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Housing Justice Leaders Stand with Tish James in Calling Out 100 Worst Landlords

By Akosua K. Albritton

NYC Public Advocate Letitia “Tish” James held a press conference in the company of long-standing housing rights nonprofits at City Hall on Thursday, October 13, 2016. Tish James presented the “2016 100 Worst Landlords in New York City” list. The top 5 “Worsts” include Harry D. Silverstein (8 buildings), Allan Goldman (25 buildings), Efstlathios Valiotis (8 buildings), Martin Kirzner (11 buildings), and in fifth place, Ved Parkash (4 buildings).

In between chants of “Tenants United Will Never Be Defeated” and “Fight! Fight! Fight! Housing is a Right”, various elected officials and housing justice leaders came to the podium to talk about the issues of basic livable conditions and demands, deferred maintenance, increasing rent and gentrification.

Some groups represented particular boroughs or neighborhoods, while others were citywide service providers. From Brooklyn came the Fifth Avenue Committee, Crown Heights Tenant Union, CAMBA, IMPACCT and representing the Bronx was Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association (Banana Kelly). Citywide housing justice groups attending the rally included Association of Neighborhood Housing Developer (ANHD, with a membership of 95 nonprofits), HASA (HIV/AIDS Services Administration), CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates for Children), Asian-Americans for Equality and Make the Road New York.

Crown Heights Tenant Union, created in 2013, is a relatively new housing body; however, it counts 14 multiple dwelling buildings in Brooklyn Community District 8 and 19 buildings in Brooklyn Community District 9 as part of the union of tenants who take their landlords to task to provide habitable units immediately. Donna Mossman, one of the group’s founding members, came to the podium to applaud the groups who were present at the rally and to encourage the body in their tenant advocacy.

In addition to the landlord list, the Public Advocate demanded such essential housing needs as “no vermin and no holes within a building or an apartment; all housing units being free of lead paint; no illegal evictions and landlords ensuring the warranty of habitability is in place”. James also advised renters to “know your rights about a cash buyout”.

Harold DeRienzo, President of Banana Kelly, added his voice by stating: “Banana Kelly has worked over these past 40 years to preserve and create affordable housing in the South Bronx. We work hard to maintain affordability – our average rent is about $900 a month, compared to $1,950 for the Bronx as a whole. But now that we have redeveloped areas like the South Bronx, we are seeing speculators and owners looking to take advantage of profit-making opportunities.”

DeRienzo explains the speculators use “tactics to push out tenants”. These tactics range from “owners, directly or through their agents, making life so uncomfortable, creating such a nuisance, and generally making life so unbearable for tenants that they either leave on their own or are willing to take “buyouts” to leave voluntarily to doing other things to skirt the building code rules while using the excuse of “making improvements” that are never fully completed until tenants move out”.

James added the demand to alter the calculation of the Area Median Income (AMI) from using areas within the New York City MSA to calculating it based on the zip codes that cover the five boroughs.

This rally was indeed rousing and a time for groups across New York City to coalesce. But what is the reality of dispensing housing services back in the neighborhoods? How are neighborhood preservationists fairing financially and tactically?

On October 9 and 11, 2016 this reporter contacted (via e-mail) the Executive Directors for ANHD, Brooklyn Neighborhood Improvement Association, Erasmus Neighborhood Federation, Make the Road New York, North East Brooklyn Housing Development Corp., FUREE’s Program Coordinator and Pamoja House’s Program Director to inquire about the state of community/building organizing as well as moving the homeless into permanent housing. Two leaders responded.

Yves Vilus is the Executive Director of Erasmus Neighborhood Federation (ENF). For 30 years, ENF has served the Flatbush and East Flatbush communities by organizing buildings and tenant patrols, mediating landlord-tenant disputes, providing housing workshops, supporting commercial revitalization and managing a child care network. Mr. Vilus stated public funding from such agencies as NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development and NYS Division of Housing and Community Renewal “has totally decreased. Most groups are forced to merge or go out of business completely. The private pools are getting smaller; only the well-connected get private funding”. In terms of the activism of residents, Vilus opined that “block associations and tenant associations are not like they used to be. We have mostly new tenants who [are] not too caring about attending meetings and the old ones either died or moved out of the buildings or [were] forced out by their landlords”.

His response to whether he sees a distinction between the terms “gentrification” and “displacement” is that “they are both the same. When you are displaced, the new tenants are paying higher rents. The old tenants either have to move out of the community or put their belongings into storage–which they are building constantly in our community”. He recognizes “the Executive Directors of BNIA, Fifth Avenue Committee, [IMPACCT], Carroll Gardens and some organizations in Manhattan” as people who strongly exemplify agents of neighborhood preservation”. However, he believes that “we are losing the battle regarding so-called affordable housing. The old tenants, especially those on fixed incomes, cannot afford Brooklyn”.

Jeffrey Dunston is the Executive Director of North East Brooklyn Housing Development Corp. (NEBHDCo). He explained that NEBHDCo chose housing construction early in its life because the organization spotted the decline in funding for housing organizing. Dunston stated NEBHDCo has been in the trenches of community development:

Over the past thirty-one years, we believe our work toward combating displacement has evolved through the creation of affordable housing–both rental and homeownership. Based on today’s housing policies, homelessness continues to be the main topic as an issue of concern. As a result, the demand for more affordable housing has surpassed the [supply] of new units being developed in Brooklyn. Much of the displacement advocacy work today focuses on tenant evictions.

With regards to “gentrification”, we view this as a by-product of our earlier work to rehabilitate and create new units of affordable housing. We also believe that housing and social policies, as well as market forces, have led to increased real estate values in part due to the deregulation of the mortgage markets in the 2000’s. While, yes, we have gone through a downturn in the market, values for New York City was minimal at best because high-end development in the city insulated market values throughout [the] five boroughs. The end result [for] rents meant that market rents would continue to increase. With regards to stabilized housing markets, rents also increased historically due to RGB increases over more than a decade. Independent of the rent increase freezes or lower percentage increases, these housing units, for some, have become unaffordable to those at the 30 to 40 percent of AMI because of reduced housing subsidies.

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