Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1869 Sat, 15 Dec 2018 20:48:18 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Panel Previews 2019 Rent Regulation Discussion in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8118-panel-previews-2019-rent-regulation-discussion-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8118-panel-previews-2019-rent-regulation-discussion-in-albany rent reg agen

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

One of the most contentious issues on the 2019 docket in Albany will be the expiring rent regulations that apply to roughly 1 million apartments in New York City and determine several ways in which rents are capped and when and by how much landlords are allowed to increase rents or remove a unit from the regulated rolls. While the regulations are set to expire in June, it is widely expected that they will be extended, the main question is what exactly they will look like, and whether the fact that Democrats are set to control both the governor’s office and both chambers of the state Legislature will mean sweeping changes that benefit tenants.

Though that debate is certain to heat up when Governor Andrew Cuomo gives his State of the State address and the legislative session begins in the new year, a lot of discussion is already happening. On Tuesday, the New York Housing Conference hosted a panel discussion with key stakeholders in the rent regulations debate: State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat; Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz, a Brooklyn Democrat; John Banks, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York; and Thomas McMahon, principal of consultancy TLM Associates. The hour-long discussion, which largely focused on rent regulations, but also touched more generally on housing development, was moderated by Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max.

“The Senate Democrats will be heavily focused on ensuring an improvement and strengthening of tenant protections in our rent regulation system,” Krueger said at the event, signaling that her new majority conference is looking forward to working with an Assembly majority that has held rent regulations as a top priority for many years.

Housing was one of the most prominent issues of the recent elections in New York, with the broad and ever-present issue of affordability talked about all over the state, some state Senate candidates in New York City running campaigns largely focused on rent regulations, and public housing crises popping up throughout. A slate of progressive Democratic reformers were swept into the state Senate on the promise of, among other things, reforming rent laws such as vacancy decontrol and how major capital improvements are assessed, and many candidates rejected campaign contributions from real estate developers. Those Democrats now join other state senators who will take over the majority from Republicans who were especially close with large real estate interests, and plan to team with Assembly Democrats who have been looking to strengthen rent regulations on behalf of tenants for years.

As legislators, negotiating with the governor, look to reform rent regulations and get the new formula right, there are certain to be complicated discussions, as members of Tuesday’s panel made clear. Stakeholders, from activists to developers, tenants to landlords, legislators to bureaucrats, will want their say in how new laws will be shaped. The state’s rent regulation laws are set to expire in June, two months after the state budget is due. Working rent reforms into the budget would provide faster resolution and may offer an opportunity for broader horse-trading as often happens in Albany, but a rushed job could also potentially leave open loopholes or fail to adequately address the issue.

To the potential chagrin of some, the panelists advocated a slow and steady process instead of immediate legislative reform, while hitting on a variety of specifics that must be considered.

“We will move slowly,” said Cymbrowitz, the Assembly housing committee chair, after Banks, the head of the city’s most powerful real estate lobby, advocated the same. “We will not just throw legislation, take them out of committee and just put them on the floor. We will have discussions with our partners, we will talk about it, and if there has to be changes to existing legislation, we’ll look at that as well.”

The Assembly has passed rent reforms such as repeal of vacancy decontrol, which allows apartments to be removed from rent regulation, on several occasions, but the Senate has been opposed. Krueger said that while the new majority with many new members that she will be a part of has not held a conference she believes the Senate Democrats will be “very open” to repealing vacancy decontrol. Governor Cuomo, who has close ties to real estate, recently said on WNYC radio that if a vacancy decontrol repeal bill passed the Legislature, he would sign it into law.

Vacancy decontrol, vacancy bonuses, preferential rent, the Urstadt Law preventing New York City from controlling its own rent laws, and the way landlords can account for major capital improvements (MCIs) are just some of the policies that could be on the table in 2019. Advocates who want to do away with or drastically modify vacancy bonuses, vacancy decontrol, and how MCIs can be passed on to tenants argue that they will protect tenants in rent regulated apartments from abusive practices by landlords and will protect the city’s rent regulated housing stock, which has diminished significantly in recent decades.

After Senator Krueger said that her conference will be focused on strengthening tenant protections, she later added that vacancy decontrol would definitely be taken up, and singled out MCIs in particular as well.

“People are not saying end MCIs, we’re saying end the ridiculous system where if you put in for an MCI, you get to get paid back for it forever by adding it onto the rents and inflation-adjusting it forever, when on average you’re getting your full money back in seven years,” Krueger said.

For Banks, whose organization is made up of and lobbies on behalf of the city’s largest real estate developers and landlords, reforms pose a fundamental threat to the industry’s ability to do business, and to the availability of good and abundant housing in the city. He argued that vacancy decontrol, wherein an apartment leaves regulation after rent passes a certain threshold, is a tool to subsidize regulated units.

