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Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

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Public Advocate Tish James’ 2016 Worst Landlord Watchlist: A Rally for Truly Affordable Housing

The sun was shining down brightly on Foley Square last Thursday, October 13th, 2016, as NYC Public Advocate Letitia “Tish” James presented the 2016 100 Worst Landlords Watchlist to a crowd of supporters. The rally included a wide range of speakers: community organizers and activists from across the city, city council members passionate about this issue, and tenant leaders speaking out about their living conditions and housing struggles. All were speaking about the desperate need for a continued fight to keep housing truly affordable in New York City.

The Watchlist shares the names of the 100 worst landlords in NYC, and two of them own buildings that house tenants UHAB organizes with. Efstathios Valiotis (Alma Reality) owns 8 buildings that appear on the list. These building have 237 units, and while there are 1,077 HPD violations recorded, this is likely far less than the actual number of violations. Nasir Sasouness had 60 of his units show up on the list, with 473 recorded HPD violations—also a low estimate.

Early on in the program, Tish James said, “We are putting bad landlords on notice that this has got to stop and that there is a team—that there is an army of individuals—who are going to stand up to bad landlords in the city of New York.” Throughout the event, chants of “Tenants, united, will never be defeated!” and “Fight, fight, fight! Housing is a right!” erupted and filled the square.

Towards the end of the program, Donna Mossman, a founding member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, (which is supported by UHAB), spoke fervently about the Watchlist. Mossman said, “Usually when I have to speak, I do not smile. But today, I can smile. Thank you, Public Advocate, for releasing this list. The Public Advocate’s list of the 100 Worst Landlords is a reminder to landlords that you are not housing cattle, you are housing people.” At this moment, the audience cheered and applauded. Mossman continued, “The Crown Heights Tenant Union was formed in part to help tenants fight against landlords who do not provide adequate living accommodations for which we pay. The Public Advocate’s Worst Landlords List provides the Crown Heights Tenant Union, and all tenants, with a means to find their landlords and hold them accountable.”

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Donna Mossman of Crown Heights Tenant Union addresses the crowd on October 13, 2016. Photo by Nancy Torres. 

Mossman went on to discuss the new documentary, America Divided, which includes a segment about housing inequality called A House Divided and features the Crown Heights Tenant Union. “America Divided is about our community. It is about us. It is about the struggle that happens everywhere. But understand this: Crown Heights is ground zero for gentrification. We have so many different fights on our hands. Yes, they have money, but we have people power.”

During the question and answer portion at end of the rally, a reporter asked Tish James if there was more the city and city agencies could be doing. James emphasized the points that had already been made, and she solidified some specific policy pleas. James said, “Particularly, I’m concerned about individuals who are accepting cash buyouts, that they know their rights. That needs to be in writing. We need to pass the law which would give every tenant the right to counsel in housing court, we need to make sure that that is passed in the city of New York. So I would urge the mayor to come out in support of that 214, which is sponsored by council member Rodriguez. All of these issues and more, we need to work with these wonderful advocacy groups, to preserve affordable housing and to build affordable housing….We need to really look at Area Median Incomes and make them subject to zip codes as opposed to geographic areas that include Suffolk County and Nassau County and parts of Westchester…..What we need is to have a sit-down with the administration, with HPD, with the Mayor himself, to advance a platform on affordable housing in this city.”

As the crowd dispersed and Foley Square emptied out, there was an energy of determination and steadfastness in the air. Tenants and tenants’ rights organizers, advocates, and activists are fighting for their homes, and they are here to stay.

HUD-Assisted Multifamily Housing: Truly Affordable, Truly At Risk

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Affordable housing advocates often say that housing is a human right—that everyone has the right to a home—but what does this looks like in terms of policy?  Local, state, and federal governments have attempted a multitude of low-income affordable housing programs and initiatives, but there are really just three programs that come anywhere near the ideal of guaranteeing affordable housing to all, regardless of their income.  These three programs—Public Housing, Housing Choice (“Section 8”) Vouchers, and HUD-Assisted Multifamily Housing—provide permanent, affordable housing to millions of low-income people without the minimum income requirements seen in many other housing programs.  Tenants in these programs are guaranteed to pay no more than 30% of their income in rent and utilities, and anyone making below 80% of AMI (area median income) is eligible (although there are screening policies for former criminals and people with poor rental history).  If a tenant’s monthly income is a $500 social security check, their rent (utilities included) is $150.  If a tenant loses their income, they can immediately lower their rent to the “minimum rent” of $25, which can even be waived in certain cases that qualify as “financial hardship.”  These programs, all administered by the federal housing agency HUD, are absolutely vital to housing low-income people, especially in high-cost cities like New York. However, in the past few decades, the federal government has effectively cut them off from any additional growth.  In New York and other expensive cities, the stagnation in funding for these programs, along with persistent poverty levels and steady population growth has helped precipitate a grave affordable housing crisis, demonstrated most clearly by record levels of homelessness.

