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Brooklyn Tenants Revolt

CHTU members rally on a warmer day—June 7, 2014 (Urban Homesteading Assistance Board)

On one of the coldest days of 2014 I put on long underwear, a flannel shirt, my thickest sweater, a hat, and a scarf, and took the subway two stops down to 1059 Union Street to join the new Crown Heights Tenant Union’s first public action.

It was so bitterly cold that I couldn’t help but think about the previous winter, my first in Crown Heights and fourth in Brooklyn, when my heat would mysteriously shut off, often just in time for the weekend when my landlords didn’t answer the phone. My partner likes to say that most New York landlords operate on a continuum between greed and laziness. I figured at the time that mine were hovering closer to the “lazy” end with a bonus bit of cheapness thrown in; they just didn’t want to pay the extra money to really fix whatever was wrong.

One of my frustrated phone calls went like this:

“I spent two days without heat! I need to have someone to call on Saturdays if there’s an emergency.”

“Well, we’re Jewish—we don’t work on Saturday.”

“I’m Jewish too! That doesn’t mean I don’t freeze!”

I never chalked up that lack of heat to gentrification in action. But the folks standing on that freezing sidewalk on Union Street knew better. The disappearing heat wasn’t just a problem in my building. All over Crown Heights, tenants were shivering through nights without heat. Even the New York Times reported on the problem. The record cold in early 2014 saw complaints about the lack of heat nearly double from the year before.

As the residents exchanged stories, they began to conclude that it was more than just the usual neglect that working-class neighborhoods have come to expect from absentee landlords, that it was a calculated effort to drive residents out so that people who looked more like me—young, white, presumably more affluent—could move in.

Many at the rally held handmade signs with pithy slogans (“Affordable housing is a right” and “Resident power not REBNY dollars”) and specific demands or call-outs (“5-year rent freeze” and “ZT Realty Rank 58 Worst Landlords in Brooklyn”—that last one with a small toy rat taped to the cardboard). When I arrived, the crowd was chanting “We won’t leave!”

Last winter’s cold made my previous heatless nights seem mild by comparison. The weather phenomenon called the “polar vortex” had swept down on us with single-digit temperatures and mountains of snow for weeks on end. I couldn’t imagine one night of this with no heat, but some of the people standing out there with me knew that feeling well. Resident after resident stood to tell their stories, decrying constant harassment from new landlords who had purchased the buildings they had lived in for decades, big brick pre-war structures like the one we stood in front of, solid exteriors that often hid leaky sinks, clanking pipes, and crumbling plaster within. One woman wanted her landlord to stop threatening to take her to court if rent was late—“You don’t respond to us in a timely fashion! I waited thirty days for them to fix my ceiling that caved in.”

For another tenant, it was being charged extra for “improvements” to the building. “For months we had a truck outside our building to provide us with heat, a temporary boiler. They put in a new boiler and every day, every day we have no heat or hot water for some span of time. We are not paying for that boiler; that is not our responsibility.”

A third declared, “The only way we going to stop this is if we organize. In numbers there is strength.”

The rally wasn’t simply an opportunity for tenants to voice their grievances. Instead, through months of meetings, outreach, and debate between tenants from (at the time) twenty-five buildings, they had come up with a list of demands that they had formalized into a collective bargaining agreement that they were pushing for landlords to sign. Those demands, including a five-year rent freeze, a forty-eight-hour response time maximum for necessary repairs, tenant approval of renovations, and a limit to buyout offers, were printed on four-foot sheets of paper that the tenants pasted up inside the lobby of 1059 Union, where several of the union members lived. By organizing tenants from multiple buildings into one union, they hoped to wield more power against landlords who might otherwise ignore them and to be able to influence the entire rental market in the neighborhood.

The formulation “a tale of two cities” has been used a lot to describe New York at the end of the Bloomberg era, but it doesn’t entirely encapsulate the way some neighborhoods have been split into two by gentrification.

Crown Heights is on the razor’s edge of gentrification in Brooklyn, a West Indian and Lubavitcher Hasidic Jewish neighborhood with very little crossover between the two communities. Its boundaries are roughly Atlantic Avenue to the north, Washington to the west, Ralph Avenue to the east, and Empire Boulevard to the south. Its median household income, according to WNYC’s maps, is around $41,000 a year and on the rise; and it’s getting whiter.

