Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1189 Mon, 10 Dec 2018 13:33:37 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Allegations of Tenant Harassment in Bushwick Spotlight Issues with City Enforcement, State Rent Laws http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8104-allegations-of-tenant-harassment-in-bushwick-spotlight-issues-with-city-enforcement-state-rent-laws http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8104-allegations-of-tenant-harassment-in-bushwick-spotlight-issues-with-city-enforcement-state-rent-laws 431 bleecker

tenants Hunter & Corchado outside 431 Bleecker (via vimeo)


On a Wednesday last month, a group of community activists and politicians including Assemblymember Maritza Davila and then-State Senate candidate Julia Salazar gathered outside an apartment building in Brooklyn, where they protested a landlord in front of one of several properties he owns.

“Our landlord -- terrible, terrible, terrible,” said Ermelinda Corchado, a tenant who was moved to tears as she told the crowd of more than 30 advocates, officials, and residents about issues she and others have faced, standing outside the eight-unit building in Bushwick. “They’ve been offering me buyouts so I could move. I don’t want to move, I can’t afford to move…[the landlord] keeps harassing me all the time.”  

Corchado is the sole remaining rent-stabilized tenant in the building, encouraged by various means to leave. And while Corchado is the only rent-stabilized tenant left, others believe that their units should be returned to rent-stabilization given that they believe they were removed due to illegal or unscrupulous behavior by the landlord. Multiple tenants have been served with nonpayments — a demand for overdue rent — and one with a holdover — an eviction for a resident of an apartment for reasons other than not paying rent.

On a rent strike since before the October rally, all of the tenants of 431 Bleecker Street have been embroiled in multiple lawsuits, some still pending, and frustrating efforts to seek help from a variety of governmental entities responsible for oversight of issues they’ve experienced, such as repeated heat and hot water outages and nearly constant repair work in recent months.

The landlord, Kerry Danenberg, owns several buildings in Brooklyn jointly with his wife, Sarah Russell. She is listed as the “head officer” for the Bleecker Street building on the city Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD) website, and is ranked number 92 on New York City Public Advocate Letitia James’ “Worst Landlord List,” released nearly a year ago and based on number and severity of open HPD violations and number of units in the landlord’s buildings.

The tenants of the Bushwick building, owned by Danenberg’s property management company, Grand Management, say they have experienced deeply unpleasant and challenging, though not unique, types of landlord harassment, including, they allege, racial discrimination. And while they’ve organized, documented, sued, and contacted their elected officials and city agencies, they haven’t received the response they would have liked, especially from HPD.

Corchado wasn’t the only one at the rally who said the landlord had pushed them to leave their rent-stabilized apartment. A resident of Grand Management-owned 108 Central Avenue, Luz Virella, told Gotham Gazette before the rally that she had been taken to court for a holdover, though she said it was dismissed.

“As soon as he took over the property, he took me to court, sued me for $80,000,” said Virella, who has lived in the building for nearly 17 years with the help of Section 8 federal funding. “I won the case, but then ever since, it’s been one thing after another. When it comes to repairs, he doesn’t do anything.”

Assemblymember Davila, a Democrat who represents parts of Bushwick and for years lived on the same block as 431 Bleecker, said conditions in her own apartment is what sprung her entry into community activism. Davila ahead of the demonstration said developments at 431 Bleecker was just one example of a larger pattern in the rapidly gentrifying area in recent years.

“This is basically what happens throughout the entire community,” she said in an interview. “We already know what the M.O. is. We understand that the landlords come in, how they work, how they harass the tenants. They commit the most heinous crimes, and they don’t get punished for it, because they have money.”

Salazar, who in September upset incumbent Democratic State Senator Martin Dilan in a campaign that heavily featured rent laws, and points to tenant organizing as an experience that propelled her political candidacy, said “practices like this are all too common from Morningside Heights to Bushwick,” but that an increasing number of tenants have begun to stand up against unscrupulous landlords, as well as against rent laws she said lead to displacement. Landlords can take advantage of those laws to remove rent-stabilized tenants and charge market-rate rents, Salazar and others explain, decrying incentives to the type of behavior allegedly taking place at 431 Bleecker and other buildings owned by Danenberg and Russell.

“We need to be fighting for stronger rent laws,” Salazar told Gotham Gazette. “We know that, especially in Bushwick, in North Brooklyn, policies like vacancy decontrol, mass deregulation has been the number one cause of the destabilization of rent-stabilized apartments, and, ultimately, forcing people out who have been here for decades.”

While city agencies like HPD often hold responsibility for keeping landlords from breaking the law, it is the regulations that apply to rent-stabilized apartments that are created by state government in Albany and the subject of a great deal of controversy, especially as they are again set to expire in 2019, and a crop of candidates in the 2018 cycle put augmenting rent laws at the center of their campaigns. (Governor Andrew Cuomo, for his part, last week responded in the affirmative when asked on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show if he would sign into law a bill repealing vacancy decontrol, though activists doubt his commitment to bolstering rent laws).

But only the city’s roughly 1 million rent-stabilized units are subject to those laws, like vacancy decontrol, which limit landlords but also set the path for units to be removed from rent-stabilization. Once units are removed, even through improper behavior by landlords, they seldom return. And tenants paying market-rate rents also often face challenging conditions from landlords with motives of their own beyond providing adequate, comfortable housing and collecting checks every month.

431 Bleecker
At 431 Bleecker, as of September 14, there were a total of 103 open Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) violations in the building, a number that was then reduced to the low twenties following a flurry of work and multiple inspections as of late October and eight as of this writing; there were 10 open Department of Building (DOB) violations in a building with just eight units, as of October.

The challenges facing the building’s tenants shed light onto issues many renters face in New York. Tenants claim a building is run by a landlord who passes operating expenses on to the tenants, but does not keep the building in good condition, and, when renters respond, files lawsuits against residents in an effort to recoup payment and encourage them to leave.

The blend of the landlord’s attempts to lure the sole remaining rent-stabilized tenant to leave her unit, where she has lived for nearly 40 years, in a neighborhood home to high levels of displacement, coupled with the loss of other rent-stabilized units in the building, shows how and why long-time, low-income residents often have little choice but to leave their buildings, sometimes neighborhoods. The building, where newcomers to the neighborhood now comprise the majority of the tenants, and pay far more in rent than Corchado, provides microcosm of how displacement and gentrification have been facilitated.

And the situation, experts say, is a sign of the extent to which even as the city attempts to protect tenants’ rights via local legislation, oversight, and enforcement — and could clearly be doing more in these regards — the key battleground for protecting tenants from policies that many advocates have long said incentivize landlords to fan the flames of displacement is Albany, not City Hall.

Lucy Hunter, a fifth-year graduate student at Yale University, moved into 431 Bleecker in 2016. Hunter says the problems began on November 28, 2017, when she and the other tenants received an email from management about what was planned as a three-day boiler repair, which at first “didn’t raise too many red flags.”

“However,” Hunter said during a recent interview in her third-floor apartment, “it was not a three-day project. There would be days when you would come home, without any knowledge they would be in your apartment, and you’d find dust and debris — like actual pieces of drywall on the floor. Sometimes tools were left scattered around."

On December 4, 2017, according to Hunter, Grand Management, the managing agent for the building, informed the tenants via email that the boiler installation would need longer than the original timetable indicated. Later that month, on Christmas Day, there was no heat in the building.

But that didn’t spur the tenants to take action just yet, Hunter said.

“Generally, you have a high tolerance for misbehavior as a tenant of a pretty cheap apartment in Bushwick,” she explained.

The breaking point came February 26 of this year when the market-rate tenants received a heating and oil bill of $800—a drastic increase from the roughly $200-300 per month residents of the building normally owed—despite the building going days without heat during the billing period.

“It was like we were camping outside, except we were paying $2,700 to live in the building,” remarked one 431 Bleecker tenant, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, referring to stretches in which they went without heat and hot water, forced to use hot plates and space heaters and wear layers upon layers of clothing—an experience echoed by numerous tenants in the building.   

A week later, the building’s tenants received an email informing them the bill was correct. Solonje Burnett-Loucas, Hunter’s neighbor, protested. Grand Management replied that she had to pay it or leave.  

“We went to the manager and said, ‘This is not normal, this is not on us. We didn’t even have heat for many days this month,” Hunter recalled. “And the refrain was ‘Oil prices are a little higher.’”

Burnett-Loucas, an entrepreneur and diversity consultant who has lived in the building for six years, told Gotham Gazette she noticed matters had gotten worse over the past year or so.

“There would be a trash removal fee for 80 bucks randomly, or there would be a hot water fee or something like that,” she said. “It wasn’t something that was a big deal. It wasn’t until last year that it became astronomical.”