In New York City, there are 180,000 units of Public Housing and 120,000 families with Housing Choice Vouchers.  These unit numbers have not grown in years and both programs have years-long waiting lists (in fact, NYCHA’s HCV waiting list has been closed since 2007).  Still, the situation in HUD-Assisted Multifamily Housing—the least well known and smallest program of the three (although not by much)—is even more dire.  The program has not only stagnated, it has lost large numbers of units.  Once topping 100,000, the number of HUD Multifamily units in the city has fallen to about 70,000, with nearly all of this loss occurring in the past 20 years.[i]  Under HUD-assisted Multifamily Housing programs, landlords get rent-subsidy contracts tied to their building that expire after a set amount of time.  The programs were most active in the ‘60s to early ‘80s, and when many of the contracts expired after 30 or 40 years, landlords left the program in high numbers—especially in high-rent areas—and converted their buildings to market rentals or condos, displacing low-income tenants.  In 1997, in an effort to curb this loss of units, Congress passed legislation that allowed owners to “mark-up-to-market” if they renew their building’s contract, increasing the rents of their subsidy to be comparable to the market rents of the area.  To better protect tenants in buildings whose contracts expire, legislation was passed to provide tenants in this situation with voucher assistance to use in their building or elsewhere.  Still, with New York City’s housing market hotter than ever, the temptation for landlords to shed their HUD contracts remains strong.  And although tenants in opt-out buildings are protected from displacement by compensatory voucher assistance, once they move or pass away, their apartment becomes unregulated, further dwindling the city’s affordable housing stock.

In the early 1990s, the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) was founded by HUD Multifamily Tenants in order to give tenants a platform for self-advocacy.  Since then, the organization—which is the only nation-wide tenant union in the US—has been instrumental in expanding tenants’ rights and protecting tenants from displacement.   Since the mid-2000s, UHAB organizers have been working closely with the National Alliance of HUD Tenants to preserve HUD-Assisted Multifamily Housing through tenant organizing and advocacy.  In recent years, UHAB has greatly helped NAHT expand its capacity in New York City, recruiting tenant groups to affiliate with NAHT and empowering tenants to advocate on their own behalf to their landlords and HUD administrators for the preservation of this vital program.  To learn more about the issues surrounding HUD Multifamily Housing and ways to get involved, visit NAHT’s website, www.saveourhomes.org, or the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, http://nlihc.org/issues/project-based.

 

[i] “Over 100,000 units” comes from the Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy’s “State of New York City’s Subsidized Housing: 2011” research on HUD Project-Based Rental Assistance (pages 28-29).  “About 70,000” comes from my own analysis of HUD’s current “Multifamily Assistance and Section 8 Contracts” database, publicly available on hud.gov.

Banking on Gentrification: a Stabilzing NYC report

Yesterday, UHAB and our allies in Stabilizing NYC released Banking on Gentrification, a report about banks who lend to Predatory Equity landlords.

Crown Heights Tenant Union Protests Landlords’ Brutal Pressure Tactics

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Public Advocate Letitia James with tenants from 410 Eastern Parkway

 

The Crown Heights Tenant Union held three public protests last week, demonstrating their fierce opposition to landlords in the area who use illegal pressure tactics to force rent-stabilized tenants out of their homes.  The protests focused on the actions of two landlords (G-Way Management and Ephraim Fruchthandler) in three buildings in Western Crown Heights, where gentrification has taken off in recent years, and many property owners are desperate to remove rent restrictions and cash in.  Tenants in 410 Eastern Parkway, 1030 Carroll St, and 953 Carroll St – like many rent-stabilized tenants in New York – live with landlords who attempt to raise rents past legal limits, refuse to make repairs, deliberately cut off essential services like heat and hot water, and do construction at odd hours, all in an effort to get them to move.  Many of these tenants have been living in their building and neighborhood for decades, however, and do not want to move.  They have bound together and joined the growing ranks of the Crown Heights Tenants Union in an effort to protect their rights.

The unconscionable actions of landlords towards rent-stabilized tenants has become a central talking-point in city’s current political and civic discussion over gentrification, its effects, and what to do about it.  Under New York’s rent stabilization laws, tenants in rent-stabilized units are entitled to perennial lease renewals and a cap on how much the landlord can raise their rent. (The cap is set annually by the Rent Guidelines Board and ranges from 0-5%). However, if a rent-stabilized unit is vacated, the owner can raise the rent up to 20% and in some cases petition to remove the unit from rent-stabilization all together, allowing them to charge whatever the market will bear.  Landlords in high-rent areas therefore have much to gain by removing rent-stabilized tenants from their apartments. When tenants refuse, landlords often resort to brutal pressure tactics.  In the worst cases, landlords’ deliberate neglect of building maintenance leads to dangerous and unsanitary conditions.