The idea that white skin automatically means more money is both a product and a perpetuator of American racism. Before gentrification, you had disinvestment. Legally sanctioned housing discrimination both created segregated neighborhoods and kept home values and rents low; white flight saw middle-class people leave for the suburbs. Landlords and cities left black and brown neighborhoods to crumble. The recent return of white people to the cities their parents and grandparents abandoned means that prices have been on the rise, and neighborhoods once written off as “bad” and “scary” are now desirable lower-priced alternatives for mostly young people trying to make their city dreams come true. And landlords are ready for a chance to increase their profits—whether they are long-term property owners pushed out of absentee equilibrium into paying attention to their buildings and making improvements in order to raise rents, or they are private equity and hedge-fund hawks circling, looking for new “investments.”

But these days, new young gentrifiers are less and less likely to find a full-time job that pays them enough to cover those rising rents. Instead, they move from neighborhood to neighborhood, priced out of the place they moved into just the year before, following that wave further out. They leave, and someone who can afford the slightly higher rent moves in, and the cycle speeds up.

Being part of the first wave of gentrification means that you experience the abuse along with the benefit of cheap(er) rent. It means that as soon as you’ve moved in they want you to move out again, so they can raise the rent still more.

Not long after I moved into my Crown Heights place (my third Brooklyn apartment), my upstairs neighbor—who had warned me of shoddy repairs to my bathroom ceiling with a cheery “You live here now? My floor caved in through your ceiling a little while back!”—disappeared. I found out she was gone when I woke up one morning to the sight of broken furniture flying past my bedroom window, crashing onto the sidewalk below.

A new family moved in shortly thereafter.

A few months ago the folks in the apartment across from mine—a shy teenage boy, whose college information packets often mistakenly wound up in my mailbox, and his mother, who worked nights and came home in scrubs—disappeared as well. They were replaced by a crowd of those dreaded white “hipsters” who embody the worst loud-partying gentrifier clichés.

It’s almost too easy to write clichés about gentrification in New York. And yet you find contradictions everywhere—the bodega owner who tells you that it’s good to have more people like you in the neighborhood and the neighbors who invite you to their backyard barbecue, not to mention the white woman who is the angriest that there are “yuppies” in the neighborhood. And then there’s that feeling of rage I too get at my new white neighbors.

It is easy, for a somewhat self-aware person living in a gentrifying city, to either look for a way to blame yourself or absolve yourself. The impulses are two sides of the same coin: heads, you’re the “good gentrifier” because you like your neighbors and don’t blast your music too loud; tails, you should just move out of the city because anywhere you go you are destroying something. Neither answer is productive. Neither one is political.

I found out about the Crown Heights Tenant Union through an e-mail from a friend I met at Occupy Wall Street, telling me about that first public action. She invited me as a reporter, and I arrived with my recorder and camera in hand, but left with a stack of flyers to deposit in the entry to my building and the intention to go to their next organizing meeting as a member.

The meeting I attended a few weeks after the rally was at the Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation on Classon Avenue. It featured hovering documentary filmmakers, an ever-growing circle of chairs spanning the atrium, and me sitting in the back trying to figure out whether to take notes or to simply be present as a participant.

We went around the room and introduced ourselves that day and instead of doing the usual New York thing of explaining who you are and what you do for a living, we gave our names and addresses and how long we’d lived in the neighborhood. Answers ranged from a few months to nearly fifty years.

That’s the thing about the Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU)—it aims to bring these two parts of the neighborhood together, the new residents and the long-time ones. Because our needs aren’t actually different. We need livable apartments at reasonable rents and landlords who respond and aren’t trying to drive us out. We need repairs done and the heat to be on when it is legally required to be. We need to be seen as important enough to deserve a decent place to live. Young people who are new residents—many of them radicalized by or before Occupy Wall Street started shaking up the city—need this too.

Because the problems of Brooklyn’s gentrifying neighborhoods won’t be solved by a housing-market version of “ethical consumption.” It’s going to take collective action.

