quick round of reminder door-knocking, the tenant turnout is still relatively low, in stark contrast to the posse of “other interested parties” present at this meeting. The session is jam-packed with speakers including the Housing Specialist from Councilman Cabrera’s office, a doctor from Bronx Lebanon Hospital, the mortgage holder, and tenant organizers. To understand what doctors have to do with tenant meetings, see my previous post here.
Friday July 15– I’m spending the whole day in the office, exhausted, and picking up pieces from a hectic week. I didn’t describe the conversations taking place in the office in between all this running around, but trust me, some solid learning and new ideas came out of all these set-backs. For one, we are thinking more about how to use the public health angle to expose the evils of predatory equity.
So is organizing rewarding? Effective? When you zoom in on one week like this it seems questionable. But when we zoom back out and think about how much ground we are able to cover and the plethora of different strategies we employ to push tirelessly against powerful actors, it definitely seems worthwhile.
This past week the UHAB organizers have been running all over Manhattan and Brooklyn dropping flyers in some of New York Community Bank’s most distressed properties. Until today, the pictures featured on the “Picture This!” section of our blog were all from buildings that we have been working with for many months, sometimes years. But now, as we power through our research and identify more NYCB buildings in bad shape, we are reaching out to a host of new buildings and encouraging tenants to send us their photos and join the campaign against NYCB.
And the leg work is paying off! A tenant from 2401 Cortelyou Road in Brooklyn, one of ten new buildings where we distributed flyers, gave us a CD full of pictures from her building. You can see those pictures (and more!) here.
Sometimes we just slipped flyers under tenants’ doors with instructions for emailing photos, other times we ran into tenants in the hallway and explained our campaign in more depth. As expected, many of the tenants we met in these NYCB buildings were suffering with bad conditions. We plan to return to a few of these buildings to begin organizing, but we don’t have capacity to go back to all of them. Even though we might not organize in every building, we are hoping that the “Picture This!” page can serve as visual proof of the urgency of the housing crisis in NYC, and can be an importance reference point for media outlets, elected officials, and the general public.
The idea behind this flyer drop and the entire “NYCB Hurts NYC” photo campaign is this:
1. Create a wider network of tenants engaged in the campaign to hold the bank accountable
2. Expose the negative effects of predatory lending on New York City housing stock
3. Expand organizing capacity in NYC by creating a database of distressed buildings that advocate groups can use to identify new outreach
4. Utilize new media to more effectively show and tell the story of the threat to quality, affordable housing
If you would like to join this effort, please get in touch:
“It remains the position of the tenants that state rent laws must be strengthened and not simply extended. The laws that expired last night were weak, and were contributing to the erosion of affordable housing. Yesterday, a temporary extender law failed to pass the Senate. For the Senate Democrats who voted against this extender because extension is not enough, we thank them and we stand with them in this position.
“For the Republican Senators who continue to oppose stronger rent laws, especially Senators Marty Golden and Andrew Lanza, who represent thousands of tenants, know this: a straight extension is not enough. The public supports stronger rent laws, to protect tenants and preserve affordable housing. Your games of brinkmanship and blame will not work. The senate majority has taken millions from New York City landlords, and is now doing their bidding – and they are putting the homes of 2.5 million New Yorkers at stake. The people of New York see through your charade and they will not stand for it.
“It is up to all state senators to support stronger rent laws. And it is up to Governor Cuomo to use his leadership to make this happen. The Governor has said he plans to call the Senate into extraordinary session until they pass stronger rent laws. The tenants support that effort. We need stronger rent laws now. The future of affordable housing in New York City and suburban counties rides in the balance.”
Join rent-stabilized tenants and housing activists in Albany!
Thursday, June 16 at 10:00 AM: 95 and Broadway, contact Mario Mazzoni at Metropolitan Council on Housing at email@example.com.
Friday, June 17 at 8:00 AM: 2-4 Nevins St, contact Pete Nagy at New York Communities for Change at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, June 20 at 10:00 AM: 95 and Broadway, contact David Obele at Coalition for the Homeless at email@example.com.
I think by now you get the picture: Living standards for tenants in rent regulated buildings in the outer boroughs are shamefully low. It seems that definitions of terms like “habitable” and “quality” vary dramatically depending on your zip code. Although banks and landlords may fool people with cosmetic repairs that make the buildings appear “good…for the Bronx…”, this racist double standard cannot mask the serious public health concerns that result from wide-spread neighborhood disinvestment.
Tenants in buildings affected by predatory equity are often living in apartments with hazardous conditions that severely impact their health and safety. Problems such as persistent leaks, mold, rodent infestation, collapsing ceilings and floors, infrequent heat and hot water, faulty electricity, prevalence of lead paint and asbestos, and lack of security cameras and/or front door locks, are commonplace in these buildings. These problems are bad in and of themselves, but when you think about the extent to which they have contributed to high levels of asthma, frequent dangerous accidents, exposure to extreme weather conditions, and weakened immune systems (especially for children, elderly, and persons living with HIV/AIDS), predatory equity seems even more criminal. Tenants additionally report high levels of stress, anxiety and depression due to the fear of losing their home, landlord harassment, and the financial burden of compensating for landlord or lender negligence.