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Bathroom ceiling at 1030 Carroll St, collapsed due to building construction and ignored by landlord for months.

While these tactics are illegal, the enforcement process is so inefficient that landlords are rarely punished.  City building inspections are rare and the housing court process is burdensome, especially for tenants who cannot afford attorneys.  It is this imbalance of power and lack of landlord accountability that the Crown Heights Tenant Union is working to correct.  The Union (with assistance from UHAB) provides support to tenants in the neighborhood through rights education and sharing best practices for dealing with landlords and the City’s enforcement process. The CHTU also helps tenants connect will lawyers who work pro bono. Rent-stabilized apartments are a huge source of affordable housing for low-income people in an exorbitantly expensive city, and the CHTU and UHAB are not alone in worrying about what will become of New York if they continue to be lost at their current rate (an estimated 50,000+ from 2007-2014).

Last week’s protests demonstrated the CHTU’s continued efforts to build political and public awareness of this issue.  City Public Advocate Letitia James, State Assembly Representative Walter Mosley, and State Senator Jesse Hamilton attended these events, and spoke passionately with tenants and press about their commitment to addressing the problem.  In front of 410 Eastern Parkway on Saturday, March 5th, James told a group of tenants, organizers, and reporters: “We’ve got to stand up for tenants, we’ve got to stand up for justice… For far too long government has turned a blind eye to landlords’s actions when they engage in illegal activities.”  James and her office of the Public Advocate have worked to address this issue by suing numerous bad-acting landlords, while Mayor de Blasio has allocated large amounts of public funds to Legal Services for lawyers to work pro bono with low-income tenants to prevent eviction.  City Council has recently tweaked the legal definition of “landlord harassment” to include repeated buyout offers – another common tactic – and is also debating several proposed laws that would impose greater penalties on offending landlords.  These public protests, and the politicians and press they draw, reinforce the fact that these brutal tactics of displacement are a major social issue in New York, and the City government needs to do more to address them.

The most immediate and perhaps the most important goal of the protests, however, was to publicly expose and shame the perpetrating landlords.  One of the protests involved a large march to the store-front office of G-Way Management, where the crowd of around 50 chanted “G-Way Management: shame on you!” and “Arrest G-Way Management!”  At another protest, the artist collective “The Illuminator” projected large messages in light on 1030 Carroll St, calling out the landlord, Ephraim Fruchthandler, and his many offenses.  The protests turned many heads and drew significant press, and the CHTU hopes that the bad publicity will damage these landlords’ reputation and business to the point where they will reconsider their behavior.  Public Advocate Letitia James has employed this tactic of public exposure and shaming as well. Her “Worst Landlord Watchlist” website names the 100 “worst” landlords in New York according to records of building violations, Housing Court cases, and harassment complaints.  The CHTU is currently working on a Landlord Watch List specific to Crown Heights, and G-Way Management and Ephraim Fruchthandler are sure to be on it.  Calling for the boycott of these landlords, the CHTU is asking new-arrivals to make informed consumer choices, ensuring that bad landlords are not rewarded for their rapacious and deplorable behavior.

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“The Illuminator” at 1030 Carroll St

 

Watch videos of the events here:  410 Eastern Parkway;  G-Way Management Office

See news coverage here:  Politico, 3/5/16;  The Brooklyn Reader, 3/7/16;  Kings County Politics, 3/8/16;  News 12 Brooklyn, 3/10/16;  Brooklyn News Service, 3/14/16

Study on loss of Rent-Stabilized Apartments:   Gothamist, 7/15/15

Article on proposed tenant protection laws:  City Limits, 3/7/16

Public Advocate Letitia James’s Worst Landlord Watchlist

Crown Heights Tenant Union: Website;  Facebook

 

 

De Blasio’s MIH Plan Still Needs Work

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As the wave of gentrification continues to extend outward from Manhattan, the struggles of low-income renters being displaced from their homes and neighborhoods has become a major social problem.  With more than half of New York City’s renters paying more than a third of their income in rent and the homeless population rising dramatically, there is a growing consensus among City politicians and citizens that the government needs to take action. This consensus was demonstrated in the landslide election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran an inspired campaign that focused on addressing income inequality as well as building much more affordable housing.  Now in the process of trying to deliver that affordable housing, however, de Blasio has run into serious opposition from unions, low-income renters, community boards, and elected officials across the city, many of whom supported his campaign.  Most recently, a large and growing coalition has come out against his proposed “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” bill, arguing that it does not do enough to help low-income New Yorkers afford housing, and if not improved, may actually worsen the displacement and homelessness problem it intends to address.

