The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: social justice

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.

Week #1 as a Tenant Organizer

Working as a tenant organizer involves a lot of acronyms.  This is the most important lesson I have learned so far in my first week of training as a tenant organizer with UHAB.  HCR, HUD, CMBS, AEP, even UHAB itself are swirling in my brain in a massive linguistic confusion.  Coming from Chicago, I moved here to New York City to participate in “Avodah: the Jewish Service Corps” like many other UHAB organizers before me.  In addition to working, I will be participating in programs on issues of social justice and Judaism, and will have an enriching and insanely busy year.  After college, I spent a year on the move: traveling in Israel/ Palestine, learning Spanish in Guatemala, and living in a multi-faith, social justice oriented retreat center.

This first week of training has been an overload of information on subjects which I haven’t really taken the time to learn before.  The crew of knowledgeable organizers at UHAB has been training me on everything from how banks and mortgages work, how to run a meeting, to UHAB’s campaign history and where the best lunch spots on Wall Street are located.  Hot topics like rent regulation in New York City and Predatory Equity are slowly beginning to make sense to me.

On my second day of training, I went to sit in on a tenant leader meeting at Putnam in Harlem, run by UHAB and our partner Tenants and Neighbors.  Three buildings in this unit are potentially facing submetering, which would put the heat and electricity in each individual tenant’s bill, rather than a standard sum in tenants’ rent.  These apartments currently have no way to control their heat temperature, but can only turn their electric heat system on and off.  On top of that, the apartments also tend to have poor insulation, and so submetering could substantially raise tenants’ rents.  Luckily, the buildings have strong tenant leaders who are motivated to have a loud voice in this process.  As a first example of an organizing meeting, this meeting of leaders illustrated to me a best case scenario in how organized buildings with committed leaders can look.

Walking around my new neighborhood of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, I have started to take note of the housing there, wondering what type of buildings and what type of rent regulations or subsidy programs are in place.  I hope this experience will help me develop a more critical framework for understanding housing and the way politics in New York City, how to be an effective organizer, and how to write bomb blog posts.


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