Rats and vermin. Bust pipes in winter. Heat not turned on, bathrooms and kitchens destroyed, forcing families to face the decision: stay in unbearable conditions or leave for East New York or elsewhere, abandoning homes that have lived in some families for generations. Harassment, day and night – landlords pestering tenants to sell, insurance companies forcing their ways into homes neglected by the building, management companies raising rents to unmanageable degrees. Is a jump from $800 a month in 1999 to $1,300 in 2014 (according to the New York Times) a sign of the mercurial market, or forceful manipulation, especially considering that state officials believe 40% of rent increases in stabilized buildings are unjustified? Is this an inevitable change, or a sign of exploitation? Is this the way things should be – or just the way things are?
WHERE’S THE LAW ON THIS ISSUE?
According to New York City Housing Preservation and Development, landlords are required to “ensure that buildings are safe, clean and well maintained, in both common areas and in individual apartments. Among other responsibilities, owners must provide and maintain security measures, heat, hot and cold water, and good lighting. Owners must register the property annually with HPD, if the building is rent-stabilized the owner must registered rents annually with the New York State Homes and Community Renewal”. Of course, owners are trying more than ever to diminish the number of rent-controlled and rent-stabilized buildings (studies note this is concentrated in areas like Bushwick, Brooklyn Heights, the Upper West Side and Lower Manhattan), and though Mayor de Blasio has run on a platform of creating and preserving 200,000 low income and affordable homes in the city, of the so-called “affordable housing” he is creating, only roughly half of it is accessible to families making between $40,000 and $65,000 dollars – and 40% of people and families classified as “low income” make below that range. These homes may serve the middle class and upper middle class families. They may serve to allow de Blasio to announce proudly that he is making history with the number of buildings created. But they do not serve the people who need them most.
WHY CAN’T THE TENANTS FIGHT?
Legally, neglect on the behalf of landlords is an offense a tenant can challenge an owner over in court: “HP actions are lawsuits brought by tenants or groups of tenants against landlords to force them to make repairs and provide essential services, like heat and hot water”. But time and money are factors that many tenants cannot ignore – especially considering that these tenants often must continue to live in homes willfully destroyed or neglected by the owners that take advantage of the glacial pace of the judicial system – and, even worse, rent hikes (so often the root of these abuses) are not illegal if a renter is not living in a rent stabilized or controlled building, or if that building loses its stabilization. “If your apartment is not regulated, HCR does not regulate your rent. If you have a lease, the legal rent is what it states in the lease and can be raised only as permitted by the lease or at the expiration of the lease. If you do not have a lease, the landlord may raise your rent to whatever amount the landlord wishes”. This is the reality so many New Yorkers face: as their homes are neglected, as they are harassed, as their neighborhood is made more expensive and more palatable to the wealthier residents flooding in at the behest of realty companies incentivized to cater to the rich in a booming Brooklyn market where brownstones regularly sell for millions, where the average resident has to pay over 100% of their wages to afford rent on a median-priced home (the highest in the nation according to Bloomberg), where housing prices have been rising steadily by 22% yearly, while wages remain unchanged.
This hurts the middle class. This hurts students struggling with college loans. But this hurts the poor the most.
WHY CAN’T THE TENANTS GO ELSEWHERE?
East New York, Brownsville, East Flatbush, Canarsie – they do go, flock to these neighborhoods, where crime is higher and amenities are lower and life is rougher. Or they leave the city they were raised in altogether to seek homes in better markets, because faced with little choice, emigrating is better than the rampant rise of homelessness connected to the rise in gentrification and monthly rents. This is creating a dichotomy in Brooklyn, one in which 69 people can be shot in Brownsville in 2012, and yet brownstones can sell for over ten million dollars in Brooklyn Heights: a ridiculous double standard that preserves the benefits of gentrification solely for the new, wealthy residents. According to a November 2014 report by the city’s Independent Budget Office, the majority of families who entered homeless shelters in the decade between 2002 and 2012 were from Crown Heights, East New York and Stuyvesant Heights – all areas that are contending with the fallout from gentrification and these tenant abuses. Likewise, the Department of Homeless Services approximates 5% of all family shelter applicants are from Bedford-Stuyvesant.
So this is the way things are: this is the “change” that is gripping New York City, and has gripped it over and over through the years. Are you willing to ignore it, to ignore human suffering? To listen to the rhetoric of the mayor, to enjoy the benefits of gentrification without considering its real costs? Change should be able to occur in a neighborhood without displacing entire communities, without forcing them into worse living conditions. This is life and death and the tapestry of our city at risk. Your neighbors can’t afford your being silent.