Under “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” (MIH), the city would require real estate developers to include a certain percent of affordable apartments in each new building built in “up zoned” neighborhoods. “Up-zoning” means that developers are able to build bigger and taller buildings, making their properties more lucrative. By using up-zoning and MIH together, the mayor would take advantage of the ambition of New York developers, by luring them to certain areas with the “up-zone” and then requiring that they build at least some affordable housing. The rationale behind this strategy is that rents are high and rising in New York and low-income people are being displaced because there are so many people—especially higher-income people—who want to live here and everyone is competing over a limited supply of housing. So if the supply of housing is increased and Affordable Housing is guaranteed, there will be more places for everyone to live, less competition driving up rents, and less displacement of low-income people.

The neighborhoods targeted for the up-zone and MIH plan include East New York, East Harlem, Inwood, Flushing West, Long Island City, the Bay Street Corridor in Staten Island and the Jerome Ave Corridor in the Bronx, with more to be announced. All of these neighborhoods are far from the wealth centers of mid- and downtown Manhattan and are very low-rent and low-income compared to the rest of the city. Many of them, however—particularly the Bronx, East New York, East Harlem, and Inwood—are not expected to remain low-rent and low-income for long. These neighborhoods appear to be next in line for gentrification, with more and more millennials moving in each year, slowly increasing competition for housing and as a result, rents. Thus, by up-zoning these neighborhoods and mandating the creation of Affordable Housing within their borders, the administration is attempting to shield the low-income residents of these neighborhoods from becoming refugees of the fast-approaching tidal wave of gentrification. They hope to act one step ahead of gentrification and ensure that it does not cause mass displacement.

In spite of MIH’s noble intentions, low-income renters and community groups in these neighborhoods are coming out in droves to protest against it. Their opposition is simple and undeniable—because of the way MIH is drawn up, they would be unable to afford the “Affordable Housing” built. The most stringent of MIH’s three proposed requirements for the Affordable Housing component of new buildings would require that 25% of a building’s units be rented to households making an average of $46,620 a year (rents would be no higher than one-third of a family’s income). In East New York and East Harlem, the average household income is about $33,000. Therefore, the vast majority of people currently living in these re-zoned neighborhoods would be disqualified from renting even the so-called “Affordable” units in the new buildings.

For these people—the neighborhood’s lowest-income and most vulnerable to displacement—re-zoning with MIH would not expand the supply of housing. All it would do is vastly expand the number of higher-income people moving into their neighborhood and competing for housing. These new arrivals might initially gravitate towards the thousands (6,000 is the official estimate for East New York) of newly constructed units, but as news of the neighborhood’s “revival” spreads, and new restaurants, bars, and cafés pop up, many will start to eye the townhouses and brownstones on attractive residential streets where low-income people currently live. Property values will skyrocket and many long-term, low-income tenants will be priced out or evicted to make way for gut-renovations and Zillow postings. These people, being unable to qualify for the new “affordable housing” in the area, will be forced to move, causing a huge disruption (longer commute or new job, new schools, new community, etc.) to their already difficult lives and bringing New York City one step closer to being a place where low-income people cannot reside.

If the de Blasio administration truly wants to help low-income New Yorkers stay in their homes, they need to do a better job at tailoring this policy so it works for each and every re-zoned neighborhood. The mayor is right to want to build Affordable Housing in gentrifying neighborhoods, but this Affordable Housing must actually be affordable for the people living in the neighborhood. We live in a time when those with wealth and political power actually want to invest in low-income, often majority-minority parts of the city. People increasingly don’t mind and in many cases prefer living in ethnically and economically diverse areas. This new investment and economic and ethnic desegregation can and should benefit low-income residents. It is well documented that crime decreases and services improve when investment comes into a low-income neighborhood. It is also well known that low-income people’s chances of economic improvement increase dramatically when they live in mixed-income areas as opposed to homogenously poor enclaves. None of these benefits matter if affordable housing is not available for the people who need it most.  MIH needs a deeper affordability option, and City Council is currently working on a plan to accomplish that.  Once MIH has been improved and passed, it is incumbent on the City to engage with these communities, take their needs seriously, and come up with a re-zoning plan that works for the residents of each neighborhood. Going forward, the City must ensure that low-income people will be able to stay once their neighborhood has improved.

 

For a report on speculation and displacement beginning to occur in East New York, see: http://citylimits.org/2016/03/10/some-suspect-east-new-york-rezoning-has-triggered-speculation/

For an update on the MIH debate in City Council, see: http://citylimits.org/2016/03/08/council-identifies-5-sticking-points-for-de-blasio-rezoning-plan/

 

 

 

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