It seems to be paying off for the CHTU. They’ve succeeded in bringing landlords to the table to make repairs, and they’ve also grown the union by bringing in more residents from other buildings that are both rent-regulated and leased at market rate. At a rally, march, and picnic on June 7 in Brower Park, state assembly members joined the union to call for affordable housing.

But the definition of “affordable” varies among elected officials, and it’s not simply construction that is needed. It was rent-stabilization laws that regulated rent increases, which could go up each year by only a small amount determined by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board (RGB); this allowed tenants to be able to afford to stay in their rental apartments for long periods. But landlords could raise rents based on a percentage of what they spent renovating a vacant apartment. This incentivized those landlords to undertake renovations only when they could profit from them, leaving long-term residents in lousy conditions that the landlords could then use to lever residents out of their homes. Policy changes can improve this, or failing that, the CHTU can try to get landlords to sign on to its contract demands. The CHTU and other tenant organizations around the city targeted the RGB as well as specific landlords, aiming for policy changes that would benefit lots of tenants at once.

It’s not just Crown Heights that has a gentrification problem. More importantly, slowing the process down in one part of the city will only speed it up elsewhere, as new residents start to search for new housing. It’ll take citywide change to more comprehensively address gentrification and at least some of that will have to come from policymakers as well as organizers.

New mayor Bill de Blasio told me in an interview last year that he thought it was time for a rent freeze. On May 5, 2014, I took the subway to an RGB meeting, where the board was due to discuss the possibility of a rent freeze before the public for the first time, before an eventual vote on the subject that June.

Groups like Good Old Lower East Side, the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, and others showed up and formed a loose circle outside the building, walking and chanting, carrying signs that demanded a rent freeze or even a rent rollback; it felt not unlike a picket line. Cop cars turned up, too.

When the meeting finally began, almost two hours late because of airport-level security at the building’s entrance, Harvey Epstein, one of the tenant representatives on the board, asked that the board “consider the accessibility of our spaces” when future public meetings, particularly ones that would rely on public testimony, would be held.

The board was seated from the political left to right, or so it seemed—tenant representatives Epstein and Sheila Garcia sat on the far left, then public members; Chair Rachel Godsil was dead center; and then on the right, landlord representatives Sara Williams Willard and Magda Cruz.

The crowd, as heavily dominated by tenants as is New York’s population, kept breaking into chants as the meeting progressed—and burst into raucous applause and cheers when Garcia introduced the tenant reps’ proposal for a rent rollback of 6 percent on one-year leases and up to 2 percent for two-year leases. Throughout the city, she said, landlords have seen revenue increases; meanwhile, wages are stagnant and tenants even had to pay increases in 2008.

Epstein and Cecilia Joza seconded the motion, but the rest of the board voted it down.

Williams Willard then put forth, to loud boos, a proposal that rents be increased 3.6 percent to 5.5 percent for one-year leases and 4.3 to 9.5 percent for two, which was also voted down.

Instead, the board voted, with one “no” from Cruz, to support Godsil’s proposal of a rent increase of between zero and 3 percent for one-year leases and .5 to 4.5 percent for two-year leases. It was the first step on the road to a historic rent freeze, and the tenants poured out of the building jubilant, cheering.

The landlords weren’t so pleased—I stepped out of the restroom to find a white man in a suit wagging a finger in Williams Willard’s face, accusing her of abdicating her duty to them by voting for the lower increase.

When the tenants got to testify at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall on June 18, landlords and tenants were given an equal amount of time to present their case, despite the fact that tenants outnumber landlords in Brooklyn, where nearly 73 percent of homes are rentals. At the public hearing it was a ten-year-old boy who shook up the crowd, the tenants in T-shirts and landlords in suits and polo-neck shirts packing the seats and standing in corners and aisles.

Ruben Rojas stood in front of the board and told them, his voice never wavering, about the rats in his apartment. “My dad is working class,” he said, “Maybe I’m not going to college because my dad has to pay the rent. They’re ruining our future.”

As the crowd rose to its feet to give him a standing ovation, he called into the microphone, “Mayor de Blasio, it’s your choice, make a rent freeze or ruin our future!”

