The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: atlantic cities

Mapping a Tale of Two Cities

Everyone is talking about Bill de Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities.”  One is the rich New York, the other is the poor, working class New York.  That division can be seen on gender lines, racial lines, and political lines. But there is one uniting factor in all of BDB’s divided New York: everyone voted for him. Winning by a landslide, Mr. De Blasio will become New York City’s mayor in January and, with that, the platform of income inequality (Occupy Wall St, sound familiar?)

 Atlantic Cities published a map illustrating the two cities by percentage change in property values between 2008 and 2012.  The map essentially shows which neighborhoods were hardest hit by the housing crisis:

With a few exceptions, it’s Manhattan and adjacent sections of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx that have seen assessments go up in the data from the New York Department of Finance that Walker mapped, which encompasses 958,000 properties. In many of the working-class neighborhoods of the outer boroughs, the value of real estate has actually fallen.

 This map speaks to two main issues in housing: first, that low-income tenants residing in wealthier or gentrifying areas are being forced out of their homes due to speculation and predatory equity.  It also speaks to the ways that the foreclosure crisis has hit homeowners, specifically black homeowners, in a particularly hard way. It’s clear who suffers and who profits in these scenarios. Working class and middle class New Yorkers loose homes, equity, and stability, while wealthy New Yorkers (bankers, landlords, and developers living in high income neighborhoods) profit.

 In our work, we see mostly the tenant side of the story. We see low income tenants living in buildings and neighborhoods swept up in predatory equity.  Tenants are harassed through fees added on to their rents, through lack of repairs, though illegal rent increases. We see this is the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Ridgewood, but also throughout the Northwest and Central Bronx.

 While speculators may be throwing huge amounts of money into gentrifying neighbors, out of town private equity companies have not done their research on the “Tale of Two Cities.”  It seems like speculators assume that they can skirt rent laws, force tenants out, and bring in higher paying tenants.  Too bad for them, many tenants, especially the ones we work with, are organized and know their rights.  Bill de Blasio has promised to fight for a a rent freeze, something we’d certainly support and that would make the Predatory Equity model even more unsustainable. While Michael Bloomberg’s administration – by the own admission – doesn’t know what to do about gentrification a rent freeze would go a long way towards keeping neighborhoods affordable and discouraging speculation.

Speaking of speculation, journalists near and far are speculating whether or not a de Blasio mayoralty will live up to it’s progressive campaign platform. We hope so. Here’s another thing we know: if he starts to waver on his housing goals, there are organized tenants all over New York City ready to hold him to his promises. We’re with them.


Survivors of Domestic Violence Evicted for Calling Police

Posted on Central Foothill Mommies. The image depicts domestic violence.

Posted on Central Foothill Mommies

When most people call 911 seeking protection from an abusive partner, they do not expect to receive an eviction notice from their landlord. Unfortunately, a “disorderly behavior” ordinance has changed that expectation. This week, Atlantic Cities wrote an article exposing this issue.

For many years, municipal laws in Pennsylvania mandated that a landlord evict tenants for calling the police three times within a four month period if the call is in regards to disorderly behavior. According to Pennsylvania municipalities, domestic violence is a form of disorderly behavior and, in turn, survivors were penalized by this law. After the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) threatened to bring a lawsuit disputing the law’s constitutionality, municipalities repealed the “three strike” ordinance. However, another very similar law was enacted in Norristown (a city in Pennsylvania). The new law fines landlords when tenants call the police for disorderly behavior. Such laws inadvertently encourage landlords to evict tenants that are experiencing domestic violence.

Sandra Park of the ACLU blogged about the injustices behind and implications of these laws. She writes:

These laws violate tenants’ First Amendment right to petition their government, which includes the right to contact law enforcement. They also violate the federal Violence Against Women Act, which protects many domestic violence victims from eviction based on crimes committed against them, and the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, and was enacted 45 years ago this month… Such evictions are often motivated by gender stereotypes that hold victims responsible for the abuse they experience.

Not only do these ordinances perpetuate stereotypes, they also deny survivors safety. Such laws insist that domestic disputes are personal matters and, as a result, police should not intervene (even when a partner experiences physical or emotional abuse).  As survivors are painted as instigators and as law enforcement refuses to intervene, domestic violence becomes trivialized.

While certain housing protections for domestic violence survivors exist in New York City, there are many loopholes in the law. According to New Destiny Housing, a tenant residing in a rent stabilized unit cannot be evicted if they temporarily flee their apartment due to a domestic violence dispute.  Similarly, a tenant living in Section 8 and NYCHA public housing cannot solely be evicted on grounds of domestic violence. Such laws address the need to provide safety to survivors, but they do not contain a clause granting protections when the dispute disturbs other tenants. Without that clause, domestic violence survivors are still subject to eviction.  As these ordinances spread to other parts of the country, we hope that their unjust nature is exposed, dismantled, and eliminated.

