tenants Hunter & Cochado outside 431 Bleecker (via vimeo)
On a Wednesday last month, a group of community activists and politicians including Assemblymember Maritza Davila and then-State Senate candidate Julia Salazar gathered outside an apartment building in Brooklyn, where they protested a landlord in front of one of several properties he owns.
“Our landlord — terrible, terrible, terrible,” said Ermelinda Corchado, a tenant who was moved to tears as she told the crowd of more than 30 advocates, officials, and residents about issues she and others have faced, standing outside the eight-unit building in Bushwick. “They’ve been offering me buyouts so I could move. I don’t want to move, I can’t afford to move…[the landlord] keeps harassing me all the time.”
Corchado is the sole remaining rent-stabilized tenant in the building, encouraged by various means to leave. And while Corchado is the only rent-stabilized tenant left, others believe that their units should be returned to rent-stabilization given that they believe they were removed due to illegal or unscrupulous behavior by the landlord. Multiple tenants have been served with nonpayments — a demand for overdue rent — and one with a holdover — an eviction for a resident of an apartment for reasons other than not paying rent.
On a rent strike since before the October rally, all of the tenants of 431 Bleecker Street have been embroiled in multiple lawsuits, some still pending, and frustrating efforts to seek help from a variety of governmental entities responsible for oversight of issues they’ve experienced, such as repeated heat and hot water outages and nearly constant repair work in recent months.
The landlord, Kerry Danenberg, owns several buildings in Brooklyn jointly with his wife, Sarah Russell. She is listed as the “head officer” for the Bleecker Street building on the city Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD) website, and is ranked number 92 on New York City Public Advocate Letitia James’ “Worst Landlord List,” released nearly a year ago and based on number and severity of open HPD violations and number of units in the landlord’s buildings.
The tenants of the Bushwick building, owned by Danenberg’s property management company, Grand Management, say they have experienced deeply unpleasant and challenging, though not unique, types of landlord harassment, including, they allege, racial discrimination. And while they’ve organized, documented, sued, and contacted their elected officials and city agencies, they haven’t received the response they would have liked, especially from HPD.
Corchado wasn’t the only one at the rally who said the landlord had pushed them to leave their rent-stabilized apartment. A resident of Grand Management-owned 108 Central Avenue, Luz Virella, told Gotham Gazette before the rally that she had been taken to court for a holdover, though she said it was dismissed.
“As soon as he took over the property, he took me to court, sued me for $80,000,” said Virella, who has lived in the building for nearly 17 years with the help of Section 8 federal funding. “I won the case, but then ever since, it’s been one thing after another. When it comes to repairs, he doesn’t do anything.”
Assemblymember Davila, a Democrat who represents parts of Bushwick and for years lived on the same block as 431 Bleecker, said conditions in her own apartment is what sprung her entry into community activism. Davila ahead of the demonstration said developments at 431 Bleecker was just one example of a larger pattern in the rapidly gentrifying area in recent years.
“This is basically what happens throughout the entire community,” she said in an interview. “We already know what the M.O. is. We understand that the landlords come in, how they work, how they harass the tenants. They commit the most heinous crimes, and they don’t get punished for it, because they have money.”
Salazar, who in September upset incumbent Democratic State Senator Martin Dilan in a campaign that heavily featured rent laws, and points to tenant organizing as an experience that propelled her political candidacy, said “practices like this are all too common from Morningside Heights to Bushwick,” but that an increasing number of tenants have begun to stand up against unscrupulous landlords, as well as against rent laws she said lead to displacement. Landlords can take advantage of those laws to remove rent-stabilized tenants and charge market-rate rents, Salazar and others explain, decrying incentives to the type of behavior allegedly taking place at 431 Bleecker and other buildings owned by Danenberg and Russell.
“We need to be fighting for stronger rent laws,” Salazar told Gotham Gazette. “We know that, especially in Bushwick, in North Brooklyn, policies like vacancy decontrol, mass deregulation has been the number one cause of the destabilization of rent-stabilized apartments, and, ultimately, forcing people out who have been here for decades.”
