Tomorrow: May Day “General Strike”…No work, No School, No Housework, No Shopping, No Banking….

Tomorrow is May Day, marking the the126th anniversary of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, turning this traditionally Celtic holiday into a lefty labor rights anarchist immigrant rights prison justice anti-corporate Occupy everything holiday.  This year, there is a nationwide call for a General Strike – “A Day without the 99%” – encouraging people not to go to work, to school, to shop, or to buy anything.  Like in 2006, El Dia Sin Inmigrantes, the general strike will demonstrate just how powerful collective organizing can be. We see the power of collective organizing every day.  Tenants join forces through group lawsuits, building-wide petitions, and even by the simple act of coming together and brainstorming solutions to building problems, tenants improve their buildings and establish community. May Day is not only a time to assert people-power, but to assert labor and immigrant rights.  Tenants we work with are almost exclusively low-income immigrants or people of color, and all are effected by the racial implications of policies like “Stop and Frisk,” “Operation Clean Halls” and the would-be “Secure Communities” program.  Tomorrow is a chance to band together across racial and class lines to assert an anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-sexist agenda.  There will be a plethora of free food, music, art supplies, educational teach-ins allowing for us to live one day in without participating in the system (capitalism) which promotes policies that hurt our communities. Check out Occupy Wall Street’s website for a full list of May Day activities and organizational endorsers. A few events we wanted to highlight:
Tenants and Neighbors:

This May Day, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) will be voting on a proposed range of rent adjustments for rent stabilized tenants. Every year since it came into existence, the Rent Guidelines Board has voted to raise rents, usually to levels that are unaffordable to many rent stabilized tenants.  This year, join us in expressing our collective frustration with the Rent Guidelines Board and demanding that it be made to be more accountable to the millions of New Yorkers who want the city to remain affordable to low and moderate income people. The meeting is at 5:30 at 7 East 7th Street; we will be rallying outside at 5:00 PM. For more information or to RSVP for the rally, please contact Sam Stein at sstein@tandn.org or 212-608-4320, ext. 316.

Take Back the Land:

The Free University at Madison Square Park is an open invitation to educators around New York to participate in May Day. Lectures, workshops, skill-shares, and discussions will be held — all open to the public. University professors will bring their classes to the commons. Join Robert Robinson,  representatives from Take Back the Land and from Organizing for Occupation for a teach-in and conversation about the current housing crisis and the growing movement of communities taking positive action to collectively secure the human right to housing.

positive action (direct action) to collectively secure the human right to housing

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice:

2pm – JFREJ joins GOLES to support Public Housing residents taking their struggle to the streets! Meet: NE Corner of Houston and Avenue D, New York Sick and tired of being left out of decisions that affect the future of their homes, Lower East Side residents have decided to take to the streets — marching from Houston to 14th street to raise awareness about the New York City Housing Authority’s proposed policy changes that will affect the future of public housing. The LES has always been a safe haven for immigrant and low-income families – public housing is one of the few affordable housing options left. Protect what we have! March with LES public housing residents to Union Square where we’ll join the masses for the Unity Rally.

For the massive solidarity rally, we will be meeting at 4pm in Union Square, and at 5:30 we’ll be marching to Wall St.! We hope to see you there.

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New York State Legislators and New York City Council call for Rent Guidelines Board Reforms!

Picture via Capital New York

Yesterday, we stood with State Senator Daniel Squadron, Assembly-Member Brian Kavanagh, City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Tenants & Neighbors and tenants and neighbors from around the city to urge New York State elected officials to pass legislation to reform the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB), ahead of the RGB’s annual vote to adjust rents.

The Rent Guidelines Board was established in 1969 and is mandated manage the persist housing shortage in New York City that puts low to moderate income New Yorkers at risk of losing their home. New York City Council and New York State legislature have both recognized that under conditions of less than 5% vacancy rate, an unregulated rental market causes “severe hardship to tenants” and forces the “uprooting [of] long-time city residents from their community.” By establishing the annual rate at which rent in regulated units is allowed to rise, the Board’s mission is to create fair rent levels in a market driven by chronic scarcity.