“At a fundamental level, rent regulations affect the amount of money that can go into a building, the revenue streams that go into supporting a building,” Banks said. “If those numbers are not sufficient to support the construction and maintenance of the building, then it will further chill production. It will limit people’s incentive to create additional supply.”

“We shouldn’t vilify the entirety of a segment of our economy that is as important to New York City and New York State as the real estate industry is,” he said.

Banks, as well as the other panelists, also singled out the city’s property tax system as a culprit in the increasing unaffordability of housing. A commission jointly empaneled by the mayor and City Council is currently working to discuss potential reforms to the property tax system, and City Comptroller Scott Stringer introduced a housing proposal last week to fundamentally alter the city’s real estate tax scheme. Whatever the city commission puts forth will have to then be dealt with in Albany -- like with rent regulations, the city has limited powers over its own affairs with regard to taxes, though property taxes are one area the city has significant leeway.

“It is so complicated, it is so obtuse, and there are layers upon layers of abatements and other incentives to try to get to the fundamental problem, which is it doesn’t reflect the policy realities,” Banks said, also referring to the system as “broken” and specifically calling out Class 2 property taxes, the owners of which he characterized as shouldering the greatest tax burden.

McMahon, who worked in government for decades before moving to the private sector, argued that the property tax reform commission could be used as an opportunity to help vulnerable New Yorkers.

“Should we be looking at using property tax reform to supplement low-income tenants?” he asked. “I think it’s a conversation that could be had. So it’s important that the budget be cognizant of the need to extend this program.”

On the issue of public housing, both Krueger and Cymbrowitz lent their support to using Rental Assistance Demonstration, which Mayor de Blasio recently announced would be expanded to dozens of developments throughout the city and leverages both federal vouchers and private funding to allow private companies to manage NYCHA properties, providing additional sources of revenue for housing authority developments and key upgrades to the deteriorating housing stock.

“The RAD model seems to be working very effectively in other parts of the country and the state,” Krueger said. She clarified her remarks by noting that she is not in favor of privatization of NYCHA, which some say RAD effectively does, or at least is a gateway toward.

Krueger also didn’t outright dismiss the idea of building on unused NYCHA land, a controversial process known as “infill,” but argued that the balance of market-rate and affordable units needed to be carefully found, noting that she has a development in her district where a building is being built that will be 50 percent market rate and 50 percent affordable.

Cymbrowitz talked about using NYCHA land to build senior affordable housing, but acknowledged that more senior and other affordable housing means less revenue being brought in by infill for NYCHA’s tens of billions of dollars in needs.

But Krueger also cautioned about how infill developments are designed in terms of revenue.

“A real sticking point for the community was who’s getting the money that NYCHA will get from the building,” Krueger said. “Residents want their problems fixed, and many of their position is if you’re going to be putting a new building on our site, you’re taking away a playground, at least the money that’s coming in should come to meet the needs of this facility.”

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Panel Previews 2019 Rent Regulation Discussion in Albany Tue, 04 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Pushing the Envelope on Rent Reform in Albany 2019 http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8107-pushing-the-envelope-on-rent-reform-in-albany-2019 http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8107-pushing-the-envelope-on-rent-reform-in-albany-2019 mayorsoffice chirlane mccray fac

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Today, New Yorkers are living in an era of mass displacement due to the skyrocketing cost of rent. This makes it absolutely imperative for rent-stabilized tenants to maintain their rights and for these rights to be extended to tenants currently living without them. We must act swiftly to implement the bold policy of universal rent-control in order to protect tenants from market forces.

Close to half of the nearly 2.2 million housing rental units that exist in New York City are rent-stabilized. Tenants living in rent-stabilized units benefit from having the right to a renewal lease once their current lease expires, plus legal limits on how much their rents can be raised annually or biannually. Additionally, rent-stabilized tenants have succession rights, granting them the right to pass their unit on to a family member living in the unit.

All of these tenant protections provided under New York state law, however, are set to expire on June 15, 2019. In the upcoming legislative session, New York state legislators will be tasked with ensuring that we pass stronger rent laws before the June deadline. With the State Senate now having the largest Democratic majority we’ve seen since 1912, state legislators have a responsibility to not only extend the rent laws to protect all New York tenants, but to also eliminate the harmful loopholes that exist in the current laws.

The Flaws with our Rent Regulated System
Although certain tenants are protected under New York’s rent-regulated system, there are loopholes that exist within the system that landlords take advantage of in order to deregulate units and to push low-income tenants out. Currently, if a rent-regulated tenant’s monthly rent reaches above $2,733.75, the landlord becomes entitled with the right to deregulate the unit and subsequently raise the tenant’s rent to any amount they see fit or simply not renew the tenant’s lease. This phenomena—known as vacancy decontrol—is responsible for the loss of at least 155,664 rent-regulated units from the years of 1994 through 2017, according to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board.

