A procession of protesters, accompanied by a marching band and carrying banners demanding a five-year rent freeze on all rent-stabilized apartments in New York City, snaked through Crown Heights last Saturday, June 7. Along the way, they stopped in front of the building at 1059 Union Street, where tenants said the landlord is trying to force out longtime residents who are paying below-market rates.
”We shall not be moved!” the protestors chanted as they gathered at the building’s entrance.
The protest, which drew more than 200 people, was organized by the Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU), a group that started last fall to combat what they say is a systematic attempt to clear tenants out of rent-stabilized apartments in a neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying.
“We rallied outside this building in February, when it was 10 degrees,” said tenant union member Donna Mossman. Residents say that the landlord, BCB Property Management, was harassing tenants and seeking to buy out their leases in order to move in new, higher-paying tenants but stopped doing so after the February protest. Tenants worry that this could only be a temporary reprieve. “What we need is to have the rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartments where we live to be preserved and that we feel safe,” Mossman added.
Crown Heights’ Changing Face
Trendy restaurants and cafes have sprouted like poppies in recent years in Crown Heights, making it one of the new frontlines of gentrification in New York City. As the process has gathered speed, longtime residents have been displaced by more affluent newcomers.
The changes in Crown Heights reflect a larger trend in New York which has been losing rent-stabilized housing for the past two decades. According to data from the Rent Guidelines Board, the city lost 249,000 rent-stabilized units from 1994 to 2012 and added 144,000 during that same time, a net loss of 105,000. More rent-regulated housing units would have been lost, according to a recent report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, if not for New York State’s Tenant Protection Unit which has returned 28,000 apartments to rent regulation after discovering that their owners had circumvented laws intended to protect rent-regulated housing,
CHTU’s inclusiveness was apparent during the rally as new residents of the neighborhood (typically young and white) marched alongside mostly Caribbean and African-American residents who have lived in the neighborhood for decades.
“We’ve actually embraced the gentrifiers because they too have been priced out of the neighborhoods,” Mossman told The Indypendent.
The willingness of the two groups to support each other has been a hallmark of the CHTU since its inception last fall. At that time, tenants at 1059 Union Street invited members of a local Occupy Wall Street offshoot to join their efforts to organize against BCB Property Management. The first meeting of about 20 people was held in the home of Betty Rice, a longtime tenant at 1059 Union Street who was alarmed when her landlord started buying out rent-stabilized tenants in the building and would harass residents who refused to leave.
“One of the reasons we started this organization is so people can know that they have rights and that they are being overcharged,” Rice said. “I didn’t know that there’s a place that I could go and get my rent history from 1984. And then I didn’t know, once you get it and you realize you’ve been overcharged, there’s a place that you can go and file that you have overpaid.”
Since the first meeting in Rice’s apartment, local interest in the Crown Heights Tenant Union has grown steadily. In less than a year, they’ve organized residents in 40 buildings around the neighborhood and the number of people who come to meetings has more than tripled to 70 people.
By organizing tenants in buildings throughout the neighborhood, the CHTU hopes to pressure landlords into signing a legally binding collective bargaining agreement that would address the concerns of residents who are being driven out of their homes. Some of the tenant union’s demands include a five-year rent freeze on all apartments, a right to timely repairs and a guarantee that any landlord offered buyout must be worth at least five years’ rent at the apartment’s current market rate.
In a sign of the tenant union’s growing appeal, activists and community organizers from across the city joined Saturday’s march as did State Assembly member Walter Mosley and State Senate candidate Demetrius Lawrence.
“It’s great to see this in my neighborhood,” said 35-year-old Tomica Norville, who was standing on her building’s stoop taking photos of protesters as they marched past her on Park Place. “It lets people see that we have a problem. The rent is too expensive and then the landlords are offering you small money to try and kick you out.”