Brooklyn Tenants Revolt

On one of the coldest days of 2014 I put on long underwear, a flannel shirt, my thickest sweater, a hat, and a scarf, and took the subway two stops down to 1059 Union Street to join the new Crown Heights Tenant Union’s first public action.

It was so bitterly cold that I couldn’t help but think about the previous winter, my first in Crown Heights and fourth in Brooklyn, when my heat would mysteriously shut off, often just in time for the weekend when my landlords didn’t answer the phone. My partner likes to say that most New York landlords operate on a continuum between greed and laziness. I figured at the time that mine were hovering closer to the “lazy” end with a bonus bit of cheapness thrown in; they just didn’t want to pay the extra money to really fix whatever was wrong.

One of my frustrated phone calls went like this:

“I spent two days without heat! I need to have someone to call on Saturdays if there’s an emergency.”

“Well, we’re Jewish—we don’t work on Saturday.”

“I’m Jewish too! That doesn’t mean I don’t freeze!”

I never chalked up that lack of heat to gentrification in action. But the folks standing on that freezing sidewalk on Union Street knew better. The disappearing heat wasn’t just a problem in my building. All over Crown Heights, tenants were shivering through nights without heat. Even the New York Times reported on the problem. The record cold in early 2014 saw complaints about the lack of heat nearly double from the year before.

As the residents exchanged stories, they began to conclude that it was more than just the usual neglect that working-class neighborhoods have come to expect from absentee landlords, that it was a calculated effort to drive residents out so that people who looked more like me—young, white, presumably more affluent—could move in.

Many at the rally held handmade signs with pithy slogans (“Affordable housing is a right” and “Resident power not REBNY dollars”) and specific demands or call-outs (“5-year rent freeze” and “ZT Realty Rank 58 Worst Landlords in Brooklyn”—that last one with a small toy rat taped to the cardboard). When I arrived, the crowd was chanting “We won’t leave!”

Last winter’s cold made my previous heatless nights seem mild by comparison. The weather phenomenon called the “polar vortex” had swept down on us with single-digit temperatures and mountains of snow for weeks on end. I couldn’t imagine one night of this with no heat, but some of the people standing out there with me knew that feeling well. Resident after resident stood to tell their stories, decrying constant harassment from new landlords who had purchased the buildings they had lived in for decades, big brick pre-war structures like the one we stood in front of, solid exteriors that often hid leaky sinks, clanking pipes, and crumbling plaster within. One woman wanted her landlord to stop threatening to take her to court if rent was late—“You don’t respond to us in a timely fashion! I waited thirty days for them to fix my ceiling that caved in.”

For another tenant, it was being charged extra for “improvements” to the building. “For months we had a truck outside our building to provide us with heat, a temporary boiler. They put in a new boiler and every day, every day we have no heat or hot water for some span of time. We are not paying for that boiler; that is not our responsibility.”

A third declared, “The only way we going to stop this is if we organize. In numbers there is strength.”

The rally wasn’t simply an opportunity for tenants to voice their grievances. Instead, through months of meetings, outreach, and debate between tenants from (at the time) twenty-five buildings, they had come up with a list of demands that they had formalized into a collective bargaining agreement that they were pushing for landlords to sign. Those demands, including a five-year rent freeze, a forty-eight-hour response time maximum for necessary repairs, tenant approval of renovations, and a limit to buyout offers, were printed on four-foot sheets of paper that the tenants pasted up inside the lobby of 1059 Union, where several of the union members lived. By organizing tenants from multiple buildings into one union, they hoped to wield more power against landlords who might otherwise ignore them and to be able to influence the entire rental market in the neighborhood.

The formulation “a tale of two cities” has been used a lot to describe New York at the end of the Bloomberg era, but it doesn’t entirely encapsulate the way some neighborhoods have been split into two by gentrification.

Crown Heights is on the razor’s edge of gentrification in Brooklyn, a West Indian and Lubavitcher Hasidic Jewish neighborhood with very little crossover between the two communities. Its boundaries are roughly Atlantic Avenue to the north, Washington to the west, Ralph Avenue to the east, and Empire Boulevard to the south. Its median household income, according to WNYC’s maps, is around $41,000 a year and on the rise; and it’s getting whiter.

The idea that white skin automatically means more money is both a product and a perpetuator of American racism. Before gentrification, you had disinvestment. Legally sanctioned housing discrimination both created segregated neighborhoods and kept home values and rents low; white flight saw middle-class people leave for the suburbs. Landlords and cities left black and brown neighborhoods to crumble. The recent return of white people to the cities their parents and grandparents abandoned means that prices have been on the rise, and neighborhoods once written off as “bad” and “scary” are now desirable lower-priced alternatives for mostly young people trying to make their city dreams come true. And landlords are ready for a chance to increase their profits—whether they are long-term property owners pushed out of absentee equilibrium into paying attention to their buildings and making improvements in order to raise rents, or they are private equity and hedge-fund hawks circling, looking for new “investments.”