Work continued in the building into March, with workers regularly entering apartments without permission or notice, according to Hunter. On March 16, there was no heat in the building. Two days later, an electrical fire broke out in apartment 2R, causing smoke damage to that unit and the one above it. On March 19, according to Hunter, tenants experienced very cold temperatures in the building, either due to a heat outage or open doors and windows from construction. Four days later, Burnett-Loucas and Hunter reported excessive construction noise and excessive debris to 311, the city’s complaint and information phone line. The next day, March 24, a Saturday, illegal weekend construction work took place in the building, according to records kept by the tenants.

Three days later, one of the tenants, Alec Holst, had a conversation with Danenberg during which the landlord described his plans to reconfigure the two top-floor units, according to Hunter. Danenberg also made the case why the building shouldn’t be rent-stabilized and said destabilizing units was a common practice for, according to a press release distributed during the October protest.

Following complaints from tenants, on March 28 a sweep of the building was conducted by representatives from four government agencies: the state’s Department of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR), the city Fire Department, the Department of Buildings (DOB), and HPD —the agencies that make up the Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force— and led to a stop-work order and gas shut-off.

The agencies discovered several illegal conditions, prompting them to issue multiple violations. Among them were false filing of construction documents, gas and electrical work conducted in the cellar without a DOB permit, failure to notify the DOB within 72 hours of commencement of work, and an insufficient plan to protect tenants, according to the DOB.

Following the inspection, DOB required the landlord to remedy the conditions, which included the landlord submitting an application that correctly notes that the building does in fact currently have tenants living in it, and that there was at least one rent-regulated unit in the building.

On April 3, the tenants of the building received an email from the building manager, Jeff Cassara, announcing the Department of Buildings had lifted the stop-work order and that construction would resume, so maintenance would need access to all units.

While all tenants received a nearly identical email from Cassara, at the end of the email they received, the white tenants were offered $100 to compensate for the trouble recent construction had caused. The black and Latina tenants did not, according to emails reviewed by Gotham Gazette.

“[A]s compensation for construction-related inconveniences, each apartment will be sent $100. Payment will be made by check to each leaseholder, totaling $100 per apartment,” Cassara wrote to tenants in five units.

But Burnett-Loucas, who is black, received the email informing them of the stop-work order, but without mention of $100 in compensation. Corchado, who is Latina and is routinely reached by the landlord via phone instead of email, was not offered the money, either.

Burnett-Loucas told Gotham Gazette she strongly suspected racism was the reason behind Cassara not offering her the same redress, which also manifested itself in the landlord’s legal actions against her.

“I think it’s total discrimination,” she said. “They literally sent that to all of the white tenants in the building…I was the only one in this whole process that was served with eviction papers. Everybody else who’s on the rent strike, they did not take that step to try to kick them out of the building. But in May, I got a letter from them that was just like, ‘You can no longer live here. You have 30 days to get out.’”

The eviction papers came after the tenants collectively decided to launch the rent strike, which on May 16 was declared in a letter to Grand Management by a lawyer from Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A (BKA), a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to low- and moderate-income people in the city.

“We had several emergency tenant meetings in late April, when it became clear that our pleas to have work done weren’t working,” Hunter said of the lack of timely repairs of the building’s boilers, which prompted the rent strike.

The tenants, along with their BKA lawyer, Yaa Sarpong, engaged in months-long exchanges and negotiations over access to the building for work repairs.

On the day the tenants sent the rent strike letter, Tim Bergstr, Hunter’s husband, came home to workers in their apartment with nobody home, without warning. On May 23, Burnett-Loucas was served with a notice of termination of her month-to-month lease.

Over the summer, the tenants and landlords underwent a multitude of legal proceedings, alongside continuing troubles in the building.

On May 24, the landlord and his legal team filed a New York Supreme Court case against the tenants for entry to the apartments, alleging they had not provided ample access to them to conduct necessary repairs. In July, the landlord, Danenberg, filed an amended complaint, alleging BKA and the tenants were defaming him.

On June 18, following a June 4 hearing on the matter, the City of New York issued a civil complaint against Danenberg for filing a “material false statement” to the DOB when the landlord filed forms that indicated the building was unoccupied and not rent-regulated, when in fact at the time six of the units were occupied and one of the tenants resided in a rent-regulated unit. Such faulty paperwork is a common practice by landlords to make it easier to receive a permit to perform construction.

According to a Housing Rights Initiative report, released late September, more than 10,000 building permits filed over the last two years contained incorrect information about rent-regulated tenants in the relevant buildings. “Just as scandalous as the number of falsified permits is the failure of enforcement by the Department of Buildings,” City Council Member Ritchie Torres told the New York Times. This figure, the DOB noted in the story, represented just 3 percent of the permits the departments had approved.  

In this particular case, Danenberg’s lawyers, according to DOB documents, said that this was the fault of an error by an architect. But while an architect expediter is allowed to fill out the relevant PW1 form, the landlord is responsible for ensuring the veracity of section 26 of the form, which indicates whether or not the building is occupied and its rent-stabilization status.

On July 3, the tenants of 431 Bleecker began an HP proceeding — a process used to force landlords to correct building violations and make necessary repairs — alleging harassment by the landlord and asking for repairs to be conducted properly. Also on July 3, Burnett-Loucas was served with a holdover, which was dismissed by the judge weeks later without prejudice. This was followed by the landlord’s team on July 9 filing a nonpayment against the tenants in four of the five occupied apartments. (It’s unclear why a tenant of one apartment, 4L, was not served with a nonpayment, as all tenants participated in the rent strike.)

On August 1, the two tenants of color and their legal team filed a discrimination case with the city’s Human Rights Commission. They alleged that Burnett-Loucas and Corchado, the two non-white tenants in the building, were subjected to discrimination when the building manager, Cassara, offered the $100 compensation to all tenants but them.

The city-state Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force made its second visit to the building on August 22, when city workers inspecting the building found that while there were no construction-related violations, the gas meter room was illegally being used as a storage area and that there were defective outlets in one of the apartments — a complaint Corchado voiced during her interview with Gotham Gazette.

On September 13, the landlord’s LLC Zachmaxie filed a $25,000 court summons against Hunter and her husband for allegedly causing that amount of damage to a kitchen cabinet by painting it a glossy white and removing the wall cabinet doors, for aesthetic purposes.

Asked for comment, a lawyer for Danenberg, Antonio Pasquariello, said in an email the questions reflected a lack of understanding of what transpired. “[I]t does not appear you have diligently researched this situation,” he said.

He went on to say the tenants had obstructed repairs in the building and that the landlord had acted swiftly to mend the unforeseen problems in the building.

“The Supreme Court filings thoroughly detail all the events and include documentation and communications between the parties which corroborate all the owners claims and efforts,” he said, though he did not specify what Gotham Gazette got wrong in its questions. “These documents are publicly available and illustrate how a small number of occupants have unfortunately elected to exploit and capitalize on an unanticipated emergency by actively preventing owner from making repairs.”

“Further,” he continued, “If you visit the nyc dob website you will see that, despite tenants attempts to thwart owners efforts, nearly all violations were resolved within two months of receiving notice thereof, a commendable accomplishment.”

Asked about the the $100 being offered to the white tenants but not the black and Latina tenants, he said, “There is no need for further elaboration since you can view the actual email exchanges between the parties first hand.”

After a follow-up request for comment days later, he responded, “mr and mrs loucas were never named tenants on a lease, it appears they took possession either by an unauthorized sublease or assignment of tenancy,” though he did not explain why that would disqualify Burnett-Loucas from compensation that the other tenants were awarded nor why Corchado, who is named on the lease, was not offered money.

Government Response Disappoints
In addition to the landlord, tenants say they have been disappointed in HPD’s response to the situation, or lack thereof. Hunter wondered why HPD didn’t have more power itself to sanction the landlord and clear violations. Hunter believes the landlord wanted HPD violations to remain open as he argues tenants were being uncooperative, all in an effort to make their lives difficult, and, some tenants suspect, to get them out of the building.

“[T]hey [were] finally clearing the violations. The building manager came in and was arguing to the HPD inspector why the violations should stay open,” she said in October. “In order to fix what is over 100 violations, they’ve demanded extraordinary measures be taken by tenants in order to provide access, because it’s basically a game of how much inconvenience can you cause people to do relatively local work,” Hunter said. “They interpret HPD violations in the broadest possible sense to demand painting, or in some cases repainting, every room in the apartment.”

“It felt like this nightmare where we actually were begging for months ‘Please bring in HPD to clear these violations,” she recalled. “As tenants, we can’t have them cleared. So HPD inspectors would come in and check in on other problems, and we’d say ‘Can you look at this. This is fine, right? Can you please lift this, so that they can’t keep claiming that we are denying them the right to fix problems.’ And they’re like ‘Oh, I can’t do that.”

A spokesperson for HPD, Juliet Pierre-Antoine, said in a statement that the department “has been aggressive in investigating and taking action as part of the Tenant Harassment Protection Task Force when allegation[s] of tenant harassment are reported, and will be even more proactive with the Tenant Anti-Harassment Unit.”

