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.”

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.


Occupy Wall Street: Two Years Out


Today is the two year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and without regurgitating all the other relevant commentary elsewhere on the internet, we’d like to dwell a little bit on what that means through our particular lens as organizers working in affordable housing in New York City. In that vein, two of Occupy’s themes resonate deeply with our work, and have transitioned into mainstream dialogue and political conversations. We’re talking about economic inequality and protest/direct action.

Yesterday we wrapped up a bitter mayoral primary season in which the winner, Bill de Blasio, courted voters through a  relentlessness campaign against inequality in New York. He hammered home his Tale of Two Cities: the growing disparity between the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor in New York. The electorate responded favorably. But even more significantly, de Blasio was successful in pulling the entire field of mayoral candidates to the left by talking about economic inequality. (Even Joe Lhota is promising universal pre-K.)

But de Blasio probably owes some of his success to Occupy Wall Street. Just a few months after September 17, 2011, media commentators noticed that the term “income inequality” was used five times more than it had been used just two months before.  The term then became a major sound bite in the 2013 NYC mayoral campaign, pointing to the lingering resonance that the Occupy Wall Street movement has within public discourse.

The Furman Center’s annual State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods contained some shocking data this year: as rents increased significantly, incomes fell. Homelessness is higher than during the Great Depression. Inequality, when combined with rising rents, contributes to a great sense of unease in the buildings we organize. It is both economically and psychologically damaging, and in terms of real social progress and racial equality, it sets us all back. Long term and newer tenants, often divided along race/class lines, live side by side, negotiating how to interact with one another. When long term tenants see new, young, white tenants treated differently (and those same people don’t, for example, join tenant associations), the damage wrought is unquantifiable. And this is one of the most damaging and difficult things about gentrification and displacement. It’s no great secret that landlords try and profit off the wealthy and displace the poor; increasing economic inequality makes this easier. Too many landlords attempt to force out lower income, long term tenants to raise rents and bring in higher paying tenants. They do this through buy-outs targeted a low income and minority renters, a decrease in services, illegally charging higher rents, and tacking on non-rent fees.

But this leads me to our second takeaway from the Occupy Wall Street movement: there is a real excitement around the idea of organizing and protest, and there is more appetite than ever for empowerment through collective action. And like inequality, protest and direct action have remained in the political mainstream. This summer, de Blasio was arrested (in a political but powerful move) defending the SUNY’s Long Island College Hospital. He was not the only politician arrested this summer protesting hospital closings – Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, among others, followed suit. In 2011, Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez was injured and arrested during a raid on Occupy Wall Street. Two years since Occupy Wall Street, protest and unlawful civil disobedience remains firmly embedded in mainstream ideas of how to demand social change.

One of the enduring strengths of Occupy Wall Street is the local neighborhood coalitions that have emerged in its wake. As the crowd in Zuccotti Park dispersed (or was evicted), groups like Occupy Sunset Park and the Crown Heights Assembly have turned their focus to organizing in their neighborhoods, against displacement and gentrification. We’ve been organizing against those issues for years, but Occupy Wall Street brought attention, and in some ways even a renewed legitimacy, to tactics and actions that organizers use to protest inequality and injustice. Now, the language of inequality and class injustice is familiar, and it resonates, and that’s an enduring legacy that those of us who were organizing before and after both notice and enjoy every day. If at times Occupy Wall Street seemed to lack strategy and cohesion, it certainly achieved the goal of politicizing people, gaining media attention, and making it more acceptable for New Yorkers to protest.

Today, activists in Zuccotti Park are holding teach-ins, protests, and celebrations.  Check out the schedule of events here and visit the park!

