Maria has been trying to get her landlord to make urgently needed repairs to her apartment for seven years. After slipping on a floor wet from a leaking ceiling, she was out of work until she recovered. Maria has been to court and a judge ordered the landlord to make repairs, but still she waits. She and her daughter continue to live with the stress of an apartment in ill-repair.
Maria’s story is all too common in the Southwest Bronx, where landlords use predatory tactics to drive tenants from their rent-stabilized homes. For the owners, the buildings are an investment and the best way to cash in is to drive out long-time tenants to make way for higher rents. For New Yorkers like Maria, these apartments are their homes. And these tenants can scarcely afford their apartments now — impending rezoning threatens to drive these long-time residents out of their apartment and, perhaps, out of the city.
In 2014, the de Blasio administration announced plans to rezone 73 blocks on and around Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. At Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), we were immediately concerned. Having organized for safe and affordable housing in the Southwest Bronx for more than 11 years, we knew the risks of increased speculation and displacement pressures that would come from a rezoning. We saw that the plan failed to sufficiently protect tenants from displacement pressures, and did not create additional housing that would be genuinely affordable to residents of the Southwest Bronx. We formed a coalition to respond to the proposed rezoning and create solutions for development without displacement.
In our conversations with the city, we discovered that a main challenge of advancing our vision was a lack of consensus about the very nature of displacement. We were told that rezoning doesn’t cause displacement or that tenants are leaving neighborhoods by choice. We and, most importantly, the more than 4,000 CASA members who organize daily, know that displacement is real and that a rezoning which creates additional incentives for landlords to push out low-income tenants could have devastating effects.
Let’s start by defining “displacement.” It is forced movement, or movement minus power and choice. Low-income tenants of color in the Southwest Bronx face daily displacement pressures. Unscrupulous landlords employ a variety of tactics to push rent-controlled tenants out of their housing so that they can charge higher rents to higher-income tenants. They subject tenants, like Maria, to unlivable conditions: a lack of heat and hot water, leaks, mold, exposure to lead, lack of gas, unrepaired broken windows and collapsed ceilings. They also exploit weak laws (and in some case, violate the law) to add to tenants’ rent burdens through Major Capital Improvement (MCI) charges, retracting preferential rents and tacking on non-rent fees to rent bills. These tactics are often used in combination with each other to increase tenants’ financial burdens and make their homes both unlivable and unaffordable. Landlords are strategically displacing tenants. It’s not a few bad apples, it’s not poor people’s fault — it is displacement!
The Jerome Avenue rezoning would give landlords increased financial incentive to utilize the displacement tactics already at their disposal. It would change the use of land, adding more land for private residential development and making it significantly more profitable. Without robust anti-displacement measures, tenants would be at great risk. Right now, there is no subsidy model to create the kind of affordable housing that meets the needs of current residents.
But this path is not inevitable. Our recent white paper details the ways displacement happens in the Southwest Bronx, and our coalition platform outlines concrete policy solutions to rezone in a way we’ve never done before. Solutions to fight displacement include a genuinely affordable subsidy program, coupled with strong tenant displacement protections like a Certificate of No Harassment law that would prevent landlords with a history of harassment from obtaining DOB permits; an Anti-Displacement Task Force in which HPD and local community groups would strategize around using all available tools to promote preservation and fight harassment; protections against non-rent fees; and the passage, implementation and monitoring of Intro 214-A, the Right to Counsel, and worker safety and local hire provisions.
Tenants fight daily, spending hours at meetings, organizing, speaking in public, demanding justice from elected officials, so that they can realize the basic right to safe, affordable, stable housing. The city should follow their lead and implement a rezoning plan that protects long-time residents and builds a better future for all New Yorkers.
Carmen Vega-Rivera is a CASA leader and Bronx resident. Erin Markman is the research and policy coordinator of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center.