Fighting Jewish Slumlords Isn’t Anti-Semitic PLUS A RALLY!

The Jewish Daily Forward published an article today written by UHAB Organizer Elise Goldin called “Fighting Jewish Slumlords Isn’t Anti-Semitic.” Inspired by the inflammatory media attention around slumlord Menachem Stark’s murder, she writes about the ways that religious Jews too often appear in NYC’s shady real estate business:

Through my work, I do a great deal of research to try and untangle the mess of who owns what property and who’s connected to whom in the real estate industry. And it’s not easy. Take 199 Lee Avenue, an address in the religious Jewish part of Williamsburg. It’s connected to literally hundreds and hundreds of distressed buildings. Entities with an address at 199 Lee touch all sides of any real estate deal — as owners, mortgagers, brokers — and it’s nearly impossible to connect the address to an actual person.

This Wednesday, we’re holding a tenant action in the neighborhood of Borough Park with tenants from 230 and 232 Schenectady in Crown Heights. The buildings are in some of the worst condition we at UHAB have ever seen: unbelievable leaks, ceilings caving in, and two electrical fires since they’ve been in foreclosure.  Back in 2012, tenants actually won their organizing campaign:  an non-profit group, MHANY, purchased the mortgages on the buildings with the goal of finishing the foreclosure and becoming owner.  Unfortunately, the foreclosure process has moved at a glacial speed and even though MHANY holds the mortgages, no real work can be done until the foreclosure is finished.  While tenants continue to live in dangerous conditions, the owners of the building are further stalling the foreclosure by marketing the buildings with hopes of paying off MHANY and making some money off the top.

Wednesday morning, we’re gathering to protest real estate broker, Sanford Solny, in front of his office in Borough Park to tell him and his investors to back away from this deal and let foreclosure case finally come to an end. This is an action to preserve affordable housing in Crown Heights, and to assert that tenants, not banks and landlords, should be determining what happens to their homes.

Every minute that Sanford Solny and his slumlord investor friends continue to treat these buildings like gambling chips, tenants continue to suffer. Join us in telling them to back off! 

When: Wednesday, January 15th, 11 AM
Where: 3811 13th Ave, Brooklyn

Questions?

Contact us at thesurrealestate@gmail.com or 212-479-3358

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).  

Stop and Frisk: “Reform” Debate Continues

As a result of powerful organizing and strong city-wide coalitions, Stop and Frisk has become one of the major issues that Mayoral Candidates have been forced to address.  Democratic mayoral candidates who did not seem critical enough of NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policies suffered in the election. Earlier this summer, the courts ruled that the way the NYPD has implemented Stop and Frisk is unconstitutional.  In attempt to improve police practices, Judge Scheindlin appointed an independent monitor and mandated that certain groups of police in high-crime areas must wear cameras. While we view this court ruling as a moral victory, we remain skeptical about how Stop and Frisk can remain in place in a just way.

Bloomberg and the NYPD are doing everything in their power to maintain Stop and Frisk as it is, and challenge the court’s ruling. This week, the union representing NYPD sergeants filed paperwork to appeal the court ruling, as well as to demand a seat at the table to help decide how the reforms will be implemented.

On the one hand, this seems fair- it’s their jobs and they’ll have to be the people carrying out the reforms. Just like we support teachers being involved in education reforms, perhaps police need to be involved in this process.  But when you dig deeper their role in conversations around reform becomes murkier- the NYPD sergeants are the very people who have been carrying out the unconstitutional practices. What’s more, they clearly do not believe that the program needs reform- which is why they are working to appeal the ruling.  If they don’t believe in the need to change their practices when those practices are clearly damaging, why should they have a seat at the table?

Stop and Frisk greatly impacts our work at UHAB. The tenants we work with are almost exclusively people of color, and Stop and Frisk policies (as proven over and over again) disproportionately impact communities of color. As a result, neighborhoods are deeply affected- from the way that people view the police and safety, to the way that they feel monitored and policed in their own homes.

Even “Operation Clean Halls,” the Stop and Frisk for privately owned apartment buildings, was deemed unconstitutional. But so little has changed. The NYTimes reports that:

Judge Scheindlin excoriated the Police Department for persisting in making illegal stops and arrests outside private apartment buildings — even after prosecutors had pointed out that they were wrongful.

There is a similar class-action lawsuit in the works claiming that stops in NYCHA buildings are discriminatory:

One resident, the president of a public housing leadership group, testified that life for families harassed by stop-and-frisk policies in their own apartment buildings was like life in a “penal colony.