Vacancy bonuses allow landlords of rent-regulated units to increase rents up to 20 percent to incoming tenants once an apartment is made vacant. This is an amount that is seven times more than any rent increase approved by the Rent Guidelines Board – the appointed board that determines yearly increases for rent-regulated tenants – in the previous five years.

The other two loopholes that landlords take advantage of to generate more profit through the rent laws are preferential rents and major capital improvements (MCIs).

Many tenants across the city are paying preferential rents, which are below the legal margin that landlords can mandate to be paid. Why is this a flaw within the rent-regulated system considering that tenants would benefit from paying lower rent? Unfortunately, it’s been widely proven that landlords provide these lower rents while simultaneously registering a higher, fraudulent legal rent to the state. Once a tenant’s lease is up for renewal the landlord could increase the tenant’s rent to the higher, fraudulent registered amount.

Landlords also use MCIs, building-wide improvements made through the landlord’s finances, to increase rents up to 6 percent. These increases all too often surpass the 6 percent margin and are permanent increases. Landlords also game the system by fraudulently claiming improvements they don’t make or more expensive improvements than they actually make.

Vacancy bonuses, MCIs, and preferential rents are all loopholes and tactics that landlords legally and illegally utilize to raise rents and eventually deregulate a unit through vacancy decontrol.

Housing Justice for All: the Platform
Bills to repeal the loopholes in our rent-regulated system have already been written and have been stalled from passing mostly because of the Republican-led state Senate and their outgoing allies (mostly in the former Independent Democratic Conference).

A bill to end vacancy decontrol has been introduced in the past by Linda B. Rosenthal in the Assembly (A433) and by soon-to-be Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the Senate (S3482). Bills to eliminate vacancy bonuses have been introduced by Assembly Member Daniel J. O’ Donnell (A9815) and Senator Jose M. Serrano (S1593). Bills to prohibit landlords from adjusting the amount of preferential rent upon the renewal of a lease have been introduced by Assembly Member Steven Cymbrowitz (A6285) and Senator Liz Krueger (S6527). The offices of Senator Michael Gianaris and Assembly Member Brian Barnwell are working with the Housing Justice for All Coalition (HJFA) to write bills that would ban landlords from passing the costs of MCIs onto tenants forever (MCI costs would rather last to the end of each tenant’s lease from the moment the MCI officially took place).  

HJFA is a coalition of tenant advocates, tenant unions, and housing organizations from across the state that are demanding the passage of the bills cited above. On November 15, 2018, over 700 members of the coalition showed up to downtown Manhattan on a snowy and icy night to march for these demands and then some.

HJFA is fighting to extend current protections under our rent laws to tenants that live in buildings that are five units or fewer, including 1- to 2- family homes (with exception to those where landlords reside). This concept is known as universal rent control, a policy proposal that recent gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon and Lieutenant-Governor candidate Jumaane Williams, and Senator-elect Julia Salazar campaigned for.

Fifty-four counties across New York are not able to opt into having the rent-regulated protections that New York City tenants currently have, making them all vulnerable to predatory housing companies that use lax or non-existent rent regulations to push people out of their housing. HJFA is also demanding that renters across the state be granted the opportunity to bring rent controls to their communities through the expansion of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA).

It is vitally important to point out that these demands have not yet taken the shape or form of a bill. And it is these additional demands that figures with authority, like Governor Cuomo, must deliver in 2019.   

Going Beyond: Truly Delivering for Tenants
Democrats were able to take full control of state government by flipping eight Republican-held Senate seats. As of January, they will hold a majority in the Assembly and in the Senate, and the Governor’s Office. The change in the political landscape in Albany grants a window of opportunity for our leaders to strengthen our rent laws to the degree that HJFA is outlining. Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership might not be too keen on setting the bar higher and delivering universal rent control, but may rather just flirt with the idea of eliminating loopholes.

Governor Cuomo recently came out in public support of ending vacancy decontrol. Although we may all applaud this statement, the fact of the matter is that this, along with ending MCIs, preferential rents, and vacancy bonuses, should be relatively easily accomplished as soon as we enter the next legislative session.

In 2015, when the rent laws were renewed only after facing a near two-week expiration, Cuomo coined an op-ed in the Daily News and expressed his full support for passing these basic reforms. He wrote, “We must eliminate vacancy decontrol or at the very least significantly raise vacancy decontrol thresholds; further limit vacancy bonuses to ensure landlords aren't rewarded financially for schemes to force tenants out; make major capital improvements and individual apartment improvement surcharges that go away once recovered by landlords, instead of ways of artificially raising a unit's monthly rent; and make the preferential rent operate as the legal rent for the life of the tenancy. These should be foundational elements of any new rent regulation legislation.” These were the words of our governor on June 6, 2015.