While city agencies like HPD often hold responsibility for keeping landlords from breaking the law, it is the regulations that apply to rent-stabilized apartments that are created by state government in Albany and the subject of a great deal of controversy, especially as they are again set to expire in 2019, and a crop of candidates in the 2018 cycle put augmenting rent laws at the center of their campaigns. (Governor Andrew Cuomo, for his part, last week responded in the affirmative when asked on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show if he would sign into law a bill repealing vacancy decontrol, though activists doubt his commitment to bolstering rent laws).
But only the city’s roughly 1 million rent-stabilized units are subject to those laws, like vacancy decontrol, which limit landlords but also set the path for units to be removed from rent-stabilization. Once units are removed, even through improper behavior by landlords, they seldom return. And tenants paying market-rate rents also often face challenging conditions from landlords with motives of their own beyond providing adequate, comfortable housing and collecting checks every month.
At 431 Bleecker, as of September 14, there were a total of 103 open Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) violations in the building, a number that was then reduced to the low twenties following a flurry of work and multiple inspections as of late October and eight as of this writing; there were 10 open Department of Building (DOB) violations in a building with just eight units, as of October.
The challenges facing the building’s tenants shed light onto issues many renters face in New York. Tenants claim a building is run by a landlord who passes operating expenses on to the tenants, but does not keep the building in good condition, and, when renters respond, files lawsuits against residents in an effort to recoup payment and encourage them to leave.
The blend of the landlord’s attempts to lure the sole remaining rent-stabilized tenant to leave her unit, where she has lived for nearly 40 years, in a neighborhood home to high levels of displacement, coupled with the loss of other rent-stabilized units in the building, shows how and why long-time, low-income residents often have little choice but to leave their buildings, sometimes neighborhoods. The building, where newcomers to the neighborhood now comprise the majority of the tenants, and pay far more in rent than Corchado, provides microcosm of how displacement and gentrification have been facilitated.
And the situation, experts say, is a sign of the extent to which even as the city attempts to protect tenants’ rights via local legislation, oversight, and enforcement — and could clearly be doing more in these regards — the key battleground for protecting tenants from policies that many advocates have long said incentivize landlords to fan the flames of displacement is Albany, not City Hall.
Lucy Hunter, a fifth-year graduate student at Yale University, moved into 431 Bleecker in 2016. Hunter says the problems began on November 28, 2017, when she and the other tenants received an email from management about what was planned as a three-day boiler repair, which at first “didn’t raise too many red flags.”
“However,” Hunter said during a recent interview in her third-floor apartment, “it was not a three-day project. There would be days when you would come home, without any knowledge they would be in your apartment, and you’d find dust and debris — like actual pieces of drywall on the floor. Sometimes tools were left scattered around.”
On December 4, 2017, according to Hunter, Grand Management, the managing agent for the building, informed the tenants via email that the boiler installation would need longer than the original timetable indicated. Later that month, on Christmas Day, there was no heat in the building.
But that didn’t spur the tenants to take action just yet, Hunter said.
“Generally, you have a high tolerance for misbehavior as a tenant of a pretty cheap apartment in Bushwick,” she explained.
The breaking point came February 26 of this year when the market-rate tenants received a heating and oil bill of $800—a drastic increase from the roughly $200-300 per month residents of the building normally owed—despite the building going days without heat during the billing period.
“It was like we were camping outside, except we were paying $2,700 to live in the building,” remarked one 431 Bleecker tenant, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, referring to stretches in which they went without heat and hot water, forced to use hot plates and space heaters and wear layers upon layers of clothing—an experience echoed by numerous tenants in the building.
A week later, the building’s tenants received an email informing them the bill was correct. Solonje Burnett-Loucas, Hunter’s neighbor, protested. Grand Management replied that she had to pay it or leave.
“We went to the manager and said, ‘This is not normal, this is not on us. We didn’t even have heat for many days this month,” Hunter recalled. “And the refrain was ‘Oil prices are a little higher.’”
Burnett-Loucas, an entrepreneur and diversity consultant who has lived in the building for six years, told Gotham Gazette she noticed matters had gotten worse over the past year or so.
“There would be a trash removal fee for 80 bucks randomly, or there would be a hot water fee or something like that,” she said. “It wasn’t something that was a big deal. It wasn’t until last year that it became astronomical.”
