With one curler still in her hair, Catherine Curte, 78, sits in her spotless kitchen, makeup on, ready for her day. She plans to browse Williamsburg’s stores, then visit friends who live nearby. But soon, her daily routine will change. In March, she got the eviction notice she’d been expecting since her landlord sold the building and left this winter. The new tenants who moved in pay $1,500 apiece.
Curte’s one-bedroom cost $275 when she moved there in 1984 to be close to her sister after her husband died. The rent rose slowly until two years ago, when it jumped from $400 to $700–more than her entire monthly Social Security income of $689. She pays it with a loan from a friend and lives on food stamps. Now, Curte is on a waiting list for a senior citizens home two L stops away.
Curte’s situation has become commonplace in trendy parts of Brooklyn. Neighborhood organizations like the North Brooklyn Development Corporation and Pratt Area Community Council (PACC) field calls every day from tenants who are being evicted or harassed by landlords. Each tenant asks the same questions: Do I have any legal right to stay? The answer, in many cases, is no-in these neighborhoods, nearly one-third of apartments are not rent-regulated, and therefore offer tenants little protection. Is there affordable housing available? No. What can I do? This is what community groups have been trying to figure out, too.
“We are feeling pressure from tenants to do an effective job of protecting them,” says Jacek Bikoski, a tenant organizer at North Brooklyn, which in January drew about 300 Williamsburg-Greenpoint residents to a meeting about displacement. “Once they lose an apartment, they’re uprooted from their churches, doctors, friends that speak their language. The whole social circle of their life has been brought to an end.”
The pressures have rippled out far from Manhattan. Apartments managed by the Oceanhill Brownsville Tenants Association used to sit vacant, and the average renter earned far below $15,000 a year. Now every vacant apartment, renting from $300 to $900, has a wait list of 50, and the average applicant makes closer to $30,000.
In 1999, the Fifth Avenue Committee struck back, mapping out a 36-square-block “anti-displacement zone” where landlords who try to gouge or evict longtime Park Slopers are thanked with letters and pickets, and tenants get legal assistance [see “No-Buy Zone,” November 1999].
North Brooklyn plans to follow their lead. But if there’s one lesson Fifth Avenue’s experience reinforced, it’s that profits are more powerful than protests. Within the zone, there were 42 evictions in 1998 and 329 in 1999 (not counting tenants who chose to leave before they were locked out). Last year, 209 more households were kicked out. So far, Fifth Avenue has won only half of its 18 or so court cases.
“This problem is not isolated in our neighborhood,” observes Ben Dulchin, a tenant organizer at Fifth Avenue. “We need a citywide strategy.” Local activists, he observes, can only succeed in protecting small territories, which just shifts the problem to neighboring communities.
And there are good reasons to think big. In one major election year to be followed by a second, housing is hot-and a message that tenants across the city are agitated could be heard loud and clear. Dulchin and other activists are looking to launch a full-fledged anti-displacement movement. “We’ve got to change politics,” says Howard Brandstein, director of the Sixth Street Community Center, which has joined labor and housing groups to create the Lower East Side Anti-Displacement Coalition. “Unless we have a broader coalition, we won’t succeed.”
So on June 14, while many tenant advocates will be in the thick of their annual battles before the Rent Guidelines Board, some will be strategizing on a second front: for the roughly 600,000 households citywide who have few legal protections because they rent in buildings with five or fewer apartments. The Fifth Avenue Committee, Municipal Art Society and Association for Neighborhood Housing Development are hosting a conference at Columbia University intended to fertilize new action, drawing from strategies in play around the country.
Many of these have been documented by the community development think tank PolicyLink, which has posted an anti-displacement “tool kit” on the web in response to nationwide demand. The site outlines more than a dozen tactics. “A lot of these tools are familiar to people,” says director of research Victor Rubin, “but the recent wave of gentrification has brought them back to people’s attention.”
Community land trusts and lease-hold cooperatives, for example, sell property with stipulations that owners can’t resell at sky-high prices. In Boston, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative won eminent domain over an area of Roxbury, then built 135 homes, a community center and gardens-all permanently protected. In Chicago, researchers are studying whether community groups could impose tax increment financing, a small levy that would fuel an affordable housing development fund.
