Threats to New York City’s Affordable Housing ♦
Note: This reported, unpublished story was written as part of a master’s program at the Columbia School of Journalism.
With her peppery grey hair cut efficiently short, but dyed a youthful honey blonde, Martha Castro is a modern matriarch. At sixty-six, this mother of five children and grandmother of ten balances a mix of contradictions. She is a former mental health worker who only recently gave up her post-retirement bartending job; a cruise enthusiast with a fear of water; and, somewhat reluctantly, the president of her building’s tenant association.
Her apartment, a two-bedroom ground floor in the Soundview area of the Bronx, reflects the pride Castro takes in her family. Two-decades’ worth of accumulated objects crowd the living-dining room and a small hallway. Goblets, souvenir shot glasses and tumblers glint from every exposed surface. Framed family photos and certificates that Castro received for community service tile the walls.
A closer look, however, reveals that these walls hold more than accolades and memorabilia. Great patches of discolored paint point to massive seepage and structural problems. This Christmas, Castro hung her decorations strategically over waterlogged patches. For the past several years, she and her fellow tenants at 1585 East 172nd Street have been waging guerilla warfare against mold, vermin and cracks – trying to keep their homes from falling apart.
“You know what it is to get up in the morning and you have to go out and you got to heat up water to bathe?” she asks, recalling the winter of 2008, which was spent entirely without heat or hot water. Although she and her neighbors didn’t have to go to the extreme of sleeping in their socks, sweaters and scarves this winter, as they did in ’08, the water situation can still be patchy. “We keep checking in the evening to see if the water’s hot– then everybody jump in there to take a quick bath. In the morning, everybody takes a sponge bath. It’s ridiculous,” said Castro.
Castro and her neighbors are fighting for their rights as tenants, but they are not alone. Just a couple of miles north, beyond the zoo and the Cross-Bronx Expressway, Janel Towers looks nothing like 1585. Unlike Castro’s 32-unit building, this 250-unit high-rise with a swimming pool and parking hasn’t suffered abuse at the hands of its landlord in the form of appalling neglect. Yet residents, like vociferous tenant association president Maria Dolores Gonzales, 63, who have been here for 40 years, have found the building increasingly too expensive for the low-income families it was once meant to house. Rather than neglecting the building, the landlord has wielded renovation as a tool to price out tenants over the last several years. Gonzales, who commands her wheelchair like a chariot, bears witness to the trend: “We see more people move out after one year than we used to see when we had all kinds of affordable programs,” she says. “Once the rent comes to a certain level, there’s no help for them.”
Gonzales has seen these changes rippling through the Bronx, with lower-income tenants getting priced out, harassed to leave, or worn down by landlord neglect – increasingly to find that they have nowhere else to go. “If you walk through the Bronx now, you see the buildings and you’d swear it’s downtown Manhattan, it’s beautiful. But the rents? When they say affordable – who’s word affordable? Yours, mine or his?” Back on 172nd Street, Castro strongly agrees that “there ain’t no such thing as affordable housing.”
The sentiment of these tenant association leaders is echoed by experts and activists, who have been speaking for years about the losses to New York City’s affordable housing stock and warning that the city is becoming increasingly unlivable for poor to middle-income tenants. The pressures of neglect and rising rent prices have resulted in troubles like Castro’s across the Bronx, which has New York’s highest concentration of affordable housing, as well as in other parts of the city. Experts say that at the root of rot and foreclosure, rent hikes and tenant harassment, is an underlying shift in policies that have become increasingly driven by profit and greed.
“Pushing people off the land was part of both the economics and the culture of US society,” says Tom Angotti, a professor at the Hunter College Department of Urban Affairs and Planning and author of New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate. Angotti takes a long view of the problems that he sees as endemic to New York City, “the center of the new economy. It received the capital surplus from Southern agriculture, from global trade and from the development of the interior and the west. The ruling elites in New York – it was built into their economic model: you take people’s land, you make money, you turn it over and you go on to take more land. That also applies when it comes to real estate development. That’s how you make money, by pushing people off and taking the land that has risen in value.”
