Saturday's protest outside an eviction-services firm.

Abigail Savitch-Lew

Saturday's protest outside an eviction-services firm.

On Saturday, tenants, homeowners, and elected officials gathered in East New York to oppose real estate brokers’ harassment of local homeowners. The protestors marched through the neighborhood taking down signs with messages like “We Buy Houses — Any House, Any Condition” and “Tenant Evictions Here,” then held a press conference outside the offices of Quick Evic, a tenant eviction service.

“We are here today to send a clear message to any harasser, any Quick Evic, any solicitor out there that East New York is not for sale,” said Council Member Rafael Espinal. “They have historically been going from neighborhood to neighborhood across Brooklyn but the buck stops here, and it ends today. We will not give up our homes that we fought for, for years, to stay and live in.”

The rally, organized by an alliance of local groups called the Coalition for Community Advancement, was also attended by Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, State Senator Martin Dilan, and a representative for Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez.

Coalition members said real estate brokers were bombarding local homeowners with advertisements, sometimes even at their workplaces, by mobile texting, or by sending Spanish-speaking solicitors to knock on doors. Solicitors often target seniors and financially distressed homeowners who are “equity rich but cash poor” and cheat them out of a decent sales price. They’d heard one homeowner had sold his house for $350,000, only to later discover it was worth $1.8 million.

“They have a door to door process, they sit down with you, they become friendly to you, you invite them into your homes, so the sales that are happening are under the radar … They’re not giving ‘Darma next door’ an opportunity to buy the house next door to her,” said Darma Diaz, a local homeowner and a member of the Coalition.

“I have had conversations with one of the families, and it’s cheaper to buy in Cypress Hills than it is to rent in Park Slope,” she said.

The coalition said tenants are also the target of increasing harassment. Earlier this year, a landlord of a rent-stabilized building tried to evict all of his Section 8 tenants. The tenants fought back in court and the judge dropped the case, according to the coalition’s press release.

Debate over rezoning’s impact

East New York is the first, and so far the only, neighborhood rezoned by the mayor as part of the administration’s plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. Coalition members have long expressed concern that a rezoning would endanger small homeowners and their tenants, who are not protected by many other state and city regulatory programs. Stringer seemed to link the rise in speculation to rezoning proposals.

“This battle is not just about this community. This is happening all over. Jerome Avenue, right, Brooklyn, Manhattan,” he said, referring to another neighborhood targeted by the administration for a rezoning. He further argued that the city needed to improve its rezoning strategy and “cannot allow developers to build 40 story luxury development with a promise of a scattering of so-called affordable housing that is not affordable to people in the community.”

Espinal, who approved the rezoning after securing many community benefits, said that such harassment occurs all over the gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

“Did the rezoning possibly spark a little more excitement for [speculators] to come here? Maybe, but I think that at the end of the day, if we were to have sat back and not rezoned the community, these speculators would have come into the community anyway,” he said.

While it’s true speculative activity is occurring throughout the outer boroughs and especially in central Brooklyn, East New York had the highest rates of home flips (when a home is sold at least twice in less than one year) in all city neighborhoods last year, when the rezoning approval process was underway, according to a study by the Center for New York City Neighborhoods. Speculators in Cypress Hills, the part of East New York rezoned, saw the highest median gross returns, at 125 percent.

Creating a cease and desist zone

The coalition and their elected officials are pursuing a variety of strategies to create protections for homeowners and their tenants, including calling on the state to establish a “cease and desist” zone in East New York.

Under a 1989 state law, stakeholders can request that the State Department place a neighborhood on a “cease and desist” list. The State then holds hearings at which local homeowners must prove they have become the target of “intense and repeated solicitation by real estate brokers and salespersons.” If the state agrees to add the neighborhood to the list, which expires every five years, individual homeowners in the zone are allowed to sign up and request that their homes not be targeted by real estate advertisers. Brokers who target homes on the list would be subject to fines and, after multiple offenses, a suspension or revocation of their licenses.

While the coalition hopes to create such a zone to prevent displacement as land values rise, the law was originally created as a tool to prevent blockbusting, a tactic in which real estate brokers go to neighborhoods and inform homeowners that land values are dropping in order to trick homeowners to sell for a low price. That tactic helped encourage so-called “white flight” from integrating communities in the sixties. Notably, the last cease and desist zone list that expired in 2014 included mostly majority-white neighborhoods in South Brooklyn, though also more diverse communities in Queens and the Bronx.

Queens State Senator Tony Avella has been trying to pass a law that would establish a ten-year cease and desist zone for all of Queens and would nix the requirement for approval hearings. Yet some say that the state has been averse to strengthening the law for fear of a constitutional objection.

The law is not popular with many realtors, and withstood a court challenge by The New York State Association of Realtors in 2002. Last spring, the Long Island Board of Realtors crashed a hearing for the renewal of a cease and desist zone in Queens, sending dozens of their members to argue that cease and desist zones impact realtors’ abilities to make a living. Yet Rich Schulhoff, the CEO of Brooklyn Board of Realtors, told City Limits that he doesn’t think cease and desist zones affect business, and that unwanted advertising can even “put a bad taste in people’s mouths.”