Work continued in the building into March, with workers regularly entering apartments without permission or notice, according to Hunter. On March 16, there was no heat in the building. Two days later, an electrical fire broke out in apartment 2R, causing smoke damage to that unit and the one above it. On March 19, according to Hunter, tenants experienced very cold temperatures in the building, either due to a heat outage or open doors and windows from construction. Four days later, Burnett-Loucas and Hunter reported excessive construction noise and excessive debris to 311, the city’s complaint and information phone line. The next day, March 24, a Saturday, illegal weekend construction work took place in the building, according to records kept by the tenants.
Three days later, one of the tenants, Alec Holst, had a conversation with Danenberg during which the landlord described his plans to reconfigure the two top-floor units, according to Hunter. Danenberg also made the case why the building shouldn’t be rent-stabilized and said destabilizing units was a common practice for, according to a press release distributed during the October protest.
Following complaints from tenants, on March 28 a sweep of the building was conducted by representatives from four government agencies: the state’s Department of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR), the city Fire Department, the Department of Buildings (DOB), and HPD —the agencies that make up the Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force— and led to a stop-work order and gas shut-off.
The agencies discovered several illegal conditions, prompting them to issue multiple violations. Among them were false filing of construction documents, gas and electrical work conducted in the cellar without a DOB permit, failure to notify the DOB within 72 hours of commencement of work, and an insufficient plan to protect tenants, according to the DOB.
Following the inspection, DOB required the landlord to remedy the conditions, which included the landlord submitting an application that correctly notes that the building does in fact currently have tenants living in it, and that there was at least one rent-regulated unit in the building.
On April 3, the tenants of the building received an email from the building manager, Jeff Cassara, announcing the Department of Buildings had lifted the stop-work order and that construction would resume, so maintenance would need access to all units.
While all tenants received a nearly identical email from Cassara, at the end of the email they received, the white tenants were offered $100 to compensate for the trouble recent construction had caused. The black and Latina tenants did not, according to emails reviewed by Gotham Gazette.
“[A]s compensation for construction-related inconveniences, each apartment will be sent $100. Payment will be made by check to each leaseholder, totaling $100 per apartment,” Cassara wrote to tenants in five units.
But Burnett-Loucas, who is black, received the email informing them of the stop-work order, but without mention of $100 in compensation. Corchado, who is Latina and is routinely reached by the landlord via phone instead of email, was not offered the money, either.
Burnett-Loucas told Gotham Gazette she strongly suspected racism was the reason behind Cassara not offering her the same redress, which also manifested itself in the landlord’s legal actions against her.
“I think it’s total discrimination,” she said. “They literally sent that to all of the white tenants in the building…I was the only one in this whole process that was served with eviction papers. Everybody else who’s on the rent strike, they did not take that step to try to kick them out of the building. But in May, I got a letter from them that was just like, ‘You can no longer live here. You have 30 days to get out.’”
The eviction papers came after the tenants collectively decided to launch the rent strike, which on May 16 was declared in a letter to Grand Management by a lawyer from Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A (BKA), a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to low- and moderate-income people in the city.
“We had several emergency tenant meetings in late April, when it became clear that our pleas to have work done weren’t working,” Hunter said of the lack of timely repairs of the building’s boilers, which prompted the rent strike.
The tenants, along with their BKA lawyer, Yaa Sarpong, engaged in months-long exchanges and negotiations over access to the building for work repairs.
On the day the tenants sent the rent strike letter, Tim Bergstr, Hunter’s husband, came home to workers in their apartment with nobody home, without warning. On May 23, Burnett-Loucas was served with a notice of termination of her month-to-month lease.
Over the summer, the tenants and landlords underwent a multitude of legal proceedings, alongside continuing troubles in the building.
On May 24, the landlord and his legal team filed a New York Supreme Court case against the tenants for entry to the apartments, alleging they had not provided ample access to them to conduct necessary repairs. In July, the landlord, Danenberg, filed an amended complaint, alleging BKA and the tenants were defaming him.
On June 18, following a June 4 hearing on the matter, the City of New York issued a civil complaint against Danenberg for filing a “material false statement” to the DOB when the landlord filed forms that indicated the building was unoccupied and not rent-regulated, when in fact at the time six of the units were occupied and one of the tenants resided in a rent-regulated unit. Such faulty paperwork is a common practice by landlords to make it easier to receive a permit to perform construction.
