A new apartment building in Williamsburg (photo: Urban75.org)
An initiative to organize new residents in gentrifying neighborhoods is raising concerns among housing advocates. While organizers are eager to bring more people into the tenant movement, the initiative is in sensitive territory - new residents, a.k.a. gentrifiers, are so closely linked to the process of gentrification itself, which is taking neighborhoods by storm and causing considerable strife to many.
The initiative is still in its infancy but as advocates and tenants have learned of it, they've raised concerns that it could divide tenants just as a concerted push to lobby on the state's rent laws is starting. The laws are set to expire next June.
"This is very much an exploratory effort at this point - we've only had a few meetings," said Yonah Lieberman, the organizer at the Metropolitan Council on Housing that is developing the program. "Certainly, it is not our intention to divide tenants and we will revise the program to ensure that that does not happen."
The new initiative, dubbed the Neighborhood Sustainability Project (NSP), is pretty straightforward: new residents in gentrifying neighborhoods are tenants, too, and even if they are not the targets of the tactics - legal and illegal - that landlords use to force long-term low-rent tenants out, they are still concerned with rising housing costs and can bring energy and ideas to the housing movement.
Their link, however, to gentrification is something that makes new residents in these neighborhoods problematic to many who feel threatened by forces changing the city block by block. This is particularly true for those who see gentrification simply as a process of people moving to new neighborhoods; while that is not what defines gentrification, it is one of the more obvious indicators.
Gentrification is generally defined as a process of community renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into less affluent neighborhoods, which leads to the displacement of poorer residents.
"The reality is there are many bad actors involved [in the process] and they use a variety of tactics that are at best morally dubious and at worse, clearly illegal," said a housing financier who has worked in the sector for more than two decades and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The business models are sometimes premised on the idea of getting people out so that rents can be increased."
"[New residents] understand broadly that they're part of the problem, but they don't understand what the problem is," said Lieberman of the Met Council, which is the city's oldest tenant organizing group, and home to the NSP initiative. "The question is, 'How do we engage these people in the fight?'"
"It's a unique constituency," continued Lieberman, who moved to Crown Heights four months ago after a year-plus elsewhere in Brooklyn and sees himself as a good example. "And right now very few people are trying to talk to them, very few people are trying to engage with them and say, "Hey, look, here's how you get involved, here's how you fight the negative aspects of gentrification.""
But as young as the initiative may be, it is raising concerns because some advocates think it risks driving a wedge between tenants. In Crown Heights, for example, the Crown Heights Tenants Union (CHTU) has rallied tenants to fight against displacement tactics as gentrification has roiled the neighborhood. There, new residents have been and are members of the Tenants Union; but some fear the new initiative will pull them away or pull away potential new members - and that CHTU will lose power as a result and, worse, the opportunity to bring people together. Like other unions, tenant organizations are, after all, fundamentally about solidarity.
"With the Michael Brown and Eric Garner movement it feels like we're on the cusp of something big," said one organizer who wished to remain anonymous. "Organizing gentrifiers without engaging the long term community is not the integrative strategy our movement needs right now. We need to be coming together."
Donna Mossman, a member of the CHTU and a resident of the neighborhood for 38 years, echoed that view.
"To us, a tenant is a tenant," Mossman said. "We've made it a point to be inclusive. This is the last thing we need."
Another member - a new resident of the neighborhood - said the initiative was problematic because, at least in Crown Heights, the tenants union is as much about building community as it is about fighting bad landlords.
"I don't see how [the NSP initiative] gets us toward the goal of building up these communities," said Esteban Girón, who moved to the neighborhood about two years ago. "[CHTU] is not just about affordability - it's about getting to know your neighbors."
He added, "I'm in housing court with my landlord right now and my neighbors are supporting me ... and I've done the same for them."
To be fair, Crown Heights is a unique area for an initiative like this to be rolled out: few neighborhoods in the city have an umbrella group like CHTU, which has been highly effective since it was formed in 2013. In other areas, the initiative may be the only larger effort for new residents to join - and in areas where it is not, organizers are reaching out to the larger groups to collaborate.
"We're developing this to bring these tenants into the larger movement - not to exist independently on their own," Lieberman said. "We are working across the City to educate and engage gentrifers, who realize they are part of the problem but don't understand how or what they can do about it. Bringing them into the rent laws fight with long-term tenants is a critical piece of that.
"The CHTU has been a new and powerful force working against illegal tactics by landlords, building community and now looking to fight for stronger tenant protections." Lieberman continued. "We are not trying to replace that model in Crown Heights or anywhere else."
The new initiative is focusing on 11 gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, including Crown Heights. The neighborhood is one of the more pointed examples of gentrification in the city today with regular news of increased rents and heated community meetings, and indications of uneasy relationships between the new people moving in and those who have lived there for years.
At a recent meeting of the CHTU attended by Gotham Gazette, about 40 tenants gathering in a health center's meeting room recounted a variety of typical housing issues: someone was doing drugs in the stairwell of one building, gaining entry because the front door's lock was broken; heat and hot water were scarce in another; a super was caught trying to record a meeting of tenants somewhere else. The CHTU meeting included new and old residents alike and any tension between them was not immediately evident.
A recent arrival to Crown Heights said he could see the rationale for a "newcomers" group but was not joining the effort - he said he was busy starting a tenants association in his own building. He was getting ideas and assistance from CHTU in his effort, he said.
