Hannah Lane

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Before the pandemic even started, New Yorkers were plagued by a deeply inequitable rental market. Single-family homes became obsolete; the middle-class disappeared and was replaced by seven-day workweeks. The market swelled to greater heights than post-World War II and left in its wake a labyrinth of interconnected plights and one uniting question: how will the housing crisis of New York City be addressed? 

Per a Wall Street Journal report, New Yorkers have amassed upwards of $1 billion in renters debt since March 2020, though some analysts put that number at $3.5 billion. The calls for rent cancellation have only grown in tenor while local and state leaders continue to move the goalpost on any kind of eviction moratorium. And while helpful in the interim, many rent-burdened New Yorkers are not back to work full-time, or at all. According to the February Labor report, unemployment claims continue to fall, but they’re still higher in the first few breaths of 2021 than they were in the final weeks of 2020.

With a fragile economy, slow-moving job gains, and an indebted rental market, many in New York City sit in a precarious position. And inside that precarity lies Bushwick, a case study in the changing demographics and ebbing tide of equity.  And in Bushwick is Paperboy Love Prince, one of the few mayoral candidates who has promised to absolve all back-rent owed since the pandemic started.

“I believe in rent forgiveness because they told us to stay home, to shut down all the businesses, and all the industries,” Prince told Bushwick Daily. “They provided no solutions for working-class people to be able to afford their home. No solutions. Go broke and die, they told us.”  

The whimsical nonbinary rapper ran against Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez in 2020, drawing a surprising amount of votes for a newcomer.

“We have a real movement right now. We’re just getting started,” they told Bushwick Daily. 

Paperboy’s “cancel rent” sentiment can be heard across North Brooklyn and happens at the same that tenant advocacy groups are springing up to fight illegal and forceful evictions. One such group is Full Time Tenant Union, a coalition of North Brooklyn tenants who say they are fighting a rental property group in the face of unemployment, underemployment, and financial hardship. 

FTTU serves a group of apartment buildings in Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Prospect Heights and a member of the group spoke anonymously with Bushwick Daily about the severity of the rental and eviction crises beleaguering the city. The group had coalesced when their landlord, Watermark Capital — which was known as Full Time Management before 2016 — began accosting and harassing newly unemployed tenants for rent during the pandemic. Tenants have accused Watermark of a litany of grievances, including unresolved maintenance issues, canvassing for rent, and dilapidating building conditions. 

“Rent striking is addressing the power dynamic between tenants and landlords,” one anonymous member said. “If you owe your landlord $100, that’s your problem. If you owe your landlord $10,000, that’s their problem,” they went on. “I did this out of solidarity; we need mass movements.”

According to a StreetEasy report released last summer, rents actually went up in some of the neighborhoods most affected by COVID-19. Per the report, a neighborhood like Corona, Queens saw rents go up by 0.3% while zip codes in Greenwich Village saw rents decrease by as much as 1.9%. This data suggests that rent-burdened New Yorkers are less mobile and are inhibited by moving costs such as brokers fees, first & security, and even movers. So, when neighborhoods have fewer units coming to market, it drives up the prices of those that do become available. Conversely, when something like the “Wealth Exodus” happened at the beginning of the pandemic last year, it created an excess of reduced-priced units to spring up in some of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods. 

Elsewhere, activists say a new phenomenon is assailing renters: “warehousing,” which involves landlords hoarding reduced-priced apartments to inflate at a later date. With real estate insiders predicting a spring rebound, some landlords have pulled apartments from the market. An OpenIgloo report released earlier this month found that building owners removed 1,814 apartment listings at the beginning of March — 3x the number pulled in February. This practice is meant to raise price tags and will be inevitably felt by lower-income neighborhoods. 

Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park and Red Hook and is the state’s first Mexican-American elected official told Bushwick Daily that he had focused his recently-aborted mayoral campaign on the impact that rezoning has had on the immigrant communities of his district. “There was not enough emphasis on rental systems or access points: instead of rental assistance, they built more units,” Mechaca said. “They’re breaking down single-family brownstones and flipping them into 6-unit complexes.” 

Menchaca feels that if we can address the inequity in New York City’s housing crisis, then we can begin addressing the other issues that are embedded in it. “You can’t address the rent crisis without addressing police brutality; without addressing healthcare, they’re all connected.” 

Pleas for hotel conversions for the homeless, rental subsidies for burdened New Yorkers, and tougher regulations on landlords and developers are among the battle cries this year. For now, the early front-runners of the race are quicker to takes than detail how they will address it. Early polling is showing Andrew Yang ahead and Eric Adams, Scott Stringer, and Maya Wiley following closely behind, but none of these candidates have released a detailed proposal for how rental debt will be rectified. Two of them say they oppose it completely. 

“They always bailout corporations — they never bail out the people,” Prince told Bushwick Daily. “If they’re not going to bail out NYC renters during a pandemic, there’s no reason to trust them.” . 

Menchaca ran his campaign on plans to divest in the NYPD in this year’s budget and reallocate those funds back into the communities that have been ransacked by the ongoing pandemic. “Housing is a human right,” he said.

And for a city that seems so determined to return to “normal,” it seems less primed to confront what that meant for about 1 million renters who were paying above 30% of their monthly income on rent in New York State before the pandemic even started. For now, de Blasio seems content with letting his housing crisis roll over to the new mayor. 

“What oil is to Texas, real estate is to New York,” Eric Adams said recently

But Prince feels differently.

“Love is what’s going to change this city,” Paperboy told Bushwick Daily. “It’s caring about people…caring about families. Love is the center of all of this.” 

Top photo credit: Full Time Tenant Union

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