Jose Lopez from Make the Road Talks about Illegal Practices of Bushwick Landlords

Jose Lopez leads a chant during the tenants protest in Bushwick. Photos by Bernadette Baker.

Around 100 Bushwick residents gathered around apartment buildings where long-term residents have been complaining about landlord harassment and rallied in defense of their tenants rights on Sunday April 6, 2014. The action was part of a new coalition in New York, “Real Affordability For All” (RAFA), which hopes to curb gentrification in Brooklyn and influence Mayor Bill DeBlasio in time for his city wide housing plan to be announced on May 1, 2014.

In “There Is No Sweet Spot For Gentrification,” filmmaker Andrew Padilla debunks the assumption that gentrification is an inevitable process and part of the natural change of cities and reveals that our city subsidizes luxury apartment buildings by over 1 billion dollars a year. Ironically, these subsidies are often in historically redlined neighborhoods that have been neglected by the city for years. In gentrifying neighborhoods like Bushwick, long term residents face harassment and violence as landlords actively try to displace them. I spoke with  Jose Lopez from organization Make The Road about the protest and their fight against gentrification.

Jose, why were people out protesting on Sunday?

We just started a new coalition in New York, along with some other groups, called the Real Affordability For All Coalition (RAFA). On May 1st, mayor DeBlasio is going to release a 4-year housing plan, and so we see April as an opportunity to get ahead of that plan and increase noise around issues related to housing that deeply impact our neighborhood.

We broke up the issues into four buckets: (1) the creation of affordable units;  (2) preservation of these units as affordable; (3) and public housing and NYCHA and how do we make sure that we take care NYCHA residents; (4) Sandy impacted zones: how do we rebuild Sandy impacted areas in a way that our folks who were there can come back to their own communities.

The plan is to take action every week of April between now and May 1st, so that when the Mayor releases the housing plan, it truly indicates what low income New Yorkers need and want. Sunday’s march was all about preservation, and making sure that we preserve the affordable housing that is left, using Bushwick as an example of a community that is being rapidly gentrified. A lot of folks, especially rent stabilized residents, are being pushed out.

Can you describe the issues long-term Bushwick residents are facing?

The way that rent de-stabilization works is that if landlords can get the rent up to $2,500, they can de-control their apartments. Landlords, especially the “hot” neighborhoods like Bushwick, are trying to, to do everything they can, to use everything in their toolbox, to get their tenants out, so that they can increase rents and get the rent closer and closer to that $2,500 marker.  Once they get to that point, the apartment is no longer stabilized, and it can go up as much as the new tenant is willing to pay. And in a community like Bushwick there are lots of landlords who seize that opportunity trying to profit.

The folks who have been living here for the past 20-30 or 40 years are really the people who really built Bushwick up because it’s been a community that has been truly ignored by our city for a long time except for recent years. These people are basically being pushed out of their apartments due to the lack of repairs. The landlords are telling tenants upfront: “If you have housing code violations, I am not going to fix the apartment. It wasn’t that way when I rented it to you so this is your problem.” And some of these are extremely bad violations like mold, peeling paint, or holes in floors. The idea is a tenant will eventually get tired enough of not getting the repairs done and he or she will just go on their own.

We are also seeing a lot of buyouts. A a tenant came to us the other day and said: “Now, I’m the last tenant left, my neighbor who used to live downstairs just accepted a $7,000 buyout.” The landlord are offering $5,000 to $10,000 to families in their rent stabilized units to get up and leave. $10,000 might sound like a lot of money upfront but in a community like Bushwick that’s gone in four months. Where are you going to move in the same community? Where can you find an apartment with the rent that is less than 1700-1800 bucks? Where is a family going to go after they spend the money on four or five months of rent?

Can you describe the tenants that are facing these problems?

The three stops that we made on Sunday were all tenants who lived in their apartments for about 15 to over 20 years. The tenant on 121 Irving Ave has been in her apartment for 24 years. So we’re talking about families who have been in Bushwick for a very long time. And because they live in rent stabilized buildings and the rent can only go up a certain percentage at the end of the lease, their rent compared to the market rent of the area is still relatively affordable. The majority of folks that we’re seeing getting pushed out are the long term tenants, most who are from Latin and Central America and also the Caribbean. So this has been a predominantly, Latino and Caribbean community for the past 30, 40 years. We are slowly but surely starting to see that change.

a sign during the march says “Decent Housing For The People” in both Spanish and English.

I saw a sign that said 98 Linden Street. Is that another stop you guys made?

That actually wasn’t one of the stops but that’s one of the buildings that is getting a lot of press play here in Bushwick. We stopped right around the corner at 324 Central; the family that lives on 98 Linden had a press conference about a week and a half ago to talk about the conditions. The owner of both those buildings is Joel Israel who owns, I believe 11 buildings in Bushwick. His case is extreme. In both 98 Linden and 324 Central he basically told both families: “I’m gonna come in when you’re not home and repair the entire apartment.” What really happened was that Israel and a team of workers went in and completely demolished them. With hammers they destroyed the entire kitchen, the entire bathroom, started to rip up the floors and then got out of there. When both of those families came home, they saw a completely destroyed apartment, all doings of Joel Israel. The case of Joel Israel here in Bushwick is kind of next level. It’s not just “I’m going to ignore the fixes that you need but I’m gonna go in and make it even worse.”

What are your demands?

There are lots of demands of the coalition. Around preservation, one of the things is that there’s an Alternative Enforcement Program report through AEP. They released an AEP report late last year. The program is actually a good program but the problem is that it only focuses on the 200 worst buildings every year. What it does is that it gives landlords a certain timeframe to fix all violations and if the landlords don’t follow through, the city sends in its own workers and subsequently charge the landlords for the work. That has been a program that we noticed is working but 200 buildings is not enough. We want that program to grow by 40% and then see how it works with 280 buildings on the roster and then from there continue to grow so that if landlords are failing to do their jobs, the city will do it and then charge and fine the landlords.

There’s another demand that’s very specific and it is all about shaming those landlords.  When a building and its landlord have been identified as one of the 200 worst buildings of the year, the tenants and also everybody in the community will be notified of that. DeBlasio started to release his worst landlords list as a Public Advocate. This is an opportunity to add to that and at the same time we want Public Advocate Letitia James to continue to use that worst landlords list.

And then there are lots of other things like increasing civil penalties for heat and hot water violations. There are tenants coming to us and telling us: “now the landlord is playing games, he is turning off the boiler and not giving us heat, not giving us hot water” as another form of harassment. One of the things that we can do is to increase those civil penalties to really hurt the pockets of landlords. Ultimately the goal is to keep families in their apartments, and making sure that the communities like Bushwick aren’t being lost completely to landlords and their illegal tactics in order to get tenants out so they can eventually get the market rent.

So we’re asking: How do we protect folks in their homes?  How can we make sure they get to keep their home while they’re being treated with respect and dignity?


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