Open City: Blogging Urban Change
DLB (Delinquent Landlord Behavior) leads to Great Tenant Organizing
By Cristiana Baik

 

Sunset Park’s blueprint is palimpsest. Its demographic history can be traced through the diverse congregations that have made their homes along Fourth Avenue. Pews once occupied by Norwegian settlers in the late nineteenth century are now occupied by growing Chinese and Latino congregations.

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Marcela Mitaynes, a tenant organizer for Neighbors Helping Neighbors


In late 2010, I first spoke to Marcela Mitaynes, a tenant organizer for Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a nonprofit organization based in Sunset Park. After having been raised in the same apartment building for twenty-eight years (her grandparents had rented her former apartment before her), she was evicted by a new landlord in 2007. The reason for the eviction? She replaced broken cabinets with new cabinets. After months of the new landlord not complying to her requests, Marcela gave up, and decided to replace the broken cabinets herself: “They were so old that all the knobs had come off. There was nothing but a chipped, base layer of paint left on the cabinet doors,” she explained. Yet a legal technicality included in her lease agreement–whereby no changes could be made to the apartment “infrastructure” without written legal permission from the new landlord (although she had received verbal permission from her former landlord)– gave her new landlord a loophole. As Marcela was unable to re-install the dilapidated old cabinets (she had thrown them out when replacing them with her new cabinets), her new landlord took her to court, and was eventually able to evict her out of a space that her family had occupied for over three generations. Not long after, Marcela was able to guess the reason behind the eviction: her landlord, who also purchased ten other apartment complexes in Sunset Park, decided to renovate the building for new potential tenants who could afford a substantial rent hike. When she left, Marcela’s two-bedroom apartment (rent stabilized) was rented for $624. Since then, the rent has more than doubled.

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Marcela’s 2007 eviction coincided with the Bloomberg administration’s decision to undergo a zoning study of Sunset Park, which lead to an official 197-a Plan of the neighborhood. As CB 7′s blog explains, a city 197-a plan

provides a framework or “blueprint” for
development in a particular geographic area. . .A
197-a plan is primarily concerned with land use
although it may also address programmatic and
service delivery needs.

Shortly after, the Pratt Center for Community Development–in collaboration with several nonprofit organizations, and Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez–lead a series of community meetings, which were then earmarked by a community survey. In this survey, Sunset Park residents stated that one of their main priorities was to “preserve and create affordable housing.” But as Marcela explained, evictions of long-time Sunset Park residents have intensified since 2007. Does the increased rate of eviction correlate to the new revitalization plan? Who are the ones addressing the “programmatic and service delivery needs,” if it is not the community (and how do we make sense of the new “programmatic and service delivery needs,” that actually lead to the ousting of long-time residents)?

Marcela’s eviction lead her to work with Neighbors Helping Neighbors, first as a client, then as a tenant organizer. Neighbors Helping Neighbors is a nonprofit organization that educates tenants on their rights as renters, and lobbies/advocates for rent stabilization/rent control. Seriously. Who as a renter in NYC doesn’t need to be educated on their rights as a tenant? Most New Yorkers have, one time or another, experienced the almost humorous (in hindsight!) unintelligibility of NYC landlords: at best, they are indifferent. At worst, they are callous and manipulative. Last spring, The Village Voice ran a depressing article on slimy landlords, naming the top ten worst landlords in New York:

How many bad landlords are there in New York City? Who can count that high? But we can count to 10, so we assembled this group of really bad landlords—listed in no particular order—only after months of research. We combed through records of unresolved violations, lawsuits, eviction notices, and court documents. We spent thousands of hours in deeply depressing apartments and interviewed wave after wave of equally gloomy tenants. We also talked with scores of landlords, city bureaucrats, prosecutors, defense attorneys, housing advocates, and others. . .

After less than a year of renting in the city, even I’ve experienced this dubious DLB (Delinquent Landlord Behavior). In my first apartment in Brooklyn, my landlord remained practically invisible: he lived year round in Israel, only to come back to the States for a month to re-lease the apartments in his complex. If at first he was practically invisible, he soon became omnipresent: in August, after deciding to hike my rent by $150, he MOVED into the first floor of the two-story, converted loft space that I lived in. NO JOKE. In moods vacillating from good humor to rancor, there was really nothing I could do, but wait until my lease was up (a month wait or so). So the idea of a community organization determined to protect a resident’s rights as a tenant is not only brilliant: it is a necessary resource, from recent transplants (like myself) to those born and raised in the city (like Marcela).

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Last week, I visited Marcela at her office. She spoke of the recent rent regulation vigil held at City Hall (January 3rd) that Neighbors Helping Neighbors participated in, on the evening of Andrew Cuomo’s inauguration. Organized by the REAL Rent Reform Campaign, the vigil also reminded City Hall of the upcoming expiration of a set of rent protection laws that will expire in mid-June of this year. A recent short blurb on a city real estate website expressed varying opinions on the REAL Rent Reform Campaign. One comment states: “If the tenant is not happy he moves and the bad landlords go bankrupt.” Yet it seems clear that new real estate “development” does not punish bad landlords. . . they only punish (and evict) long-time tenants.

One Response to DLB (Delinquent Landlord Behavior) leads to Great Tenant Organizing

  1. Eddie says:

    Marcela’s eviction is surely an injustice, but she should be aware that the so-called Real Rent Reform campaign is a fraud, run by unions and politicians that make deals with landlords to develop luxury housing that pushes tenants out.

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Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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