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Brooklyn Tenants Demand Rent Relief at RBG Hearing

Janaki Chadha Jun 23, 2015

Bushwick resident Gladys Puglla has been living in her apartment for 18 years, and during that time she has constantly been fighting eviction. For her, rent hikes are only part of the story. Last Thursday, she stood in the hallway outside of a packed Rent Guidelines Board hearing at Brooklyn Borough Hall and talked about how, throughout her almost two decades living in the same building, she hasn’t had heat in her bedroom. “[In court] they say they’re supposed to come and repair, but they don’t enforce it,” she said. “They enforce me to pay their rent, but they don’t enforce them to do repairs. That’s a problem. That’s why I say, that court, Brooklyn Housing Court, is only for landlords, not for tenants.”

On June 18, at the last public hearing before the RGB votes on annual rent increases for the city’s 950,000 rent regulated apartments, stories like Puglla’s were commonplace. Tenant coalitions, activist groups, and individuals protesting rent increases packed in a room with an ornate, domed ceiling and testified to similar treatment in the rapidly gentrifying borough. Signs with messages such as “Rollback!” or “Rent is too damn high!” were sprinkled amid the crowd.

The nine-member RGB is appointed by the mayor. It was scheduled to cast its final vote on this year's rent increases on June 24 but has postponed that meeting to June 29 due to a continued stalemate in Albany over the renewal of New York's rent laws.

Bushwick resident Olivia Cortez spoke of her poor living conditions and legal harassment used by her landlord. Despite this, rent chews up a large share of her monthly income.

 “[A rollback] would be a great help because I’m a single mother, so that will provide a lot of support for me to give my child everything that he needs to survive,” she said to cheers of support from the room, as was frequent after tenant testimonies throughout the evening.

Her experiences hit many of the common themes of the hearing—namely, the prevalent use of unethical and often malicious tactics on the part of landlords to expel existing tenants, and the trend of many previously affordable Brooklyn neighborhoods becoming less and less of an option for working-class New Yorkers.

For 20-year old Sunset Park resident Kimberly Morales, landlord harassment is why her single mother has been in court since Morales was 14. Her current landlord wanted to raise the rent by $600, she explained, and attempted to trick her mother into doing so. “He didn’t force her but pressured her on signing a lease, which had the preferential as the first one on top, and then on the bottom it had the original. But all of a sudden, we noticed that he was raising it up too high, and it was because he tricked my mother,” she said. “And she couldn’t read it because it was in English. And so that’s what we’re here for, because I feel like he can’t do that.”

For Flatbush resident Esther Estime, who attended the hearing with her young son, her negative experiences in her building reached an appalling height. Due to landlord neglect, a ceiling in her apartment collapsed on her son, Khalil, in July of last year. “I wanted [my son] to see a part of the movement, so I brought him with me here,” she said. “It’s really been hard for me, because every second, I’m in court with this guy, and he owns 180 buildings, he is powerful, so it’s like, we’re little people.”

Fellow Flatbush resident Theresa Barriteau-Serrano said she just stumbled across the meeting, but added how listening to fellow tenants share their stories made her realize that her experiences aren’t unique to her building or neighborhood, as she had believed earlier, but citywide. She reflected on the changes she has seen in the borough, asking, “So where does that put the poor and the working poor? Where are they gonna put us?”

Some owners were present at the hearing as well, albeit a much smaller number than tenants, and they were overwhelmingly small landlords. Their testimonies were frequently met with groans or the crowd beginning to chant, “Rollback! Rollback!” While most focused on rising operating costs, and, as they argued, the necessity of raising rents in that context, some took a different approach. Daniel Klein, assistant manager at a property, expressed doubts that an extra $20 a month could get anyone evicted (to which many members of the audience shouted, “Really?”), but argued that a small increase from tenants could keep various blue-collar workers who service buildings from losing their jobs.

For many tenants, however, even very minor rent increases could have serious repercussions. For Bushwick resident Diana Zarumeño, a single mother to three kids who works as a cashier in a grocery store and already spends all of her income on rent, a rent increase would mean having to take up a second job if she wants to keep her apartment. For Morales, who is in her second year of college, it could mean having to drop out so she could work full-time. For Barriteau-Serrano, increasing rent prices continually prevent her from having enough money to take the exam to get her social work license, even though she already has a degree.

Eviction is also a continuous fear for many, one that rent hikes only intensify. Flatbush resident Claire Cejour, deeply nostalgic for the Brooklyn she arrived in when she emigrated from Haiti in 1989, highlighted the impossibility of finding housing in the borough after having lost an apartment. “We have a crisis in Brooklyn,” she said. “If you leave an apartment, you cannot afford another one. You can’t find [one] because they ask you for three times of the money you pay. And they want to put you out, move you out from the city.”

Puglla expressed a similar sense of loss about her neighborhood in Bushwick. “We’re losing our homes, we’re losing our communities, the gentrification is killing us,” she said, shaking her head. “Gentrification is getting everybody evicted that used to live so many years there. Past five years, completely—just, like they say, 180-degree change.”

She still, however, manages to have hope. When asked if she is afraid of eviction, she chuckled a little. “No, because I always win,” she said. “He try every tactic, he look for every little excuse, but this year I’m gonna keep fighting again.”

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