"I can understand" that new residents have different issues, he said, asking his name not be used because he was concerned his landlord would retaliate for his activism. "In my building, when I had my first meeting, I had two newcomers and one [long-term] tenant - and the perspectives were radically different."
The long-term resident, he said, was not as upset about building conditions as the new residents.
"He was saying it's a lot better than it was 10 years ago," the organizer said. "But for us, we were just trying to get things on par with the rents being charged."
A more significant difference between long-term residents and new residents - and often the focus of organizing efforts - is the extent to which the former is subject to more harassment, buy-out offers, and other tactics landlords use to encourage or force them to leave. Some landlords consistently target long-term tenants, a problem new residents generally do not have to worry about.
Still, new residents do experience issues - if there's no heat or hot water in a building, everyone suffers, of course, and a landlord who is not making repairs might not discriminate among tenants - but they are usually paying the higher rents that landlords want them for. And landlords are not typically hauling newer tenants to housing court on bogus claims, not refusing to fix their apartments, and not offering them paltry or even moderate sums of money to move out.
Lieberman said many of the new residents signing up for the Neighborhood Sustainability Project live in unregulated apartments that have been illegally deregulated. In other words, these tenants - comprised of low- to moderate-wage workers like school teachers and employees of non-profits - need to understand that they are being charged illegal rents that can and should be challenged, he said. And doing so would contribute to preserving affordability in the city.
Along with Crown Heights, other neighborhoods where NSP is organizing include East and West Harlem, Washington Heights, Red Hook, Bushwick, and Bed Stuy.
The new initiative was also born out of concern that new residents are not being brought into the housing movement to the extent that they could or should be, Lieberman said - the long-time tenants unions, focused as they are on urgent displacement issues, simply cannot go after them.
This is a slight twist on an oft-expressed concern in the tenant movement: that it is too white, middle class and skewed toward the 50+ demographic; so, many groups try to attract and promote younger people, especially those of color. Generally, Lieberman said, the new residents NSP is attracting are young and white.
"The Crown Heights Tenant Union and organizations like it are doing important work to fight for tenants who are being actively displaced and harassed out of their homes, and NSP groups are hoping to partner with those types of organizations as a unified voice," Lieberman said. "Both types of organizing are working towards the same goal of enabling people to stay in their homes and ensuring that New York City stays affordable to all who want to live here in the future."
He continued: "One key difference between the two is about how they recruit tenants into the broader fight for that shared future. Organizations like the CHTU are educating tenants who want to know their rights to repairs, against buyouts and around going to court. Meanwhile, NSP serves as an entry-point and engagement tool for tenants who may not face the same immediate risks of displacement but want to be part of the movement fighting for affordable housing and sustainable neighborhoods. These are simply different aspects of the same fight."
The larger housing movement will not be divided because a core tenet of the new initiative is partnership, he added.
Still, some advocates are not altogether convinced. Historically, organizers have not targeted new residents, though, one said.
"When we were organizing on the Upper West Side back in the early 1980s, we didn't consider gentrifiers to be our core constituents, even though we were happy to help them with our rent clinics and other services," said Gerry Khermouch, who was active with the Columbia Tenants Union. "We didn't feel their problems had the same urgency as those of the long-time, rent-protected residents who were being ruthlessly displaced, or that their priorities necessarily were aligned with ours."
Further concern is that it could exacerbate tensions among new and old residents. The timing is not propitious: the ongoing protests against police brutality in the city have been broadly inclusive; framing any initiative as divisive is something organizers are very sensitive about to begin with and doing so now is akin to fighting words.
"This is preposterous," one told me. "We risk alienating the tenants who are suffering the harassment and other efforts of landlords to get them out."
Organizing gentrifiers is almost nonsensical, said another.
"Organizing should be transformative - how is [organizing gentrifiers] challenging the power - what power structure is that challenging?" the organizer said. "The tenant movement needs the power of young energized, people - I get that. But I think we really need more effort toward integration - it needs to be about integration and recognizing that gentrification is sort of about race."
"If we want a strong movement we need to connect all of these things," he added.
To some, targeting new residents could be key to increasing participation in the tenant movement.
"We're always talking about reaching out to new communities," another long-time organizer told Gotham Gazette. "This is another community in the city that we need to reach out to," he said of new residents.
Lieberman said the new initiative is bringing more tenants into the housing movement - almost 200 people have signed up to participate through early December. And some advocates are curious whether new residents could be mobilized as never before to renew and strengthen rent regulation laws, which are set to expire in Albany in June.
"We aren't doing this in a vacuum," Lieberman said. "Addressing race and privilege is central to the organizing."
While the city's continued housing affordability crisis makes it unlikely that state legislators will not renew the rent laws, which come up for renewal generally every five years, strengthening them is another matter, particularly because the State Senate is now more firmly in the hands of Republicans after the November elections: Republicans have traditionally opposed the laws.
"Aspects of this campaign are still evolving, but this [new organization] is something we think needs to happen," said Kenny Schaeffer, vice chair of Met Council on Housing's board and a long-time tenant movement leader. "We want to bring newer community residents into the fight to protect existing tenants from displacement by enacting stronger rent and eviction protections."
"Also," Schaeffer added, "some of the newer tenants live in de-regulated apartments. And a major part of the campaign to strengthen the rent laws in 2015 will include extending protection to these apartments, but no one's been organizing them before."
by Joe Lamport for Gotham Gazette