Serving UHAB for five years and counting, Cea Weaver is a pivotal voice and organizer within the housing rights movement in Brooklyn and NYC. UHAB, which strives to empower low income residents by creating tenant associations and co-ops city-wide, has seen countless successes stemmed from their community organizing efforts. Weaver is right in the center of it all, working with tenants to fight for affordable housing and fair treatment of renters. The glowing gem in her successes is the powerful Crown Heights Tenant Union, which Weaver helped build.
Tell us a bit about UHAB and their mission. Can you give us a bit of a background on the organization’s relationship with the community, and the role they play? UHAB empowers low- to moderate-income residents to take control of their housing and enhance communities by creating strong tenant associations and lasting affordable co-ops. Since 1973, UHAB has been organizing tenants to fight poor living conditions in buildings neglected or abandoned by landlords. We have formed hundreds of tenant associations and guided some 1,600 buildings from distressed rental to affordable housing cooperative, helping residents of more than 30,000 apartments become co-op homeowners. For the past decade, we have built a robust tenant organizing department that fights to strengthen tenants’ control over their housing. Whether with tenants or shareholders, our work is grounded in self-determination and our belief that low-income people hold the keys to their own solutions, particularly in facing the City’s current affordable housing crisis. .We work to foster power and democratic leadership within communities – building by building, block by block.
New Yorkers love nothing more than to bitch about housing–but no one seems to know what is actually going on. What’s the current reality on the housing market in Brooklyn compared to the past five years, especially regarding long term tenants / low income housing? The housing market suffered an extreme depression between 2008 and 2011. Speculation and greed led building owners to saddle their properties with unsustainable debt. This resulted in a massive foreclosure crisis and low-income tenants were the people who ultimately suffered from harassment and deferred maintenance. Since 2011, we have entered a period of hyper gentrification. We believe that gentrification is caused by real estate speculation – landlords and bankers work together to bid up the price of housing. In order to make their return, they have to displace lower paying residents and bring in new ones. In this investor oriented market, with extremely low interest rates and a lot of available capital, it’s like the 2008 crash didn’t even happen.
All this makes it difficult to win fights to preserve affordable housing. Although the City has a number of instruments (incentive programs, low-cost loan programs) that encourage landlords to provide affordable housing, it is hard for the City to compete on the open market with global capital firms that are buying up low-cost housing in all over Brooklyn.
Right now the Mayor is fighting to bring a new affordable housing tool – mandatory inclusionary housing – into New York City. Under MIH, the Mayor is hoping to use the power of new development to force the private market to create some low-cost housing. The problem with the Mayor’s plan is that communities are rejecting it–en masse. Community Board after Community Board voted it down. People are mad because the affordable housing isn’t affordable enough for them, and that building a lot of market rate units in a low-income neighborhood will increase the gentrification pressures and further incentivize current owners of affordable housing to displace low-income tenants in the hopes of getting higher rents. [Even just the way this question is posed – “New Yorkers love nothing more than to bitch about housing.”] The city is at a breaking point, and making an impact on the housing crisis is the most critical fight there is to keep New York a diverse, thriving, and working class city.
What can tenants do if they think they are being treated unfairly by a landlord, are living in unsafe conditions, or are facing rent increases? Tenants can call 311 and report bad living conditions. If they are rent stabilized, they can call DHCR and demand their rent history – this will help to reveal what their legal rent should be, and if they are being illegally overcharged. Ultimately, however, tenants must talk to their neighbors, organize a tenants association and work together to win fairness in their homes. It’s our belief that tenants are not going to win justice by asking their landlord 1:1 – they have to come together, and demand it.
Community organizing is a key part of UHAB’s model–tell us a bit about the role tenants play, how you all work with other local orgs/leaders to pursue more just housing. UHAB organizers work for the leaders of the tenant associations. We provide organizing support, training, and technical assistance. We print flyers and help distribute them, and we help with outreach. Our efforts are guided by the tenants we work with. We collaborate with building and community leaders to envision a more just world for tenants, and then support collective struggles to bring about that world.
What is on the horizon for the future of housing/tenant rights in Brooklyn? Tenants will win new rights, strengthened protections, and all new affordable housing will be deeply affordable to the neediest! We’re going to win.
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