But such tactics mostly only work before damage is done. Displacement is a dynamic and market-driven moving target, fueled by demand and speculation. It also doesn’t present simple solutions. For too many neighborhoods, the problem remains underinvestment, and keeping new money out can be just as devastating. “The fundamental question is: Can you have the benefits of community improvement without displacement? Well, it’s very hard,” says Eva Handhardt of the Municipal Art Society, whose urban planning class at Columbia spent this spring studying successful anti-gentrification efforts around the country. “We don’t want a segregated ghetto with no quality of life. But any kind of improvement tends to be a snowball.”
And there’s not always a bad guy to target. Almost everyone feels victimized by the housing market, observes Dulchin, including brownstone-buyers who have to double tenants’ rent in order to make their mortgage payments. “Frankly, it’s people making reasonable economic decisions given their situations,” Dulchin says. “There’s no one villain–no evil, scheming, big-time slumlord releasing pit bulls in the building.”
Two years ago, PACC spotted trouble in an unexpected corner of the neighborhood. In the largely industrial spread between Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg, developers won variances from the city to turn old industrial lofts into apartments. At first, it was jobs that got evicted: In the fall of 1999, 14 small manufacturers were forced from Taafe Place.
Next PACC started to get phone calls from tenants whose rents were soaring out of reach. And then the transition became official: Last October, the City Planning Commission released a plan to rezone 15 blocks from mostly industrial to residential use.
PACC saw a situation ripe for secondary displacement, in which development of new market-rate housing would ripple into rent hikes. “So many low-income Latino people were being displaced,” recalls Executive Director Vivian Becker. “In Fort Greene or Clinton Hill, I’m not sure what we could have done, but there we saw an opportunity.”
Specifically, Becker saw potential in the environmental review required for rezoning. Arguing that the city should give tenants in the area the same protection offered to people living in urban renewal areas to be razed, PACC urged the Planning Commission to make sure 30 percent of all new housing be set aside for existing residents and an additional 20 percent specifically for low-income renters. The proposal also included a no-harassment clause, like one in use in Hell’s Kitchen, requiring redevelopers to prove they didn’t disturb existing tenants, and some protections for manufacturers.
In the end, the planning commission agreed to set aside roughly 3,500 units of publicly funded housing for displaced residents and to issue a contract to a community group to help relocate them. It will also convene a task force to monitor the area.
But creative interventions like PACC’s can’t offer legal protection to tenants. That’s where a proposal to protect unregulated housing comes in, with an assist from mayoral candidate Alan Hevesi. A year and a half ago, Hevesi convened the Fifth Avenue Committee, North Brooklyn, New York Tenants and Neighbors and other civic groups to brainstorm a new tenant protection deal.
The state bill they’ve come up with would reinstate many of the rent regulations lost in the last seven years, including protections for high-rent apartments and the right of New York City to determine its own rent rules. It requires landlords to provide good cause for evicting an unregulated tenant. Perhaps the most dramatic change would be the expansion of regulation to buildings that contain three to five units and are not owner-occupied–like Curte’s.
At press time, the group planned to get the bill introduced into the Assembly in May. And no, they don’t expect it to pass muster with the governor or Republican State Senate. The main objective, admits Michael McKee of Tenants and Neighbors, is to influence next year’s governor’s race and the reauthorization of rent laws in 2003. “The whole idea here is not that the bill will pass the Senate but that it will set the terms for renewal next year.”
Of course, it will also be a hot-button topic this fall. “Tenants have to make it an issue,” says McKee, “and candidates have to be put on the spot.” Becker agrees there’s potential there, as personified in a Fort Greene resident she recently met: “She is very passionate about need for affordable housing, but she knows she herself has contributed to gentrification. People moving to all the hip neighborhoods are aware of that.” Another case in point is a group in Bushwick called Gentrifiers Against Gentrification. “I don’t know if they can galvanize middle-income folks,” says Becker, “but people are appalled at housing costs. That could help.”
Nora McCarthy is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.