We Need to Organize, People! By Guest Blogger, Keisha Jacobs

This post is written by Keisha Jacobs, an organizer and member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union.  Keisha acted as MC for Saturday’s march and picnic where the CHTU targeted several landlords to sign onto the CHTU demands.  For more information about CHTU, visit http://www.crownheightstenantunion.org 

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Hello and welcome. Welcome everyone. I’m so glad to see all of you here this afternoon. We are here today to show our solidarity as long standing tenants and new residents against the negative changes in our Crown Heights community. Predatory practices by banks, landlords and building management are forcing rent stabilized tenants out and overcharging new residents.

The stack of small injustices, the clerical mistakes on your rent receipt the administrative errors like cashing your rent check late. The miscommunication, repeated unreturned messages. Come on folks! You know that it looks like. They say they’re coming to FINALLY fix your sink. You take a valuable the day off only to have them never show up. Or the ceiling in your bathroom that’s coming down around your ears, but you see workmen fixing your new neighbors apartment because they pay twice as much as you do.

These things are not just oversights. It’s not incompetence.  It’s not mismanagement. This is not just a simple screw up.  It’s systemic. It’s tactical. You are being targeted.

There are speculators betting on our neighborhood, people. The predatory equity practices by the banks have placed a gamble on our homes. Our landlords have huge mortgages on the buildings we live in. Values set by appraisers using some arbitrary figures of which your rent controlled or rent stabilized apartment is not a factor. In order to cover their bets, your apartment needs to bring in a higher price. So to make up the difference they skimp on services. No heat or hot water for days during the coldest times of year. Major infrastructure items like plumbing, furnaces or water heaters don’t get repaired or replaced. The lobby and halls haven’t been painted in a decade. And repairs in your apartment go undone. All the while we are being dragged back and forth to housing court in an effort to evict us, or being harassed, or offered paltry buyouts to move us from our homes.

We need to organize, people. This is organizing. Get your neighbors together and if you haven’t already get your rent history and start your tenant association and join us.

On June 18 we will be at the Brooklyn rent guidelines board meeting at borough hall and we DEMAND A RENT FREEZE! We are here to fight. Enough is enough. Hands off our homes!

Join tenants from all over Brooklyn at Borough Hall on June 18th from 5:00 to 8:00 to demand a rent freeze!  If you’d like to travel with the Crown Heights Tenant Union, we’ll be meeting at 6:00 at Franklin and Eastern Parkway.  

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MEDIA ADVISORY: HUNDREDS OF CROWN HEIGHTS TENANTS RALLY, MARCH FOR HOUSING JUSTICE

This Saturday the tenants of Crown Heights are taking to the streets o tell their landlords that they are fed up with the cycle of displacement and rent overcharges! Tenants will be rallying with elected officials before marching through the neighborhood — stopping at some buildings with the worst landlords — and then ending with a picnic!

Please join us for ANY part of the day.

Media Advisory for June 7th, 2014

Kerri White: (212) 479-3371 // (520) 507-5863 (c)

Joel Feingold: (608) 201-9345

Hundreds of Crown Heights Tenants Rally,March for Housing Justice

Crown Heights Tenant Union, elected officials, and housing advocates call for strengthened tenant protections to end displacement and systematic rent overcharges.

WHO The Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU), a new alliance of long-term residents and recently-arrived tenants who have joined forces to fight displacement, harassment, and the rapid loss of affordable housing in Crown Heights. The CHTU will be joined by State Assembly Members Walter Mosley and Karim Camara and housing organizers from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.

WHEN Saturday, June 7th 2014, 12:30 pm

WHERE Dr. Ronald McNair Park: Eastern Parkway and Washington Avenue

WHAT Rally and March to end landlord tactics that displace long-term, working-class residents — and to call for meaningful tenant power over affordable housing in one of New York City’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

WHY Recent data shows that New York City faces a severe housing crunch, and that the cost of renting in New York City is sky-rocketing. This problem is particularly profound in Crown Heights, where the real estate industry is seeking to profit from rising rents through harassment and displacement of long term residents and illegal overcharging of newcomers. The Crown Heights Tenant Union is using a collective bargaining strategy to push back against these unethical and at-times illegal tactics. CHTU demands include: a five-year rent freeze, a ban on common methods landlords use to vacate rent regulated buildings and convert them into luxury apartments, and radical strengthening of State tenant protection laws. On Saturday, June 7th, the Crown Heights Tenant Union will be calling on BCB Capital Management, Pinnacle Realty, and TGB One Associates, among others, to comply with these demands through a legally binding agreement.