Last week, Picture the Homeless  screened its new film “Journey Towards Change: Victory Over NYPD Profiling.”  According to Picture the Homeless’s website, “this short film includes interviews with our members, glimpses of activists in action, and reflections on what we’ve achieved and how much work we still have to do.”  To check out the film or get involved with Picture the Homeless’s work around Stop and Frisk, contact Shaun Lin at shaun@picturethehomeless.org.


Tenants at 553 E. 169th St. Continue to Organize as Building Goes to Auction

apt 3D- bedroom

Bathroom Mold, March 2012

Last night, tenants at 553 E. 169th St. had an important meeting to talk about the fact that their building will be going to auction on April 15th.  Auctions are breeding grounds for speculation – the whole style of an auction is designed to drive up price – and they are pretty much worst thing for distressed affordable housing.  Rather than take time to look at a building, calculate its repair needs and meet with tenants, auction-goers are usually looking to buy up housing and make a quick buck.

The tenants at 553 E. 169th St. have been organizing for almost two years to improve conditions in their apartments and find a preservation outcome for their building.  They met with their receiver, Miriam Breier, to address immediate health concerns, including heat and hot water.  They tirelessly called 3-11.  They opened their doors to good developers, none of whom were able to meet Valley National Bank’s inflated asking price. (The bank refused to lower it.) They met with Councilwoman Helen Foster’s office, and they attended tenant meeting after tenant meeting.

This year, the building was entered into HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, and the city so has more power to control the repairs in the property. While the management company has made many repairs, the building continues to have over 150 violations in 18 units.

A key component of the Alternative Enforcement Program is the costly liens that are assigned to the property by HPD. These liens will not go away when the building is sold, and any purchaser must incorporate the cost of correcting violations and removing the building from the AEP program into the cost of acquisition. We suspect that most auction-goers on April 15th will not be prepared to do this for 553 E. 169th Street, of if they are even aware of the program at all.

Tenants will be at the auction on April 15th to show speculators that they are organized, that they know their rights, and that they won’t back down!

What Happens During a Multi-Family Foreclosure in NYC?

What happens when a building goes into foreclosure? Will tenants be evicted? Who should tenants pay? What rights do tenants have during the process? As organizers working mainly in multi-family, rent-stabilized buildings, we get these questions all the time. This is why we made a flow chart and Q+A fact sheet for tenants and advocates to better understand the foreclosure process and possible outcomes.  (The flow chart is located in our “resources tab” on the top right side of this page.)

Of course, there is no set formula as to how exactly a foreclosure will play out.  Some buildings will go through the process within a couple of months, and others will languish in foreclosure for years and years.  Court-appointed receivers are placed in buildings during the foreclosure process to collect rents, make repairs, issue new leases, and rent out apartments.  Sometimes, buildings are never appointed receivers and tenants continue to pay their landlord until the case is completed.  All to often, the court appoints a receiver who simply never shows up.

Foreclosure can be difficult for tenants, particularly because it is often paired with confusion about who to pay, who is responsible for repairs, and more often than not, tenants see a decline in services.  Still, if tenants know their rights and work together, they not only increase their chances of improving building conditions, but also can have a voice in the final outcome.  Tenants are the ones who live in the building, so shouldn’t they be the ones with the most decision-making power regarding what happens to their home?

At UHAB, we believe a successful final outcome of a multi-family foreclosure as one that the tenants choose. Tenants deserve to have a say in who the next owner of their building is, whether it be a tenant-approved developer or the tenants themselves.  On the other hand, a poor outcome in the foreclosure would be a new landlord sweeping in, raising the debt  to an unsustainable level, and with no interest in working with tenants.  Our goal as organizers is to work with tenants to ensure this doesn’t happen.  We hope that as tenants continue to form strong tenant associations and have a voice in the foreclosure process, they will contribute to the preservation of high-quality, permanently affordable buildings.

-To check out our brochure about what happens during a multi-family foreclosure, click here. The brochure is in both English and Spanish.

PLUS, here is Legal Aid Society’s booklet outlining tenant’s rights during a foreclosure.

If your building is in foreclosure, or you have any questions, please contact us at thesurrealestate@gmail.com.

Speculators Beware: Don’t Buy Here!

Over the past couple of months, we’ve been working with tenants in 14 buildings in Brooklyn that are in foreclosure with Flushing Bank.  You already know the story.  With the help of banks, speculative landlords pay way too much for buildings, and accumulate a lot of debt. Unable to make enough money on the buildings, they miss their mortgage payments, and the buildings fall into disrepair. Pretty soon, the landlord is in trouble with the lender for not paying back the debt.

The story is particularly profound in the Flushing Savings Bank buildings, where half of the 14 buildings have gotten so bad that they are now HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP), a program which is reserved for the 200 worst buildings in the city.