Under current law, the RGB is made up of nine members, all appointed by the Mayor. These nine members are charged with investigating the economic condition of the real estate industry in NYC, including average cost of operating a multifamily building and the average income and cost of living for residents each borough. Two members are appointed to represent tenant interest, two members are appointed to represent owner interest, and five members are appointed to represent the general public. The RGB is consistently under fire from tenants and the NYC affordable housing advocacy community for regularly raising rents despite data that suggests landlord income is going up and affordable housing is scarce.

The proposed legislation (S741A/A6394B), sponsored by Senator Squadron and Assembly member Kavanagh, would require City Council confirmation of the Mayor’s appointees to the RGB, bringing necessary checks and balances to the system and making the appointment process more democratic. The bill would also open up appointment to a wider array of professionals – including those who work non-profit and urban policy – and ensure that more diversified views are represented on the RGB.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn expressed support for the bill, pointing to the fact that the council already has the authority to provide oversight to various NYC agencies and boards that are arguably less important to New Yorkers. “The question becomes…why hasn’t this happened? Why is this one board that is so important, so central to the life of so many New Yorkers, only appointed by the executive with no input from the legislature?”

Like Tenants and Neighbors, we agree that the RGB is consistently pro-landlord, taking little cue from actual data or tenant experience in New York City. These days, nearly everyone is weighing in on whether or not the housing market is rebounding. (We have our own thoughts – stay tuned.) People don’t seem to argue that years of homeownership struggle have caused on influx of new renters to the market. Basic economics tells us that rents will naturally rise. But unemployment isn’t dropping nearly as quickly as rents are rising and tenants in the Bronx and Central Brooklyn are still struggling with high rents and low pay. Even though the “market” may be doing better, we know that the people who live in this city are still struggling. By bringing accountability and democracy to the RGB, we hope that the board can become a stronger ally for affordable housing and NYC tenants.

To join this fight, follow Real Rent Reform on Twitter (@realrentreform) and like them on Facebook! Even better, get on the van to Albany on Wednesday to support the Assembly Housing Committee vote on R3’s priority bills: preferential rent reform, RGB reform, MCI reform, rent control reform, and the decrease in the vacancy bonus. Help R3 and Tenants and Neighbors put weight behind these bills! The van leaves from 236 W. 27th Street in Manhattan. RSVP to Sam at sstein@tandn.org.

For more on the RGB, visit their website: http://www.housingnyc.com . Stay tuned to this important fight for NYC tenants! Check out Capital New York for more on this story and yesterday’s announcement.

Farewell!

After two and half years, I am saying goodbye to UHAB and hello to my hometown of San Francisco, CA.

But before I leave, dear tenants, allies, advocates, and readers – I’ll tell you a little bit about the stuff I learned in hopes that the lessons will be useful.

1) Focusing a large campaign on a single target works. 

2) New York tenants are sharp, tenacious, and down to fight injustice.

3) Foreclosure is a terrible process for renters, particularly because receivers generally do not receive funding from the bank to deal with distressed conditions created by the prior owner. This generates even more dangerous conditions in a building and a confusing situation for tenants who are not sure which party is responsible for their significant maintenance needs.

4) Predatory Equity is still happening, with many new over-leveraged loans being made on multi-family buildings. This second round of further speculation will continue to have punishing effects on neighborhoods if legislators do not take significant action.

4) Responsible banking ordinances, public participation in CRA reviews, and meetings with bank regulators seem to present lasting strategies to encourage better bank behavior.

6) A Landlord License Law is one of the most interesting and powerful new policy initiatives that could preserve and protect NY’s affordable housing stock.

5) Amazing work is happening in NY around fighting predatory equity. This work would not be nearly as successful without all of UHAB’s amazing allies – Legal Aid Society, Urban Justice Center, Legal Services New York, New York Communities for Change, Community Action for Safe Apartments, Pratt Area Community Council, Tenants and Neighbors, Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, the many great landlords and developers in NY, journalists and reporters, and of course the amazing and courageous tenants of all five boroughs.

THANK YOU everyone who has made my last few years memorable, exciting, positive, and inspirational. I will miss you.