The Tenant Anti-Harassment Unit was announced in July by Mayor Bill de Blasio, and tasked with litigating against landlords and owners when warranted. Previously, HPD could only inspect 200 buildings annually, and will with the new unit be able to inspect 1,500 buildings per year, according to HPD.

“HPD will remain engaged at this property to ensure owner compliance with housing maintenance codes, rules, and regulations,” Pierre-Antoine said. “As part of the THPT, HPD has conducted inspections at this property and based on recent inspections the number of violations has been considerably reduced. Both the tenants and HPD have been active in Housing Court seeking the correction of conditions.”  

Pushing Tenants Out
Corchado, who was born in Puerto Rico-born and has lived in the building since 1980, says in recent years property management has made attempts at luring her out of the building, presumably with the aim of taking the unit off of rent-stabilization. Corchado said in an interview in her ground floor apartment that she has been offered a buyout of $20,000 three or four times.  

“She came and she said, ‘Ermelinda, are you willing to negotiate again?’ Corchado recalled of an interaction between her and Angela Jones, an office manager at Grand Management. “I said, ‘I don’t want to move. I can’t afford to move.’”

Along with the pressure of buyout offers, the landlord has made her life unpleasant in other more significant ways, Corchado said. Danenberg, for example, in October threw her husband’s new wheelchair in the garbage, Corchado said.

“Two days ago, the landlord came. When I looked out the window, he had my husband’s wheelchair, which is brand new, in the garbage,” said Corchado. “I had to go outside and drag it back inside. It was in the hallway, because I didn’t have space, [and] he said ‘Anything in the halway is considered garbage.’”

Asked for comment, Pasquariello, the landlord’s lawyer, said by email that he was “not aware of any personal property being thrown away, specifically a wheel chair, but we will investigate.”

Asked for comment about the incident days later, he replied, “by ‘thrown in the garbage’ do you mean it was removed from the hallway and placed outside?”

“I assume you are aware that storing items in the hallway is a violation,” he added.

Corchado, who has lived in the building for about 38 years, says she has noticed harassment and poor conditions took hold when Danenberg’s LLC took control of the building.

“It used to be an Asian landlord, then when they sold the building to ZackMaxie,” she said, referring to the LLC that in 2010 took control of the building after it was transferred from 431 Bleecker St LLC, of which Danenberg was listed as a member, after the latter entity bought the building in 2007. “That’s when a lot of problems started happening.”

Corchado, who takes care of her son and frequently babysits for her grandchild, said she was hardly the only longtime resident that was encouraged in not-so-subtle fashion to leave the building.

“The old tenants that left were being harassed,” she said. “They didn’t want to fix nothing for them. They used to tell them ‘If you don’t like being here, you could leave.’”

“Three or four years ago, the ones that used to live here before they bought the building, they were being harassed,” Corchado recalled.  “There was a Haitian family upstairs that was harassed. They had water coming through their wall. Four couples already that moved out, because they were told they were going to pay this rent and then they came and they told them [to pay] another $600, $800 for the heating system, the water and garbage removal. They told them they can’t afford that.”

The building, which currently has just one rent-stabilized tenant, has in recent years lost a number of rent-stabilized units. Corchado, who lives in unit 1L, pays roughly $600 per month in rent. The other tenants pay $1,800-1,900 monthly. The other units were taken out of rent-stabilization because of the “substantial rehabilitation” that, according to the landlord, allowed them to increase the rents and hit the threshold for stabilization, thus removing them from that status. The rules around what rent increases are allowed and how often, how landlords account for improvements they make to apartments, and the rent thresholds at which units can be removed from stabilization are all aspects of the state rent regulations.

Apartment 3L, for example, was rent-stabilized with the tenant, who lived in the apartment from 1987 through 2009, paying just over $300 per month, according to state DHCR records. In 2010, the unit underwent “substantial rehabilitation,” according to those records, and by 2012, the unit was no longer rent-regulated. It’s unclear if the tenant remained in the unit during or after this post-2009 period.

For roughly 26 years, Corchado lived in apartment 3R, which was rent-stabilized until 2006, when she paid $385 per month that year. Like in the other apartment on the floor, it underwent a “substantial rehabilitation” from 2009-2010, according to DHCR records. In 1984, Corchado paid $238.61 per month.

Apartment 4L’s rent in 1984 was $197.50 per month. The rent rose over the years, but remained under rent stabilization until 2015. The rent rose rapidly from 2013-2014, from $674 to $1,650 — a free-market rent. Unlike the other units, no substantial rehabilitation occurred, according to DHCR records, though according to DOB, city records indicate permits for renovations were filed for that unit. In 2015, 4L was no longer subject to rent regulation, with the monthly rent at $1,850 for the unit.    

The Larger Picture
431 Bleecker is just one of many buildings that have contributed to the drop in the city’s rent-regulated units. Much of this came as a result of Albany’s loosening of the rent laws in the 1990s. Specifically, the state legislature in 1997 scaled back rent regulations, allowing landlords to raise rents by 20 percent when a unit becomes vacant, and, when a unit becomes vacant with a rent of over $2,000 per month, now $2,733, the unit is not subject to any rent regulation.

Since 1993, New York City has lost over 152,000 rent-regulated apartments due to high-rent vacancy deregulation as of May 2017, according to the Rent Guidelines Board. More recently, Brooklyn as the second only to Manhattan on loss of rent-regulated units. Between 2007 and 2014, Brooklyn lost 41,500 rent-regulated units, according to an Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development report.

This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed in Albany. Formed in 2012 to “act as a proactive law enforcement office” in the DHCR, the state-controlled Tenant Protection Unit (TPU) began investigating improperly deregulated apartments via HCR’s Office of Rent Administration (ORA) registration data. In April 2016, the governor’s office announced in a press release the unit had identified 50,000 such units, recouping about $2.25 million in rent since the TPU’s inception. According to HCR, the unit has reregistered 70,000 improperly deregulated units since its inception and recovered more than $4.5 million in overcharged rent.

Still, the state’s efforts have of course not stopped the loss of rent-regulated units in the city, which becomes particularly problematic in increasingly high-cost area like Bushwick.

Indeed, Brooklyn has been home to some of the most extreme gentrification in the country in recent years, and Bushwick has been atop the list of gentrifying neighborhoods in the borough. A 2016 Furman Center study showed that from 2000 to 2014 average rent increased by 44.5 percent in Bushwick. Meanwhile, average income of residents rose by 16.4 percent, the share of non-family households increased by 24.9 percent and the adult population with college degrees increased by nearly 20 percent  — telltale signs of gentrification. In turn, many black and Hispanic New Yorkers have left or have been pushed out of Bushwick.

“That neighborhood is absolutely ground zero for speculation, harassment and displacement in the city,” said Benjamin Dulchin, executive director of ANHD.

“It has among the highest concentration of what we think are displacement risks,” he added, referring to an ANHD report on displacement risk in the city.

In addition to Bushwick, Dulchin says this phenomenon plays itself out in “low-income neighborhoods of color that are within relatively easy commuting distance from the business centers that for a whole bunch of reasons are subject to gentrification pressures, and where the current residents that are there have relatively little economic and social capital and can’t push back against displacement.” Neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Bed Stuy, Astoria, and East Harlem and more have in recent years also followed a similar pattern.

In tandem with more well-off newcomers moving into traditionally lower-income areas, one central way gentrification is spawned is by landlords forcing lower-income longtime residents, who are disproportionately black and Latino, from buildings, in many cases from rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartments, in order to receive higher rents.  

Kevin Worthington, a law student who works with BKA on the 431 Bleecker case, said the story is not atypical in the city’s areas home to an influx of newcomers.

“I think it’s very emblematic of speculative investments in gentrifying neighborhoods,” he said. “Traditionally black and brown communities that were plagued with the systems of segregation, lack of investment, city neglect, and all of the sudden there’s a resurgence of real estate interests, which often attract greedy investors who are looking to flip properties and make profits at the expense of mostly black and brown families who have been there the longest.”  

However, Worthington said landlords do not always throw the kitchen sink at tenants, as he argued was he case with 431 Bleecker. “Usually, you see those strategies implemented, but not all at the same time,” he said, pointing holdover proceedings, eviction proceedings, and offering a buyout to a tenant as the unusual quantity of ways the landlord’s made life difficult for his tenants.

City Council Member Rafael Espinal, who represents parts of Bushwick, including 431 Bleecker, told Gotham Gazette the conditions and challenges the tenants in the building have faced are common in his district, particularly the attempts to lure rent-stabilized tenants out of their units.

“It's terrible that there are landlords out there preying on vulnerable tenants who depend on these apartments to be able to care for themselves and for their families,” he said. “It’s no secret that rents are rising all throughout Brooklyn, but that doesn’t give landlords a reason to harass and intimidate the tenants that they currently have in their buildings.”

In Bushwick, Espinal says, it is unfortunately all too common for landlords that buy buildings and “pull out all the stops to harass tenants out of their rent-regulated apartment” with the aim of deregulating it, and tenants who live in rent-regulated apartments are encouraged to leave so “new owners can rehab the apartments, and make them into more luxury units.”