Accepting Money to Leave

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Predatory equity takes place when landlords buy buildings based on the “projected” rents of a building rather than the current ones, subsequently paying huge amounts of money for rent stabilized affordable housing.  The only way the finances will work is by forcing out long term residents and bringing in higher paying ones.  This process, also known as gentrification, is taking place in rent stabilized, affordable housing all over New York City.

Predatory landlords do everything in their power to get long terms residents to leave their apartments such as ignoring tenant rights, decreasing basic services, or offering buy-outs.  While asking tenants to accept money to leave isn’t illegal, it almost always is against the tenants’ interests.   (Check out our one-pager on how to decide whether or not to accept a buy-out)  One super at 725 4th Ave in South Slope, Brooklyn spoke with the Gothamist about his experience asking tenants to accept buy-outs to move:

“He said he was hired with a mandate to clean up the building,” so he did.  It was his job.

After the fourth of fifth [buy-out], Duarte said, “I felt like I was doing wrong,” but people kept coming, and if he wanted to keep his job and support his family, he had to continue paying out. Twenty families left in the first round…Some tell Duarte that taking a buyout was the biggest mistake of their lives. He is sympathetic, but said, “I never pushed anybody out. They asked me, and I made an offer. I hoped they didn’t take it.

Long term residents living in Crown Heights, Bushwick, and other quickly gentrifying neighborhoods have their own stories of being offered buy-outs.  Most often than not, tenants who accept money to leave will have a hard time finding a new apartment in the neighborhood in a similar price range.  Families and communities are uprooted.  Furthermore, each time a family leaves, the price of an apartment unit increases, and the precious stock of affordable housing diminishes.

This crisis is not just a trendy Brooklyn one.  At 836 Faile St. in Hunts Point, tenants have been offered $3,000 to move out of their rent stabilized homes! (Likely this is to produce a cluster-site homeless shelter and allow private developers to profit off of evicting long term residents and exploiting the homeless crisis).

The more tenants understand their rights and the pros and cons of accepting buy-outs, the more they are determined to fight for their homes.  To learn about how to fight back against predatory landlords, come out to the Crown Heights Tenant Union meetings every 3rd Thursday of the month at 7:00 pm at the Center for Nursing the Rehabilitation.

Tenants Unite To Address Gentrification

Everybody’s talking about gentrification. The term has been on the receiving end of a lot of positive press from NY Mag and NPR. On the other side of the debate, some activists in Philadelphia are trying to get the United Nations to consider gentrification a human rights violation. And just this morning, the NY Times wrote about several cities that are using progressive tax abatement programs to fight gentrification.

On Friday, February 28th, over 75 tenants from across Crown Heights  gathered outside 1059 Union Street, a building that is home to 34 families and owned by BCB Properties, to protest the cycle of displacement and rent-overcharges. The demonstration announced the creation of the Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU), a resident led effort to demand community control over housing in Crown Heights.

Crown Heights (along with nearby Bedford Stuyvesant and farther north Bushwick) is ground zero in the struggle over gentrification in Brooklyn. The neighborhood is rapidly changing. According to Spike Lee,

Then comes the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here…I mean, they just move in the neighborhood. You just can’t come in the neighborhood. I’m for democracy and letting everybody live but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now shit gotta change because you’re here? Get the fuck outta here. Can’t do that!

Lee’s criticism is as valid as it is impassioned, and to us it demonstrates just how high emotions run when you speak about gentrification in Brooklyn. And the ensuing outrage reflects how difficult gentrification is to talk about. Obviously gentrification so painful because of it’s associations with displacement, fractured neighborhoods, and disintegration of an close knit cultural community. In lamenting the cultural disrespect that new neighbors can display, Lee neglects to make a structural criticism of the capital processes that drive gentrification, and he neglects to give listeners an idea about how neighborhoods can fight it.

That’s where the CHTU comes in. The CHTU is using an inclusive and resident driven model to identify the true drivers of gentrification (hint: brokers and real estate capitalists who use their power as landowners to re-brand neighborhoods to middle/upper class tastes), and then, to fight them.

