On October 16, 2017, Mayor De Blasio signed the final of 12 pieces of legislation into law to protect tenants from construction as harassment. At the signings, the mayor was joined by tenants and advocates from across New York City to celebrate a victory that was over four years in the making. The celebratory mood was in stark contrast to the usual organizing and mobilization that happens behind the scenes.
For four years, tenants were asked to do double duty. They not only had to fight their landlords who were using construction harassment to drive them from their homes, they also had to push legislation through the New York City Council to protect vulnerable tenants from suffering the same fate. That meant showing up at rallies, testifying before City Council committees they had never heard of before, and letting reporters into their homes to highlight the dangers of unregulated landlords and an inadequate government response.
Catalina Hidalgo introduced the mayor at the first bill signing. For her, the passage of the bills was the culmination of years of frustration, displacement and, more importantly, the grit to fight for her home.
In 2012, her landlord began aggressive, disruptive and unsafe demolition in three vacant apartments in her building. Her partner and five-year-old twins put up with asbestos-containing dust, noise, and vibrations from the work. That was only the beginning: it was followed by a sinking bathroom floor and sewage leak on the first floor. The nightmare got worse a few weeks before Christmas in 2013, when her building was sabotaged. Someone had smashed the building’s electrical meters, gas meters, boiler and main water pipe.
The tenants in Catalina’s building were vacated from their homes, forced to move into the shelter system, stay with relatives, or live in expensive apartments they could not afford. Most people would have walked away. How do you fight a landlord that is hell-bent on making your life miserable, someone who thinks of you as an obstruction to higher profits? But Catalina and her neighbors stayed together and fought even though they lived in different neighborhoods and had to rebuild their lives. With the assistance of St. Nicks Alliance, Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A and United Neighbors Organization, the tenants stayed united, organized, fought back and won. In late 2016, nearly three years after being kicked out of their homes, Catalina and her neighbors returned to their Greenpoint apartments. Catalina’s is a story of heartbreak but also one of tenacity and people power.
With the 12th and final bill of the Stand for Tenant Safety legislation finally signed, tenants now have many new measures to protect them from greedy and criminal landlords. Tenants across the City paused to celebrate the legislative victory and all the work they have done to highlight construction as harassment and reform the Department of Buildings. The festive atmosphere will be short-lived, however, as tenants work to spread the information of the new laws, work on implementation and continue to combat aggressive landlords.
In the city that never sleeps, tenants must constantly be on guard and continue to mobilize to fight for their homes.
Jane Li is a staff attorney with the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center.