Gotham Gazette: Ending the various loopholes pertaining to our rent laws should be a given considering the blue wave that just occured. Leaders like Governor Cuomo with the power to push the rent regulation envelope further should not exclude from the discussion universal rent control and their support (or lack thereof) of the concept. Tenants in New York needed loopholes closed in 2015, and in 2019 the tenant movement requires protections for all tenants. Swiftly passing long-needed reform measures is important, while also tackling the challenges of today.

There will be no excuse for Governor Cuomo and other leaders if the Legislature simply passes the set of reforms the governor was calling for almost three years ago. The Republican majority is no more, the opportunity for real reform is there for the taking in 2019.

And let’s be clear: universal rent control is not a radical idea. In response to high inflation rates in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted Federal Rent Control through the Emergency Price Control Act (EPCA), which allowed for “a universal, nationwide price regulatory system.” By 1950, we had 2.5 million units that were rent-regulated in New York, more than double the stock we have today.

New York City today faces an affordability crisis that it has not seen since the Great Depression and 89,000 people across the state live in homeless shelters, while tens of thousands of children sleep in insecure housing. Communities like Williamsburg, Brooklyn has seen over a quarter of their communities of color displaced. So-called economic development projects like bringing Amazon to Queens will only exacerbate the city’s affordability crisis, though stronger rent regulations would help stem the tide.

As Governor Cuomo wrote in 2015, “the crisis of affordability is back with a vengeance,” and it will continue unless we boldly act to provide protections for all of our tenants. Our task is simple and it requires the moral courage from our elected officials to stand up to real estate interests. We must prove to tenants that at a time when we have a corporate politician leading us awry in the White House that we don’t need a corporate Democrat doing so in Albany as well.

In 2019, there is no room for political posturing. We must act to not just end the loopholes within our current rent laws but also to extend protections to all renters. We must finally deliver for the largest constituency in New York, the tenant-renter constituency.   

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
Boris Santos is a former public school teacher, DSA member, and soon-to-be Chief of Staff to Senator-elect Julia Salazar.

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

]]>
Pushing the Envelope on Rent Reform in Albany 2019 Wed, 28 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Agenda 2019: Rent Regulations & Affordable Housing http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8109-watch-agenda-2019-rent-regulations-affordable-housing http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8109-watch-agenda-2019-rent-regulations-affordable-housing agenda backup3

MNN discussion


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

dg eg agendaAs part of Agenda 2019, Gotham Gazette and City Limits are partnering with Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) on a series of television shows. The first show is part of Agenda 2019 housing week: hosts Ben Max and Jarrett Murphy were joined by two leading non-profit advocates to discuss key elements of housing policy that will be on the agenda in the year ahead: Delsenia Glover, Executive Director of Tenants & Neighbors and Emily Goldstein, Director of Organizing and Advocacy at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD). The four focused much of the discussion on state-level rent regulations that affect about 1 million New York City apartments and the de Blasio administration's affordable housing plan. Watch the full program below:

 Gotham Gazette:

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
WATCH: Agenda 2019: Rent Regulations & Affordable Housing Wed, 28 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
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***?”

]]>
Allegations of Tenant Harassment in Bushwick Spotlight Issues with City Enforcement, State Rent Laws Tue, 27 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
The IDC Leaves Tenants Out in the Cold http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7366-the-idc-leaves-tenants-out-in-the-cold http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7366-the-idc-leaves-tenants-out-in-the-cold idc unions presser crop2

IDC members (photo: @IDC4NY)


For years, dysfunction and real estate power brokers have prevented Albany from strengthening tenant protections in New York, and the result of these failures has been devastating for our neighborhoods: we continue to suffer from record homelessness and increasing displacement across the state.

The Independent Democratic Conference — a group of eight breakaway state senators elected as Democrats — has been a leading force of obstruction since 2011, partnering with Senate Republicans to shut out tenant voices in policy-making.

Recently, things began to look like they were changing in the Senate for the first time in years. The mainline Democrats and the IDC took up serious discussion about how to unify the conference. During the course of negotiations, the IDC claimed that its focus is “policies, not politics,” and outlined a series of key priorities for the conference.

We were extremely disappointed to learn that strengthening tenant protections was not one of them — especially since several members of the conference have both privately and publicly stated to us that this would be their top issue in 2018.

We are tenants and we are constituents of three IDC members: Senators Marisol Alcantara, Jose Peralta, and Jesse Hamilton. Joined together, these State Senators have the highest concentration of rent-regulated units in New York City.

We are fighting every day to be able to stay in our homes. Our neighborhoods are facing gentrification, and our landlords know loopholes in the rent laws mean they can raise our rents to market rate as soon as we leave. As a result, we face harassment, reduced services, and deplorable living conditions – all in an attempt to get us out of our homes. We have called on our state-level elected leaders to prioritize strengthening the rent laws through closing two major loopholes: the 20% eviction bonus and preferential rent. Our communities are experiencing increased rents, speculative landlords, and mass gentrification.

