Kamal Nasser isn’t a paid community organizer. He’s a Bangladeshi immigrant who works as a street vendor in Jackson Heights. But after repeatedly losing heat and electricity, and following months of eviction threats in his rent-stabilized Kensington apartment building, Nasser has taken on the role of advocating for himself and his fellow tenants in his building.
“I wasn’t an activist until the management activated me,” Nasser, 49, says.
Nasser is organizing eleven other Bangladeshi tenants in his rent-stabilized building in a lawsuit against their landlord to make needed repairs to the building. They are represented by the Urban Justice Center.
This battle has showed Nasser the importance of rent regulation, and last month he made his first trip to Albany to advocate for the renewal of rent regulation when the law is up for a vote in June.
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When Nasser’s neighbor Obaidul Hoqus hesitates about accompanying Nasser on a future trip to Albany to protect rent regulation laws, Nasser won’t hear it. Instead, Nasser starts in on an eloquent speech about the “beauty of democracy.”
“Politicians hate to lose power. Because they’re afraid to lose, they need people to vote for them. In this building we have 38 apartments, so what’s that? Seventy-six voters. The landlord has only one vote, but more money than everyone combined, so he doesn’t even have to go to Albany,” Nasser explains. “But the beauty of democracy is if we all knock on their doors in Albany and say, ‘If you pass this law, we’ll kick you out.’ they have to listen. Because they hate to lose more than anything else.”
Immigrants and rent regulation
Rent regulation provides protections for tenants and limits the amount of rent that a landlord can charge. New York State’s rent regulation laws are set to expire in June. On April 12, the Assembly passed a bill supported by the Real Rent Reform Campaign, an advocacy group calling for strengthening existing rent stabilization laws. This bill would extend rent regulation until 2016 and end vacancy decontrol, which has allowed landlords to deregulate apartments when they become vacant and their rent exceeds $2,000.
The Assembly bill would lower rent increases for new tenants to 10 percent, down from 20 percent. The Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to support this bill, and an aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo told The New York Times that he was seeking a deal that could pass both houses. Rent regulation is expected to be extended, despite landlord opposition and the argument made by many economists that ending rent stabilization will result in lower housing prices across-the-board and increased incentives for landlords to improve apartments.
Immigrants such as Nasser, who moved to the United States in 1982, are among the largest beneficiaries of rent regulation. According to “Housing the City of Immigrants” a policy brief by Community Service Society (CSS), 37 percent of immigrants live in rent-regulated housing, compared to 28 percent of second generation residents and 33 percent of the third generation.
Because of their stake in this fight, many immigrants are organizing around rent regulation, through entities like the New York Immigration Coalition’s Immigrant Housing Collective.
“More immigrants are learning about how they are getting involved and learning how to advocate around their communities,” says Silvett Garcia, the housing and community development coordinator at the Immigration Coalition. “Each year we have an Immigrants’ Day of Action. When we first started here we had a few hundred immigrants. We’ve seen the numbers grow up to 1,000.”
“The law is the law”
The CSS report also indicates that a mix of housing problems face immigrants. Fifteen percent live in apartments that are overcrowded, and 13 percent have three or more maintenance deficiencies, all numbers higher than the average New Yorker.
Nasser’s apartment fits both of these criteria.
For 17 years Nasser has lived in his rent-stabilized apartment in a part of Kensington, Brooklyn sometimes described as “Little Bangladesh” because of the high proportion of Bangladeshi immigrants, restaurants and businesses.
He, his wife and four children ages five through 18, live in a crowded one-bedroom apartment that he converted into two bedrooms rooms to add space.
Despite the crowding, Nasser loves the apartment, which he says is very safe. “Nobody else in this building has this long a hallway,” he says, proudly showing off his fourth floor walk-up. “And nobody has this big a kitchen or living room.”
Nasser says he had no problems in the building until almost four years ago when new management took over, just as Kensington was starting to gentrify with overflow from Park Slope. Nasser says he was targeted, because as a longtime rent-stabilized tenant, he only pays $578 a month. Nasser estimates the landlord could probably get $800 or $900 a month at market rate.
“There are three of four more tenants paying like me. Management thought they could get rid of us quickly,” Nasser says. “I know it’s killing their heart to have to rent these apartments at such a low price. But the law is the law.”
Since he moved into the building, Nasser always paid the superintendent his month’s rent in cash on the first of the month. Then, under new management, for eight months, the superintendent wouldn’t accept his rent.
When he called management to complain, he says, “there was a new excuse every month. There was no ‘Why.'” The landlord brought him to court to pay back rent, which he did. Then the same thing happened for the next five months. When he went to court the second time he says he told the judge, “I have the money. I can come pay my rent the first of the month to you, if that’s what you’d prefer.” After that, the landlord started accepting his rent.
But still, hot water was sporadic, heat wasn’t turned on and the landlord didn’t make needed capital improvements, including painting, fixing broken cabinets and addressing defective floors.
Nasser started knocking on all of his neighbors’ doors, and learned that many were facing similar problems. He accompanied other tenants to court who received eviction notices.
Just this year, while Hoquus spent five months in Bangladesh, his college-aged children were evicted from their apartment for missing October and November rent payments, even though December, January and February rent checks were cashed. After Nasser accompanied the children to court, they were allowed to return to their apartment after paying the back rent.
“The landlord wants everybody suffering and not to talking to each other,” Nasser says. “That is how they overpower us. One harassment suit means nothing. But when we show that this has happened to so many tenants, we establish a pattern.”
A member of South Asian advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving or DRUM (Desi refers to people from the Indian subcontinent), Nasser connected to Chaaya CDC, a non-profit organization focused on improving access to housing opportunities for South Asian Americans throughout New York City. Chaaya helped him organize his building to file a lawsuit this fall. Among the 12 tenants’ apartments, there were 74 code violations in total.
The landlord said they would address the housing code violations and entered into a schedule of repair dates for each petitioning tenant. Some repairs were made, says the tenants’ lawyer, but tenants contend they were incomplete and sloppy. The court ordered a second round of inspections, the results of which were pending at press time.
Nasser says the fight continues. “We are forcing the landlord to understand that we’re serious,” he says.
And Nasser says, more important than just the court case, is maintaining and improving rent stabilization laws. As he tells his neighbor, “No matter what the court says, the court follows the law. The court is not a law maker. Don’t think about only you. Or only me. If this law isn’t continued, it’s going to be a big problem for many, many people.”