To prevent against these practices, elected officials in the city have moved to put in place local tenant protection measures.

Rampant use of construction as harassment — a practice wherein a landlords employs repairs and other work as a means to inconvenience tenants and provoke them to leave — has sparked outcry from tenant rights advocates and prompted legislation aimed at preventing the practice. Specifically, the “Certificate of No Harassment” pilot program, an initiative spearheaded by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander that requires landlords to obtain a certification that shows they have not harassed their tenants in order to be granted construction permits, passed the Council in the fall and recently began implementation in 11 neighborhoods, including Bushwick.

The “Right to Counsel” legislation, cosponsored by Council Members members Vanessa Gibson and Mark Levine, which allows low-income tenants facing eviction access to city-funded legal defense in housing court, passed in summer 2017. The bills came amid a larger city push to reduce evictions that in part has paved the way for a 24 percent drop in evictions in the city compared to 2014, as 180,000 New Yorkers benefitted from the expansion since that year, according to the city. In June, Gibson, Levine and a coalition of advocates announced an expansion of the program that gives access to legal defense to those who make slightly higher incomes than the first iteration of the bill.

Additionally, HPD in October rolled out its “Speculation Watch List,” an account of properties the city deems are at risk of having tenants harassed in them. On the list are rent-regulated multifamily properties sold that have capitalization rates — the expected rate of return on a property based on the revenue its projected to produce  — below their respective borough’s median.

Brooklyn City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who represents heavily gentrified and gentrifying neighborhoods including parts of Bushwick and Williamsburg, has helped lead a community-devised rezoning of some of Bushwick, which mostly entails a downzoning of the neighborhood that stakeholders hope will help curb development and the floodgates of gentrification and displacement.

Ultimately, despite city-led tenant protection efforts, the front lines of the rent regulation battles are in Albany, experts and city officials told Gotham Gazette.

“In the City Council, we’ve done everything that we can do,” said Espinal, the Brooklyn Council member. “We’ve increased the budget in getting tenants legal assistance, we’ve passed laws that ensure that any landlord that’s harassing their tenants will not have the ability to construct new buildings. So I think that at the end of the day, we have to look at our state leaders and hope that when rent regs come up for a vote, that we’re not just extending the current protections, but we’re looking to strengthen them to make sure that all New Yorkers are protected.”

Levine, the Upper Manhattan Council member who spearheaded the right to counsel, said similarly.

"The root of all this evil is vacancy decontrol, which creates these perverse incentives to get tenants out,” he said of the law that allows landlords to hike rents when a unit becomes vacant.

“They’re all great,” Cea Weaver, policy director for left-wing activist group New York Communities for Change, said of city-level tenant protection efforts. But, she explained, “they’re all attempts to treat the symptoms of a weak rent regulation system.”

The current rent laws, Weaver said, contain loopholes that are “so wide that a truck can drive through it, part of a structure that “encourages and rewards” driving tenants out.

“If you really want to stop this,” she said of tenant harassment and rampant displacement, “we need to strengthen rent laws in Albany.”

Another shortcoming in the forces that govern rent in the state, according to Weaver, is that DHCR doesn’t verify that the necessary repairs have in fact have been made and mostly takes the landlord’s word for it, allowing landlords to raise the rent.

“They just rubber stamp landlords’ applications,” Weaver said.

Indeed, DHCR does not vouch for the veracity of rent history documents. “DHCR does not attest to the truthfulness of the owner’s statements or the legality of the rents reported in this document,” reads an “advisory note” on rent history papers.

ANHD’s Dulchin also commended city-level efforts, and like Weaver said the extent to which the city can improve matters on this front is limited, saying the de Blasio administration “has done a lot of new and creative things” to help stabilize tenants who are at risk of being pushed out.

“The Certificate of No Harassment legislation is an important one coming online,” he said just ahead of the program’s official launch. “There are a bunch of pretty important, and worthwhile things that this administration has done, but the real action is in Albany.”

For his part, the mayor agrees bolstering the state’s rent laws are central to better housing policy and are more impactful than other city-level efforts on the front. “It's the single biggest thing we can do to increase affordability,” de Blasio said Monday during his weekly NY1 appearance.

But according to Aaron Carr, founder of Housing Rights Initiative, while the City Council has done a good job on bolstering pro-tenant legislation, the mayor made a mistake in pursuing his affordable housing plan to build and preserve 300,000 below-market-rate units without first ensuring with greater intensity that existing rent-regulated units are preserved through stronger enforcement of the laws on the books.

“I think that the mayor made a catastrophic error in failing to overhaul our enforcement system prior to launching his $83 billion affordable housing plan,” he said in a phone interview, “because for every unit that's created through that plan, [a unit] is being removed by landlords like Lucy's.”  

In the absence of “proactive and effective” enforcement of existing laws, the city is forced to a situation in which it is “pursuing affordable housing on a sinking ship," Carr said.

Carr went on to say that, though it’s ultimately Governor Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility to reform rent regulations, the city has come up short in playing the role of the “field medic.”

“They’re supposed to be stopping the bleeding while Albany gets their stuff together,” he said.   

In a statement, a spokesperson for the mayor, Jane Meyer, said tenant protection is “a top priority for this Administration.”

“We have doubled down on our efforts to keep bad actors in check, and continue to develop new tools to protect New Yorkers,” she said. “The Tenant Anti-Harassment Unit, Speculation Watch List, Certification of No Harassment program, and a new Real Time Enforcement Unit at DOB are just some of the latest examples of our efforts.”

‘What I want to come out of this is a change’

Moving forward, Hunter says that in the near term, she would like the landlord to stop harassing the tenants and do his job properly by conducting basic, proper upkeep of the property.

“Medium term,” she said, “I would like our apartments rent-stabilized again.”

In addition to the practices at 431 Bleecker, through canvassing other properties Danenberg owns, she said the tenants of his other residential buildings face “dire conditions.”

“I would like see an attorney general investigation triggered,” Hunter added, “because I think this landlord is engaging in criminal activity that goes beyond this building.”

Carr said that the landlord’s “mob-like behavior” should trigger either a district attorney or attorney general investigation. It does just so happen that the most recent author of the city’s “Worst Landlords List,” Public Advocate Letitia James, is currently the Attorney General-elect, having won the office earlier this month while promising to crack down on bad landlords.

Burnett-Loucas said she hopes her efforts will play a part in taking a stand against bad-acting landlords. She made the case that it's incumbent on privileged newcomers with to neighborhoods to pay heed to what longtime residents face, and to work to hold unscrupulous landlords to account rather than jumping ship, which often isn’t a legitimate option for those at risk of being displaced.    

“I could have moved. I could have taken the easy road and been like, ‘You know what, this is way too much of a headache. I don’t want to deal with that,’” she said. “And that’s what most people do in these situations.”

“What I want to come out of this is a change, so that these white-collar criminals are actually held accountable for these disgusting practices, so that people who have been living in these communities for years, like Ermelinda, have a home and aren’t pushed out,” she added, referring to the last-remaining rent-stabilized tenant in the building. “Ermelinda could be your grandmother. Would you want your grandmother being harassed by some guy who has all the power and privilege, who owns all these buildings, who doesn’t give a s***?”

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Allegations of Tenant Harassment in Bushwick Spotlight Issues with City Enforcement, State Rent Laws Tue, 27 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Tenant Advocate Bill Met with Resistance http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6884-city-council-tenant-advocate-bill-met-with-resistance http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6884-city-council-tenant-advocate-bill-met-with-resistance Councilmember Helen Rosenthal

Council Member Helen Rosenthal (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


The City Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings on Wednesday heard more than a dozen bills that would enhance tenant protections and combat abuses by landlords. Among those proposals was one that would create a new ombudsman within the Department of Buildings whose responsibility would be to prioritize the welfare of tenants when property owners and builders apply for construction permits.

The bill, Intro. 1523, was introduced by Council Member Helen Rosenthal last month and heard for the first time Wednesday. It would create an Office of the Tenant Advocate, charged with approving and monitoring tenant protection and site safety plans submitted to the Department of Buildings for construction work on occupied multiple dwellings.

The OTA would receive and redress complaints from tenants and would be required to publish quarterly reports on its work, including data on the number of complaints received, time taken to respond to complaints, and the number of tenant protection and site safety plans reviewed.

Rosenthal, a Democrat from the Upper West Side, said the OTA is a crucial tool to fight tenant harassment by landlords, particularly those who may use legally approved construction work to continually hassle and drive out rent-stabilized tenants. “Dealing with building owners who operate unscrupulously can be a Sisyphean task,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview, “and having more eyes on the ball can only help. Having an office or deputy commissioner on equal footing with other deputy commissioners at DOB will allow tenant voices to be heard.”

