7A Program Fades from Relevance, to Tenant Dismay

Yesterday, tenants gathered at 755 Jackson Avenue with newly elected Public Advocate (takes office January 1st) Letitia James to demand that the owner of their building, Stabilis Capital Management, walk away from the property. (Read about it in the Mott Haven Herald.) Tenants are hoping that Harry DiRienzo of Banana Kelly be appointed as a 7A manager of their building. The property is extremely distressed and effectively abandoned. That the city would appoint a 7A administrator for this building seems like a no-brainer.

However, tenants have reason to be wary. In order to secure a 7A, they have a long fight ahead of them. Last year, tenants from 1058 Southern Boulevard traveled from their homes in the Bronx to Mill Basin to evict their landlord. They were living in serious slum conditions: fuzzy black mold coated the walls of their apartments, their ceilings leaked and it was so cold inside the building that the water leaks froze. One apartment was so terrible that a reporter visiting the building to cover the tenants’ fight began to cry.

Tenants at 1058 Southern Boulevard were hoping to “evict” their landlord through the same 7A program. Unfortunately, the City and the Housing Court did not heed their plea, and slumlord Miriam Shasho still runs the building. (The building eventually got repairs though the City’s Alternative Enforcement Program, but the repairs are patchwork the building is already returning to a state of squalor.)

This morning, City Limits published an article detailing this same experience, but at different buildings, in the Bronx. In the buildings profiled by City Limits, the failure to bring a 7A action baffles even HPD. The 7A program is an amazing opportunity for organized tenants to hit landlords where it hurts the most: in their checkbooks. However, if the City and the Courts are unwilling to invoke this power, it takes a serious tool away from tenants. City Limits talks about how this changed:

In earlier years, when judges ruled in favor of 7As for troubled properties, landlords frequently stayed out of the way and new managers made critical repairs. Owners may even have been glad to have someone else worry about their building. But now, because of the sweeter financial prospects of most Bronx buildings, landlords don’t want to hand their profitable properties over even temporarily. So it takes an even greater push from activists and HPD, particularly when judges seem more reluctant to rule in favor of 7As when buildings that could benefit from the designation are not part of a community crisis.

Tenant leader Lisa Ortega of 1058 Southern Boulevard speaks of her experience fighting for a 7A bitterly:

Its quite obvious that Judge Klein is on the side of the landlords. Landlords with long histories of neglect to buildings are allowed to do and giving financial help and incentive. If a parent neglect or abused their child, the court would remove them immediately. Slumlords control the health and well-being of some of the city’s most vulnerable populations — Why is this not the same for them??

Lisa mentions an important point, one that UHAB has been fighting legislatively for some time. A landlord licensing program could prevent bad landlords and negligent property managers from buying up extremely distressed housing and treating like an ATM. How could something like that work? Only qualified developers would be able to purchase housing that meets a certain level of physical distress. The 7A program could be expanded, and automatic: one’s license to manage property could be immediately revoked if building’s level of distress meets a certain threshold. If a restaurant owner is serving up unsafe food, the Department of Health shuts them down immediately. Bad landlords are allowed to keep their property no matter what psychological or physical warfare they are taking out on their tenants. This doesn’t make sense.

Make sure to check out the article in City Limits, and stay tuned!


CUNY Journalism Students Document “Bushwick Beyond the Brand”


photo: City Limits, 2009

Bushwick is one of those neighborhoods in Brooklyn that brings up a lot of…emotion.  “Oh, Bushwick. Oh, you live there.” It’s the artsy, quickly gentrifying neighborhood that’s not Williamsburg. Yet. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s also a neighborhood with a history, with culture, and with a community that is quickly being displaced.  This month, a group of CUNY Journalism students explored Bushwick “Beyond the Brand” to write about aspects of Bushwick which often get overshadowed.

One article focused on asthma in Bushwick, and how asthma throughout the City is correlated with poverty. In addition to high concentration of pollution, the authors interview Dr. Natalie Langston-Davis who credits Bushwick’s older housing stock to breathing problems in Bushwick:

That’s the case with the poorly ventilated apartment Mora shares with her son. Asthma is also exacerbated by children’s allergies to rodent and cockroach droppings, Davis said.

