Some of the tenants in an apartment building on Haven Avenue in Washington Heights were outraged recently. Their building, with a marble lobby, spacious rooms and beautiful views of the Hudson, had been a grand address when it was built in 1920. But for a while now, the residents have been beset, as one tenant puts it, by an "accumulation of annoyances" -- a lack of hot water, a broken front door, infestation of rodents and vermin, a faulty intercom, a spotty elevator, and a landlord who has been unresponsive to their requests for repairs. So they were aghast when they got their new rent bill in the mail, and saw that it included an extra charge of $3.86 per room.
A few tenants began to meet informally to figure out what to do. It was the beginning of a tenant association on the 200 block of Haven Avenue in Washington Heights - one of countless thousands of such tenant associations throughout the city.
The Haven Avenue tenants have only begun what will likely be a long, difficult effort to challenge their landlord. In their first official meeting, only 12 out of the 160 apartments were represented. "We're not even a zygote yet," one tenant said. Their effort, like those of other tenants in the city, is made all the more difficult because of the steady decline in professional tenant organizers.
Tenant associations have been an important part of housing in New York City for more than a century. State and city laws specifically establish the right of tenants to organize, forbidding landlords from harassing or punishing tenants for exercising that right, and permitting tenants to meet in a public space of their building at reasonable hours.
But some tenant advocates are convinced that tenants are suffering because of a decline in organizers. There used to be hundreds. Two decades ago, most of the 200 community organizations that are members of the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development listed in its directory "tenant organizing" as part of their work, according to the association's director of advocacy, Adrian DiLollo. That is no longer the case. Recently, the organization awarded grants to only 15 community groups specifically to finance tenant organizing.
Why did so many organizers leave the front lines of tenant issues? The main reason, advocates said, is lack of money to do organizing.
"There are fewer organizers because it's hard to raise funds for organizers - harder now than in the past, certainly," said Michael McKee, associate director of New York State Tenants and Neighbors.
State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat representing the East Side of Manhattan, said the de-funding of organizations that did tenant organizing was a strategic goal of conservative Republicans.
"I don't feel it is an accident," Krueger said. "I can definitely tell you that in the 20 years or so of my career, we saw a dramatic drop in the funds available to do advocacy work on behalf of low-income people. It shifted fairly heavily on the city level when Giuliani came in, and in Congress with (former House Speaker) Newt Gingrich and in the state with Governor Pataki." McKee agreed.
"There's no question about it," he said. "We went through this during the Reagan Administration. De-funding the Left, that's what the Republicans call it."
The work itself is not for the faint hearted, McKee said, and there are few career organizers.
"It's very hard work, very frustrating work and it's low paid," he said. "And people don't tend to stick with it unless they must. It's the kind of thing that people do for a few years and then they do something else with their lives.
"There are more defeats than victories as a rule," he continued. "It's the kind of thing that a lot of people just find too hard."
Some say the decline in organizers may even have diminished the effect of the tenant lobby in City Hall and in Albany. Irene Baldwin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, pointed to the fate of city-owned vacant buildings (known as the in rem housing stock) under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration as an example.
"Under the Giuliani administration, all of a sudden the in rem housing, a lot of it was diverted from affordable housing programs - a diversion from a very effective housing plan," said Baldwin. "People challenged that, but that was an example where I think if communities had been stronger we could have had more of an impact."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's housing plan, which includes building or renovating 65,000 units of housing over five years, also reflects the decline of tenant organizers, she added: "There's not much of a role for community based groups because grassroots voices have not been as strong." Jenny Laurie, executive director of the Met Council on Housing, agreed: "I could talk for days about what tenant organizing in the past provided, in terms of building a tenant movement, educating tenants, and not just in their own building." Evan Hess, director of the community organizing department at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, said his staff tries to link tenant organizing with broader political goals. The organization is now campaigning to obtain more money in the city budget to pay for code inspectors, for city attorneys to litigate cases and for emergency repairs.
"We actively try to make a link between the two here," Hess said. Some community-wide efforts "grew out of tenant organizing."
The consequences of fewer organizers are more significant for tenants, everyone agreed.
"Fewer people are aware of their rights, the ability to get support for organizing in their buildings, and knowing alternatives to resolving problems," said Larry Wood of Goddard Riverside Community Center. He said that was particularly ominous for people who find themselves in Housing Court, where tenants frequently represent themselves.
"There're more people going on their own then ever before," Wood said. "We're further and further away from" getting tenants the right to legal representation than ever.
Laurie of the Met Council on Housing said that tenants are often now "at the mercy" of city agencies. "Their only recourse is to call 311 and complain, and basically wait in a long queue for help."
The fact that tenants were organized "forced judges to deal with tenants on a different level," she said. "I think it was easier 15 years ago to get a judge to pay attention to housing conditions and the affordability of housing. The tenants won more frequently - the right to get services restored - and they won abatements."
On Haven Avenue in Washington Heights tenants have received help from the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, which directs one of the largest community organizing efforts in the city with a staff of six. It is hardly enough.
"We don't have the resources to meet the demand," Hess said.
"Any tenant group that can stay together will be successful," he said. "It's a question of persistence. If they can stick together and overcome the indifference that they find in courts and city agencies, and keep pushing, they can eventually get repairs."
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.