No Justice, No Rent: Tenants Go On Strike in Brooklyn

Issue 256

Steven Wishnia Jun 12, 2020

With their incomes decimated by coronavirus-forced layoffs, tenants from about 15 buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx have gone on rent strike, demanding that their landlord bargain collectively with them to give them a break on rent during the crisis.

‘The tenant movement has an unprecedented opportunity.’

The buildings, mostly in Bushwick and Flatbush, are owned by the same landlord, the Williamsburg-based Carnegie Management. Most of the several dozen tenants involved so far are market-rate renters. Unlike rent-stabilized tenants, they have almost no rights under current law: There are no restrictions on rent increases, and their landlord can refuse to renew their lease without a reason unless it’s provably discriminatory. So, they’re trying to create a new right—to bargain collectively over rents, much as union workers would over wages.

“Knowing that each individual is negotiating doesn’t seem fair. It should be equal across the board, especially for those who’ve lost jobs,” says a tenant at 586 Hart St. in Bushwick who asked to remain anonymous. “If we’re negotiating in silos, we don’t know if we’re being taken advantage of.”

“As a building, we said, ‘You can speak to us as a collective,’” says a tenant at 15-17 Judge St. in East Williamsburg, where about 15 of the 20 apartments are on rent strike. “We’re trying to do this all together so nobody gets screwed.”

The tenants’ demands, listed in a May 23 email to Carnegie Management from the 345 Eldert St. Tenants Association in Bushwick, include “rent forgiveness for those who cannot pay”; no evictions for the mandated quarantine period and some time afterward; no rent increases for the next two years; and guarantees that the landlord will renew all tenants’ leases and not make negative reports about them to credit agencies.

Their attorney, Jack Lester, is optimistic about their legal prospects. With the city’s housing courts closed and a statewide moratorium on evictions in effect until June 19, he says, “the tenant movement has an unprecedented opportunity. The eviction machinery of the city of New York has ground to a halt.” Even when the courts reopen, he adds, “the court doesn’t have the capacity to handle the volume of cases.” Lighter restrictions on evictions will be in effect through Aug. 19.

Therefore, he believes, tenants have the power to force landlords to negotiate in order to collect any rent—if they organize and stay firm.

“It has to start with organizing. No one’s going to hand them anything,” Lester says. “The only weapon landlords have is fear and intimidation. If tenants can overcome that, they’ll win.”

“We will not bargain collectively,” Carnegie managing agent Saul Moskowitz responded to the Eldert tenants association in an email May 24. “As we are only going to settle with individual tenants, you will be dragging them into a protracted and costly legal battle, instead of letting them get the help that we can offer them.” The message also accused the strikers of being “unfair and irresponsible” because they were organizing in multiple buildings.

Moskowitz did not respond to phone and email messages from The Indypendent.

Tenants in several of the buildings say Carnegie officials have called and emailed them repeatedly to demand rent, as well as sending notices that their “delinquent debt” will be reported to the three major credit agencies.

“They banged on my door like it was the police,” says a woman at 345 Eldert St. who asked not to be identified. The two men were demanding to know when she was going back to work, and “threatening to kick me out and remove my belongings.”

April was “the first time I did not pay my rent — ever,” she says. She lost her job in mid-March and has been unable to get unemployment benefits, but the landlord told her “there’s no excuse not to pay your rent just because you’re not working.” They taped letters to her door, shoved them under her door, and “called me three times in one day.”

In late April, she received a notice that Carnegie was buying out her lease and she would have to leave by May 31. Other tenants have received notices that their leases will not be renewed, including some who have been paying their rent but are tenant association members.

The state Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 prohibits landlords from retaliating against renters for being part of a tenant association, notes Lester. However, says longtime tenant attorney Kenny Schaeffer, proving that a lease denial or eviction was retaliatory “is difficult to establish in practice even with legal representation,” although “asserting it can slow a case down.”

The strike began at 345 Eldert St., a 75-unit loft building in northeast Bushwick near the Queens border. The epidemic was “like a big bomb that dropped on everybody,” says tenants association spokesperson Cian O’Day. Most of the tenants there are in their 20s or 30s, working in professional or creative fields, and most lost jobs or income when the quarantine began in mid-March.

With rents in the $3,000-a-month range, most were already “just making it when we were working,” says one tenant. O’Day, a 41-year-old freelance photo researcher, has lived in the building for seven years and says he was already spending close to half his income on rent before the quarantine eliminated most of his work.

They began talking about what they could do and decided collective action was the best path, soon reaching out to other buildings in the Carnegie portfolio.

At 586 Hart St., a tenant who’d been following the Met Council on Housing and Housing Justice for All on social media, had the same idea, just before the 345 Eldert tenants contacted them. Housing Justice for All, a coalition of more than 70 housing, labor and community organizations, has helped organize rent strikes in about 70 buildings with about 2,000 people, demanding that all rent and mortgage payments be cancelled for the duration of the crisis, says campaign coordinator Cea Weaver. That number doesn’t include the Carnegie tenants or others on strike independently, she notes.

At 15–17 Judge St., tenants began organizing after several were laid off from their jobs. They tried to figure out how to negotiate with the landlord “in a non-aggressive, non-hostile manner,” says one, but Carnegie’s “responses were very rude, not even listening to what the collective had to say. That fueled the cause.”

At 2211 Ditmas Ave., a 48-apartment building in Flatbush, “a lot of people are getting threatening letters,” says one tenant. But he doesn’t expect many to join the rent strike, he adds; the older, rent-stabilized tenants seem reluctant.

He was laid off from his job two months ago and says it’s the first time he’s been unable to pay rent — and also his first experience organizing. “There’s a lot of moving parts, I’m learning,” he says. “I want to tie in people who know more about this.”

The numbers could be a lot more, says O’Day. The coalition is still in the process of helping other buildings set up tenant associations, such as 248 McKibbin St., a 49-apartment building in East Williamsburg.

“There are a lot of people who just haven’t been paying rent,” he says. “We’re trying to organize them.”

New York State tenants do not have the legal right to collective bargaining. But American workers did not have it either until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, and they didn’t win it in practice until the great wave of sit-down strikes in 1936-37. In New York City, tenants have organized rent strikes since at least 1904, with their rights to do so over building conditions legally codified in the mid-1960s, after a series of rent strikes in Harlem and the Lower East Side. That right, however, has been eroded over the past 30 years by deregulation and blacklisting.

“I know it’s not legal, and we could lose,” says O’Day. “But I’ve been cut down to a quarter of my work. What can I do?”

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