Friday News Round Up

  1. Two Trees Management (David and Jed Walentas) released their (ridiculous) plans for the Domino Sugar Factory site this week. The plan still has to be approved by the city, and would require significant rezoning. City Limits has gathered several articles documenting the forgotten history of the Walentas family of developers and the Domino Sugar Factory site. Expect more on this from us next week.
  2. The Riverdale Press has been releasing a series of articles on the problem with recieverships in foreclosures. This is a very important issue that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves, particularly when so many multifamily buildings are in foreclosure and managed by receivers  UHAB and our allies have been sounding the alarm about the need for reciever reform for quite sometime. Check out this article which details several buildings in which we organize, and be sure to read the whole series!
  3. Mayor Bloomberg’s emphasis on using data to improve our city got lots of attention this week, and the attention is deserved. One of the less exciting aspects of our job (or more exciting, depending on your preference) is combing through mortgage documents and building histories online. The incredible amount of information about their homes and their cities that New Yorkers can access through the internet is revolutionary. It allows the city to improve code enforcement and building oversight, but it also informs the organizing that we do and the struggle for a more just city in an important and empowering way.
  4. Bloomberg Businessweek, on the other had, has gotten lots of negative attention for this racially insensitive and classist magazine cover. The illustration, like much right-wing coverage of the on-going housing crisis, places blame on low-income, minority homeowners while ignoring the big banks and sleazy lending tactics that are the real culprits.
  5. The Furman Center released “Sandy’s Effects on Housing in New York City,” a brief fact sheet with a self-explanatory title. They point out that the cost of Sandy will not be fully known for quite some time, and that many homeowners have not realized the extent of damage to their property. That said, their findings: 55% of people who applied for FEMA aide were renters with a median income of $18,000. People affected were older, whiter, and poorer than the city on average. More NYCHA buildings were damaged than even EXIST in any other large public housing authority in the country.

Finally, two events you should attend! Tonight, our own Dan Desloover and Brent Sharman will be participating in an Urban Homesteading Roundtable at the New School. They will discuss engaging public power to fight for new housing ecologies in the face of the housing crisis.

And if you follow our blog closely, you will know that we wrote just a few days ago about the privatization of public housing. If that’s an interesting subject to you, be sure to join Columbia and Hunter professors Peter Marcuse and Tom Angotti as they address that very subject at the Brecht Forum this Saturday.


What Kind of Recovery Do We Want?

Across the country, crowed homeless shelters and dilapidated neighborhoods are testimony to just how painful years of the foreclosure crisis has been for families. The foreclosure crisis has been as persistent as it has been terrible: At six years, the housing market has been in its longest slide since the Great Depression.  However, in the past couple weeks housing experts have been reporting that the worst may be over. This cautiously optimistic talk of recovery is couched in phrases such as “prices are up,” or “sold for more than asking.”

Before we jump back into the feverish fray of home-buying (and mortgage-signing), it is important to think about what kind of “recovery” there has been so far, and what kind we really want. The foreclosure crisis – as terrible as it has been – has also been an opportunity to reject the practices that brought us to our knees in 2008, and to restart the housing market in a more sustainable, more responsible and more socially just way. Here’s what we’re warning against:

Multifamily Rent-Regulated Housing
Raising rents in the multifamily housing market have led some to believe that the rental market is booming. Demand for housing is high, and in New York City, the apartment vacancy level is very low. At the same time, buildings languish in foreclosure across the Bronx and Brooklyn, leading to condition deterioration and impact tenants’ quality of life. As banks seek to resolve these foreclosures, it is essential that they sell this housing stock at reduced prices that reflect actual conditions in the building. The renewed interest in multifamily housing investment could lead to a second round of Predatory Equity, which would be detrimental for tenants in rent-regulated buildings. In order to have the housing recovery that New York City tenants desperately need, this speculative cycle must be broken! This means that banks must take real rents and housing conditions into account when selling and making new loans.

Single-Family Housing
The past few years have seen an increase in our desire to live in high density neighborhoods, close to mass transit, and in neighborhoods with high walkability scores. This is a progressive step away from what Kaid Benfield of The Atlantic Cities calls the “Ponzi Scheme” of suburban sprawl. As the housing market recovers, there is increased growth on the edges of cities, so as the Wall Street Journal poignantly puts it:  “What’s Next for Housing? More Sprawl.” While the housing market recovers, familiar patterns of suburban growth at the edges of cities will reemerge. This movement away from more sustainable living is bad news for housing activists and for environmentalists alike.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the media has prematurely heralded in a housing market recovery, so it could be just hot air. If it is true it, however, it’s important to think about the lessons we’ve learned – or should have learned – from the last six years of crisis. Like the fact that rent regulated multifamily housing is not an “under-performing asset.” Apartment buildings have real values that can’t be inflated without deferring services or evicting tenants (i.e. predatory equity). Or the knowledge that irresponsible lending fuels a speculative housing market that can lead to crisis, and that the burden of that crisis falls primarily on low income individuals.