But her bill received push back from the de Blasio administration as well as the real estate industry, both of which argue that the OTA would be redundant. “While we generally support the bills discussed at yesterday’s hearing, we’re concerned that this particular legislation would duplicate work the Department already performs,” said Joseph Soldevere, a DOB spokesperson, in an email.

Soldevere said the department’s experts thoroughly examine tenant-protection and site-safety plans and, along with other agencies like Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), have a “robust system” for responding to tenant complaints. DOB also partners with HPD and law enforcement agencies, Soldevere added, in a joint city-state Tenant Harassment Task Force which has conducted more than 2,000 inspections since 2016.

Council Member Stephen Levin, a Brooklyn Democrat, is a co-sponsor on Rosenthal’s bill. He criticized the DOB’s often-delayed response time to complaints, calling them “totally ineffective” and insisting that the raft of proposals, dubbed the “Stand For Tenant Safety” package, was essential. “It’s important that agencies coordinate their actions in working with tenants,” he said.

The Real Estate Board of New York, the trade association that represents more than 16,000 members, including developers, property owners, managers and brokers, filed a legislative memo with the City Council committee on Wednesday, stating its outright opposition to the OTA bill and generally to the larger package of proposals.

“The creation of the Office of the Tenant Advocate within DoB might be a worthy endeavor,” the REBNY memo reads, “if the Office is devoted not only to protecting the interests of the tenant during construction, but also to assisting tenants with their responsibilities during such times.” It goes on to argue, similar to the administration’s stance on the bill, that other units within the DOB already cover the office’s proposed duties. They also insist that the bill should drop any references to site safety plans which are “technical documents requiring high-level expertise and developed to safeguard the general public and workers on-site, not specifically tenants.”

For Rosenthal, those concerns aren’t unfounded and she said she’s not looking to duplicate efforts already underway. Rather, she wants to streamline existing resources and prioritize the city’s response to tenant concerns. “Simply organize it in a fashion that would be more supportive for people going through construction, where construction is used for harassment,” she said. “What I’m trying to do is level the playing field within the DOB so that a tenant’s voice is heard as well as a building owners.”

The broader package of bills addresses a number of issues, with proposals including oversight of contractors that work without a permit; added requirements for information in tenant protection plans; a safe construction bill of rights for tenants; a rebuttable presumption of harassment for certain landlord actions; increased civil penalties for harassment and enhanced definitions of acts that constitute harassment; among others.

The package is also keeping in line with the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s increased focus on tenant protections, including the recently agreed upon “Right to Counsel,” which provides free legal representation or advice to tenants facing eviction. The mayor has pointedly cited his anti-eviction and pro-tenant policies as a significant part of his overall agenda to combat the city’s record levels of homelessness and affordable housing crisis.

Kerri White, director of organizing and policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a tenant advocacy group, said the Office of Tenant Advocate would be a step towards addressing systemic issues that tenants face. “DOB still perceives each problem as its own island and that’s not the reality,” she said, emphasizing that the city needs a comprehensive approach that recognizes the larger context of tenant issues. She said HPD has in part embraced this need, after years of advocacy, but DOB lags behind. “Right now there’s no centralized person you can talk to,” she said. “You call 311 and put in complaints but those are not always effective.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Tenant Advocate Bill Met with Resistance Thu, 20 Apr 2017 22:04:05 +0000
Flushing’s Affordable Housing at Risk http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6311-flushing-s-affordable-housing-at-risk http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6311-flushing-s-affordable-housing-at-risk Flushing town hall


Last week, the New York City Council approved the contested East New York rezoning - the first of 15 proposed neighborhood rezonings through which Mayor de Blasio intends to advance his goal of preserving 120,000 units of affordable housing and producing 80,000 new units at below-market rents. Described by some as a rezoning taking place “under the radar,” the Department of City Planning (DCP) has been conducting a planning study and holding numerous community town halls on a ten-block area of Queens dubbed “Flushing West.”

This proposed rezoning would have a transformative impact on Flushing, a densely populated, pan-Asian immigrant neighborhood with a sizable Latino population and a small but historic African-American community. Although DCP recently postponed the April certification of the Flushing West rezoning plan (which would have initiated the uniform land use review procedure (ULURP), the plan continues to move forward and remains a key piece of the mayor’s controversial housing program.

As the rezoning of Flushing West moves forward, the existing affordable housing stock there is at risk.

After much public debate and protest, Mayor de Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) plan was approved by the New York City Council in March. MIH is a citywide policy that requires residential developers in newly upzoned areas to provide some below market-rate housing, either inside a new development or somewhere off site. As MIH (and the related Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) plan) moved through ULURP, communities contested the plan on numerous grounds: it would not build enough affordable housing; the affordable housing that would be built would be too expensive for those most in need; increased density would exacerbate transportation, education, and infrastructure problems; large new buildings would alter local streetscapes; and, most importantly, the plan would spur luxury development and hasten gentrification.

Relative to the vigorous and sustained public debate on these issues, there has been little public discussion on the ways that the city’s proposed rezonings are already impacting New York City’s largest form of affordable housing: rent regulation through rent control and rent stabilization.

Rent regulation accounts for nearly all of Flushing’s affordable housing. The neighborhood’s white-hot real estate market, however, increasingly threatens these rent-stabilized apartments.  DCP’s proposed rezoning - which links the production of affordable housing with the construction of thousands of luxury units - has only increased land speculation and, therefore, landlords’ imperative to deregulate their holdings. Though the rezoning has been paired with an increase in funding for anti-eviction legal services, it has already catalyzed a number of hyper-speculative real estate transactions in downtown Flushing, including within the rezoning area.

Based on the 2014 state Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) list of rent-regulated buildings, there are 388 rent-stabilized buildings in Flushing. This list, however, includes buildings that have partially converted to co-ops, meaning some units are owned by residents. Conversion of rental buildings to cooperatives requires a minimum of 15 percent of tenants opting to purchase their apartments. DHCR lists properties as rent stabilized as long as there is at least one rent-stabilized unit in the building.

Based on a review of city Department of Finance sales data, 81 buildings, including five that converted to cooperative in the past year or so, recorded 1,198 apartment sales since 2010. In addition to the hundreds of co-op sales in rent-stabilized buildings, 42 buildings (with a combined total of 1,800 rent-stabilized apartments) were also sold during the study period of 2010 to January 2016. The sold buildings represent a sizable 11 percent of all of Flushing’s rent-stabilized buildings.

In December 2015, a massive sale of eight rent-stabilized buildings, all but one located a few blocks from Flushing’s waterfront, was covered by Crain’s New York Business. These rent-stabilized buildings, comprising 488 apartments, are clustered on Flushing’s Sanford Avenue and were sold to an investor group represented by New Jersey-based Treetop Development LLC. ACORE, a California-based investment fund established in May 2015 - only a few months before the Sanford Avenue purchases - financed the hefty $138.8 million purchase. ACORE is capitalized by a $1.6 billion commitment from Delphi Financial Group Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Tokio Marine Group, Japan’s largest publicly traded insurer.  The purchase of seven Sanford Avenue rent-stabilized buildings, financed by transnational private equity investors, illustrates how multi-family, rental properties in the outer boroughs are treated as global investment vehicles with tremendous potential profits.

In order for those profits to be realized, however, rents will have to increase substantially, and in all likelihood, the apartments will be deregulated. Although Treetop Development LLC principal Adam Mermelstein reassured, “We’re not running after tenants like some landlords do, trying to induce turnover on the apartments to get them to market rate,” their $10 million investment in “an intensive capital expenditures program” portends displacement. Treetop Development LLC plans to renovate apartments and landscape gardens in order to “remake the Flushing Portfolio into one of the premier residential addresses in Flushing, Queens.” This rebranding language underscores that so-called “major capital improvements” in rent-stabilized buildings are a primary landlord strategy to permanently raise rents and facilitate tenant turnover.

This speculative activity is not confined to privately-owned buildings. Queens College students learned from a local resident that tenants were recently evicted from 132-30 Sanford Avenue. This building is listed on two real estate websites as for sale, with one site noting that the building is currently under contract. Further research indicated the building is owned by one of Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE)’s tax-exempt organizations - Community Homes Housing Development Fund Company Inc. According to the building’s deed, AAFE purchased the building in 2008 for $3.5 million. Online realtor descriptions highlight the gap in current and potential rent revenues as a key selling point: “The average monthly rent is $1,023 month, approx. 76% of the current market value, offering tremendous upside potential.” The building is now selling for $9.8 million - a 180 percent increase in just eight years.

In October 2015, DCP completed a Draft Scope of Work for an Environmental Impact Statement, which identified 13 projected development sites and included a breakdown of anticipated outcomes based on the proposed upzoning. On these 13 sites, DCP expects the production of 2,062 residential units (excluding 1,254 units of luxury housing currently under construction at Sky View Parc) of which 516 would be affordable to households earning 60 percent of AMI ($54,360 annual income for a family of four) or 619 units affordable to households earning 80 percent AMI ($69,040 annual income for a family of four).