This issue reminds us of a similar situation with Secure Communities.  In this controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement program, local police information is shared with ICE, and undocumented immigrants can be deported for any contact with police. Rather than created real safety in our communities, this program discourages those experiencing domestic violence from calling the police for fear of deportation.  This program must be ended, like the laws around eviction must be changed, in order to provide real safety for our communities and a working relationship with law enforcement.

If you or someone you know is being evicted or experiencing other housing challenges as a result of domestic violence, call the New Destiny Housing Helpline at (646) 472-0262, Ext. 15.

Rent Regulation: Our Defense

Last week, The Atlantic Cities published this article, which advocates against rent regulations based on the widespread disdain on the part of economists.  The article argues that a better approach may be “adopting policies that encourage the production of more diverse types of housing, implementing strong regulations and practices to ensure housing quality and to protect tenants from abuses; and providing targeted, direct subsidies to people who need help paying rents.”

We happen to think that rent regulation is exactly such a policy: a strong piece of regulation that protects tenants’ rights and makes the city a more livable and affordable place for low income renters.  Last spring, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Harmon v. Kimmel, a case challenging New York City’s rent stabilization law. It was upheld, and New York renters breathed a collective sigh of relief. Rent stabilization in New York is good policy, and here’s why:

New York City faces an incredibly tight housing market due to a “highly desirable location, exceptional population density, high construction costs, and limited space due to natural geographic boundaries.” (Quote from Attorney General Schneiderman’s spirited defense of rent regulations.) These characteristics lend themselves to rent profiteering – allowing landlords to charge exorbitant rents due to both extreme need and extreme shortage. Those with less money would inevitably be pushed out. Even economist Edward Glaeser, who describes himself as “a staunch and steadfast enemy of rent stabilization,” told the New York Times:

“Certain types of stabilization can create more integrated communities,” and “New York is a more diverse place because of rent stabilization.”

Can’t argue against diversity.

Enemies of rent regulation generally make the same couple arguments: housing conditions suffer because landlords have no incentive to fix units and high income people end up living in low rent apartments. They also tend to believe that rent regulations provide a disincentive to create new housing, which would alleviate NYC’s housing shortage and bring prices back down. These are all preposterous arguments.

First, development: But housing units are not built overnight. In the short run, the current supply of housing is basically what we’re going to have. (Current events tell us that supply can in fact decrease, thanks Sandy!) Incentivizing development would do very little for New Yorkers who need help now. But there is a long run, and anyone who thinks that there aren’t developers frothing at the mouth to build housing in New York City should take a look out the window at the Williamsburg waterfront, or try Googling “Bruce Ratner.” Under-development is not an issue. (Whether or not we actually want new development, what we could do to better utilize existing housing stock, is a different conversation. Stay tuned!)

Second, as the Furman Center proved last spring, the vast majority of tenants living in rent regulated apartments are not high earners – they have a median income of $34,000. (Their policy brief is chock full of other socio-economic and demographic facts about NYC’s rent regulations – read more here.)

Third: NYC housing conditions are a problem, but the reason is negligence and greed, not regulations. And thankfully, the housing maintenance code is getting stronger every day.

Peter Tatian, journalist for The Atlantic Cities, suggests that more direct subsidies would be better than rent regulation. While I’m in favor of a stronger and wider safety net, I think we should acknowledge its limitations:

The Section 8 voucher is the most common direct rent subsidy, but unlike food stamps, it is not considered an “entitlement program.” This means there are a finite number of vouchers and not everyone who qualifies will be able to receive one. In New York State, the program has been frozen for several years.  As recent federal budget discussions have shown us, direct subsidy spending is very politically vulnerable and isalways at risk of termination.We can look to the Work and Child Advantage experience for an example.

Even entitlement programs do not reach all who qualify. According to the Food Action and Research Center, about 1 in 4 people who qualify for food stamps don’t even bother to apply due to a variety of reasons ranging from stigma, to misinformation, to hassle. By regulating rents rather than providing direct subsidy, we can ensure that the benefit is received by a major swath of the population who need it, free from stigma and bureaucratic obstacles.

Finally, we stand in defense of rent regulation because there isn’t much else out there for renters. Our national housing policy overwhelming supports homeowners (to a fault, I happen to think.) Public housing has largely been demolished and Section 8 is frozen. So, we stand in favor of rent regulation as one of the last bastions of supportive policy for a growing population of renters who deserve the protection.

ACLU Calls Out Morgan Stanley for Racist Lending Practices!

Remember how the NY Attorney General filed a lawsuit against JP Morgan Chase a few weeks ago?  And then how last week the US Attorney General in Manhattan began suing Wells Fargo for discriminatory lending leading to major government losses?  Well, in continuation of this thrilling theme, the ACLU announced Monday that it will be filing a lawsuit against Morgan Stanley for violating the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.  In a comedy writing class, I learned the “rule of three” – one time something happens, cool. A second time something happens, interesting but probably coincidental. The third time it happens shows a pattern.  And there’s nothing we at UHAB love more than a pattern of holding banks accountable for their harmful impacts on communities.