Over and over, Senators Alcantara, Hamilton, and Peralta told us that the IDC is the best vehicle to meet so-called progressive priorities. After serious pressure, they had committed to prioritizing these issues for the overwhelming number of tenants who live in their districts.

But once it came time to deliver, these senators and the IDC once again proved that they are the conference of the real estate industry. This is devastating for the tenants who are suffering in their districts daily because of laws that favor landlords.

In Peralta’s district, families at LeFrak City are sacrificing their savings, pulling their kids out of after-school programs, getting second jobs, and moving into smaller cramped apartments just to make ends meet. Many of us are seeing large rent hikes. At the end of every month, moving trucks haul the belongings of yet another family that has lost its apartment due to the preferential rent scam that Senator Peralta could fix next year.

In Brooklyn, just a few weeks ago, Senator Hamilton joined the Flatbush Tenants Coalition to tell the story of an 85-year-old grandmother recently evicted and now forced to live with friends on their couches, with her belongings in storage. Housing court in Brooklyn often has lines stretched around the block because the state ludicrously rewards landlords for evictions by allowing management to collect a 20% increase in rent — an eviction bonus.

The eviction bonus is the largest contributor to rent increases in rent-stabilized apartments. It doesn’t matter if the tenant moved out willingly or because the landlord refused to provide basic services to keep the apartment livable. The landlord can take that 20% increase, even if it raises the rent above market value.

Preferential rent is a bait-and-switch scam to get tenants out and collect the 20% eviction bonus. When a tenant first moves into an apartment, the landlord offers them a “discounted” rent. But when the lease is up, tenants can see increases of hundreds of dollars on their monthly rent.

This is simply a tactic used to get the eviction bonus and keep rents skyrocketing.

Preferential rents are causing tenants in Alcantara’s district to face potential increases of $1,000 or more when their lease expires, causing tenants to move and disrupting communities.

To be very clear, this can be changed through legislation in Albany.

Senators Alcantara, Hamilton, and Peralta could help change this next year. They have spent the past years and months promising tenants in their districts that this is a top priority. Alcantara and Peralta went as far as publishing their promises in an op-ed. But we have since seen that like so many things with IDC senators, these promises ring hollow, as the IDC did not list rent regulations as a priority area in its negotiations to realign with mainline Democrats.

There are only a few months left for the members of the IDC to deliver for tenants. If they fail to do so, we will remember in September.

***
Aisha Gomez is a resident of LeFrak City in Senator Jose Peralta’s district in Queens
Sherryann Bain is a resident of Flatbush in Senator Jesse Hamilton’s district in Brooklyn
Lauren Nye is a resident of Washington Heights in Senator Marisol Alcantara’s district in Manhattan

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

]]>
The IDC Leaves Tenants Out in the Cold Tue, 12 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Why Tenants Should Vote Against a Constitutional Convention http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7298-why-tenants-should-vote-against-a-constitutional-convention http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7298-why-tenants-should-vote-against-a-constitutional-convention seniors affordable housing

(photo via The Mayor's Office)


Every 20 years, the New York State Constitution mandates a statewide vote on whether to convene a convention to consider amending it. On Tuesday, Election Day, New Yorkers will vote “yes” or “no.” This measure, question one of three on the back of the ballot, is more important than anything on the front.

Tenants Political Action Committee debated this question at length, and despite many arguments in favor, we voted unanimously to oppose a “con con” this time around.

This was not a decision we took lightly. With a state government that is a model of dysfunction and gridlock, it is tempting to try an end-run around the governor and state Legislature to attempt necessary reforms they have refused to enact despite the stunning number of politicians who have been convicted of corruption and gone to prison.

Many New Yorkers of good will believe that a constitutional convention could force such reforms into being, and indeed that is a theoretical outcome. But the risk of a negative result for tenants and other constituencies that do not have access to piles of cash is very real.

One negative is that delegates are chosen based on the 63 state Senate districts. Because Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed the state Senate Republicans to draw hyper-partisan district lines to preserve their shrinking majority, this could result in Republican delegates to a convention having a majority.

There is every reason to believe that the very politicians we now criticize for refusing to enact progressive reforms would control the convention. Current and former elected officials, and even lobbyists, are eligible to run, and legislators could use their superior name recognition and campaign funds to outgun grassroots candidates. Anyone who understands how Albany really works sees the probable composition of a convention as inclined to do the bidding of special interests.

Beyond the potential to water down critical protections for poor people, workers, civil rights, and wilderness, there is one possible “reform” of special importance to tenants: allowing special interests to place legislation directly on the ballot by petition. Many states allow this already. New York does not.

