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Tenants Form Union to Fight Gentrification

In the struggle to hold on to their places in a neighborhood where rents are rising rapidly, a group in Crown Heights is hoping there’s strength in numbers.

The newly formed Crown Heights Tenant Union held a rally outside a building on Union Street to protest a wave of displacement in the wake of rapid gentrification in their neighborhood.

The tenants chanted “we won’t leave” outside 1059 Union Street, at a rally attended by about 50 tenants and activists. The tenants accuse their landlords of trying to force long term residents out in order deregulate rent-stabilized apartments.

The CHTU, which is composed of tenants from a dozen buildings in Crown Heights, was founded in October of 2013 with the help of the Pratt Area Community Council and the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, or UHAB. Tenants founded the union to combat similar displacement tactics they say landlords employ throughout the neighborhood.

When long term tenants move out, landlords have been gutting the apartments to deregulate the rents “almost across the board,” according to Cea Weaver, the assistant director of UHAB’s organizing and policy department. “At the same time the long term residents are not getting repairs in their units,” she says. UHAB is an organization that was founded in the 1970s to help residents gain ownership of city-owned buildings.

Three of the buildings in the union are owned by BCB Property Management, a company which claims on its website that it invests in “emerging marketplaces and prides itself on a proactive and ethical approach to management.”

Weaver says BCB’s goal is to move out residents in order to deregulate the apartments. BCB offered residents in 1059 Union St. buyouts to vacate their apartments, according to the tenants union. Tenants claim that BCB has illegally been converting one bedroom apartments into two bedroom apartments, and charging rent above a $2,500 threshold that keeps an apartment rent stabilized, after they have bought tenants out.

At the same time, the quality of maintenance has gone downhill recently, said Betty Rice, a resident of 1059 Union St. Heat and hot water have also been erratic. BCB offered to buy her out, but she declined.

“I’ve been here all my life, why move? It’s a good neighborhood. I don’t care who moves in, just fix my place up and let all of us be happy,” she says.

Tenants from 1045 Union St., a building owned by ZT Realty that made the public advocate’s “50 worst landlords list,” are also involved in the union. Marcia McLean, a resident of the building, says she had not had access to her apartment since June. McLean says she let her landlord in to make repairs, but they were supposed to be completed in September. ZT Realty offered $125,000 and to relocate her to a smaller apartment, which she declined, she says.

“Management has illegally locked me out, stating they’re still waiting for the repairs to be done,” she says. She believes that she’s locked out because she refused to take the buyout or find another apartment. “I can’t move anywhere with that money,” she adds.

McLean said ZT realty converted three bedroom apartments above and below her to five-bedroom apartments, for which they now charge $3,500 a month.

The union was founded to educate tenants, and allow them to work together to fight landlord abuse by using “as much people power as possible,” Weaver says. The tenant union should also work to “build solidarity between new and old tenants.”

The union released a series of demands, including a five-year rent freeze, timely repairs, a right to organize and a right to fair leases.

“We have a right to affordable housing. That’s what we’re fighting for,” says Donna Mossman, a resident of another BCB building at 1159 President St. “They’re beautifying the neighborhood. I’ve been here for 36 years. I want to enjoy that also.”

UPDATE: Click here to see a PDF of the union’s demands.

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