CHTU uses the slogan “Unite and Fight” to signify the importance of long-term tenants and newer tenants coming together in solidarity against the cycle of displacement and rent-overcharges. A tenant-driven effort to get landlords across the neighborhood to agree to a list of demands, the CHTU believes that homes are for people, not for profit. Demands range from a five-year rent freeze to prioritizing repairs in old apartments over renovations in new apartments to limiting the ability of landlords to pressure tenants to leave via buyouts.

CHTU understands that the problem is systematic. As Michael Powell wrote in the NY Times a few weeks ago, “This is New York City in the age of real estate as oil wells. To speak of gentrification as a house by house renovation march is not to do this justice. This is turbo-charged, developed plotted, bank fueled, quite intentional and difficult to mediate.”  

The story of gentrification in Brooklyn is far from complete, and the good news is that there are many tenants who are working hard to write themselves into the history books. Tom Angotti, the Director of Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning and Development, recently wrote up a list of “5 Things You Can Do About Gentrification in NYC.” It boils down to two things: talk to your neighbors, and organize — the more than 75 tenants who rallied outside 1059 Union Street on Friday in the freezing cold weather can attest that the CHTU is doing both.

Donna Mossman of 1159 President St. puts it best:

Our neighborhood and buildings are undergoing major construction but the work being done is not for the long standing tenants. Our message to our landlords is clear: this is our home, we still live here and we are not leaving.  

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Join us at the next CHTU General Membership Meeting!
March 13, 7pm
727 Classon Ave (the Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation).

Long Term Residents of San Francisco Pushed Out of City

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New York City is criticized for its rent stabilized laws, and how they negatively hurt city growth.  But as tenant organizers, we see rent stabilization as a powerful means to protect the diminishing affordable housing in our city, and to keep long-term and low income residents from being displaced. We are also familiar with the myriad of ways, both legal and illegal, that landlords subvert the rent regulation laws. From state sanctioned MCIs to excessive non-rent fees, there are numerous ways that landlords can raise rents above the prescribed amounts. 

Advocates often draw parallels between the San Francisco and New York City housing markets. They are both extremely expensive, and tenants in both cities are facing enormous gentrification pressures. Both dense cities have rent regulation laws.

In San Francisco, these laws are subverted by the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to essentially evict all their tenants by “going out of business.” In a city that has seen enormous influx of high-income residents, the Ellis Act is used to evict long-term, low income tenants and convert a building to condos or other more lucrative uses.  Tenants are evicted under this act at an alarming rate: according to a 2013 report from the city’s Budget and Legislative Analyst, there was a 170% increase in Ellis Act evictions over the past three years, and 38% increase of evictions in general.

Tenants who are evicted under the Ellis Act are entitled to $5,261 per tenant up to a $15,873 limit, and slightly inflated amounts for elderly or disabled tenants. Last week, San Francisco supervisor David Campos proposed a measure that would require landlords to pay the difference in rent for tenants displaced under the Ellis Act for a comparable apartment for two years. In the proposal, according to an article in the SF Gate, “An evicted tenant would receive either the $5,261 or the difference in rent, whichever is more.” San Francisco also recently passed legislation that would prioritized those evicted under the Ellis Act for affordable housing in the city.   While all these measures are in place, the fact remains that low-income and long term residents are being forced out of the city, and the Bay Area altogether.

Airbnb is also providing landlords in San Francisco incentives to displace long term residents, Chris Butler was evicted from his rent-controlled apartment under the premise that his landlord needed the apartment for a family member to move in.  According to another article in the SF Gate, “Instead, he said, the owner shuffled around existing tenants and listed two of the four units in the building on short-term rental site Airbnb for $125 and $145 a night – considerably more than the $1,840 a month Butler paid.”  Studies are beginning to show that landlords in San Francisco as well as other cities are using Airbnb to skirt rent laws and displace long term residents.  (PLUS, read more about the sharing economy and how it may serve to reduce wages and decrease affordability here.) 

Living up to its history of activism, tenants in San Francisco have not been standing idly by as capital-seeking landlords displace them from their homes. There’s been a huge amount of resistance, from blocking buses taking tech employees to work from their homes in Oakland and San Francisco, to bus ads encouraging tenants to fight back against evictions, and an upcoming day of tenant action on February 18th.