Recently, UHAB has teamed up with the Committee of Interns and Residents, a union of health care professionals, to create a program which directly addresses the causal relationship between deteriorating building conditions and a growing health crisis. The program intends to provide tenants in distressed buildings with free medical screenings, services, and health resources on-site in their building. The program launched this month at 2239-41 Creston Avenue in the Bronx. We are hoping that this initiative will provide much needed relief for the tenants as well as build new alliances with groups committed to challenging the damaging costs of the lower standard of living.
This past October my co-worker and I started organizing at 1055 Grand Concourse in the Bronx. This building is situated on a thoroughfare modeled after glamorous Parisian boulevards, behind the new Yankee Stadium, across the street from the Bronx Art Museum, and down the block from a beautiful urban park. The building might as well have a sign plastered on its forehead that reads: “Gentrify Me!”
When we first visited the building, it was in foreclosure and in a horrendous state of disrepair. During tenant meetings in the lobby, we averted our eyes as giant rats emerged out of holes in the floor and scurried behind piles of trash, or into an eerie looking vacant apartment. As we tracked the progress of the foreclosure, we watched the mortgage note change hands four times until the building was purchased by Steve Finkelstein and Rich Timberger of Finkelstein-Timberger Real Estate (FTRE) in November 2010. At a meeting between tenants and the new landlords in December, lofty promises were made to forgive rent arrears and conduct a massive building rehab within a couple of months.
Fast forward to May. Tenants in 1055 Grand Concourse have yet to see these promises come true. They are not deceived by the prevalence of construction workers and the shiny new windows that have been installed throughout the building. Windows that don’t fit the frame and leave gaping holes in the wall are no substitute for substantial repairs.
It seems that when Finkelstein and Timberger promised immediate repairs they were referring only to the vacant units, which they hoped would attract a higher paying tenancy. Furthermore, many tenants continually receive illegitimate rent demands stating that they owe thousands of dollars in back-rent. Other tenants have been unnecessarily taken to court for eviction proceedings simply to deal with a book-keeping confusion that could have been cleared up through a phone call. But Finkelstein and Timberger prefer to give tenants the run-around, or the cold shoulder if they are Spanish-speaking tenants (which is the majority of the building).
These are the same guys that last week stood next to Mayor Bloomberg at a press conference that heralded them as the heroes of the Bronx. Finkelstein-Timberger Real Estate recently purchased the infamous Milbank buildings and, again, made similar promises regarding rent arrears and rehabilitation.
Recently, the construction workers at 1055 Grand Concourse have started renovating bathrooms in a few occupied units. However, most tenants are still waiting in their leaky, moldy, infested apartments. We have yet to see whether or not the Milbank buildings finally get the relief they deserve, but if the story unfolds according to the pattern at 1055 Grand Concourse, then the Milbank tenants and allies shouldn’t pop their champagne bottles just yet.
How do you get “street cred” as a tenant organizer? Plant your feet firmly in the ground, muster your harsh tone of voice, and watch as landlords squirm closer toward hysteria. In my short time as a tenant organizer, I’ve come (in part) to measure my learning curve by the extent to which I can hold my own in a testy conversation with an infuriated landlord. The parts of my job spent engaged in one-sided yelling matches with landlords never cease to bewilder and simultaneously invigorate me. The most frequent scenario plays out something like this: my co-worker and I start organizing in a new building, we do research about the building’s history (finances, ownership, etc), and then decide to call the landlord to gather more information. After calmly introducing ourselves and our intentions (which are simply to work with tenants to preserve affordability and good conditions), the landlord will almost immediately go mad and shout out any combination of the following questions/statements in rapid succession:
“WHO ARE YOU?!”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!”
“I’M GONNA SUE YOU!”
“YOU ARE CRAZY!”
“I’M JUST TRYING TO DO WHAT’S BEST FOR THE BUILDING!”
“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE IN THE BUILDING!”
“WHERE DO YOU LIVE?”
“YOU CAN’T TELL TENANTS TO STOP PAYING RENT!”
And on and on it goes, as the organizers remain calm and confident to contrast the landlord’s tirade. We try to get a word in about the law which gives tenants the right to organize, and we ask smart questions that let landlords know that they can’t get away with short-changing the tenants. Sometimes, I’ve even had the pleasure of confronting these landlords face to face as they barge into tenant meetings making threats and false promises.
As entertaining as this banter can be, it is also a dizzying reminder of the necessity of our work as tenant organizers. These conversations continually prove to us that the prevalence of such landlords means that tenants are not likely to get the respect and good service they deserve in their homes. Forming a strong tenants’ association that will hold landlords accountable, and take collective action if necessary, is critical to the outcome of a building.
As for my part, the more I can expose the ill-will of landlords and/or convince them of the benefits of honest behavior and communication, the more I can be an effective ally to tenants. Oftentimes I reach out to landlords with a request that they attend a meeting with tenants to answer their questions and present transparent plans for the building. But in some cases, landlords lack even the common decency to face the tenant association and hear their collective concerns. When we encounter such unresponsive landlords, the decision is often made to ignore them, sometimes only to meet again later in a court room.
By now I’ve had a fair amount of run-ins with landlords from across the sanity spectrum. So when landlords charge me with spreading lies or refer to me as an annoyance, I continue to speak truth to power as I fondly stroke my metaphorical tenant organizer “street cred” badge.