VIDEO: 1520 Sedgwick Auction Celebration!

1520 Sedgwick tenants today triumphed against Predatory Equity! Watch them celebrate at the foreclosure auction!

For a history of the building, read here!

The Birthplace of Hip-Hop Reborn….At Last!

 WATCH THIS FIRST!

Ok,  I hope you are adequately inspired to talk about preserving some affordable housing.

That video was taken four years ago in the famous community room of 1520 Sedgwick– aka the place where DJ Kool Herc is considered by many to have launched a new music form now known as Hip-Hop. The building’s other notable distinction was to have been one of the the first housing developments built through the Mitchell-Lama program, a New York State subsidy offering that created affordable housing for low and moderate income New Yorkers.

In 2007, Real Estate in NYC was booming (or bubbling depending on your point of view).  It was the height of the Real Estate market and 1520 Sedgwick became a target. Speculators were paying outrageous prices to get a hold of apartment buildings and banks were making irresponsible loans, fueling a very dangerous trend. (UHAB would come name this practice “Predatory Equity” and Sedgwick was one of the earliest victims).

Mark Karasick, a luxury commercial real-estate developer, set his sights on 1520. Later he admitted this was part of a “flipping scheme” in which he planned to deregulate and resell 4000 apartments throughout the Bronx.

The tenants were outraged, ready to organize and prepared to fight for their homes.  The residents began working with UHAB and Tenants & Neighbors on a preservation campaign. Tremendous support flooded in from a number of places, but most notably from  Senator Schumer,Congressman Serrano and “Hip-Hop Founder”,  DJ Kool Herc (tip: if you have a morbid curiosity to watch Senator Schumer try to rap, you should click this link).

Eventually, Sedgwick was granted status as the actual Birthplace of Hip-Hop and designated as eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The residents fought hard, but greed won out and Karasick took ownership of 1520 Sedgwick, removed it from the Mitchel-Lama program, and quickly let it fall into a state of disrepair.

The Tenant Association remained strong and stayed on Karasick. Eventually, the outrageous amount of debt Karasick had loaded onto the building overwhelmed the project and Sedgwick went into foreclosure.

The tenants of 1520 Sedgwick were particularly lucky to have the on-going support of the city housing agencies, HPD and HDC. Both government agencies stayed diligent when it came to Sedgwick and both code-enforcement and emergency repairs kept the building from falling off a cliff under Karasick’s ownership.

Most significantly, when a affordable housing group stepped in an effort to get rid of Karasick and to work with tenants to bring stability and affordability back to the building, HPD and HDC endorsed the plan, committing to support the project for the long-term.

Tables Turn:

Today, shortly after 2pm, at the Bronx Supreme Court, a foreclosure was held on 1520 Sedgwick. The winner of the auction was Workforce Housing Advisers  the affordable housing group who has been working with  residents and HPD. The rehabilitation of the buildings is slated to start before the end of the year, and a regulatory agreement that dictates long-term affordability (not unlike the Mitchell-Lama program!) will go into effect almost immediately.

Tenants were at the auction to witness the culmination of their long, and ultimately succesful battle to save their homes.

It is difficult to adequately describe what this victory means to all those fought long and hard to preserve the Birthplace of Hip-Hop.

What comes to mind is a single word…. hope. Hope that the future for this building will be as bright as its past. Hope for the countless other buildings that have fallen victim to predatory equity that a better future might await them too.

So tonight (and probably tomorrow too) we will raise a glass to the tenants of 1520 Sedgwick and their team of supporters….they fought back and they won!

For more history of the fight to Save 1520 Sedgwick, check out the following articles:

Will Gentrification Spoil the Birthplace of Hip-Hop? NY Times May 2007

An Effort to Honor the Birthplace of Hip-Hop  NY Times July 2007

City Rejects Sale of Building Known as Hip-Hop’s Birthplace NY Times March 2008

Bronx Building to be Withdrawn from Mitchell-Lama Participation NY Times August 2008

Problems Mount at Bronx Building Bought in a Bubble NY Times January 2010

Saving the Birthplace of Hip-Hop Shelterforce Spring 2010

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.

Elise