Urban Legend: Ronin Amano

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A lot of New Yorkers have gotten to know Rent Wars. Roughly 30,000 people watch the cable show or check out the web site each week. But the program’s creator, Ronin Amano, a quirky tenant activist, lurks stealthily behind the scenes. The burly man from Brooklyn won’t reveal his age, his birth name, or his educational background, or even let his picture be taken.

“It’s part of the mystique,” says the dark-eyed Amano. But then his seeming paranoia disappears in an instant with a hearty laugh and a reference to a childhood cartoon icon. (One of his favorites is Space Ghost.)

Despite the mystery, New Yorkers have plenty of chances to see the work of Amano, an eccentric filmmaker and webmaster dedicated to promoting tenants’ rights. His main creation, “Rent Wars News,” a local cable access show, chronicles tenants fighting evictions and rent hikes. While Amano never appears on camera, his cartoon alter ego [above] appears in Rent Wars Ronin, an animated film he created about fighting the forces of evil, a.k.a. slumlords.

And his ideas are very much present in his web forum, www.rentwars.com. Heated debates have recently included Amano’s proposal that nonlawyers such as paralegals should be able to represent tenants in Housing Court. Dismayed that so few tenants are represented because of high attorney fees and a limited number of Legal Aid lawyers, Amano is convinced that any representation is better than none: Even an “inert potato would help, if all it knew how to do is complain about judges and attorneys.”

This fall Amano will expand his tenant outreach, teaching free one-day seminars on how to research legal precedents and properly read legal documents.

With his classes, video production, animation and website all in full swing, Amano still has time for a few other projects. Currently he says he’s investigating Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a case he says he’s under strict orders not to speak about.

With so much left unanswered, who is Ronin Amano? “He’s a real sweet fellow,” says Dave Powell, an organizer at Met Council whose tenant activism has been covered on Rent Wars News. But having seen Ronin stand up to landlords while the cameras roll, Powell adds, “He’s not one to back down.”