With New York Affordable Housing Laws Set to Expire, Students and Residents Rally

by Paul Brown on May 29, 2015 · 1 comment Events

Image courtesy of Students for Housing Justice.

Image courtesy of Students for Housing Justice.

Four days after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plan to shore up funds to address New York’s deteriorating affordable housing, and days before major legislation regarding rent stabilization is up for renewal in the state assembly, Students for Housing Justice and Right to the City held a renters’ assembly. Approximately 50 students, community members, and activists gathered at St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park to discuss what many believe is the city’s largest problem: a housing crisis caused by developer-led gentrification.

From the start of the event, a small but lively crowd buzzed around the close quarters of the church basement. Many people talked about seeing entire blocks gutted, refurbished, and rented to newcomers in the course of a year or two. Long-time residents expressed the desire to turn back the clock to how things were when they grew up, before their neighborhoods had been rebranded by real-estate developers with new, made-up names—like Bedwick. Most people cited nearness to transit, access to greenspace, and their neighbors as reasons for staying put.

The mood of the assembly was urgent but hopeful. “We don’t have time to be fractured in our response to gentrification,” said Rachel LaForest of the Right to the City Alliance in the opening remarks. “We need more than solidarity, we need strategy-building and action.’’ The day was split into three sessions organized around the history of gentrification and housing policy in the city, examining the institutions and systems that drive it, and developing organizing strategies for the fight ahead.

By the end of the day, the crowd left with more information about their rights as renters, their responsibilities as neighbors, and a better sense of what they can be doing as a city to fight for fair housing.

Here’s what I took home from each of the event’s three sessions:

“What’s at stake? Rent Regulations 421-a, and other urgent policy issues”: Ava Farkas, Executive Director at the Metropolitan Council on Housing

This was a state-of-the-union type address. Ava Farkas of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a 50-year-old tenants’ rights advocacy group, brought us up to speed on New York housing legislation and the upcoming challenges to rent stabilization laws.

She talked about a lot of laws that are out in the open—like rent stabilization—and focused on their chances of survival. The state’s rent stabilization law is set to expire on June 15, a big deal for anyone living in a home protected by this law. It applies to those who live in buildings built prior to 1974, with more than six units and rents less than $2,500 a month.

But, regardless of what happens on June 15, Farkas warned, landlords are “provided with a financial incentive to force out tenants through harassment and neglect,” and will continue to do so as long as the process of “vacancy decontrol” remains in place. What this means is that once a regulated apartment goes unoccupied, landlords can up the cost of the rent above $2,500 if they renovate the unit.

The Q&A session caused several renters to stand up and tell harrowing stories about predatory landlords who used draconian measures—like actually demolishing an apartment while the tenant was away—but more commonly using tactics like depriving tenants of basic services like running water or heat.

Pretty much, the takeaway with this talk was that there is no security, not even with rent stabilization.

“The University and the Housing Crisis”: Brandon Kielbasa, Cooper Square Committee, and Sinead Pitrasek, Parsons School of Design

Students have it bad when it comes to real estate, according to these panelists, who say they are seen by developers as easy targets, ready to be exploited.

“Aggressive speculators target students because affordable housing is not important to them,’’ says Brandon Kielbasa of the Cooper Square Committee, a group that fights gentrification, partially as a result of University expansion into the Lower East Side. Students are valued by the real estate industry for their transience, expendable income from parents or student loans, and relative naivety when it comes to renting, and are often used as tools to disqualify properties from rent stabilization through vacancy decontrol, as they often only rent for one or two years. If students choose to live on campus, Kielbasa added, they’re likely to pay upwards of $2,000 per month to share a room with two to three others.

What’s a well-meaning student to do, then? According to Kielbasa, talk to your neighbors, know your rights as a tenant, form tenant unions in order to protect yourself and those you live around if you live off campus, and hold your institutions accountable for displacing communities through expansion.

The Arts as an Organizing Tool: People’s Climate Arts

Where do we go from here? The last session of the day was geared towards taking the info gathered thus far and using it to design strategies of change.

“Art is my access point to organize,” said Joal Stein, one of the founders of People’s Climate Arts. “People access political messages through art.”

People’s Climate Arts was born out of the People’s Climate March last fall, when over a hundred-thousand people gathered in New York City to emphasize the dire state of the environment. Since designing and executing the visuals for the march, they have extended their reach to broader social movements, like the ongoing struggles in Ferguson and the fight for higher minimum wage. In a relatively short time, they have become the de facto visuals department for several progressive movements, creating signage and sculpture for protests, marches, and direct actions.

Most importantly, their designs have more than an aesthetic function. “It’s not just a pretty thing,” said Stein. “These are functional objects on multiple levels.” In one case, during a protest calling attention to the lingering affects of the 2010 BP oil spill, banners made of mesh and strung with fish were used to bind gas pumps, making them inaccessible. More often, signs and sculpture, he said, took on new functions as shields and blockades.

What’s the next step for Students for Housing Justice?

Although the turnout was somewhat meager, perhaps because of the holiday weekend, the feeling at the end of the assembly was one of possibility. According to Garam Markian, a student at the New School who worked on the event, students make up more than a fifth of New York City’s population—around 1.8 million—70 percent of whom live off campus. They’re a sizable population that could be mobilized in the fair-housing campaigns taking place in all parts of the city. And they are: upcoming events include a tenant rally in Albany on June, and meetings of the Rent Guidelines Board in the middle of the month.

{ 1 comment }

TS Elliot June 5, 2015 at 7:52 am

It is important to know that an incredible omnibus bill passed the NY State Assembly on May 19th. That bill, A752, is now sitting in the Housing Committee of the State Senate. I have been advocating for Senator Dilan to sponsor as “same as” bill in the Senate. If anyone would like to encourage him to do so, his office is exceptionally friendly and supports this cause.

Please call Senator Dilan at (518) 455-2177 and say:

“i am a new york city resident and i am calling to urge you to sponsor a “same as” bill to Assembly bill A7526 to preserve rent stabilized units and extend essential provisions set to expire in June.”

Alternatively, NOW is the time to call Governor Cuomo’s office, as the Republican Senate is likely to pass a bill friendly to tenants unless the public makes some noise!!


If you want to read the language of the bill that passed the assembly: http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/bill/A7526-2015

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