But these days, new young gentrifiers are less and less likely to find a full-time job that pays them enough to cover those rising rents. Instead, they move from neighborhood to neighborhood, priced out of the place they moved into just the year before, following that wave further out. They leave, and someone who can afford the slightly higher rent moves in, and the cycle speeds up.

Being part of the first wave of gentrification means that you experience the abuse along with the benefit of cheap(er) rent. It means that as soon as you’ve moved in they want you to move out again, so they can raise the rent still more.

Not long after I moved into my Crown Heights place (my third Brooklyn apartment), my upstairs neighbor—who had warned me of shoddy repairs to my bathroom ceiling with a cheery “You live here now? My floor caved in through your ceiling a little while back!”—disappeared. I found out she was gone when I woke up one morning to the sight of broken furniture flying past my bedroom window, crashing onto the sidewalk below.

A new family moved in shortly thereafter.

A few months ago the folks in the apartment across from mine—a shy teenage boy, whose college information packets often mistakenly wound up in my mailbox, and his mother, who worked nights and came home in scrubs—disappeared as well. They were replaced by a crowd of those dreaded white “hipsters” who embody the worst loud-partying gentrifier clichés.

It’s almost too easy to write clichés about gentrification in New York. And yet you find contradictions everywhere—the bodega owner who tells you that it’s good to have more people like you in the neighborhood and the neighbors who invite you to their backyard barbecue, not to mention the white woman who is the angriest that there are “yuppies” in the neighborhood. And then there’s that feeling of rage I too get at my new white neighbors.

It is easy, for a somewhat self-aware person living in a gentrifying city, to either look for a way to blame yourself or absolve yourself. The impulses are two sides of the same coin: heads, you’re the “good gentrifier” because you like your neighbors and don’t blast your music too loud; tails, you should just move out of the city because anywhere you go you are destroying something. Neither answer is productive. Neither one is political.

I found out about the Crown Heights Tenant Union through an e-mail from a friend I met at Occupy Wall Street, telling me about that first public action. She invited me as a reporter, and I arrived with my recorder and camera in hand, but left with a stack of flyers to deposit in the entry to my building and the intention to go to their next organizing meeting as a member.

The meeting I attended a few weeks after the rally was at the Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation on Classon Avenue. It featured hovering documentary filmmakers, an ever-growing circle of chairs spanning the atrium, and me sitting in the back trying to figure out whether to take notes or to simply be present as a participant.

We went around the room and introduced ourselves that day and instead of doing the usual New York thing of explaining who you are and what you do for a living, we gave our names and addresses and how long we’d lived in the neighborhood. Answers ranged from a few months to nearly fifty years.

That’s the thing about the Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU)—it aims to bring these two parts of the neighborhood together, the new residents and the long-time ones. Because our needs aren’t actually different. We need livable apartments at reasonable rents and landlords who respond and aren’t trying to drive us out. We need repairs done and the heat to be on when it is legally required to be. We need to be seen as important enough to deserve a decent place to live. Young people who are new residents—many of them radicalized by or before Occupy Wall Street started shaking up the city—need this too.

Because the problems of Brooklyn’s gentrifying neighborhoods won’t be solved by a housing-market version of “ethical consumption.” It’s going to take collective action.

It seems to be paying off for the CHTU. They’ve succeeded in bringing landlords to the table to make repairs, and they’ve also grown the union by bringing in more residents from other buildings that are both rent-regulated and leased at market rate. At a rally, march, and picnic on June 7 in Brower Park, state assembly members joined the union to call for affordable housing.

But the definition of “affordable” varies among elected officials, and it’s not simply construction that is needed. It was rent-stabilization laws that regulated rent increases, which could go up each year by only a small amount determined by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board (RGB); this allowed tenants to be able to afford to stay in their rental apartments for long periods. But landlords could raise rents based on a percentage of what they spent renovating a vacant apartment. This incentivized those landlords to undertake renovations only when they could profit from them, leaving long-term residents in lousy conditions that the landlords could then use to lever residents out of their homes. Policy changes can improve this, or failing that, the CHTU can try to get landlords to sign on to its contract demands. The CHTU and other tenant organizations around the city targeted the RGB as well as specific landlords, aiming for policy changes that would benefit lots of tenants at once.

It’s not just Crown Heights that has a gentrification problem. More importantly, slowing the process down in one part of the city will only speed it up elsewhere, as new residents start to search for new housing. It’ll take citywide change to more comprehensively address gentrification and at least some of that will have to come from policymakers as well as organizers.

New mayor Bill de Blasio told me in an interview last year that he thought it was time for a rent freeze. On May 5, 2014, I took the subway to an RGB meeting, where the board was due to discuss the possibility of a rent freeze before the public for the first time, before an eventual vote on the subject that June.

Groups like Good Old Lower East Side, the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, and others showed up and formed a loose circle outside the building, walking and chanting, carrying signs that demanded a rent freeze or even a rent rollback; it felt not unlike a picket line. Cop cars turned up, too.

When the meeting finally began, almost two hours late because of airport-level security at the building’s entrance, Harvey Epstein, one of the tenant representatives on the board, asked that the board “consider the accessibility of our spaces” when future public meetings, particularly ones that would rely

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