According to a Housing Rights Initiative report, released late September, more than 10,000 building permits filed over the last two years contained incorrect information about rent-regulated tenants in the relevant buildings. “Just as scandalous as the number of falsified permits is the failure of enforcement by the Department of Buildings,” City Council Member Ritchie Torres told the New York Times. This figure, the DOB noted in the story, represented just 3 percent of the permits the departments had approved.
In this particular case, Danenberg’s lawyers, according to DOB documents, said that this was the fault of an error by an architect. But while an architect expediter is allowed to fill out the relevant PW1 form, the landlord is responsible for ensuring the veracity of section 26 of the form, which indicates whether or not the building is occupied and its rent-stabilization status.
On July 3, the tenants of 431 Bleecker began an HP proceeding — a process used to force landlords to correct building violations and make necessary repairs — alleging harassment by the landlord and asking for repairs to be conducted properly. Also on July 3, Burnett-Loucas was served with a holdover, which was dismissed by the judge weeks later without prejudice. This was followed by the landlord’s team on July 9 filing a nonpayment against the tenants in four of the five occupied apartments. (It’s unclear why a tenant of one apartment, 4L, was not served with a nonpayment, as all tenants participated in the rent strike.)
On August 1, the two tenants of color and their legal team filed a discrimination case with the city’s Human Rights Commission. They alleged that Burnett-Loucas and Corchado, the two non-white tenants in the building, were subjected to discrimination when the building manager, Cassara, offered the $100 compensation to all tenants but them.
The city-state Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force made its second visit to the building on August 22, when city workers inspecting the building found that while there were no construction-related violations, the gas meter room was illegally being used as a storage area and that there were defective outlets in one of the apartments — a complaint Corchado voiced during her interview with Gotham Gazette.
On September 13, the landlord’s LLC Zachmaxie filed a $25,000 court summons against Hunter and her husband for allegedly causing that amount of damage to a kitchen cabinet by painting it a glossy white and removing the wall cabinet doors, for aesthetic purposes.
Asked for comment, a lawyer for Danenberg, Antonio Pasquariello, said in an email the questions reflected a lack of understanding of what transpired. “[I]t does not appear you have diligently researched this situation,” he said.
He went on to say the tenants had obstructed repairs in the building and that the landlord had acted swiftly to mend the unforeseen problems in the building.
“The Supreme Court filings thoroughly detail all the events and include documentation and communications between the parties which corroborate all the owners claims and efforts,” he said, though he did not specify what Gotham Gazette got wrong in its questions. “These documents are publicly available and illustrate how a small number of occupants have unfortunately elected to exploit and capitalize on an unanticipated emergency by actively preventing owner from making repairs.”
“Further,” he continued, “If you visit the nyc dob website you will see that, despite tenants attempts to thwart owners efforts, nearly all violations were resolved within two months of receiving notice thereof, a commendable accomplishment.”
Asked about the the $100 being offered to the white tenants but not the black and Latina tenants, he said, “There is no need for further elaboration since you can view the actual email exchanges between the parties first hand.”
After a follow-up request for comment days later, he responded, “mr and mrs loucas were never named tenants on a lease, it appears they took possession either by an unauthorized sublease or assignment of tenancy,” though he did not explain why that would disqualify Burnett-Loucas from compensation that the other tenants were awarded nor why Corchado, who is named on the lease, was not offered money.
Government Response Disappoints
In addition to the landlord, tenants say they have been disappointed in HPD’s response to the situation, or lack thereof. Hunter wondered why HPD didn’t have more power itself to sanction the landlord and clear violations. Hunter believes the landlord wanted HPD violations to remain open as he argues tenants were being uncooperative, all in an effort to make their lives difficult, and, some tenants suspect, to get them out of the building.
“[T]hey [were] finally clearing the violations. The building manager came in and was arguing to the HPD inspector why the violations should stay open,” she said in October. “In order to fix what is over 100 violations, they’ve demanded extraordinary measures be taken by tenants in order to provide access, because it’s basically a game of how much inconvenience can you cause people to do relatively local work,” Hunter said. “They interpret HPD violations in the broadest possible sense to demand painting, or in some cases repainting, every room in the apartment.”