New York City tenants living under rent stabilization and rent control have a great deal of protections, and are not subject to laws like the Ellis Act.  Tenants always have the right to a renewal lease, and can stay in their apartments, no matter who owns the building.  For this reason, tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers have retained the right to stay in their homes, even in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn where the housing worth has skyrocketed.  

Unfortunately, landlords in New York City do find ways to skirt rent stabilization though harassment such as buy-outs, decreased services for rent-stabilized tenants, and through overcharging newer residents.  Tenants in Crown Heights have identified these issues and are fighting back against these tactics.  Join the Crown Heights Tenant Union at our next meeting!  

When: Thursday, February 20th at 7:00 pm

Where: Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in the Atrium; 520 Prospect Pl (at Classon) in Brooklyn

We’ll be planning for our own action on the morning of February 28th in Crown Heights.  Save the date and join us!

Crown Heights Tenant Union To Meet This Thursday

Photo: San Fran.'s Tenant Union
Photo: San Francisco Tenant Union

Crown Heights is gentrifying.  Everyone knows it, but how does it actually play out on the ground? When a neighborhood gentrifies, where are the people who used to live there?  (Often, those experiences are lost and made invisible.  San Francisco’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is working to bring this issue into the public eye through sidewalk stencils.)

Along with gentrification comes harassment and illegal activity.  When landlords project that property values will rise, they purchase a building for too much money, assuming they’ll make it back through the high rents that they’ll be able to charge.  Unfortunately, what they don’t take into account is that many New York City buildings are rent stabilized, and that rents can’t just be raised willy-nilly.  So they use other tactics: Harassment,  Major Capital Improvements,  Lack of repairs, Buy-outs.  Anything to force long term tenants out to bring in new, higher paying ones.

In order to pay back a too-big mortgage, landlords don’t stop with the illegal activity after getting a long term tenant to move out.  Instead, they illegally overcharge new tenants, often young people who are also unaware of New York City rent laws.  Some landlords (like ZT Realty) overcharge unsuspecting newbies thousands of dollars.  And the worst part is, they get away with it!  (And they continue to buy more buildings!)  This is the cycle of predatory equity when it works for landlords.  Because the debt levels on these buildings are so high, if landlords were to actually abide by rent laws and respect tenant rights, they wouldn’t be able to pay back their mortgages and the buildings (like so many that we see) would fall into foreclosure.

A group of tenants in Crown Heights have begun meeting as a Tenant Union, hoping to organize and make demands to landlords, lenders, and the City.  Many of the tenants have lived in the neighborhood for decades, and have been experiencing landlord harassment and decreased services, and want to speak up for their rights.  Others have lived in the neighborhood a year or two, and don’t like what they’ve been seeing or are personally being illegally overcharged.

UHAB has been organizing with small, distressed buildings in this neighborhood for years, and have seen this same pattern play out over and over.  We decided to team up with the Crown Heights Assembly to jump-start the Tenant Union and launch a campaign to protect tenant rights and preserve affordable housing.  Join us for the third meeting of the Crown Heights Tenant Union.  We’ll be meeting Thursday evening, 7:00 at 805 St. Marks (between Brooklyn and New York Ave).  

Public Advocate-elect Letitia James, Members of the New York City Council, Bronx and Queens Tenants, and Advocates Demand that Investment Firm Stop Putting NYC Affordable Housing at Risk

IMG_4806For Immediate Release

Contact:
Kerri White (UHAB), (212) 479-3371, (520) 507-5863 (c), kwhite@uhab.org
Ian Davie (Legal Services NYC-Bronx), (718) 928-2889, (917) 751-5992 (c), idavie@ls-nyc.org

Fed-up tenants, sick of Stabilis Capital Management speculating on their homes while conditions worsen, call for the firm to transfer distressed properties to capable owners.

December 3, 2013, Bronx, New York — Public Advocate-elect Letitia James and tenants from eight buildings across New York City gathered this afternoon outside 755 Jackson Ave in the Bronx to demand that Stabilis Capital Management transfer various buildings to city-approved preservation developers. The tenants were also joined by the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) and Legal Services NYC (LSNYC) and representatives from the offices of Council Members Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Diana Reyna.