Four of the Flushing buildings are owned by the same landlord, Joseph Greenstein (now rated as one of the city’s worst landlords, according to Bill de Blasio’s newly updated list). Tenants tell us that Greenstein never shows up  except to collect rent. Even then, if a city official is nearby, Greenstein runs off. In addition to owing Flushing Bank $1.4 million on his mortgage, he also owes the city nearly the same amount in outstanding liens for repairs and property taxes. According to tenants, Greenstein is also in debt with Con-Edison and National Grid for significant amounts of money. Talk about bad credit.

Unfortunately, his racked up debt  impacts more than just his credit rating –  it seriously impacts the tenants that live in the buildings. Floor boards are rotting, electrical wires are exposed. This morning, one woman showed us how she literally has to break in and out of her own apartment because the lock mechanism on her door is busted. Residents of these buildings suffer from leaks, mold, and rodents.

Tenants are sick and tired of these atrocious conditions and are ready to fight for their homes!  They want a preservation landlord to rehabilitate the buildings, keep them affordable for current tenants, and work with them to make their home a nice place to live.

Although tenants demand a responsible new owner, Greenstein is working to sell the buildings himself to make a bit of extra money before the building gets seized from him through foreclosure. In front of the four buildings in East NY and Brownsville, Greenstein has hung up large “For Sale” signs to attract any buyer who will pay the highest price for these buildings (and likely reignite the cycle of predatory equity).

Tenants have taken a stand and have hung up signs (some even directly over Greenstein’s) saying: “Speculators Beware: Don’t Buy Here!”  Tenants deserve a choice in what happens to their homes, and they are demanding a voice in that process.

Tenant Disadvantage in Housing Court? Take a tour and find out for yourself!

As tenant organizers we often work with people living in abhorrent conditions. One strategy for tenants to improve their living situation is to take collective legal action.  This strategy can be successful and make tangible, necessary change.  However, when we mention the importance of tenants showing up to court for group HP’s or 7A’s, tenants often cringe, knowing the frustration and discomfort of being in housing court. Housing court is known by all to be an unforgiving place, but through Make the Roads December 2011 report “Home Court Advantage: How Landlords are Winning and Tenants are Losing in Brooklyn Housing Court,” it is possible to see how the chaos of housing court actually puts tenants at an extreme disadvantage.  The report lays out problems with housing court, and how those problems are both unnecessary and systematically diminish tenant success in court.

One major problem with Brooklyn Housing Court is that the physical space is confusing and cramped.

“The rooms are very small,” said Maria Cortes, a Brooklyn tenant and member of MRNY. “Not everyone can fit, but then people have to leave because you’re not allowed to stand up in there. If they call your case and you’re not there, they go on to the next case. I saw that happen to a lot of people.”

The court system is wrought with many other inequities: Those with physical disabilities, children, or lacking in English language ability are at an extreme disadvantage. Furthermore, 85% of landlords are represented by attorneys while 90-95% of tenants lack legal representation.  This means that tenants are vulnerable to accepting negotiations that are disadvantageous to their case.

As one legal services attorney said, “A system geared toward high volume automatically puts tenants at a disadvantage; it’s not about justice or finding out what’s going on, but churning through the cases. Everyone is funneled out to the hallways where the landlords’ attorneys have a lot of power.”

Finally, and most shockingly, is the sheer disrespect in housing court by staff to the tenants.  Curt language, lack of patience, and even bypassing legal responsibilities such as making sure tenants understanding stipulations are standard in court.  This behavior adds to high stress, intimidation, and ultimately the squashing of tenant rights.

Make the Road puts forth several recommendations to improve Brooklyn Housing Court such as moving the court to a new facility, and providing free and accessible translation services for all tenants who need it.  Tomorrow, tenants from Make the Road will take press and interested parties on a tour of the Brooklyn Housing Court to illustrate first hand how horrible the experience can be.

Tenants and advocates will walk you through Brooklyn Housing Court, from the long lines to the dangerously overcrowded hallways and waiting areas. You will witness the confusion that results from the lack of clear information, the disrespectful treatment of tenants by court staff and landlords’ attorneys, and the challenges faced by tenants with limited English proficiency.

WHO: Tenants who have experienced the injustices of Brooklyn Housing Court firsthand will be joined by tenant advocates and lawyers to lead the tour.

WHERE: Brooklyn Housing Court, 141 Livingston Street at Smith Street

Take the A/C/F/N/R to Jay St.-MetroTech or 2/3/4/5 to Borough Hall

WHEN: Tuesday, April 17 at 9:30 a.m