As tenant organizers, we’ve seen the strong correlation between tenant health and building conditions in many, if not all, of the buildings where we work.  One tenant in a building in Ridgewood, Queens (just across the street from Bushwick) is undergoing chemotherapy while simultaneously battling a mouse and rat infestation in her building.  Even if she had the energy to extensively clean day after day, it would hardly be enough to prevent exposure to the dangerous germs in rodent dropping and dust.

Another hugely important topic that CUNY students explored in their project is the the relevance of the M train’s expansion in 2010 on Bushwick’s changing demographics.  When the M train was expanded into Midtown Manhattan, Bushwick (and likely Queens) experienced an influx of higher paying tenants interested in easy access to the city.  Between January and March of 2013, Bushwick rents rose almost 32%, and real estate investors believe those prices will continue to rise:

In 2012, Bushwick captured 28 percent of all multifamily building sales in Brooklyn by Ariel Property Advisors, the highest rate in the borough, according to  the  investment sales firm. “Investors not only believe in the strength of rental market, but can see these buildings as lucrative conversion opportunities in the future,” says Jonathan Berman, vice president of Ariel.

This is dangerous talk, the kind that leads to predatory equity.  When investors buy buildings based on rent “potential” rather than current rents, debt levels become dangerously high.  The only way to sustain the over-leveraged debt is to skimp on services and force out long-term tenants, thus leading to gentrification and the dilapidation of the rent stabilized housing stock. Over-leveraging can happen in rent stabilized multifamily buildings all over New York, but it’s much more likely to occur  successfully in quickly gentrifying neighborhoods like Bushwick or Crown Heights.

Some consider gentrification to be a byproduct, if an unpleasant one, of neighborhood improved and the influx of capital into previously distressed areas. However, it is often the result of choices made by specific actors who prioritize real estate speculation over the human right to housing. One such actor is broker company MySpace RealtyMySpace has recently come under fire from activists and organizers for colluding with bad actors who see harassment and neglect as acceptable behavior when it comes to established, rent regulated tenants.

To check out the other topics CUNY journalism students reported on, click here, and to view a 2009 photo essay published  in City Limits documenting Bushwick’s area code 11237, click here.

Artists of a South Bronx Hip-hop Collective are Evicted

After being evicted, hip-hop artists participate in an open-mic outside of RDAC-BX.
After being evicted, hip-hop artists participate in an open-mic outside of RDAC-BX.

The Rebel Diaz Arts Collective (RDAC-BX) is a community space in the South Bronx comprised of 25 artists, teachers and organizers. Established by brothers Gonzalo and Rodrigo Venegas in 2008, the space was converted from a sugar factory into an arts center. Over time, the center has evolved into a Hip Hop Community Center, offering monthly open mic nights, media-making workshops, and a “radical library.” These activities and amenities draw in 500 to 700 kids from Mott Haven and Hunts Point each month, giving them an opportunity to channel their creativity and organize.

Last month, the collective was evicted from their home at 478 Austin Place in Hunts Point on non-payment and vandalism charges. According to DNAinfo, the collective owed back rent dating to September 2012, leaving them over $10,000 in debt. The non payment is due to a dispute: the landlord, Joseph Pogostin, proposed a $1,000 rent increase (from $1,400/month to $2,400/month.) Unable to pay the increased rent and maintain their programs, the Venegas brothers chose to not accept Pogostin’s proposed renewal lease.

Rooftop political graffiti has also been a point of contention. Many of the collective members believe that the eviction case is partially motivated as an attack against their politics. The landlord, however, claims otherwise.  In a City Limits article, the landlord claims that the collective is responsible for instigating the newly created graffiti in the neighborhood. Rebutting the accusation, a collective members insists, “We were always having strong dialogues with any of our youths or individuals who came through our doors about respecting our neighborhood.”

Like many NYC neighborhoods, the South Bronx has been gentrifying rapidly: rents have skyrocketed and new, middle-income tenants have moved into the area. RDAC-BX’s rent increase and subsequent eviction speak to the intersection of gentrification and the criminalization of hip-hop in NYC neighborhoods.  In the mainstream media, hip hop is seen as a threatening genre of art, riddled with violence, illicit drug use, and misogyny. But hip-hop can also be a transgressive and subversive medium which attempts to dismantle oppressive structures and demand liberation. At the RDAC-BX, hip-hop gives youth a voice. The gentrification of the neighborhood – experienced by the RDAC-BX by their landlord’s attempt to raise rent – is threatening hip hop’s positive impacts on the community.