Stabilis Capital Management (Stabilis), a private equity company which holds the mortgages on, or owns, the eight deteriorating buildings, has been acquiring distressed debt on multifamily buildings in foreclosure across the City. Tenants residing in the buildings, many of whom are elderly or disabled, have struggled to endure hazardous, substandard living conditions because Stabilis has neglected to complete repairs or assist with court orders to address housing code violations.

“I am incredibly concerned not just for the safety of the families in these buildings, but for tenants throughout New York City who find themselves facing deplorable housing conditions as winter sets in,” said Council member and Public Advocate-elect Letitia James. “We will continue to fight to ensure that residents are not the victims of such dangerous lending practices.”

Conditions at 755 Jackson Avenue have declined dramatically since Stabilis took ownership in June of this year. Residents suffer from lead paint contamination, asbestos exposure, rodent infestations, and chronic water leaks. In October, the stairwell collapsed, injuring two tenants. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has identified 221 open code violations, an astounding number for an 11- unit building. The building is in such poor condition that it has been placed into HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, which is reserved for the 200 most distressed and hazardous buildings in New York City. Tenants plan to advocate for Harry DiRienzo of Banana Kelly to be appointed as an administrator to manage the building.

The announcement came the same day that tenants at 836 Faile Street, also in the Bronx, filed a motion in Bronx Supreme Court demanding that Stabilis provide funds to complete repairs in their building. Stabilis purchased that 36-unit Hunts Point building’s mortgage in March 2012; the building currently has 138 code violations.

“These buildings exhibit the worst effects of predatory equity in New York City,” said Ian Davie, an attorney with Legal Services NYC-Bronx. “Stabilis manages over $500 million in investments, but somehow continues to ignore and evade common standards of decency, to the detriment of all New Yorkers. These brave tenants are taking a stand to protect their families and maintain their right to live in safe homes.”

“It is horrible that my young children and I have had to contend with rat infestations, mold contamination, water leaks, and spotty heat and hot water during the winter,” said Joanna Paulino, a longtime tenant at 836 Faile Street. “Nobody should have to live with these conditions for one day, let alone the months and years that we have endured. We are ready to put a stop to this.”

The Bronx tenants were joined by tenants from other buildings who have experienced the detrimental effects of Stabilis’s lack of management. Stabilis also purchased the mortgages on a 36-unit Queens portfolio in February 2012 – 1821 and 1894 Cornelia Street, 18-14 Linden Street, and 1673, 1675 and 1726 Woodbine Street – which currently list a total of 380 code violations. Tenants fear that if Stabilis continues its involvement as a lender or landlord, it will continue to neglect and mismanage the buildings until they become uninhabitable. These tenants have appeared in bankruptcy court to hold Stabilis accountable, with the assistance of Queens Legal Services (a program of Legal Services NYC) and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.

Tenants in all eight Stabilis buildings face serious health concerns, including cancer, asthma, and injuries caused by falling staircases. Those health problems are exacerbated by their living conditions. The tenants are working with responsible developers who are interested in preserving the properties and are attempting to negotiate with Stabilis. They hope that Stabilis will sell the debt or the buildings to these preservation developers, who would prioritize the health and safety of residents.

“This isn’t investment, this is disinvestment and it harms New York City,” said Kerri White, Director of Organizing and Policy at UHAB. “Stabilis should stop this destructive ‘business’ model and transfer these buildings to a responsible developer who can maintain them and keep them affordable for the families who call them home. We’re standing here today – tenants, advocates, and elected officials – to reiterate that we cannot continue to permit this predatory behavior to exist in our city.”

“For the past 12 years, I have seen too many unscrupulous and predatory real estate investments severely undermine the livelihoods of working families throughout New York City,” said Queens Council Member Diana Reyna. “Stabilis Capital Management must understand that we won’t accept more predatory speculation of land in our communities. I urge Stabilis to consider a bid from a non-profit developer that will ensure the affordability of the properties in question and provide security to the current tenants.”

“The residents of these buildings deserve better,” said Assemblyman Marcos A. Crespo. “No individual or corporations financial interest should depend on the suffering of children and families in our community. Stabilis must allow a preservation developer to take over as soon as possible and complete much needed repairs.”

“There shouldn’t be a place in our community for neglectful landlords,” said Assemblyman Eric Stevenson.

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