DCP’s Draft Scope of Work was completed before the City Council added the option of 20 percent of units affordable at 40 percent AMI, which would mean the Flushing West rezoning may result in 412 units affordable to a family of four with an annual income of $36,240. The Flushing Rezoning Community Alliance, a coalition of nonprofits, unions, and churches, fought hard for this option because the median household income for downtown Flushing residents is just $34,428. The final Flushing plan may also include additional HPD subsidies toward deeper affordability, but the extent, quantity, and longevity of those subsidies is yet to be determined.

With Flushing’s remaining rent-regulated apartments at stake, it is important to look at the balance of what is being offered now: the proposed rezoning will produce thousands of market-rate, luxury housing units; a mere 412 apartments will be affordable to average Flushing residents (and then only if the local City Council member and developers choose the newly added option); and nothing at all will be built for families making below-median wages.

The neighborhood’s wholesale transformation, which has already begun in expectation of an upzoning, would sweep rent-regulated housing up in its wake and trigger even more harassment, rent hikes, and evictions than the neighborhood has already seen. This scenario demonstrates that Mayor de Blasio’s MIH program is less about preserving neighborhood affordability than turning working-class spaces into luxury enclaves, with small pockets for the middle class.

In Flushing’s overheated real estate market, where even nonprofits enrich themselves by selling rent-stabilized buildings for enormous profits, this planned rezoning is already adding fuel to fires of gentrification and displacement. The addition of a few hundred units of affordable housing could not possibly stem the transformative effects of global finance and commercial real estate speculation, and the preservation program the city is currently pursuing will do little to protect rent-regulated apartments.

City planners must stop acting as if the negative consequences of upzonings on rent-regulated housing will be mitigated by the paltry provision of new quasi-affordable units, or by increased investments in legal services (though the latter are, of course, important). Instead, we need to prioritize the preservation of rent-stabilized apartments and the production of truly affordable housing, decoupled from market-rate development and its attendant impacts on neighborhood land markets.

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Tarry Hum is a Professor at the City University of New York and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn's Sunset Park.

Samuel Stein is a PhD student in Geography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Flushing’s Affordable Housing at Risk Sun, 01 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Wary of Gentrification, East Harlem Braces for Rapid Change http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6253-wary-of-gentrification-east-harlem-braces-for-rapid-change http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6253-wary-of-gentrification-east-harlem-braces-for-rapid-change east harlem mural

Hank Prussing's mural, The Spirit of East Harlem (via @ManhattanCB11)


Pearl Barkley moved to East Harlem in the 1950s, when she was six years old. Her family lived in the Jefferson Houses on 115th Street, where she lives today and works as an organizer with Community Voices Heard, an economic justice advocacy non-profit.

“Many people remember the fires, the abandoned boarded up buildings, and the people who left,” Barkley said in an interview. Essential services began disappearing from the neighborhood in the 1970s, she said, due in large part to city and federal policies that encouraged “benign neglect” of poor neighborhoods of color.

“They left the neighborhood to fend for itself,” Barkley said. “And the community was strong, but it suffered.”

“Now, East Harlem is a hot property,” Barkley said. “We have to bring the focus back to the people who were originally here and went through all of this. We have to make sure that the people who were here can stay here.” While she doesn’t necessarily take issue with newcomers to the neighborhood, Barkley emphasizes that preserving homes for long-term residents of the neighborhood should take precedent over new developments.

Newcomers have been moving into East Harlem for some time, drawn by its upper-Manhattan perch, lower rents, and access to public transit. But now, El Barrio - like a variety of other low-income areas populated predominantly by people of color - is becoming increasingly desirable to developers hoping to accommodate waves of middle-class renters.

In February, The New York Times named East Harlem one of New York’s Next Hot Neighborhoods, noting that 21 development sites had recently “traded hands,” and pointing to its lower-than-average real estate prices, good transit options, and historic architecture.

“If you want to stay in Manhattan,” the author wrote, “East Harlem may be your best bet.”

To long-term residents who want to stay in their neighborhoods, this kind of attention from the real estate market is synonymous with anxieties about inequity, marginalization, and displacement. And rightly so, as rents have skyrocketed across the city, incomes have stagnated, and the affordable housing crisis tops the list of policy issues facing New York City.

Now, as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration prepares to rezone 15 neighborhoods, including East Harlem, as part of a plan to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in New York City, residents are bracing for further shifts that some believe will drastically change the landscape of their neighborhood, push long-term residents out of their homes as new residents move in, and threaten local businesses. In a word, gentrification: the force that has been sweeping through New York City neighborhoods and striking fear in places set for new investment.

Even as policies like Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, which requires set percentages of rent-controlled units in new developments, move toward enactment in an administration-run rezoning process, some East Harlem stakeholders are making proactive attempts at steering their community’s future. Led by the Speaker of the City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose home district includes East Harlem, a broad coalition of residents and groups created a comprehensive plan to shape the rezoning of the neighborhood.

Members of that coalition and other groups have organized to protect against displacement while also championing changes that will improve their community.

It remains to be seen how successful residents will be in achieving control over the way their neighborhood changes -- and who will be left to enjoy the fruits of that labor. But one thing is certain: East Harlem - a low-income community populated primarily by people of color, imbued with deep-rooted history and culture, situated in an area ripe for speculation by developers, struggling amid an affordable housing crisis -- is at a tipping point.

Community character
The neighborhood of just over 123,000 residents hugs the northeast corner of Central Park along Fifth Avenue, runs South until 96th Street, and spreads east toward the Harlem and East Rivers, where large portions of the East Harlem Esplanade are crumbling into the water.

East Harlem is one of the largest predominantly Latino neighborhoods in New York City, the result of waves of Puerto Rican and Latin American immigration to the area after World War I, followed by more South and Central American arrivals throughout the 20th century. In spite of demographic changes over the last decade, East Harlem is still mostly populated by people of color and an immigrant neighborhood, with Hispanic and black residents comprising 81 percent of the population, and about a quarter of residents foreign-born, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2013.

The dominant culture is reflected everywhere: Spanish is spoken on every corner, storefronts advertise Latin American food, music, and good, and large-scale, colorful murals pervade the neighborhood with images of Latin American activists and artists.

It is no coincidence that this is where Mark-Viverito, born and raised in Puerto Rico, settled after coming to the United States in 1987 to attend Columbia University. After college, Mark-Viverito participated in a mentorship program for young Latinos, coordinated New York-based efforts to drive the U.S. Navy from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, co-founded women’s economic justice group Mujeres del Barrio, and served on Community Board 11. Mark-Viverito was elected to the City Council in 2005, and re-elected twice before becoming the first Puerto Rican and Latina to win the Speaker’s office when her colleagues selected her in 2014.

The Speaker is now at the helm of a City Council reckoning with an affordable housing crisis and scars and fears of gentrification across several neighborhoods; charged with the task of building and preserving affordable housing and improving neighborhoods while protecting communities’ cultures and livelihoods at a pivotal time. It is a struggle filled with economic and social tensions exemplified in East Harlem.

MMV shaking hands distrit“It’s an ongoing battle,” the speaker (pictured, left) told La Respuesta in a 2014 interview. “Longtime residents in our communities that are finding themselves with limited options to stay, and feel they have no other place to go and are being displaced, is obviously alarming. We have a responsibility to do as much as we can to try to figure out how to stem that tide, but we’re also faced with limitations.”

East Harlem’s history as a stronghold of people of color and immigrants follows the arc of many other urban communities throughout the U.S. The neighborhood first felt the impact of urban renewal initiatives in 1938, when NYCHA began razing low-rise tenements and relocating residents to make way for “towers-in-the-park” housing developments also seen in larger examples at Stuyvesant Town and Co-op City. The city cleared more land containing factories, stores, and community centers in the 1960s, but failed to attract investors to the area. The result was an abundance of overgrown lots and a fragmented urban landscape that set the scene for the increase in poverty, violence, and arson that plagued the neighborhood during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

These policies, Pearl Barkley said, along with growing wealth disparity and disenfranchisement of low-income people of color, pushed East Harlem - its residents, infrastructure, and local economy - into the political periphery, and dramatically exacerbated socioeconomic problems that plagued the neighborhood throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Housing East Harlemites
Today, a lack of affordable market-rate housing all but defines the residential landscape of East Harlem, where the majority of residents rely on public housing, rental assistance, or rent stabilization to afford their homes. A 2011 report from Columbia University calls East Harlem one of the “last holdouts of undeveloped Manhattan,” citing its waterfront and public transit options as contributors to the neighborhood’s growing vulnerability to displacement. These factors, combined with the voracity of the real estate market and a concentration of low-income residents, have cranked up pressure on the housing stock in El Barrio, driving rents - and fears of displacement - ever higher.

Enter Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to encourage more residential development all over the city, with affordable housing mandates, and to rezone East Harlem to add density and neighborhood improvements. De Blasio and supporters of his approach, including Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, believe that without this type of government intervention, the forces of the market will run wild over East Harlem as they have in Central Harlem, several Brooklyn neighborhoods, and elsewhere over the past two decades. With any increase in development, though, comes heightened fear as well as very real change.

