On Wednesday about 150 demonstrators gathered on the south side of Bushwick. The marchers included local residents, along with community activists (from organizations like Make The Road, Los Sures, and St. Nicks Alliance) and high school kids with banners demanding access to affordable housing.
But on Tuesday morning, Brooklyn Paper published an article which labeled the public action an “anti-gentrification rally.” Unfortunately the term “anti-gentrification” frames the issue of affordable housing as one that can be examined through a simplistic dichotomy of longtime residents versus wealthy privileged newcomers. Thinking about the housing crisis this way ignores those actually responsible for the negative effects of gentrification.
Jose Lopez is a lifelong resident of the neighborhood and lead organizer at Make The Road, a Bushwick-based advocacy, educational, lobbying, and activist organization devoted to protecting the rights of immigrants and the minimum wage workforce. Yesterday, we spoke with Lopez, one of the central organizers of the rally, who explained the action sought to address the issue of affordable housing, particularly the threat to existing rent regulated units, which have been on the decline throughout the city. When families move out of these types of apartments, they can be converted to market rate units. This is the most common reason for the loss, or deregulation of rent regulated units.
“The people who were here in the 60s, 70s, 80s, it’s really those families that are suffering the most,” Lopez said. “Not just because they are getting pushed out of the neighborhood they’ve been a part of for so long, but because they are finally seeing something good come to the neighborhood, like increased access to park space, access to healthy foods. And even though they were calling for those things before, they are not the people who will be able to benefit.”
Though Lopez has no problem with the term “gentrification,” he outlined a more nuanced definition for the term than we’re used to hearing. “If I could sum up gentrification in two words it would be ‘involuntary displacement,'” Lopez said. “We’ve seen a lot of the neighborhood transition and a lot of the families that we grew up with go, involuntarily, and be displaced. So what we’re trying to do is to hold on to what it is that we have left.”
Maritza Davila, Bushwick’s New York State Assembly Representative and lifelong resident of the neighborhood, was also present at the rally. “There’s been a large number of illegal displacements in my district due to bad landlords,” she said. “Things do change. We don’t have a problem with it, and there are tons of beautiful restaurants and places to go now, but by the same token we all have to follow the laws.”
But Davila bristled at the suggestion the rally’s message was about anti-gentrification: “It wasn’t an anti-gentrification rally. It was just community residents coming together to show that we’re here, we exist, and this is our community too.”
Lopez was also quick to dispel the idea the rally was about targeting newcomers. “Often times for a lot of our older members, unless the education is there, they don’t know who to point the finger at,” he explained. “So that’s what we’re doing, we’re trying to make the connection between the problems that exist and the bad policy and the bad systems that allow these problems to exist, so that there’s no finger pointing at the new neighbor that came in, saying they’re responsible for the gentrification that’s happening in Bushwick.”
He added, “The real enemy is bad policy.”
Lopez and Davila are calling for support from legislators to address the lack of protections for maintaining rent regulated housing. According to data from the Furman Center since at least 1981, the city’s rent regulated housing stock has been shrinking. Rent controlled units have seen the most dramatic losses, from a total of 285,555 units in 1981 in 2011 there were only 38,374 left.
“The biggest fight for us going to happen in 2015 with the State Legislature,” Lopez explained. “The rent laws are set to expire in June and every couple of years there’s this fight with Albany.”
On Wednesday, the protestors marched down Grove Street and Knickerbocker Avenue, before reaching their destination on DeKalb Avenue, the address Bushwick resident Maria Najera calls home. According to Lopez, a few years ago Maria’s building had six rent stabilized units. That number has dwindled to just two, one of which belongs to Maria and her family. But like many rent stabilized tenants in Bushwick, the landlord refuses to address maintenance issues, and has offered Maria buyouts. She’s refused to accept them, but he continues to verbally harass her in an attempt to force her out of the apartment.
“These buyouts, they’re ridiculous,” Davila said.
Lopez confirmed that a common way for landlords to convince tenants of rent regulated apartments to move out is to offer them up to $10,000 in cash. “That probably looks like a ton of money, and for a family that has jobs paying $8, $9 an hour, it sounds like a lot of money too,” he said. “But the reality is that in a neighborhood like Bushwick, if you want to remain here, there’s no way you’re going to find a two bedroom apartment for less than $1800 at this point.”
Lopez’s organization, Make The Road, helps support tenants in disputes with their landlords. “Nine times out of ten when we have a conversation with the tenant about how long it’s been going on and why they think the landlord is refusing [to make repairs], the response is, ‘We think our landlord is doing everything he or she can to get us to be fed up with the conditions of our apartment so that we can get up and go.'”
The problem is certainly widespread, as the New York Times reported earlier this year, many landlords are looking to cash in on skyrocketing rent rates so they force rent-regulated tenants out of their homes, sometimes through illegal means.
The vast majority of rent regulated housing units in the city are located in Manhattan. Lopez explained another aim of the rally was to bring attention to Brooklyn: “This was an opportunity to show people this is not just a Manhattan issue, this is an issue that’s happening across the five boroughs and the families that are feeling the most burdened are low-income and black and Latino.”
And while the newer, market-rate and luxury housing stock in Bushwick is largely responsible for the ability to gouge prices, Maritza Davila explained she’s working to bring the newcomers and longtime residents together. “We’re going to start a committee of residents, so they they can start to understand each other, because that’s part of the problem; there’s a lack of understanding,” she said. “We need to come to a consensus that we can all live in the same community.”
Both Davila and Lopez agreed the rally was a promising start to their efforts, which they say will expand throughout the rest of the city to bring attention to the loss of rent-regulated units in every borough. “It was good for the neighborhood to see the message, that the rent is ‘too damn high,'” Lopez said. “And we need to protect residents from being either bought out or pushed out.”