“It felt like this nightmare where we actually were begging for months ‘Please bring in HPD to clear these violations,” she recalled. “As tenants, we can’t have them cleared. So HPD inspectors would come in and check in on other problems, and we’d say ‘Can you look at this. This is fine, right? Can you please lift this, so that they can’t keep claiming that we are denying them the right to fix problems.’ And they’re like ‘Oh, I can’t do that.”
A spokesperson for HPD, Juliet Pierre-Antoine, said in a statement that the department “has been aggressive in investigating and taking action as part of the Tenant Harassment Protection Task Force when allegation[s] of tenant harassment are reported, and will be even more proactive with the Tenant Anti-Harassment Unit.”
The Tenant Anti-Harassment Unit was announced in July by Mayor Bill de Blasio, and tasked with litigating against landlords and owners when warranted. Previously, HPD could only inspect 200 buildings annually, and will with the new unit be able to inspect 1,500 buildings per year, according to HPD.
“HPD will remain engaged at this property to ensure owner compliance with housing maintenance codes, rules, and regulations,” Pierre-Antoine said. “As part of the THPT, HPD has conducted inspections at this property and based on recent inspections the number of violations has been considerably reduced. Both the tenants and HPD have been active in Housing Court seeking the correction of conditions.”
Pushing Tenants Out
Corchado, who was born in Puerto Rico-born and has lived in the building since 1980, says in recent years property management has made attempts at luring her out of the building, presumably with the aim of taking the unit off of rent-stabilization. Corchado said in an interview in her ground floor apartment that she has been offered a buyout of $20,000 three or four times.
“She came and she said, ‘Ermelinda, are you willing to negotiate again?’ Corchado recalled of an interaction between her and Angela Jones, an office manager at Grand Management. “I said, ‘I don’t want to move. I can’t afford to move.’”
Along with the pressure of buyout offers, the landlord has made her life unpleasant in other more significant ways, Corchado said. Danenberg, for example, in October threw her husband’s new wheelchair in the garbage, Corchado said.
“Two days ago, the landlord came. When I looked out the window, he had my husband’s wheelchair, which is brand new, in the garbage,” said Corchado. “I had to go outside and drag it back inside. It was in the hallway, because I didn’t have space, [and] he said ‘Anything in the halway is considered garbage.’”
Asked for comment, Pasquariello, the landlord’s lawyer, said by email that he was “not aware of any personal property being thrown away, specifically a wheel chair, but we will investigate.”
Asked for comment about the incident days later, he replied, “by ‘thrown in the garbage’ do you mean it was removed from the hallway and placed outside?”
“I assume you are aware that storing items in the hallway is a violation,” he added.
Corchado, who has lived in the building for about 38 years, says she has noticed harassment and poor conditions took hold when Danenberg’s LLC took control of the building.
“It used to be an Asian landlord, then when they sold the building to ZackMaxie,” she said, referring to the LLC that in 2010 took control of the building after it was transferred from 431 Bleecker St LLC, of which Danenberg was listed as a member, after the latter entity bought the building in 2007. “That’s when a lot of problems started happening.”
Corchado, who takes care of her son and frequently babysits for her grandchild, said she was hardly the only longtime resident that was encouraged in not-so-subtle fashion to leave the building.
“The old tenants that left were being harassed,” she said. “They didn’t want to fix nothing for them. They used to tell them ‘If you don’t like being here, you could leave.’”
“Three or four years ago, the ones that used to live here before they bought the building, they were being harassed,” Corchado recalled. “There was a Haitian family upstairs that was harassed. They had water coming through their wall. Four couples already that moved out, because they were told they were going to pay this rent and then they came and they told them [to pay] another $600, $800 for the heating system, the water and garbage removal. They told them they can’t afford that.”
The building, currently has just one rent-stabilized tenant, has in recent years lost a number of rent-stabilized units. Corchado, who lives in unit 1L, pays roughly $600 per month in rent. The other tenants pay $1,800-1,900 monthly. The other units were taken out of rent-stabilization because of the “substantial rehabilitation” that, according to the landlord, allowed them to increase the rents and hit the threshold for stabilization, thus removing them from that status. The rules around what rent increases are allowed and how often, how landlords account for improvements they make to apartments, and the rent thresholds at which units can be removed from stabilization are all aspects of the state rent regulations.