Not enough housing, not enough income
With only 8 percent of privately-owned units owner-occupied, East Harlem is a community of renters. And, over half of rental households are considered rent-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of total household income on gross rent, or severely rent-burdened, paying more than 50 percent of income on rent, and are particularly susceptible to the throes of the real estate market.

The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the Census Bureau reported in 2014 that 55 percent of rental units in East Harlem were either rent-stabilized or government-assisted, and another 28 percent are NYCHA units, leaving less than a quarter of the renter-occupied housing stock unregulated.

While there is still a considerable concentration of regulated and subsidized units in East Harlem, this cache is shrinking as units age out of rent regulation and landlords evict or coerce tenants into vacating stabilized apartments in order to raise rents.

The loss is considerable, with 2,500 rent-stabilized or subsidized units disappearing from East Harlem between 2007 and 2014, and a projected 4,200 more gone by 2030, according to Community Board 11’s 2016 Statement of Needs.

The mayor hopes to curb the loss of such regulated rental units through his Housing New York Plan, which seeks to preserve 120,000 existing affordable units throughout the five boroughs. To this end, the administration has doubled HPD’s funding and begun initiatives around landlord harassment, deregulation, and targeted investment in vulnerable communities, among others. The administration is more aggressively targeting opportunities to work with landlords to offer benefits in exchange for extending rent regulations.

De Blasio said at a press conference in January that the administration is ahead of schedule, having preserved nearly 14,000 units in projects like Stuyvesant Town, Riverton Houses, and smaller buildings, and that the overall program was on track to build or preserve 200,000 units by 2024.

While critics of the plan assert that not enough affordable units are targeted at very low-income New Yorkers, de Blasio said that 75 percent of the 40,000-plus units built or preserved over the first two years of the timeline have been for extremely low income, very low income, and low income residents.

Concentrated public housing
The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) plays a vital role in maintaining a large portion of East Harlem’s affordable housing stock, with 30% of residents living in NYCHA-owned properties. This is the second-highest concentration of public housing in the city - a result of urban renewal initiatives begun in 1941, when one of NYCHA’s earliest housing developments, the East River Houses, went up on 102nd Street. Another wave of renewal, led by Robert Moses and funded by the 1949 Federal Housing Act, razed existing structures and constructed the Thomas Jefferson Houses in 1959. Today, there are 24 public housing developments in the neighborhood.  

Over the last two decades, federal and state budget cuts have weakened NYCHA, leaving the agency with a $74 million deficit in 2015, and facing capital needs of about $17 billion over the next five years, according to the city. This shortfall has resulted in crumbling buildings, breakdowns in communication between tenants and the agency, increased violence in housing developments, and myriad other problems.

Mayor de Blasio launched last summer the NextGeneration NYCHA initiative as part of a “ten-year plan aimed at preserving public housing for the future generations,” according to the city’s website. The administration describes NextGen as a long-term strategy to change the way NYCHA properties are funded, operated, and designed, and to revamp the way the agency engages with residents - all in an attempt to prevent the housing authority from being turned over to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development - an acquisition that could result in the sale of housing sites.

The most controversial aspect of NextGen NYCHA is a plan in which underutilized land within NYCHA developments will either be leased for housing development, with buildings half market-rate and half affordable. Opponents say that the plan too-closely resembles former Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt at infill on NYCHA land, which de Blasio vehemently opposed, and a step on the path to privatizing what is now public housing.

NYCHA CEO and Chair Shola Olatoye told City Limits in May 2015 that building affordable housing on NYCHA land is a way to reconnect public developments to surrounding neighborhoods.

"Residents want improved playgrounds, basketball courts, things we do not receive funding for. One way I can deliver on that is to maximize revenue from development,” she said. "If people want their development to improve, they have to be flexible about what kinds of changes they're willing to accept."

De Blasio said at the program’s launch that it would result in the construction of 10,000 new affordable units on NYCHA land. If the plan succeeds, it will eliminate NYCHA’s crippling operating deficit. The city’s argument is that this strategy will add affordable housing, new revenue, and community improvements.

The first NextGen project in East Harlem led to the opening last fall of the East Harlem Center for Living and Learning, which occupies a parking lot once owned by NYCHA. The project includes an eleven-story residential building containing 100% subsidized units. The New York Times reported in January that the development serves a “mix of working and disabled tenants, many from the neighborhood.” The building connects to the new Dream Charter School, which serves almost 500 students.

While the Times reported “overwhelmingly positive reactions” to the Center, it remains to be seen whether similar “infill” initiatives will be welcomed by other NYCHA residents wary of privatization and gentrification - or if the program will even produce enough revenue to bolster the floundering agency. Olatoye told the City Council on Monday that while its financial situation is improving, NYCHA is still tens of millions of dollars in the red, but is hoping that programs like NextGen will ease the burden.

“With NextGen, we can reduce NYCHA’s deficit by a total of more than $1 billion over the next five years,” Olatoye told the Council.

Space to use
The East Harlem housing shortage is exacerbated by vacancy of both city- and privately-owned properties, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer and area organizations.

Stringer and HPD Commissioner Vicki Been traded barbs in February over a comptroller report indicating that, as of September of 2015, HPD owned 1,131 uninhabited lots throughout Manhattan, and chiding the city agency for what Stringer called a lax pace of transference for properties that should be developed into affordable housing. Stringer held a press conference for the report’s release outside of an HPD-owned vacant property on East 123 Street, one of over 50 vacant properties the comptroller’s office found in East Harlem.

“This vacant lot has been owned by the city since the seventies, collecting garbage, attracting rats, and hurting the proud community of El Barrio,” Stringer said at the press conference. “We’re in an affordability crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen – yet our most valuable resource, vacant space, is readily available all across this city.”

Stringer was joined at the conference by members of Picture the Homeless, an advocacy organization based on East 126 Street that has long campaigned for turning vacant lots into affordable housing sites.

The organization released its own report in 2012, for which teams of homeless and formerly homeless PTH members and other volunteers scoured Manhattan neighborhoods in search of vacant buildings and lots. They identified 143 empty lots and buildings in East Harlem, and highlighted a block of East 116th Street between Lexington and Park as an example of the problem: nearly half the buildings were empty or boarded up. About 95 percent of all vacant properties surveyed were privately owned.

Commissioner Been’s rebuttal, which was included in Stringer’s report, emphatically denied the comptroller’s findings.

"Your assertion that HPD allows vacant City-owned properties to languish in the face of the affordable housing crisis is simply wrong,” Been wrote.

Been went on to clarify that residential development is only feasible on about 670 of the 1,100 properties; the rest are unsuitable due to location in dangerous areas like flood zones, or lack adequate access to public transportation or sewage infrastructure. Of those 670 viable sites, Been wrote, “roughly 400 have been earmarked for developer designation within the next two years.”

The remaining sites will either be developed for residential uses within the duration of de Blasio’s 10-year housing plan or turned over to the Department of Parks and Recreation for use as community gardens.

An acute homelessness problem
For those who have managed to hold on to housing, the rent - as in the rest of New York City - is going up. East Harlem’s median gross rent increased by 53 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to the American Community Survey (ACS) 5-Year Estimates for 2013.

The data combine to paint a bleak picture for low-income residents of El Barrio. As of 2013, over a quarter of East Harlem households were considered in “severe need” by HPD, based on the number of people who are rent burdened, entering homeless shelters, or living in overcrowded apartments.

This grim combination appears to hit East Harlem residents particularly hard, resulting in the worst case scenario for a number of households. According to data from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), 306 families entering shelters in 2014 listed East Harlem as their last address - the highest rate of entry to family shelters from any neighborhood in Manhattan.

Jazmin Berges, 32, has been living in Marcus Garvey Park for the past three years. Berges was born and raised in the Bronx, but moved to East Harlem with a partner. When that relationship ended, she was unable to find housing that she could afford.

“Rent is going sky-high in the neighborhood,” Berges told Gotham Gazette. “The community is being restructured, small businesses are closing, and people who lose their jobs can’t afford their rents.”

Berges, who works with Picture the Homeless, believes that rent regulation doesn’t go far enough, and emphasized that a community land trust - a not-for-profit entity that acquires and holds property to preserve accessible housing - is the only way to keep permanent affordable housing in East Harlem. “Even low-income housing isn’t low-income housing,” Berges said.

New land use rules come to East Harlem
It is unsurprising that East Harlem was included on the list of 15 neighborhoods to be rezoned under Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan. The plan targets lower-density and low-income areas where demand is or is soon expected to be strong enough to support new development. Over several years, beginning this year with East New York, in Brooklyn, the administration plans to rezone the 15 neighborhoods to allow for more density and neighborhood improvement through more green space, school seats, and transportation infrastructure. The big centerpiece, of course, is housing.

Essentially, the city’s plans mandate that any area rezoned to allow greater housing density - neighborhood or individual plot of land - will require significant numbers of affordable units as part of market-rate development.

