Tenants Mobilize for Affordable Housing

Matt Sollett May 23, 2007

PREPARING FOR MAY 23: Soni Holman Fink (right) discusses a flyer with fellow tenant John Marsh at her apartment in Peter Cooper Village. On May 23, thousands of tenants and more than 80 community groups will converge on Stuy Town for a rally to kick-off the New York Is Our Home Affordable Housing Campaign. Photo : Dennis W. Ho
By Matt Sollett

Things are changing for Soni Holman Fink and the thousands of other residents of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. Since the 2006 sale of their housing complexes, which for years housed low- and middle-income families, rents have been rising. “You expect things to change over time,” Fink explained, “but the whole personality of this place is changing as rents continue to rise. You used to see young couples with children living here. Now it’s college kids who party in the hallways at four in the morning.”

Unfortunately, rent increases and ensuing demographic changes are not limited to Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town. Citywide, low- and middle-income tenants are being pushed out of their homes as rent-regulated leases are challenged by landlords who hope to increase rents and bring in more affluent tenants. “If rents continue to rise, there is nowhere else we can go, nowhere else we can afford,” Fink said.

John Marsh, who, along with Fink, is a member of the Peter Cooper Village-Stuyvesant Town Tenants Association, explained that things have certainly gotten worse since the complexes were sold. “Under MetLife, there were some challenges to [rent-regulated] lease renewals,” Marsh said. “With the new owners, Tishman Speyer, the number of challenges has quadrupled.” Some of the tenants have successfully defended themselves against the challenges, while others have been forced to give up their apartments.

This deteriorating situation has led the tenants association to join together with more than 80 other community and tenant groups to create the New York is Our Home Affordable Housing Campaign, a coalition pushing for statewide reforms to strengthen affordable housing regulations and increase funding for subsidized housing programs.

The campaign, with the support of many elected officials, including City Council members Daniel Gardonick and John Liu and State Senators Jose Serrano and John Sabini, is lobbying for several pieces of state legislation. Assembly Bills 352, 795 and 797 would provide protections for tenants living in various types of subsidized housing including Mitchell-Lama and Section 8. City Council Resolution 795, which supports these bills, warns that without these protections, “New York City could see a wave of displacement and gentrification.” The resolution also specifically calls for a review of the possible sale of Starrett City, a federally-subsidized housing development in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Housing activists fear the sale could lead to rent increases.

Organizers of the campaign are also pushing for legislation to provide assistance to low-income tenants living with AIDS. Cameron Craig, a community organizer with the New York City AIDS Housing Network, reports that many of these tenants are spending 50 to 70 percent of their income on rent, which leaves those surviving on subsidies like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or veterans’ benefits with as little as $11 a day for food, medicine and any other expenses. State Assembly Bill 05473 and State Senate Bill 2890 would cap these tenants’ monthly rent at 30 percent of their income.

According to Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development, “This campaign is especially significant because it is pushing to keep the affordable housing units we already have from being lost to vacancy decontrol, that is, to keep rent-regulated units rent-regulated.”

The campaign will officially launch May 23 at 5 p.m., when several thousand activists, housing advocates and tenants from around the city will form a human ring around Stuyvesant Town, followed by a march from the housing complex to Union Square Park.

“We are working with a broad array of groups, many that have never worked together before,” explained campaign organizer Chloe Tribich. “The real goal is to ensure there is affordable housing for everyone who needs it in New York City.”

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