Since the eviction, collective members and allies have banned together in protest. On the first Friday of March, when the collective intended to have their monthly open-mic night, members still gathered for the show and held it outside of their building. Taking a note from Venezuela’s political history, one of the collective members wrote a song entitled, “Work Like Chavez,” which protests the eviction of RDAC-BX. Here are the song’s opening lines:

“I can’t front, I’m upset that they took our buildin’/ Next thing the Comandante man I know they killed him/ Something goin’ on, I gotta read the signs/Somethin’ telling me that it’s about that time/ Time to step it up cause I smell sulfur/ Still smell the money in this capitalist culture”

RDAC-BX has also started a campaign to pay for a new space. To support their organizing efforts as well as preserve creative and accessible spaces in the South Bronx, click here to donate.

The Heightened Devastation of Superstorm Sandy on Undocumented Immigrants

Photo by the Huffington Post

Undocumented immigrants have been among the populations most impacted by Superstorm Sandy in New York City.

The federal government recently granted New York City $51 billion in aid for Sandy recovery. Of the initial $1.8 billion installment, $350 million has been distributed to 9,300 low-to-moderate income single-family homeowners, and $250 million has been allocated to low-to-moderate income tenants living in 13,000 units of houses and apartments. When the storm made landfall, homes and businesses were destroyed, sustaining nearly irreparable damages. In an effort to reclaim destroyed homes, lost possessions and steady employment, survivors turned to the federal government for support, but this has been no easy task for the undocumented population.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires that in order to access relief funds, one must present his or her Social Security number.  This, of course, is a problem for most undocumented people, and has prevented thousands from accessing much needed post-storm relief. In addition, many businesses were destroyed in Sandy’s aftermath, causing many workers to lose their jobs, many of whom were undocumented. Again, FEMA required that in order to receive unemployment benefits, one must present their Social Security number.  This, of course, created the same problem.  Without access to FEMA’s unemployment benefits, many undocumented workers found employment in construction (regardless of what they were doing previously.)

FEMA’s sheer presence in disaster areas has struck fear in many undocumented communities—FEMA employees dress in military uniforms and, while they are supposedly there to help, the uniforms can insight fear rather than comfort.  Many undocumented people who have stepped out of the shadows to receive FEMA relief funds or other assistance reportedly were denied assistance without explanation. Clearly, something is not right with the way that relief funds have been handled for the city’s most vulnerable populations.

The Investigative Fund‘s article “Rebuilding After Sandy” discusses the ways  that the country handled undocumented populations in post-Katrina New Orleans. The workforce responsible for rebuilding that city was predominately Latino and 54 percent were undocumented. During this period, Bush’s administration waived certain aspects of the immigration law around hiring undocumented people to ensure a well-populated workforce. While this waiver created more opportunities for work and capacity for rebuilding efforts, undocumented immigrants were paid much less than documented worker ($16 with papers, $10 without papers) and were forced to work in unsafe conditions. To better address the needs of undocumented workers impacted by Sandy, we must take some direction from New Orleans regarding immigration law waivers while simultaneously implementing fair labor practices for undocumented workers (no matter their jobs).

The disproportionate impacts of Sandy on undocumented immigrants is devastating and speaks to a much broader xenophobic sentiment that exists in the United States. To change this reality, undocumented immigrants and allies are rallying around immigration reform in Washington D.C. this Wednesday, April 10th . With 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, immigration reform is absolutely needed more than ever! To support immigration reform and, in turn, improve Sandy relief efforts for all New Yorkers, attend the rally in D.C. this week!

Needed: New Mayor to End Homelessness in NYC

homelessness nyc 2

Rates of homelessness in New York City are still rising. As of January 2013, Coalition for the Homeless reported that 50,100 people were homeless. Of  those who were homeless, 12,000 were families and 21,000 were children. These statistics illustrate the highest rates of homelessness since the Great Depression.

Since Mayor Bloomberg took office in January of 2002, 61 percent more folks are sleeping in shelters.   And beyond these statistics, thousands more are sleeping in public spaces, including subways, park benches, and sidewalks, each night.

