No-Buy Zone

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Lillian Peluso kept mailing her $625 monthly rent checks all summer long, even after she learned that she’d be evicted from her apartment come fall. Like many senior citizens in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, she is living in a building with fewer than six apartments and without a lease, and thus has virtually no legal protection from rent hikes or eviction. Barring a miracle, on September 30 she will have been cast out–displaced by the skyrocketing New York real estate market.

In cases like Peluso’s, tenant advocates have historically responded only after a landlord hiked rents beyond tenants’ reach. But a new organizing tactic is emerging in Brooklyn. Rather than just fighting back, tenants are fighting first in a determined effort to keep rents reasonable.

Peluso’s story is all too typical. The market value of her five-room apartment, on President Street across from Carroll Park, has more than tripled since she moved in more than 10 years ago. When her building got a new landlord in June, Peluso learned that she, a single father and his kids upstairs, and a young couple downstairs would have to pay $1,700 a month or get out.

She plans to do neither. “I’m ignoring the eviction notices,” says Peluso. “These new landlords think they own the neighborhood. Many of my friends and I have lived here for more than 65 years. Don’t they realize there is no place for us to go?”

Tenant advocates, community organizers and residents say evictions have reached a crisis point in some Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods, especially those with easy access to Manhattan. These communities share a high concentration of buildings with five or fewer apartments, which generally aren’t covered by the rent stabilization laws that cap yearly rent increases. In Flatbush, Forest Hills, Fort Greene, Astoria and other neighborhoods, more than 30 percent of apartments are unregulated, according to the city housing department, leaving residents with few options if they’re hit with a rent hike or eviction notice.

Amid a blitz of evictions in lower Park Slope, the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community development organization with a history of tenant organizing, decided to investigate. It wasn’t promising. Organizers calculated that the neighborhood is losing roughly 5 percent of its affordable housing a year, and found that in the last three years 20 percent of buildings in the area have changed owners.

There lay the heart of their problem. Where landlords with rent-stabilized buildings must provide tenants with new leases, with limited increases, when their old ones expire, owners of one- to five-unit buildings don’t have to offer anything–a trip to housing court and an eviction notice is all that’s needed to clear out old tenants.

Known in Housing Court as “no-defense holdovers” because they have almost no legal options left, tenants’ only option is to appear in court and plead for delays.

The Fifth Avenue Committee decided to take action. This summer, it organized community residents to stop the eviction of two elderly sisters, Carmen and Feliza Soto, from their apartments in one Cobble Hill building. The Sotos, who never had problems with their landlord and each paid their $500 rent on time, lived on disability payments. Their landlord wanted to raise the rent to $1,500. More than 70 people boarded a bus to Long Island and picketed the landlord’s home. Humiliated, he promised not to evict the Sotos until he could relocate them to a suitable apartment.

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Though the Soto campaign worked, exhausted organizers knew that intervening in evictions when it was almost too late was not a good long-term strategy to keep the heat on landlords. They decided instead to start a proactive grassroots campaign to deter landlords from even starting to go after vulnerable tenants. Mapping out a “Displacement-Free Zone”–from Third Avenue to Sixth Avenue, Bergen Street to Second Street–the Fifth Avenue Committee is mounting a “campaign of conscience” to put landlords and brokers on notice.

They’ll be met with pickets, flyers, innumerable court proceedings, moral pressure and all-around embarrassment. In the absence of strong legal defenses, organizers are pushing a direct-action organizing offense, aimed at attracting the attention of the media, local politicians, fellow neighbors and Brooklynites, and, most importantly, prospective landlords with their eye on lower Park Slope.

“Before they buy into the neighborhood, the Displacement-Free Zone warns landlords who intend to displace tenants that it will be a public fight,” says Benjamin Dulchin, an organizer with the Fifth Avenue Committee. The aim, says Dulchin, “is to have bad landlords say, ‘I’m not going into lower Park Slope, it’s too much trouble.'”