Apartment 3L, for example, was rent-stabilized with the tenant, who lived in the apartment from 1987 through 2009, paying just over $300 per month, according to state DHCR records. In 2010, the unit underwent “substantial rehabilitation,” according to those records, and by 2012, the unit was no longer rent-regulated. It’s unclear if the tenant remained in the unit during or after this post-2009 period.
For roughly 26 years, Corchado lived in apartment 3R, which was rent-stabilized until 2006, when she paid $385 per month that year. Like in the other apartment on the floor, it underwent a “substantial rehabilitation” from 2009-2010, according to DHCR records. In 1984, Corchado paid $238.61 per month.
Apartment 4L’s rent in 1984 was $197.50 per month. The rent rose over the years, but remained under rent stabilization until 2015. The rent rose rapidly from 2013-2014, from $674 to $1,650 — a free-market rent. Unlike the other units, no substantial rehabilitation occurred, according to DHCR records, though according to DOB, city records indicate permits for renovations were filed for that unit. In 2015, 4L was no longer subject to rent regulation, with the monthly rent at $1,850 for the unit.
The Larger Picture
431 Bleecker is just one of many buildings that have contributed to the drop in the city’s rent-regulated units. Much of this came as a result of Albany’s loosening of the rent laws in the 1990s. Specifically, the state legislature in 1997 scaled back rent regulations, allowing landlords to raise rents by 20 percent when a unit becomes vacant, and, when a unit becomes vacant with a rent of over $2,000 per month, now $2,733, the unit is not subject to any rent regulation.
Since 1993, New York City has lost over 152,000 rent-regulated apartments due to high-rent vacancy deregulation as of May 2017, according to the Rent Guidelines Board. More recently, Brooklyn as the second only to Manhattan on loss of rent-regulated units. Between 2007 and 2014, Brooklyn lost 41,500 rent-regulated units, according to an Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development report.
This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed in Albany. Formed in 2012 to “act as a proactive law enforcement office” in the DHCR, the state-controlled Tenant Protection Unit (TPU) began investigating improperly deregulated apartments via HCR’s Office of Rent Administration (ORA) registration data. In April 2016, the governor’s office announced in a press release the unit had identified 50,000 such units, recouping about $2.25 million in rent since the TPU’s inception. According to HCR, the unit has reregistered 70,000 improperly deregulated units since its inception and recovered more than $4.5 million in overcharged rent.
Still, the state’s efforts have of course not stopped the loss of rent-regulated units in the city, which becomes particularly problematic in increasingly high-cost area like Bushwick.
Indeed, Brooklyn has been home to some of the most extreme gentrification in the country in recent years, and Bushwick has been atop the list of gentrifying neighborhoods in the borough. A 2016 Furman Center study showed that from 2000 to 2014 average rent increased by 44.5 percent in Bushwick. Meanwhile, average income of residents rose by 16.4 percent, the share of non-family households increased by 24.9 percent and the adult population with college degrees increased by nearly 20 percent — telltale signs of gentrification. In turn, many black and Hispanic New Yorkers have left or have been pushed out of Bushwick.
“That neighborhood is absolutely ground zero for speculation, harassment and displacement in the city,” said Benjamin Dulchin, executive director of ANHD.
“It has among the highest concentration of what we think are displacement risks,” he added, referring to an ANHD report on displacement risk in the city.
In addition to Bushwick, Dulchin says this phenomenon plays itself out in “low-income neighborhoods of color that are within relatively easy commuting distance from the business centers that for a whole bunch of reasons are subject to gentrification pressures, and where the current residents that are there have relatively little economic and social capital and can’t push back against displacement.” Neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Bed Stuy, Astoria, and East Harlem and more have in recent years also followed a similar pattern.
In tandem with more well-off newcomers moving into traditionally lower-income areas, one central way gentrification is spawned is by landlords forcing lower-income longtime residents, who are disproportionately black and Latino, from buildings, in many cases from rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartments, in order to receive higher rents.
Kevin Worthington, a law student who works with BKA on the 431 Bleecker case, said the story is not atypical in the city’s areas home to an influx of newcomers.
“I think it’s very emblematic of speculative investments in gentrifying neighborhoods,” he said. “Traditionally black and brown communities that were plagued with the systems of segregation, lack of investment, city neglect, and all of the sudden there’s a resurgence of real estate interests, which often attract greedy investors who are looking to flip properties and make profits at the expense of mostly black and brown families who have been there the longest.”