Many attribute the heightened rates of homelessness to Bloomberg’s unwillingness to target the root causes of poverty. Throughout Bloomberg’s 11 year tenure, he has notoriously implemented band aid fixes by funneling more money into the shelter system while simultaneously cutting programs like Work Advantage. City Limits cited that since January of this year, the Department of Homeless Services has created 12 new homeless shelters, costing the city $722M. These costs are exorbitant and unnecessary. To save money and lessen rampant poverty, deviating from Bloomberg’s ‘crisis management’ tactics is imperative.

In the same City Limits article, the increase in homelessness is also attributed to the increase in eviction rates. West Bronx Housing, a community-based non-profit that works with tenants to prevent unnecessary evictions, has witnessed this increase firsthand. Between the months of July and October in 2010, West Bronx Housing supported 137 tenants battling eviction. Exactly one year later, they supported 240 tenants battling eviction. While the study’s sample size is small, the figures offer a snapshot of multiplied homelessness in recent years.

Many of the evictions are correlated to the loss of jobs as well as cuts in public benefits. Last week, the New York State Department of Labor released new data stating that 9.9 percent of New York City residents are currently unemployed. This statistic is even higher than unemployment rates from one year ago. Additionally, a major blow to housing in New York was when the City cut the Advantage program last year.  According to the NY Times, the program benefited 15,000 families by providing them stable housing in private multi-family buildings.  With the elimination of this program, many of these families were forced to return to the shelter system. We need new tactics that prevent homelessness and permanently remove people from the shelter system.

With an upcoming mayoral race, we are looking forward to a new mayor who will radically change Bloomberg’s homeless strategies.  A few of the candidates have already offered their ideas. Speaker Christine Quinn, a longstanding proponent of affordable housing, is hoping to reopen lists for federal housing programs, such as Section 8 (there has been a freeze for years), as well as create more rental assistance programs to support folks as they leave the shelter system. Alternatively, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio would like to reinstitute the Advantage program and use city pension funds to create new affordable housing.  As Bloomberg’s tenure ends and a new mayoral term begins, New York has an opportunity to reconstruct homeless intervention programs and expand affordable housing. Stay tuned for more about mayoral candidates’ plans for much needed affordable housing in our city!

NYCHA Lots to Be Used For Luxury Housing

photo: NY Daily News
photo: NY Daily News

In an extremely controversial move, NYCHA Chairman John Rhea announced his plan to lease “unused” space on NYCHA lots to build luxury housing developments. The “unused” space for the developments are currently parks, baseball diamonds, and parking lots. Initially, this plan would involve eight NYCHA lots in Manhattan.

NYCHA faces a desperate fiscal situation, which is unlikely to improve on its own. According to City Limits, NYCHA faces a yearly deficit of $40 million in operating costs and $6.6 billion in capital needs.  The money raised by leasing up NYCHA spaces would be used to provide much needed repairs and maintain the 334 public housing developments throughout the city.  John Rhea describes the plan as necessary for the stability of the large housing authority.

However, elected officials are calling on the city to delay plans for moving forward, particularly because they – as well as tenant leaders and community members—have been widely left in the dark.  The city is due to receiving requests for proposals from developers this month.

As part of the plan, the luxury apartments would need to be twenty percent “affordable,” though as we’ve seen in other recent development projects, “affordable” in this context is not necessarily “affordable” to a low-income family. The eighty percent remaining units would be “market rate.”  In the proposed booming neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, market rate rents are extremely high.

As a result  of the “mixed income” aspect of the new apartment buildings, the developers would be given a 35 year tax credit. It is hard to imagine how luxury apartments built on city property would be exempt from paying taxes – isn’t the point of Rhea’s plan to increase the flow of money into city government? According to Eliot Sclar, the Director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development (CSUD) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute:

That is the tax deal given to developers on private land…In this case, they are privatizing public resources; they should leverage it much more.

This issue of privatizing public land highlights a much larger issue – the privatization of previously public entities, such as housing and education (through charter schools). With this trend, corporations and companies are exerting greater and greater control over the ways that we receive our basic rights, such as housing or education. While this might not appear problematic initially, it becomes detrimental when education or housing is simply about making a profit for a company. What happens when that endeavor is no longer profitable?

