Everyone at some point or another has been convinced that their landlord is the all time worst (y’know, it would’ve been good to have that leak in my roof in Bushwick fixed when I asked before Hurricane Irene, after Hurricane Irene, then before Hurricane Sandy…) but lately, it seems like every day brings a new story worse than the one that came before it about the borough’s landlords that are either outlandishly negligent, mustache-twirling-ly evil, or in some cases both. There was that Thought Catalog essay about a Greenpoint building that collapsed while the author was still a resident, video of the same Greenpoint landlord bizarrely attacking tenants of a different building, a recent lawsuit about blatant attempts to replace black tenants with white ones, or any news story at all relating to Joel and Aaron Israel, the Bushwick landlords facing lawsuit after lawsuit for destroying the homes of low-income, rent-stabilized tenants in a bid to replace them with all the young people willing to pay $1,000/month for a room in the neighborhood. Those kind of bad landlords.
Since the fresh wave of PR (everyone loves reading a horror story, it seems), plenty of local politicians have, of course, denounced an obviously denounce-able situation. Councilman Antonio Reynoso and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez of Bushwick have slammed the city’s absurd, lenient fines for this kind of thing (Joel Israel is reportedly facing a less than $2,500 penalty for destroying his building at 98 Linden, for instance, and even the so-called “Worst Landlord in New York” was only sentenced to five days in prison), there’s now a bill in state legislature to make so-called “rent sabotage” a felony, and just yesterday, Borough President Eric Adams announced he’d met with D.A. Ken Thompson to discuss better ways to prosecute landlords “who are abusing housing laws [and] doing it with impunity.”
Important, to be sure, but also pretty cold comfort if you already happen to be living in an apartment without basic utilities, or with the kitchen and bathroom inexplicably torn out. Which would explain why so many tenants are now taking things into their own hands. “It’s a huge problem,” said Celia Weaver of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), a 40-year-old nonprofit that’s recently had a hand in forming the already-influential Crown Heights Tenant Union. “There are all of these laws on the books that supposedly protect tenants, but the only people enforcing them are the tenants themselves […] There’s a code enforcement bureau, but there’s no anti-harassment bureau.”
For their part, the CHTU has been organizing tenants’ unions from individual buildings, helping longtime residents navigate opaque and often glacial housing bureaucracy, and disseminating know-your-rights information like “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” a guide for longtime residents facing seemingly generous buyout offers (surprise surprise, landlords don’t always pay up). There’s the Bushwick Housing Independence Project, too, and building-level organizations like the one created by tenants at 95 Clay (the one whose landlord, Malina Nealis, attacked them on video) after their building lapsed into a cartoonish level of disrepair. (When her apartment flooded with so much water during a snowstorm that the electricity had to be turned off, former resident Heather Newberger says Nealis told her, “Put out buckets,” then refused to speak to her for a month and a half.)
Eventually, the entire building—all of them artists hoping to hang onto their cheap-for-Greenpoint apartments—was referred to the St. Nick’s Alliance after filing complaints with Councilman Stephen Levin’s office. They were told to keep filing non-stop 311 complaints and eventually starting working with Rolando Guzman, who noted the irony of so-called gentrifiers finding themselves in this position.
“Usually what we see is that long-term residents, often immigrants, are the ones being harassed and living in poor conditions,” he said. “It’s more unique that there are white professionals who are also victims of this harassment. Rather than just giving up and moving on, though, they stayed together, created a tenant association, and are fighting back to improve their conditions, which is amazing. A lot of times these young people, they don’t know their rights, or they don’t want to spend energy fighting to improve their conditions.”
In the case of 95 Clay, tenants have gotten just about everything they’ve asked for after months of work (and gritting their teeth without heat and hot water through the Polar Vortex), and in a way, it’s comforting to think that community organizations like St. Nick’s and UHAB that’ve been around since the 1970s are still fighting the good fight, educating tenants and grassroots organizing—somebody’s gotta do it, etc. (Of UHAB, Weaver says, “In hyper gentrified neighborhoods, co-ops that we’ve had a hand in creating are some of the only really diverse and affordable housing left.”) Of course, the flip side of this is the disturbing reality of how much work (not to mention costly time away from their jobs) and effort the entire building had to put in just to right a situation that’s so obviously wrong, and the fact that one of the first success stories to come out of this news cycle happens to be a building of largely white, middle class tenants. Still, when tenants commit to digging in, the benefits can vastly outweigh the costs. 95 Clay tenant Samantha Nguyen explained it like so: “We’ve thought about moving, but we can afford this place, and we’d like to try to change things. This crappy little apartment is our home.”
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.