If such a referendum process was added to the state constitution, it is not hard to imagine the real estate lobby initiating a statewide referendum to terminate rent control laws, which only exist in New York City and the downstate suburbs. In fact, this is exactly how Massachusetts ended rent controls in 1994, passing a statewide referendum 52 to 48 percent. Only three cities in the eastern part of the state had rent control – Boston, Cambridge and Brookline – and the landlords’ multi-million-dollar media campaign in central and western Massachusetts made much of the fact that the mayor of Cambridge lived in a rent-controlled apartment.

The analogy with New York is clear. New York City landlords would spend any amount to get rid of rent regulations via statewide ballot initiative. And if they failed the first time, they would keep trying.

Some progressive groups take the position that this would be a good change in New York. They should consider the downside. Ballot initiatives are easier to mount by groups with superior resources, and easier for them to win for the same reason.

We think there is a better way: in the last year, thousands of New Yorkers have become involved in organizations that work to raise political awareness and seek to hold politicians accountable, with a focus on swing districts and turncoat Democrats. The energy coming out of these efforts is inspiring. Let’s harness it to elect better legislators and change our laws at last.

***
Michael McKee is treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee. On Twitter @TenantsPACNY.

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

]]>
Why Tenants Should Vote Against a Constitutional Convention Sun, 05 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Wright Runs for Congress as Tenants Champion, to Mixed Reviews http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6335-wright-runs-for-congress-as-tenants-champion-to-mixed-reviews http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6335-wright-runs-for-congress-as-tenants-champion-to-mixed-reviews wright rangel

Keith Wright, Charles Rangel, and others (photo via Wright's campaign)


New York Assemblymember Keith Wright’s congressional campaign has flooded inboxes declaring him a “champion” for tenants. Many see it as an appropriate description for the housing committee chair - his campaign touts the support of “100 tenant leaders” and he has a long history of advocating for renters, starting in the 1980s as the head of the tenant association in Harlem’s Riverton Houses, where he still lives. Wright and his fellow tenants recently settled a lawsuit with their landlord for $2 million after alleging they were charged improper rent and other misdeeds.

One of several campaign emails to supporters seeking donations based on Wright’s tenant advocacy reads: “Keith has been a voice for our neighborhoods for decades. His leadership has made sure that NYC protects and expands affordable housing. He pushes to stand up for tenants and hold NYCHA management accountable.”

Wright is a leader in the crowded Democratic primary to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel, who has endorsed him, and he’s very much running on his housing record.

There is another view of Wright held by some tenant advocates and legislators, though, who see him as being an outspoken advocate on housing issues who has failed to turn his bully pulpit and considerable power and influence in Albany into actual results.

These critics maintain that Wright failed to buck former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Governor Andrew Cuomo and fight for drastic changes to the rent laws that would do away with what they see as incentives for landlords to increase rent and drive out rent-controlled tenants.

In the 13th Congressional District largely made up of Harlem and Washington Heights, Wright is facing state Senator Adriano Espaillat; Clyde Williams, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton; Assemblymember Guillermo Linares; and former Assemblymember Adam Clayton Powell. Appearing the favored establishment candidate, Wright - along with Espaillat and Linares - has faced criticism from Williams and others for connections to Albany and its notorious corruption and dysfunction.

Several tenant groups were excited when Wright took over the housing committee from disgraced Assemblymember Vito Lopez in 2013, but a number of them were quickly disillusioned, representatives say. They believe Wright has simply maintained the status quo and amassed power in anticipation for his run for Congress. They point to Wright’s fundraising records that show he’s taken significant donations from real estate interests and question his loyalty to tenant issues such as doing away with the process by which landlords can deregulate affordable units or ending the 421-a subsidy they call a giveaway to developers.

“The problem with Keith is that he says all the right things but then follows orders, resulting in the ongoing destruction of our rent-regulated housing. And I am disturbed by the staggering amount of real estate money he has amassed for his congressional race,” said Michael McKee of Tenants PAC, which organizes around affordable housing issues and backs like-minded candidates. Tenants PAC does not endorse in national races.

A 2014 study by the Community Service Society, an advocacy group for low-income New Yorkers, found that the city lost 40 percent of apartments for low-income residents over the prior decade.

Wright defended his record in an interview: “As chair of the housing committee we’ve had to work against a very conservative state Senate,” Wright said, referring to the Republican-controlled upper house of the New York Legislature. “Listen, no matter what you do you are not going to be able to please everyone. Sure you get folks who want me to hold up the budget and this that, but I’ve been through those days before and it didn't quite work. If I thought it would work I would do it again. You can’t please everyone.”

As for his major wins, Wright counts his “greatest achievement” as a 2014 lawsuit he filed with his fellow tenants at Riverton Square accusing the landlords of illegally inflating rent, improperly evicting tenants, and overstating the value of the improvements made to apartments. In February the landlord, CWCapital and CompassRock, agreed to a $2 million settlement that will be paid in rent credits (they admitted no wrongdoing).