Tenants have felt the pinch of these pressures acutely, particularly in the Bronx. “Your in-betweens can’t afford to pay – they got kids, they’re working,” says Castro, echoing city statistics that describe the years-long waiting lists for public housing and for rent vouchers. “But yet and still they cannot meet the criteria for middle-income. And they sure enough can’t do for the poor. Because they’ll look at them and say – you’ve got a job.”
Looking back, Neil Smith, director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York, believes things have gotten steadily worse since Reagan years. “The language of affordable housing has become totally bureaucratic and it doesn’t really help those who need it,” he says. The official definition of affordable housing provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses area median incomes (AMIs) to calculate categories of moderate, low, very low and extremely-low income families. Those, like Angotti, who have been tracking the crisis, explain that “It’s not any one policy but a whole series of policies that reinforces segregation, and gentrification for real estate development. In too many neighborhoods, people making 80 percent of the AMI [this constitutes a ‘moderate-income’] are not able to afford the housing that’s being built in the so-called affordable housing programs.” Academics and activists say that shifts in policy, waning interest in preservation of existing housing, the defunding of public programs and the failure of new programs have opened the door for risky speculation and consequent abandonment.
According to most activists, the biggest culprits in the erosion of affordable housing are the de-regulation of rents coupled with a risky investment practice that activists and the media have dubbed “predatory equity.” Simply put, predatory equity describes the snapping-up of regulated properties by buyers, backed by complex private investments, who speculate on their ability to raise rental income.
Tom Waters, a housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society, has been following the rise of this globally-funded phenomenon, which penetrated New York’s affordable rental market in 2004. “Some real estate people – not typical slum lords or the normal owners of rent-regulated housing – found out that they could raise money from Wall Street types and invest in housing of low-income,” Waters says. “At first, they paid prices that were only a little bit higher than were normal, but quickly a lot of people bid the prices up to insanity. They saddled these buildings with loans that were going to be defaulted on even if the economy had been fine,” he adds.
Ocelot Capital Group was a case in point. A partnership between a New York attorney, Rachel Arfa, and an Israeli investment group, Eldon Tech, the company raised capital and took out $45.6 million in loans from Deutsche Bank and Dime Savings, a Brooklyn bank. In 2007, the company bought up nearly 800 low-income units in various South Bronx neighborhoods. Among these were Castro’s building and 28 other rent-regulated buildings.
Regulation in the form of rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartments covers about 1.1 million units – half of all of New York City’s rentals. The regulation applies to buildings that fall within certain historical parameters. Rent increases are calculated each year by the Rent Guidelines Board according to area incomes, economic conditions and other factors as determined by the triennial Housing and Vacancy Survey. Though government-run public housing projects are perhaps the most emblematic of low-income housing, projects make up only about a fifth of all affordable units. Privately-owned rent-stabilized units actually constitute the greatest portion of New York City’s affordable housing. This is also the segment that experts say is at the greatest risk.
When Castro moved into her apartment 22 years ago from Upper Manhattan, it was “a beautiful building,” she recalls. “The floors were shining, the doors were clean. There was no graffiti. The bell used to work. The mailboxes were mailboxes, not what we have now – where you open your box, the whole thing comes out.” After Ocelot bought the building, Castro began to notice some changes. The lobby looked dirtier. The building superintendent couldn’t conduct repairs because he wasn’t getting the right materials. Eventually, the owners fired the super and replaced him. And then came the coldest winter that Castro, who suffers from spinal arthritis, had ever endured. A few families, fed up with the lack of heat and hot water, left the building.
Meanwhile, Ocelot’s financial plan was crumbling as well. Deutsche Bank had already sold Ocelot’s debt to Fannie Mae. In May 2009, developer Sam Suzuki’s Hunter Property Management bought Castro’s building as well as the five other Ocelot properties, three of which had been financed by Dime Savings Bank. At around the same time, following court proceedings resulting from literally thousands of reported violations, Fannie Mae foreclosed on the rest of Ocelot’s Bronx buildings. The foreclosure garnered a lot of media attention because Fannie Mae at first planned to auction off the properties at an online bidding. The lender backed down from this drastic measure after pressure from the city and from advocate groups like the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB).