A building in foreclosure is in limbo, between crisis and opportunity. When we organize in these buildings, we tell tenants that it is the optimal time to form a tenants association and demand a say in the kind of housing that they want. That’s why we believe that there is possibility, right now, to reclaim all of this distressed housing – single family and multifamily alike – in a way that preserves affordability and stabilizes neighborhoods.

Many of the buildings that remain in foreclosure in New York City are small and far apart. This represents a massive management and preservation challenge. That’s why the solution is for multifamily and single family housing advocates to work together to development one facility that has the capacity to buy distressed notes in bulk, with the intention of preservation outcomes. This bulk note sale must be done, before private equity groups swoop in and do it first — turning the buildings back into “investments” that don’t have residents’ interest at heart.

What we need is an interim facility.  We need to be able to scoop up the distressed, affordable housing stock, stabilize it, and allow tenants the time and space to make their own choices and have those choices be real options on the table. It’s their home; shouldn’t they be the ones making the decisions?  To learn more about our vision of a NYC interim facility, click here.

The Atlantic Cities: “What Happens to a Foreclosed New York Apartment?”

230 Schenectady Following Devastating Fire
230 Schenectady Following Devastating Fire

Today The Atlantic Cities is featuring an article, “What Happens to a Foreclosed New York Apartment Building,” that features UHAB organizers! Check it out!

The article highlights a particular building, 553 E. 169th St. in the Bronx which exemplifies how conditions deteriorate while a building is in foreclosure.

In August of 2011, 553 East 169th Street had 84 code violations. Now, it has 285, ranging from broken window guards to peeling lead-based paint. And research suggests deteriorating buildings like this can even drag down a whole neighborhood.

Weaver’s organization has been working with the tenants here and in other buildings in the city to find responsible new owners (perhaps the tenants themselves?) and to push banks into taking financial responsibility for maintaining these places in the meantime. A lot of these buildings originally went into foreclosure, even though they house rent-paying tenants, because they were overleveraged at the height of the housing boom by speculators who hoped to drive out rent-regulated existing tenants in favor of newer ones who could be charged much more.

We’re excited that this blog – which follows issues facing cities nationwide – is tuned into how tenants suffer when buildings fall into foreclosure!

Shelterforce: “The Human Right to Housing: housing and homelessness are human right issues- and that could be an organizing strategy”

Anyone working on homelessness and affordable housing issues is familiar with the statistics and the human suffering behind them. We know homelessness has been a national crisis for 30 years and we know the recession and dramatic increases in foreclosures have made things much worse.

Just look at the most recent Annual Homelessness Assessment Report from HUD: family homelessness increased by 20 percent between January 2007 and January 2010. In December 2010, the U.S. Conference of Mayors’annual survey of cities across the country reported a 9 percent increase in family homelessness in 2010 alone. And in addition to people who are in shelters or on the streets, over 6 million are doubled up due to economic necessity. In many communities tent cities are going up.

We know we suffer from affordable housing and homelessness crises—but how often do we think of them as human rights crises? As it happens, more and more local advocates are using a human rights framework to address issues of homelessness and housing—and they’re gaining ground.

The Human Rights Framework

In the United States, we’re more used to talking about civil rights—the right to vote, the right to free speech—than we are about economic, social, and cultural rights. But international human rights law embraces these lesser-discussed rights.

While never ratified by the U.S. Senate, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundational human rights document adopted (with U.S. leadership) by the United Nations in 1948, includes the “right to an adequate standard of living.” This can serve as a powerful tool for advocates.

There are seven elements required for housing to be considered adequate under these standards: it must be habitable, accessible, affordable, and culturally adequate; offer security of tenure; be located near jobs, schools, and other needed services; and have necessary infrastructure such as sanitation.

International standards require governments to realize this right progressively, using the “maximum of their available resources.” Governments are not required to ensure the right for all immediately, but they must show constant progress toward that goal.

It’s unlikely that the human right to housing will be fully realized in the United States any time soon given the current focus in Congress on cutting spending on social programs. But as advocates, we can work toward that goal. And while we work toward our broad, long-term goal of housing justice for all, we can also use the human right to housing in our advocacy to get shorter-term, concrete results now.

To continue reading, click here.