De Blasio wasn’t in the room to hear Rojas, but city council members Jumaane Williams and Mathieu Eugene were—and both spoke in favor of a rent freeze.

On the day of the final vote on June 23 after meetings to hear testimony from landlords and renters in each borough, the tension was palpable. Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), New York Communities for Change, Make the Road New York, and, of course, the Crown Heights Tenant Union circled around RGB member and tenant representative Harvey Epstein and New York State Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh to whip up energy before settling into long lines to get through the once again heightened security. I stood behind two elderly women with canes who had to be helped through the metal detectors so the city could be sure that they weren’t a threat.

Inside Cooper Union’s Great Hall, a room with excellent acoustics for chants but no cell-phone service for my frantic live tweets, the security strategy seemed to have backfired—every minute we waited, the room grew more electric. One of the older women sang, “We’re gonna roll, gonna roll, gonna roll those rents back!” Her hat, dingy with age, read, “I’m a renter and I vote.”

Bill de Blasio promised a rent freeze during his campaign, which led to his election by 73 percent of voters—exactly the same percentage as renters in Brooklyn. This fact troubled the rent board’s Magda Cruz, whose voice rose in anger as she made a speech, even as the room continued to fill. Some tenants, she acknowledged, face financial pressures, but “tens of thousands of landlords” (in a city of 8 million and growing) were struggling, and a rent freeze would be “confiscatory” and “politically motivated.”

These meetings were one of the few moments where landlords had to actually face the people who rent their apartments, whose calls for service they often casually ignore. For Cruz to hear cries of “Bullshit!” from a crowd seemed to be nearly too much for her.

Cruz and Williams Willard introduced de Blasio appointee Steven Flax’s proposal for a 1 percent increase for one-year leases and 2.75 percent increase for two-year leases, instead of the written proposal for the much bigger increase they’d put forward previously. RGB member Sheila Garcia pointed out that this was a calculated move, that rather than putting forth a large increase that Flax would likely have voted against, they used his proposal in order to co-opt his expected progressive vote.

Flax, who used to run affordable housing, called the landlords’ use of his proposal “duplicitous,” and the crowd’s hope hung on his words, as the chants went from “Make history” to “Steve, do the right thing!”

“This moment is a nightmare,” he said, before voting yes, despite Garcia’s arguments, despite Epstein’s citation of data that shows landlords’ incomes are up and tenants’ are down, and despite Godsil, the board chair, pointing out that part of the board’s mandate is to correct excesses by previous boards, which in 2008 handed a large increase to landlords even as the economy crashed down around our ears. The increase, tiny but momentous, passed by a five-to-four vote.

The difference between 1 percent and zero won’t make much of a difference in the profits of landlords. It won’t even make that much difference to most renters. It was a rebuke, though, to the mayor, to the city council members and borough presidents and Public Advocate and Comptroller, all of whom had called for zero. It was a rebuke to the people in that room who had shown up, stood in line, pulled their keys from their pockets, and laid their canes on the table to go through a metal detector.

Outside the hall as we filed out, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra played “Which Side Are You On?” and tenants gathered in a circle to speak. Cea Weaver from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board and the CHTU had an armful of petitions with four thousand signatures on them, calling for the rent freeze, that they had not been allowed to hand to the board members before the vote.

The question of how the vote transpired—whether it was a Machiavellian move by the landlord representatives or if it had been fixed before anyone even made it through the metal detectors—may always be a mystery. In the aftermath, the vote felt huge and weighty, but the list of future goals that fell easily from Jumaane Williams’s lips as he addressed the crowd reminded me that halting gentrification was never going to be achieved through something as simple as a rent freeze.

The chant you hear at the end of a lot of labor and community actions in New York is “We’ll be back, we live around the corner!” After the vote, some of the tenants in the hall took up the chant again with renewed poignancy—if something is not done about the upward spike in rents, how long will those people be able to live around the corner?

There is no other answer than the one Donna Mossman of the CHTU gave, that a small win is not enough, that “We will definitely be back next year.”

The system is rigged, of course. But maybe, just maybe, we can tip the balance a little.

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