Wright was also a key player in negotiations of the recent sale of Riverton to A&E Real Estate. Part of the sale included an agreement that A&E would repair homes and include 975 apartments, including Wright’s, in a 30-year affordability agreement.

Two of Wright’s major wins didn’t come legislatively, but instead in actions he took to protect his own housing complex.

Wright rejected the idea that contributions from real estate influenced his fight for stronger rent laws. “Ask him why he’s taken so much Wall Street money and D.C. money,” Wright said, apparently referencing his opponent Clyde Williams, who brought up donations Wright has taken from real estate interests in recent debates. “We’ve all taken real estate money. It has nothing to do with my commitment to the tenants of New York City. I think my record is plain on its face.”

Filings with the State Board of Elections and Federal Elections Commission dating back to 2013 show that Wright has taken tens of thousands of dollars in donations from major real estate and construction interests and their subsidiaries. Real estate groups are known for donating to many state politicians in hopes of influencing policy.

Major donations to Wright from real estate interests include $2,050 from the Real Estate Board PAC; $4,100 from JSignal LLC, which is connected to Cayuga Capital, a real estate management and development firm; $500 from John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of NY; $2,700 from Eliot Spitzer, the former governor who now focuses on real estate; $5,000 from Empire PAC, which represents real estate interests; $2,500 from REBNY member Daniel Zucker; and a total of $4,200 over three contributions from Donald Capoccia, head of BFC Partners, a development firm that specializes in affordable housing.

Wright’s first action as housing chair in 2013 was to introduce a package of housing bills that included a surprise: renewal of the lapsed J-51 program. The program is intended to provide tax breaks to landlords who make improvements to affordable housing, but tenant groups asserted it was abused by landlords. A study found half of the tax breaks went to owners of market-rate buildings.

“I was named housing chair on a Friday and we had a very large bill that was somewhat controversial that had to be done on Monday," Wright told Gotham Gazette during an interview in February 2013. "I know folks in the tenant movement were upset, they wanted that bill to be used as leverage, but it was a bill for coops, condos, and lofts, and those type of people do live in New York City. We had to do this bill.”

Last year, as rent regulations that govern affordable housing in the city and across the state came up for renewal, tenant groups were hoping Wright and newly sworn-in Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, would be able to win significant changes to the rent laws to do away with what they call incentives for landlords to take apartments off of the affordable housing rolls. Instead they say they got tweaks.

The threshold for rent at which a vacant apartment can be deregulated was increased from $2,500 to $2,700. The deal also required landlords stretch out the period they increase tenants’ rent after making major capital improvements. Landlords were also limited in how much they can increase rent between tenants. The wins were seen as small, minimal in comparison to what Cuomo and the Assembly publicly pushed for. Wright said he was nevertheless proud of the changes that were made.

Last year was a not a typical year - both legislative leaders Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver were indicted during budget season (and later convicted). Rather than a traditional negotiation of the expiring rent laws and 421-a program that gives tax breaks to developers for including affordable housing in their projects, Cuomo allowed real estate and labor interests to negotiate 421-a renewal on their own, outside the Legislature.

Tenant groups say 421-a is a “tax suck” that has been demonstrated to produce very few affordable units and been the subject to major abuse and fraud by developers. Investigations, like one by ProPublica, have proven those claims to be true. Still, Mayor Bill de Blasio and others want to see a new, strengthened 421-a program enacted.

Cuomo attributed giving real estate and labor control of negotiations to the sensitivity of legislators towards the Silver and Skelos scandals that included revelations about the political influence of Glenwood Management, a real estate company that was the state’s largest campaign donor.

Labor and real estate failed to reach an agreement on renewing 421-a, so the program lapsed. Still, Cuomo and other stakeholders appear loathe to let it go, to the dismay of some tenant groups.

Results of the legislative negotiations on rent laws last year were hailed as “historic” by Cuomo, but tenant groups found it lacking. They say it basically cemented the status quo allowing landlords to steadily raise rents and move apartments off the affordable housing rolls.

"We pretty much got nothing," said Delsenia Glover, director of Alliance for Tenant Power, said at a press conference in Albany in early April. "At the time Governor Cuomo said they were the 'strongest rent laws in history.' It's not true, we got nothing."

Glover, who is from Harlem, does not blame Wright for the rent law negotiations. “Keith is extremely supportive,” Glover told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview. “He was one of our lead champions last year along with Speaker Heastie. He worked as hard as he could on the rent laws.”

The focus of Alliance for Tenant Power’s April press conference was demanding that if Albany does decide to find a replacement for 421-a that they must also reopen negotiations on rent laws. Glover says lawmakers should end current rules that incentivize landlords to make apartments unaffordable.