Jessica Silver Greenberg of the NY Times reports that:

 In the lawsuit, filed on Monday, the A.C.L.U. claims that Morgan Stanley is culpable for predatory loans made through the New Century Financial Corporation because the investment bank lent billions of dollars to New Century, a now-defunct subprime lender, and pressured it to make troublesome loans to African-American borrowers who could not afford them…

The bank, according to one former employee, typically did not require New Century to conduct a second appraisal of homes, fearing that the second look would result in a lower assessment and prevent the loans from being securitized, the suit says.

The lawsuit, unlike the others recently filed, is on behalf of five black people from Detroit who ran into debt trouble almost immediately after borrowing from New Century. If this case ends up turning into a class-action suit, there are thousands more willing to participate.

The term that is being used to describe Morgan Stanley and New Century’s practices is “reverse red-lining.” Reverse red-lining occurs when a lender targets minority consumers with expensive and sub-part loan products.  Instead of refusing to rent or sell homes on the basis of race, reverse red-lining is the aggressive risky lending to people on the basis of race, leading to disastrous impacts.

In this case, Morgan Stanley encouraged New Century to make a high volume of risky loans. This practice temporarily increased revenue for Morgan Stanley; it ended with New Century to filing for bankruptcy.  The ACLU reports:

 Nearly 8-percent of both blacks and Latinos who took out mortgages recently have lost their homes to foreclosure. Only 4.5-percent of whites did.

This case not only sheds light on discriminatory practices that led to the housing crisis and recession, but also sheds light on how race functions in the United States. It is especially interesting given the unique location of Detroit (us geography enthusiasts live for this). In terms of race, the ACLU is claiming that Morgan Stanley has acted in violation of the Fair Housing Act.  In a wonderful article published at Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger writes that:

The federal Fair Housing Act, however, says that banks can’t have policies that lead to a disparate impact on minorities. This means, in practice, that a policy may effectively discriminate against blacks even if it never explicitly mentions “minorities,” “blacks” or “race.”

The framing of racism in Fair Housing is extremely on point with tracking racism in our country.   Race and racism is rarely explicit, but has real impacts on communities and the ways that cities and suburbs have grown (or shrunk in the case of Detroit).  For example, policies like Stop and Frisk are never to explicitly implemented to incarcerate high numbers of youth of color, but that’s the impact and therefore what’s important.

It’s so uniquely fascinating that the case is out of Detroit, a place so quintessential of American crises throughout history and with such stark and obvious demonstration of how those crises are tied into race.  When white flight drove white people and resources to the suburbs, who stayed? When the auto-industry collapsed, who was left jobless?  And today, which communities are so drastically and disproportionately impacted by the housing crisis? We’re not here to give a history lesson on Detroit, so suffice to say that Detroit has been a pivotal location for numerous racial conflicts, from red-lining to race riots to Civil Rights and on and on.

We plan to stay tuned to this lawsuit as it unfolds.  I wonder who will get sued next week…

Friday News Round-Up

Before you go running out the door to protest Forest Ratner or see Jay-Z open Barclays Center, here’s some of what happened in the news this week.

  1. While we haven’t seen the notorious MTA ads in person yet, they were altered (corrected?) almost immediately after they were put up. After this week’s outrage over Pamela Geller’s posters, the MTA has altered their policies regarding advertisements. (Personally, I’d like to go after the ads for this book next.)
  2. Economists, op-ed columnists, bloggers, etc are tripping over each other to announce the next Big Crisis facing American cities. Student loan debt is a front runner. Pension funds are a close second.  Though this may seem far away from the work that we do to fight predatory equity, it’s not. Many state and city pension funds are invested in the very same companies that are buying up rent-regulated housing at inflated prices. This means that private equity companies are using public pension fund money to speculate on affordable housing. If pension funds do happen to get paid back for their investments in these funds – including Lone Star Funds – it will (partially) have been thanks to disinvestment and displacement in low income housing. We hate this. (Learn more about the pension fund problem this week at The Atlantic Cities.)
  3. There was an article in New York Magazine this week, exploring Brooklyn’s history and it’s rapidly changing neighborhoods. Starting with a pretty dire title (“Brooklyn is finished.”), Mark Jacobson goes on to weave his personal history in with the history of the borough, concluding that Brooklyners are a resilient people, they are no stranger to change, and that they will take Barclays Center (and gentrification) in stride, as they always have. We have mixed feelings: its true that cities change, and Brooklyn is no exception. But should we be less concerned about displacement and increased marginalization just because it has happened before? Probably not.
  4. It was a bad week for Stop-and-Frisk. Yesterday at City Hall, hundreds of people showed up to demonstrate against the policy, saying it unfairly targets minorities and young people. And on Tuesday, Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson announced that his office will no longer be prosecuting people for trespassing who were apprehended in public housing projects via Stop-and-Frisk without first interviewing the arresting officer.

As for us, we had a great event outside the New York offices of Lone Star Funds yesterday morning. We had a good time, and hope tenants did as well.

Stay tuned for more pictures and video.

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