In the last 10 years, about 5,000 tenants have turned to Jacek Bikowski. They had to–he’s their only option, the sole Polish-speaking tenant advocate in Greenpoint, a once sleepy but now hip immigrant neighborhood where rents have tripled in the past decade. Landlords eager to jump on the gentrification bandwagon have tried every trick in the book to empty their apartments.
But when they do, they’ll likely have to reckon with Bikowski. Like the landlord who tried to kick out 90-year-old Antonina Modzelewski last August, raising her rent from $440 to $1,400. Legally, there was nothing Modzelewski could do–her apartment isn’t rent-stabilized–so Bikowski contacted the press and staged a small demonstration. It worked: the landlord, a prominent local businessman, decided the extra rent wasn’t worth the public price for evicting a great-grandmother who uses an oxygen machine.
Only Jacek could have saved that woman’s apartment, Greenpoint observers say. “He’s the only person–in the largest community of Poles outside of Chicago in the U.S.–dealing with the concerns of tenants,” says Robert Peters, director of the North Brooklyn Development Corporation, which sponsors Bikowski’s work.
Bikowski, an unassuming father of three, came to New York from Poland a dozen years ago. His first job was as a maintenance man. Within a year, he shifted from fixing boilers to showing tenants how to demand that landlords fix theirs.
He filled a void: Information on tenants’ rights for non-English speaking Poles still barely exists. Neither Legal Services nor Legal Aid has a Polish speaking attorney, and only recently did Brooklyn’s Housing Court hire a Polish interpreter.
The timing of Bikowski’s arrival was fortuitous. One-bedroom apartments that rented for $400 when Bikowski first reached the neighborhood are now up to $1,000 and up. Where he once fought overcharges and demanded repairs, he now fights evictions.
Bikowski mumbles bashfully when pressed about his motivations, saying only he considers it “a mission, a moral obligation.” His work is partly about preserving a way of life, as Poles leave Greenpoint and scatter to more affordable neighborhoods. “When people lose an apartment, they lose a home here,” he says. “It’s not only their apartment, it’s their church. It’s their doctor. It’s that friendly grocer.”
But soon, Bikowski might not be available at all. City housing officials have proposed cutting the Community Consultant Contract, a $1 million program which supports tenant organizers at about 50 agencies citywide, including Bikowski. That infuriates Peters. “To save a million bucks,” he says, “they’ll cut 49 Jaceks.”