The New York City Council overwhelmingly voted in favor of the two major components of the plan that the neighborhood rezonings rely on - Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) - on March 22. The passage was a considerable victory for the administration after months of pushback and protest from community boards and advocacy groups, and negotiations with the City Council to modify the plan to include more affordability and a few other tweaks.

According to the plan, which was changed to include more units affordable to lower-income households, MIH requires that developers who build residential units in rezoned areas set aside 20-30% of new units as permanently affordable for households making 40-80% of the Area Median Income, or AMI. Under MIH, there are a variety of options that will be chosen by City Council members, developers, and the mayoral administration. ZQA, which stirred less broad controversy than MIH, focused on changing parking requirements and height limits to encourage more senior affordable housing, improve retail space design, and streetscape planning.

Mayor de Blasio said in a statement after the vote, “New York City is now one step closer to being a city where everyone can work and live,” and thanked Speaker Mark-Viverito for her efforts in passing the “landmark legislation.”

City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod said at a hearing on MIH in February that the program “will bring new affordable housing to neighborhoods where it otherwise wouldn’t be built, and act as a cushion against potential gentrification of communities caused by broad demographic trends we are seeing in so many neighborhoods, simultaneously freeing up city funds to provide even more deeply affordable housing at lower rents where economic need is great.”  

Some opponents of MIH see a flaw in that what the plan defines as “affordable” does not include the lowest-income residents in what are now largely low-income neighborhoods.

Affordability levels are determined by the area median income of the five boroughs, plus Putnam, Westchester, and Rockland Counties, which comes out to about $77,700 for a three-person household. The AMI for East Harlem is $33,595, or less than half (43%) of the figure that serves as a baseline for affordability calculations.

MIH mandates that a percentage of affordable units built in rezoned neighborhoods must be affordable to households of certain earnings - for example, one option sets aside 20% of units for those earning an average of 40% of AMI, or about $31,00 for a family of three. This is the lowest income band option in MIH, and one that the Council insisted on adding to the de Blasio administration’s initial proposal. Households in East Harlem’s poorest zip code, 10035, earn an AMI of just $24,000, which critics say puts new affordable units out of reach.

The mayor, the speaker, and HPD Commissioner Vicki Been have stated often that a combination of HPD subsidies and other housing programs will address the gap of affordability for the lowest-income New Yorkers. This is where the neighborhood rezonings also factor in. Mark-Viverito has said repeatedly that she plans to get to 50-50 market rate-affordable for new development in her district.

Community Board 11, which represents East Harlem joined 43 other community boards across the city in voting against de Blasio’s proposal on November 23 of last year.

"But in the end," the mayor said at a press conference in November, "the community boards aren't the final decision makers.”

READ ON - PAGE 2 of 2 - How East Harlemites are attempting to shape the future of their neighborhood and more

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Wary of Gentrification, East Harlem Braces for Rapid Change Thu, 31 Mar 2016 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Housing Chief Looks to Allay Fears, Build Support for Rezonings http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5988-de-blasio-housing-chief-looks-to-allay-fears-build-support-for-rezonings http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5988-de-blasio-housing-chief-looks-to-allay-fears-build-support-for-rezonings Been NY Law School

New York Law School's Ross Sandler & HPD's Vicki Been (Phoebe Rosen for NYLS)


Vicki Been, commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said that the city’s affordable housing plan is on track and responded to critics on Friday, emphasizing that the plan is less about simply building units and more about “making neighborhoods better.”

Speaking at a breakfast hosted by the CityLand publication of New York Law School, Been gave a balanced, thorough review of the concerns people have expressed about the city’s rezoning plans, but said that the city, through HPD, is implementing policies that will prevent displacement and ensure existing residents are included as neighborhoods change.

Nearly two years into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term, his ten-year Housing New York plan to preserve or build 200,000 units of affordable housing is on target, Been declared, with the city having closed on more than 30,000 affordable homes. But two key elements of the plan, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, have run into community opposition in recent months as the city begins the public review process that is likely to lead to their passage through the City Council, potentially with a few tweaks.

At a community meeting last month in East New York, Assembly Member Charles Barron and City Council Member Inez Barron urged residents to vote against a proposal to rezone the neighborhood, according to DNAinfo. The two said that while the new units built may be designated “affordable,” they may not actually be affordable to existing residents. This concern, among several specific problems that critics point to with the plans, has been voiced in other neighborhoods as well. An extensive borough- and community-based review of the proposals is underway, with varying results thus far as local community boards vote in non-determinative polls.

Community boards have thus far had mixed responses to the proposed Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability plans. While Brooklyn’s CB6 approved the proposals this week, Brooklyn’s CB3 and Queens’ CB2 rejected the same proposals earlier this month. Residents in Brooklyn’s CB3, which includes Bedford-Stuyvesant, said they were concerned about the plan allowing taller buildings to be built, changing the neighborhood’s character, and eventually forcing them to move out of the area.

More borough- and community-based hearings are upcoming, including one being held by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer on Monday evening, and City Council hearings are not far off.

The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan would require 25 to 30 percent of new units built in a rezoned area to be “permanently affordable,” while the Zoning for Quality and Affordability plan would change existing zoning laws to promote the construction of more affordable and higher quality buildings.

During an appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday, Mayor de Blasio said his zoning plans are informed by what he saw as a lack of city regulation and planning in places like Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Been said that all such plans are controversial because current residents fear they could be displaced - that gentrification is scary to many in and near neighborhoods that have been changing over the years. But Been also said the East New York plan, which aims to provide more than 3,000 units of affordable housing and improve transport and business corridors, was something the city should be doing more of. She also said that rezonings don’t actually lead to more flight from neighborhoods by low-income tenants than is a typical amount of transience.

Speaking to Gotham Gazette after the event, Been said that while she would like the rezoning plans to be more widely accepted, “we would like to get it passed, and we’re very optimistic.”

She had a similarly optimistic response to a question from the audience about the future of the 421-a tax abatement, which will expire in December if it is not renewed given a deal between labor and real estate. “Life will go on,” Been said to chuckles from the crowd. “There was life before 421-a, and there will be life if 421-a fails. We will survive and still deliver our 200,000 units.”

Still, Been indicated she would like to see 421-a survive and that it, in a newly strengthened form, will be helpful in achieving the administration’s goals.

Either way, the administration’s rezoning plans are moving along. East New York is among the first neighborhoods the city plans to rezone, along with East Harlem and Flushing, among others. Some East Harlem tenants recently announced their own opposition to the plans. During her speech Friday, Been showed a presentation that included current photos of streets in East New York and future renderings that showed new, six-story apartment buildings with street-level retail space.

Been said that while change is inevitable when investments are made in a neighborhood, the city’s approach will address concerns about displacement and gentrification while she also highlighted the positives that come with community development.

“If we’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a neighborhood, we’re doing it to make the neighborhood a bit better. We want it to be a more vibrant place…So as it gets better, it will become more desirable,” Been said. While low-income people face a lot of housing insecurity across the board, she said that recent research shows that renters are not moving out of gentrifying neighborhoods at higher rates. Still, she acknowledged that “whatever the research shows, people fear displacement and they fear displacement for perfectly legitimate reasons.”

Been pointed to a variety of policies included in the Housing New York plan that are aimed at preventing displacement. Most importantly, she said that the city will “double down” on efforts and take a data-driven approach to preserve existing affordable units. “We can’t let any unit of housing that is already affordable become market rate,” she said, noting that de Blasio’s plan promises to preserve at least 120,000 homes that would otherwise become market rate.

Been also mentioned efforts in reaching out to owners of small buildings to preserve or establish affordability, providing legal assistance to protect tenants from harassment, changing vacancy decontrol laws, and establishing community preferences for distributing the new housing stock.

“We’re really working hard to make sure that people in the neighborhoods and the lowest income people do get into the housing we’re building,” she said.

Been also noted that Housing New York plans include families earning as little as 30 percent of area median income (AMI)—or $15,000 for single households. “We are stretching our housing boat down and a little up, so that we provide economically diverse neighborhoods and do not concentrate poverty,” she said. While some new buildings will be 100 percent affordable, many others will be mixed levels of affordability, with some units renting at market rate.

Providing housing for those earning below 30 percent of AMI would be too expensive using the same approach, Been said, noting that the city has historically relied on the federal Department of Housing Urban Development’s Section 8 voucher program, funding for which has been cut in recent years. “That’s why we’re struggling so hard to provide housing below the 30 percent level,” she said in response to a question from an audience member.

The affordable housing plan is “formed with the basic belief that we have to shape development instead of react to it,” she said. “Too much of the discourse is about stopping development. You don’t stop development in a city like New York…Let’s shape it to serve the interests of the neighborhoods across the city.”

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by Christian Zhang, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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De Blasio Housing Chief Looks to Allay Fears, Build Support for Rezonings Fri, 13 Nov 2015 21:47:43 +0000