Within the 25-block DFZ area, each corner of every block will be marked with posters and banners declaring that the eviction of any long-term tenant by a landlord seeking rent hikes will be fought with picket lines outside the landlord’s home and business, a deluge of letters from community and church groups, and petitions, telephone calls and visits from community leaders. “Landlords will take notice that this community is on guard,” promises Carmen Pellot, a member of the DFZ committee. Demonstrations are scheduled to start in October, with full-force action in place in November.

A community-based response to the eviction epidemic has been slow in coming, in part because the eviction wave arises from anonymous forces in the real estate market. The DFZ action aims to put a human face on those shifts–and hold those faces accountable. Potential targets include local landlords looking to cash in, non-resident speculators who evict to get a better return on their investments, and families buying multi-family rowhouses with the intention of converting them into one- or two-family homes. Not all the players are greedy–new owners have usually bought their buildings at high prices, forcing them to rely on ramped-up rent income to pay their mortgages.

Often, evictions happen even before a building is sold. “A building is worth more if it is empty,” observes Dulchin, because new buyers are willing to pay more to avoid the financial and emotional costs of rousting tenants themselves.

The Fifth Avenue Committee is betting that landlords who don’t respond to public action will end up buckling under coordinated legal hounding. Though its lawyers usually don’t handle no-defense holdover cases because they’re so hard to win, South Brooklyn Legal Services has pledged to fight every DFZ case in court, with the idea of costing landlords valuable time, money and peace of mind–and keeping tenants housed for as long as the proceedings take.

“There are creative ways of handling cases with little legal recourse–technical defenses and loopholes to use as leverage in the hopes of getting the landlord to settle,” says staff attorney Jennifer Levy. Recently, Levy was able to save a tenant from eviction by arguing that an unregulated building that was sold along with a neighboring unregulated building on the same deed was in fact a 10-unit dwelling. Although the case is still pending, the landlord did make an offer to settle.

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Real estate brokers are skeptical that the DFZ will deter landlords. “Some people can’t be embarrassed,” says one agent who’s been selling real estate in Brooklyn hot spots for more than 10 years (and who asked that she not be identified). “They are out to make money, and no level of humiliation, intimidation or picketing will stop these landlords.” Swept up in a whirlwind market on blocks many brokers wouldn’t even walk down a decade ago, this agent sympathizes with long-term residents. “I feel caught in the middle. In one sense it is my business, but it really bothers me to see people being displaced who have helped make the neighborhoods the valuable places they are today.”

If the DFZ is successful, its organizers hope to broaden the zone to include other neighborhoods struggling with rent pressures. They could use the help. “The most we have been able to do is discourage people from moving into buildings with less than six apartments,” says Yves Vilus, director of the Erasmus Neighborhood Foundation in Flatbush. In some cases, rents in the largely Caribbean-American neighborhood have doubled in the last year, according to Vilus, and residents have been driven into deplorable situations. “I have families living in cellars and illegal apartments, they’re so desperate,” says Vilus.

In Carroll Gardens, waiting lists for senior housing have been closed for more than two years. Because many unregulated apartments are occupied by senior citizens, Carol Reid Rembert, director of the Eileen Dugan Senior Center on Court Street, reports that she deals with at least three new evictions a month. Many seniors facing eviction, she says, suffer from stress-related health problems, and many are relocating to nursing homes or moving in with children.

“The DFZ campaign can only help the situation in Carroll Gardens,” says Rembert. “And maybe,” she adds, “it will make people who want to move into the neighborhood take notice and think about who they may be forcing out.”

The idea of such a campaign inspires Lillian Peluso. “We seniors are ready to fight. We have nothing to lose–they are already taking our homes and neighborhood,” she says. “People ask where I’m going to go at the end of the month, and I tell them ‘I’ve picked out a nice bench in the park.'”

Deirdre Hussey is a Bronx-based freelance writer.