However, Worthington said landlords do not always throw the kitchen sink at tenants, as he argued was he case with 431 Bleecker. “Usually, you see those strategies implemented, but not all at the same time,” he said, pointing holdover proceedings, eviction proceedings, and offering a buyout to a tenant as the unusual quantity of ways the landlord’s made life difficult for his tenants.
City Council Member Rafael Espinal, who represents parts of Bushwick, including 431 Bleecker, told Gotham Gazette the conditions and challenges the tenants in the building have faced are common in his district, particularly the attempts to lure rent-stabilized tenants out of their units.
“It’s terrible that there are landlords out there preying on vulnerable tenants who depend on these apartments to be able to care for themselves and for their families,” he said. “It’s no secret that rents are rising all throughout Brooklyn, but that doesn’t give landlords a reason to harass and intimidate the tenants that they currently have in their buildings.”
In Bushwick, Espinal says, it is unfortunately all too common for landlords that buy buildings and “pull out all the stops to harass tenants out of their rent-regulated apartment” with the aim of deregulating it, and tenants who live in rent-regulated apartments are encouraged to leave so “new owners can rehab the apartments, and make them into more luxury units.”
To prevent against these practices, elected officials in the city have moved to put in place local tenant protection measures.
Rampant use of construction as harassment — a practice wherein a landlords employs repairs and other work as a means to inconvenience tenants and provoke them to leave — has sparked outcry from tenant rights advocates and prompted legislation aimed at preventing the practice. Specifically, the “Certificate of No Harassment” pilot program, an initiative spearheaded by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander that requires landlords to obtain a certification that shows they have not harassed their tenants in order to be granted construction permits, passed the Council in the fall and recently began implementation in 11 neighborhoods, including Bushwick.
The “Right to Counsel” legislation, cosponsored by Council Members members Vanessa Gibson and Mark Levine, which allows low-income tenants facing eviction access to city-funded legal defense in housing court, passed in summer 2017. The bills came amid a larger city push to reduce evictions that in part has paved the way for a 24 percent drop in evictions in the city compared to 2014, as 180,000 New Yorkers benefitted from the expansion since that year, according to the city. In June, Gibson, Levine and a coalition of advocates announced an expansion of the program that gives access to legal defense to those who make slightly higher incomes than the first iteration of the bill.
Additionally, HPD in October rolled out its “Speculation Watch List,” an account of properties the city deems are at risk of having tenants harassed in them. On the list are rent-regulated multifamily properties sold that have capitalization rates — the expected rate of return on a property based on the revenue its projected to produce — below their respective borough’s median.
Brooklyn City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who represents heavily gentrified and gentrifying neighborhoods including parts of Bushwick and Williamsburg, has helped lead a community-devised rezoning of some of Bushwick, which mostly entails a downzoning of the neighborhood that stakeholders hope will help curb development and the floodgates of gentrification and displacement.
Ultimately, despite city-led tenant protection efforts, the front lines of the rent regulation battles are in Albany, experts and city officials told Gotham Gazette.
“In the City Council, we’ve done everything that we can do,” said Espinal, the Brooklyn Council member. “We’ve increased the budget in getting tenants legal assistance, we’ve passed laws that ensure that any landlord that’s harassing their tenants will not have the ability to construct new buildings. So I think that at the end of the day, we have to look at our state leaders and hope that when rent regs come up for a vote, that we’re not just extending the current protections, but we’re looking to strengthen them to make sure that all New Yorkers are protected.”
Levine, the Upper Manhattan Council member who spearheaded the right to counsel, said similarly.
“The root of all this evil is vacancy decontrol, which creates these perverse incentives to get tenants out,” he said of the law that allows landlords to hike rents when a unit becomes vacant.
“They’re all great,” Cea Weaver, policy director for left-wing activist group New York Communities for Change, said of city-level tenant protection efforts. But, she explained, “they’re all attempts to treat the symptoms of a weak rent regulation system.”
The current rent laws, Weaver said, contain loopholes that are “so wide that a truck can drive through it, part of a structure that “encourages and rewards” driving tenants out.
“If you really want to stop this,” she said of tenant harassment and rampant displacement, “we need to strengthen rent laws in Albany.”