We see this issue all the time in private multifamily buildings we work in. Private, predatory developers buy-up regulated housing for the sole purpose of making a buck.  (Or several bucks.) When it becomes apparent that a property is not profitable, the owner ceases to take an interest in the day-to-day living conditions for tenants and ignores basic needs such as heat and hot water.

Current NYCHA tenants have many legitimate fears about NYCHA’s plan to build luxury departments on their lots. First and foremost, tenants fear being pushed out of their neighborhoods and homes.  City Limits published an article this week highlighting social costs of this proposal. One tenant interviewed by City Limits, Aixa Torres, lives in the Smith Houses on the Lower East Side and speaks to her concern of hardening class divisions though this development plan:

Torres says she has already experienced what happens when outsiders wander into Smith Houses. “They don’t pick up after their dogs. People disrespect us. We’ll be treated as second class citizens in our own home.”

NYCHA tenants need to be given a voice in what happens to their homes, and they are calling on the agency to address their concerns about leasing to luxury developers before the plan moves forward. At the moment, tenants fear their rent will go up, that they will soon be displaced through continued city-wide pushes towards gentrification, and increased class and social divisions.  As community activists, organizers, and residents of New York City, our goal should be to make sure that tenants have a say in what happens to their homes. Without that say, anything could happen. Even luxury apartments being built on NYCHA lots.

Friday News Round-Up

  1. Buildings Get High Marks From Feds, Not from Tenants,” is the headline of a great article published this week at City Limits. The Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidizes millions and millions of units of affordable housing, and aims to inspect these units once annually. During these inspections, buildings get a score of 1-100. This article from City Limits delves into the problems with HUD inspections, and points out that many buildings that have received high scores – in the 90s – may not actually be HPD code-compliant and are filled with unhappy tenants who verify that conditions are terrible. We believe that HUD, like HPD, could go a long way towards improving current living conditions and long term viability of housing by prioritizing inspections of underlying conditions and getting behind the wall in places where reoccurring problems exist. One way to facilitate this, as a tenant quoted in the City Limits article suggests, is to let building residents guide inspection tours, rather than landlords or general managers — who lead HUD inspectors to the nicest apartments that have been most recently patched up.
  2. It is increasingly apparent that we need to do more to provide affordable rental housing and ensure that renters have the same rights and access to services as homeowners do. The Center on Budget Priorities has already proposed renters tax credit. As we stumble out of a recession, rental housing construction has been one of the first industries to bounce back, according to this NY Times article published this week. If this is a sign of a shifting housing market, towards a market in which it is more desirable to rent, we like that. It is clear, now, that homeownership can not be the only driver of the housing market and the predominate way that “affordable” mortgages cannot be the way we provide affordable housing. But new housing stock must be accessible and affordable and include the equal protections that affordable homeownership programs provide.
  3. What is the Fiscal Cliff and what does it mean for me? It’s a very good question, and Colorlines has a very good answer. This info-graphic lays out the problem and the two parties suggested solutions. Earlier this week, ColorLines published this piece arguing that “the fiscal cliff is nominally about balancing spreadsheets and the arcana of economic formulas, but it’s actually about race.” It’s about racial economic inequality, and that’s we should definitely be paying attention.
  4. Moving on to more non-sexy issues like the Fiscal Cliff, The Atlantic Cities pointed out this week how our current tax code is failing cities, which depend on property taxes to fund local budgets. Property taxes have fallen with the housing crisis, and city services are increasingly enjoyed by commuters, who pay no property tax. So, if you’re living in New Jersey, next time you drive through the Holland Tunnel consider that $13 toll part of your civic responsibility to New York and maybe you’ll feel a little better. Probably not.
  5. Finally, a brief update on New York City politics. It’s almost 2013, and the mayoral race is continuing to develop. Scott Stringer has dropped out of the race and is instead turned towards a comptroller run. Speaker Quinn has endorsed him, as has 32BJ/SEIU. The current comptroller, John Liu, continues to eye the mayoral office, as does Bill DeBlasio. Joe Lhota is considering a run with the Republican party (for which his wife is a big-guns fundraiser.)

Stay tuned for more news from The Surreal Estate next week!