Brooklyn Tenants Battle Gentrification on Many Fronts

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Protesters at a Make the Road New York demonstration in Early April.

Photo by: Make the Road NY

Protesters at a Make the Road New York demonstration in Early April.

A group of tenants gathered on a freezing February morning outside an old, graying building in Crown Heights. Despite the frigid temperature, their enthusiasm boiled over while they chanted “we won’t leave” and “people stand together.”

The tenants, protesting conditions at 1059 Union St. and buildings in the surrounding neighborhood, were part of the newly formed Crown Heights Tenant Union. The union draws independent tenant associations into one organization, increasing the potential for “people power” as Cea Weaver, an organizer with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), said.

Even though the circumstances many of the tenants cited were dire—they say gentrification in their neighborhood had encouraged landlord harassment of tenants—union members seemed jubilant as they told their neighbors about the injustice they had experienced. “They are not housing cattle, they are housing people!” one tenant cried.

The Crown Heights Tenant Union, founded last October, is just one of the many organizations, some newly formed, that are resisting what some fear is a steady march of gentrification.

Gentrification has become a tired subject in New York City and other hot spots around the county and around the globe—and recent pieces on National Public Radio and in New York Magazine have questioned how bad it actually is—but many long-term tenants say market pressures have made their lives miserable.

Claiming a right to stay

The tenants who are part of the CHTU and groups like it represent an oppositional force to this phenomenon. Many tenants have lived in their apartments for over 30 years and have no intention of moving.

In the formerly dangerous neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bushwick, some of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the city, tenants lived through the years in which it was dangerous to walk down the street, and now are unwilling to move from neighborhoods that finally seem to be improving.

“They’re beautifying the neighborhood,” Donna Mossman, a member of the CHTU, said at the protest in front of 1059 Union St.”I’ve been here for 36 years. I want to enjoy that also.”

Tenant advocacy groups seek to capitalize on the recent group of progressive politicians elected to city office. Jose Lopez, who words with Make the Road New York, an organization in Bushwick that organizes around housing, worker’s rights, education and immigration issues, said that his organization needs to work harder over the next four years than in the organization’s 16-year history.

“We believe we can pass more progressive policy, especially around housing, in the next four years than we’ve done in the last 12 years of the Bloomberg administration,” Lopez said.

Make the Road held a boisterous march through Bushwick on April 6, where residents chanted in Spanish, banged on pots and demanded action against predatory landlords.

If the protest was any indication of the possibility for cooperation with sympathetic public officials, Make the Road has much to be optimistic about. Several public officials turned out for the event, including Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, City Councilman Antonio Reynoso and Public Advocate Letitia James.

The diminutive Maria Pucha stood in front of a mostly boarded-up building on Dekalb Avenue in the heart of gentrifying Bushwick with Reynoso, Velasquez and James. Pucha, her husband, and her two sons are the last family left in the building. Only Pucha’s windows were not boarded up, and “keep out” was spray painted in large letters across the boards in front of the windows.

Tenants suspect the landlord wants to gut the entire building so he can renovate it and drive up the rents. Pucha said in Spanish that the other tenants in the building had already taken buyouts for between $5,000 and $7,000 dollars. She said her family had been living under terrible conditions in the meantime. In 2010 her son got lead poisoning, but the landlord just painted over the lead paint instead of removing it, she claimed.

Lopez hung a banner from Pucha’s window that said in Spanish “New York is our house” and “we’re staying here.”

“We will not stand idly by and allow him to evict these tenants,” James said, referring to the landlord.
She also encouraged city government to intervene in extreme cases of landlord abuse.

Velasquez went even further, demanding that landlords who violate tenants rights should be in jail.

Make the Road is set to do research on housing discrimination with the New York State Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, Vera said.

Working through courts and media

Another organization working with tenants nearby is the Bushwick Housing Independence Project. An organization run out of two Catholic Churches in the neighborhood, it was founded over a decade ago and mostly aids tenants in their legal battles in housing court.

In January, they found a case so severe that they felt it necessary to organize a protest outside a landlord’s apartment in Borough Park. Two tenants of the two first-floor apartments of 98 Linden, Michelle Crespo and Noelia Calero, had their apartments sabotaged when workers removed their kitchens and bathrooms under the guise of renovating them. The Bushwick Housing Independence Project does not typically organize protests—their main role is to support tenants in court—but their gamble seemingly paid off as the protest sparked a wave of media coverage of the brazen strong arm tactics of their landlord. Their landlord, Joel Israel, has since become notorious as his buildings have been covered by a wide array of print, internet and television media.

Hoping to exploit the new progressive direction of city government, tenant organizations have taken to form large coalitions. Brooklyn Tenants United is one such coalition that was recently formed to reform Brooklyn Housing Court, and includes Make the Road and BHIP. Tenant advocates claim that the court is dilapidated, does not provide adequate legal assistance to tenants, and is even housed in a property owned by David Bistricer—one of the city’s worst landlords, according to Bill de Blasio’s office during his time as public advocate.

Make the Road is involved with another broad coalition of housing advocacy groups, the Real Affordability for All Coalition, which has been pressuring de Blasio prior to the release of his affordable housing plan on May 1 (and released their own detailed proposal last week).

Behind the push to create new organizations and coalitions that advocate against unchecked gentrification are groups such as UHAB and the Pratt Area Community Council (PACC), who helped organize the tenants’ union.

UHAB, one of the oldest organizations involved in the current wave of tenant advocacy, was founded during the 1970s to help tenants gain ownership of their apartments in the wake of a wave of landlord delinquency and abandonment. The city ended up owning thousands of buildings, some of which UHAB helped transfer to tenants.

The Pratt Area Community Council predates even UHAB, going all the way back to 1964, and was founded from tenant councils, block associations and church groups in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, according to its website.

The prospect for the creation of limited equity cooperatives, where tenants collectively own their building, is unlikely in this real-estate market, according to Jonathon Furlong, an organizer with PACC. “It doesn’t happen as often as it used to,” Furlong says. However, Weaver and Furlong agree that if a tenant association wanted to push to create a limited equity cooperative, UHAB and the Pratt Area Community Council would support them.