Another shortcoming in the forces that govern rent in the state, according to Weaver, is that DHCR doesn’t verify that the necessary repairs have in fact have been made and mostly takes the landlord’s word for it, allowing landlords to raise the rent.
“They just rubber stamp landlords’ applications,” Weaver said.
Indeed, DHCR does not vouch for the veracity of rent history documents. “DHCR does not attest to the truthfulness of the owner’s statements or the legality of the rents reported in this document,” reads an “advisory note” on rent history papers.
ANHD’s Dulchin also commended city-level efforts, and like Weaver said the extent to which the city can improve matters on this front is limited, saying the de Blasio administration “has done a lot of new and creative things” to help stabilize tenants who are at risk of being pushed out.
“The Certificate of No Harassment legislation is an important one coming online,” he said just ahead of the program’s official launch. “There are a bunch of pretty important, and worthwhile things that this administration has done, but the real action is in Albany.”
For his part, the mayor agrees bolstering the state’s rent laws are central to better housing policy and are more impactful than other city-level efforts on the front. “It’s the single biggest thing we can do to increase affordability,” de Blasio said Monday during his weekly NY1 appearance.
But according to Aaron Carr, founder of Housing Rights Initiative, while the City Council has done a good job on bolstering pro-tenant legislation, the mayor made a mistake in pursuing his affordable housing plan to build and preserve 300,000 below-market-rate units without first ensuring with greater intensity that existing rent-regulated units are preserved through stronger enforcement of the laws on the books.
“I think that the mayor made a catastrophic error in failing to overhaul our enforcement system prior to launching his $83 billion affordable housing plan,” he said in a phone interview, “because for every unit that’s created through that plan, [a unit] is being removed by landlords like Lucy’s.”
In the absence of “proactive and effective” enforcement of existing laws, the city is forced to a situation in which it is “pursuing affordable housing on a sinking ship,” Carr said.
Carr went on to say that, though it’s ultimately Governor Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility to reform rent regulations, the city has come up short in playing the role of the “field medic.”
“They’re supposed to be stopping the bleeding while Albany gets their stuff together,” he said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the mayor, Jane Meyer, said tenant protection is “a top priority for this Administration.”
“We have doubled down on our efforts to keep bad actors in check, and continue to develop new tools to protect New Yorkers,” she said. “The Tenant Anti-Harassment Unit, Speculation Watch List, Certification of No Harassment program, and a new Real Time Enforcement Unit at DOB are just some of the latest examples of our efforts.”
‘What I want to come out of this is a change’
Moving forward, Hunter says that in the near term, she would like the landlord to stop harassing the tenants and do his job properly by conducting basic, proper upkeep of the property.
“Medium term,” she said, “I would like our apartments rent-stabilized again.”
In addition to the practices at 431 Bleecker, through canvassing other properties Danenberg owns, she said the tenants of his other residential buildings face “dire conditions.”
“I would like see an attorney general investigation triggered,” Hunter added, “because I think this landlord is engaging in criminal activity that goes beyond this building.”
Carr said that the landlord’s “mob-like behavior” should trigger either a district attorney or attorney general investigation. It does just so happen that the most recent author of the city’s “Worst Landlords List,” Public Advocate Letitia James, is currently the Attorney General-elect, having won the office earlier this month while promising to crack down on bad landlords.
Burnett-Loucas said she hopes her efforts will play a part in taking a stand against bad-acting landlords. She made the case that it’s incumbent on privileged newcomers with to neighborhoods to pay heed to what longtime residents face, and to work to hold unscrupulous landlords to account rather than jumping ship, which often isn’t a legitimate option for those at risk of being displaced.
“I could have moved. I could have taken the easy road and been like, ‘You know what, this is way too much of a headache. I don’t want to deal with that,’” she said. “And that’s what most people do in these situations.”
“What I want to come out of this is a change, so that these white-collar criminals are actually held accountable for these disgusting practices, so that people who have been living in these communities for years, like Ermelinda, have a home and aren’t pushed out,” she added, referring to the last-remaining rent-stabilized tenant in the building. “Ermelinda could be your grandmother. Would you want your grandmother being harassed by some guy who has all the power and privilege, who owns all these buildings, who doesn’t give a s***?”