Donna Mossman is a founding member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, Esteban Giron is a member and leader in the CHTU who started the Court Solidarity Committee. Working together they are fighting gentrification by educating tenants on their rights and organizing tenant associations building by building, block by block. CHTU is unique in that it unites new and old residents of Crown Heights to push back against harassment, illegal displacement and win tenant control over rental housing in the neighborhood.
Tell us a bit about your backgrounds and your relationship with Brooklyn. What inspired you to become involved in the tenant rights/housing movement? Donna Mossman: My mother and I have lived in Crown Heights for 38 years. We were displaced from a rent controlled apartment and I vowed that would never happen to us again. My mother was a union delegate at her place of employment. When we were at the point of being displaced, it was my turn to become a housing advocate. My mother is a retired senior citizen and she should not have to worry about having a place to live.
Esteban Giron: I moved to Brooklyn 6 years ago. I sublet apartments in Astoria, East Harlem, Bushwick, Williamsburg and Prospect Heights, each time being priced out of the neighborhood. My husband and I decided to “dig in” and ensure we had an affordable, rent-stabilized apartment in Crown Heights, and the CHTU helped us fight for a win a $300/month rent reduction and get court-mandated repairs from the landlord. After that, it was an easy decision to become more involved in the CHTU!
Tell us about when you first started working with UHAB. DM: During the Summer of 2013, Cea Weaver and Elise Goldin of UHAB were called to assist the Tenants of 1153-1159 President Street when the former landlord put the buildings up for auction. Both Cea and Elise expressed to tenants at the very first meeting that they were there to train tenants on how to organize and facilitate their own building meetings and would provide us with support. They have done a tremendous job in training tenants who have become tenant leaders. I am one of those leaders.
You are the leadership of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, can you explain what a tenant union is, and why it is important to the community? DM: I am one of the Founding Members of the Crown Heights Tenant Union. The Crown Heights Tenant Union is a tenant led community organization that educates tenants on their rights, provides training and assist tenants in organizing their buildings making them tenant associations. The gentrification of Crown Heights has displaced hundreds of tenants through illegal actions by landlords/developers. We are important to the community because we provide a place for tenants to come together and fight back. We pair tenants with other tenants who have the same landlord/developer and gain strength in numbers. It is a place of unity. Although, I am not opposed to gentrification, I am opposed to the displacement of long standing tenants.
EG: In a tenant union, the people banding together are tenants, and their common enemy is their landlord, which can be anything from a single individual like my landlord Freddy Sayegh, to a multinational corporation like Donna’s landlord, Akelius from Sweden. We organize “locals” which are groups of autonomous tenant associations linked together in various ways, such as having the same landlord or residing on the same block. Membership in the tenant union is granted only to tenants, though we count many homeowners as friends! The CHTU has also mobilized to hold our city and state agencies, as well as our local politicians, accountable to the tenants of Crown Heights.
What is its role in interacting with tenants, landlords and local authorities? DM: We provide tenants with a safe place to discuss their issues and provide support and education. We have rallied against landlords at the properties they own and their place of business to bring light to their unfair housing practices. Landlords have met with CHTU at our request. Landlords are aware of CHTU and often times will make repairs, remove unfair charges from tenants rent records in order to avoid publicity.
We have met with the Mayor de Blasio, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Public Advocate, Tish James, Housing Commissioner Vicki Been, Assemblywomen Diana Richardson and Laurie Cumbo. Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley has supported CHTU nearly from the beginning and is through his efforts we were able to meet with public officials.
What have you seen change in regards to housing since tenants have organized and starting fighting back against unfair conditions? DM: Tenants are saying “No” to buyouts. Tenants are becoming members of Tenant Organizations and they are organizing their buildings with our support and the support of UHAB. Tenants are less afraid of reaching out to HPD by dialing 311. CHTU and other Community Housing Groups slept outside overnight, in the park across the street from Governor Cuomo’s office in Albany to shame him into renewing the rent laws. Which he did. Also hundreds of tenants rallied at the Rent Guidelines Board hearings to ensure a 0% rent increase for a one year lease. This is the first 0% percent increase in history.
In your opinion, what’s the future of the housing in Brooklyn? What can tenants do to ensure fairness? DM: The future of housing for Brooklyn is bleak. Brooklyn is the most expensive place to live in the United States. New so called “Affordable Housing” is not affordable for the tenants who live in the community. We are surrounded by new developments that we cannot afford to live in. We have to continue to fight, organize, rally and demand that tenants are treated fairly.
EG: Rent-regulated apartments make up the majority of the affordable housing stock in New York City. In the next few years, we have the opportunity to strengthen rent-stabilization at the state level and demand greater access and affordability for all tenants from our city government. Best advice I can give a tenant is to get your rent history through DHCR and if you see any major jumps in rent, contact a tenant advocacy group such as CHTU or UHAB for help. Likewise, if you are having trouble getting repairs, or if you have heat or hot water issues, first call 311 to report it and then contact us!
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