“Instead of discussing benefits for rich developers, all attention should be on fixing the major loopholes in the rent regulation system that houses 2.5 million tenants in approximately 1 million units with no cost whatsoever to the taxpayer,” Glover wrote in an April op-ed at Gotham Gazette.

Glover and other tenant groups deride the idea of any replacement for 421-a. Wright attended the press conference and appeared to agree, despite the fact he introduced what many tenant advocates saw as a direct replacement. Wright proposed a program that would provide $100,000 to developers per affordable unit they build that would be funded by the state abandoned property fund.

Wright said at the time that the bill was negotiated with the Real Estate Board of New York the NYS Association for Affordable Housing, and the Building & Construction Trades Council. All three groups indicated to the Daily News at the time that they didn’t actually support the plan.

“I’m sorry the press picked it up as a replacement for 421-a,” Wright told Gotham Gazette, implying that his plan was not aimed to be such and that a lack of enthusiasm for it was the result of that mistaken characterization.

Asked for her take on Wright’s plan, Glover demurred, saying, “You’d have to ask someone who was in the room.”

Barika Williams, deputy director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), praised Wright for bringing together disparate groups to discuss the creation of “a tool” to spur the creation of affordable housing. “It was a unique table that brought together different parts of the for-profit and nonprofit set. You saw a lot of people who don’t normally sit at the same table. We were looking at achieving the deepest affordability and trying to target resources to those buckets of the population that are desperately in need.”

Williams said that in the end all of the groups may not have been on the same page because not all the groups involved were present for the entire process. “It was a long process that took commitment and being consistently involved for over two months.”

Wright has been criticized by advocates and fellow legislators for not being properly versed in the bills he supports. He’s also been criticized for being too close to Governor Cuomo.

Wright said he would love to see the rent laws reopened for negotiation this year.

City & State NY recently reported that Tom Cayler, chair of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance’s Illegal Hotel Committee, was unhappy with a bill Wright carries that is technically designed to deal with illegal hotels.

Wright’s bill would create a process by which permanent residents of certain apartment buildings could register to rent their apartments in the short term - similar to how Airbnb functions.

Cayler said the bill would simply allow residents to rent their apartments as “illegal hotels,” rather than ending the practice. There is a good deal of pushback against Airbnb in Manhattan. The group met with Wright and were asked to send him a memo with their concerns. They say they never heard back.

“It was really shocking to us that he didn’t actually seem to know much about the bill he had his name on,” Cayler told City & State. “He was not well-informed about it. His chief of staff was the one who knew about this particular bill.”

Wright’s spokesperson Emma Forbes told City & State that the bill was designed to increase transparency and that the bill had yet to move because there wasn’t “consensus” from residents and stakeholders.

Asked about Cayler’s criticism Wright told Gotham Gazette: “I thought he was somewhat misinformed.”

Wright said his door is always open and he is willing to discuss legislation.

WIlliams, of ANHD, countered the idea that Wright was ill informed about legislation. “I think from our experience Assemblymember Wright understands the complexity of housing and the complex mix of interests that are involved. With all of that in mind, his goal always seems to be thinking about deep affordability and how to help those folks in New York City who are struggling and who are the most underserved.”

Asked if he expects legislation on illegal hotels to move this session, which ends in mid-June, Wright replied, “The bill is in my name in a committee I head and I control the bill and it hasn’t moved.” “So if it quacks like a duck...,” he added, implying there was little chance the bill would advance.

Wright said he is proud of his record as a tenant advocate and that despite the overwhelming support he has received from the Democratic establishment, including words of support from former President Bill Clinton and formal endorsements from Gov. Cuomo, Speaker Heastie, and Rep. Rangel, he does not take it for granted that he will be leaving Albany for Washington. “We have a lot to do here,” Wright said, adding that should he be elected to Congress his main focus will be on changing the definition of area median income because of the way it impacts affordable housing in the city.

“The reason I’m running is to change the definition of area median income and the way it is put forward with affordable housing,” said Wright. “The housing that is being built is called “affordable,” but it's not affordable to anyone I know or even me.” (Wright, who lives in rent-stabilized housing, has an Assembly salary of $79,500, not including the stipend he receives for heading the housing committee, and he has served for 24 years.)

Citing the fact that the AMI used for New York City to determine rent thresholds takes into account Westchester and Rockland counties, greatly increasing the number, Wright said that reform would benefit city residents.

“Changing the definition is what I want to do the first day I get to Congress, most definitely,” said Wright.

New Yorkers are tired of seeing condos going for millions of dollars while they worry about paying the bills and staying in their neighborhood, Wright said.

“The people of Harlem shed blood, sweat, and tears to make their neighborhood a safe place to live,” Wright said. “People are scared to death their children won't be able to afford to live in the neighborhood because it won’t be affordable.”

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Wright Runs for Congress as Tenants Champion, to Mixed Reviews Sun, 15 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000