Dan DeSloover, an organizer for UHAB said that the group believes “the debt on the properties is at least a third too much for the buildings. Their projection of being able to increase the income of these buildings by 30 or 40 percent by vacating people wasn’t realistic.” Even the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which has typically been slow to respond to affordable housing needs, found in its 2010 “New Housing Marketplace Plan,” that 100,000 units in the city are similarly “overleveraged” – that is, the rents cannot support the mortgage.
Janel Towers, where Gonzales is tenant association president, is another overleveraged building. Emily Goldstein, an organizer with the activist group Tenants and Neighbors has been working closely with Janel Towers residents and said that owner Larry Gluck of Stellar Property Management possibly paid twice the actual value of the property.
Overleveraging is closely tied to the process of gentrification, as developers overbid on properties with the idea that they will recoup costs by quickly turning over tenancies. This turnover is itself predicated on a policy known as vacancy decontrol, which has facilitated the erosion of affordable housing since the 1990s. When a tenant vacates an apartment, the landlord can raise the rent by 20 percent. Additionally the company can add 1/40th the cost of any “Major Capital Improvements” (MCIs) to the rent permanently. Once an apartment’s rent is registered as $2,000, the apartment ceases to be rent-stabilized. Mario Mazzoni, the lead organizer at the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a non-profit that works for tenants’ rights, explained that landlords “automatically get bonuses for the tenant moving out. This includes evicting people who have statutory rights to renew their lease at modest increases.” He also mentioned that while area rates in places like parts of the Bronx may not yet support rents of $2,000, often landlords push the rents up to the deregulated amount on paper, even if the tenant is paying a lower amount, so that they can hike the rents at any point.
Castro finds the idea of vacancy decontrol ludicrous in the case of the Ocelot buildings. “Who is going to move into these raggedy apartments?” she laughs. “Let’s face it, I don’t care how many tenants you put out. Nobody in their right mind is going to move into a hole.” But at Janel Towers, vacancy decontrol has proved to be an effective method for bringing new, higher-profit tenants in. The tenant association suspects that at least 60 apartments here are now market-rate rentals.
Vacancy decontrol of its units isn’t the only type of deregulation that Janel Towers has undergone. The building belonged, until six years ago, to the Mitchell-Lama program. This state-city partnership, initiated in 1955, was one of the first to use government funding for the construction of privately-held affordable housing. As long as the private owners were subsidized by the government, they had to guarantee affordability in order to receive tax abatements and other support.
Gonzales moved in 40 years ago, when the building was brand new. Her previous residence, a little building not too far away had been demolished when the city took over the block using the power of eminent domain. The “ace landlord” was “crying and just as heartbroken as we were because he loved all the tenants,” she remembers. That block is still a fenced-off vacant lot, with one lonely boarded-up brownstone that sticks up like a straggly tooth. When Gonzales moved to Janel Towers, she brought with her a strong belief in community organization. With the nostalgia of someone who’s watched four sons grow up and one son pass away in the same rooms, Gonzales recounted the good old days of government support of low rents at Janel: “We all loved our building, we were happy here. We were like a community within a community. Children grew up and they still come back here because they know one and another and everything.”
Mazzoni and other activists consider the losses to the Mitchell-Lama program to be a major blow to New York’s affordable housing, second only perhaps to deregulation of rent-stabilized apartments through vacancy decontrol. The owners of Mitchell-Lama buildings could opt out of the program after 20 years by paying their mortgages early. Buildings would also naturally expire from the program after 30 years. According to a report by Rutgers professor James DeFilippis and geographer ElvinWyly, about 40,000 of the 92,000 original Mitchell-Lama units have been lost so far.
Barry Soltz, a resident of Janel Towers and the tenant association’s local legal head explained that for Mitchell-Lama buildings inhabited before 1974, like Janel Towers, the apartments would go into regular rent-stabilization. However, Larry Gluck, who made a practice of buying up Mitchell-Lamas that were opting out of government subsidies, had different intentions. DeSloover characterized Gluck as more “on-the-ground” than the typical faceless predatory equity investment consortiums. “His business model was specifically buying Mitchell-Lama buildings and removing them. There’s a coalition of tenants from all of the buildings that he bought that have been organizing over the last few years. They’ve had harassment issues, condition issues.”
When Stellar took over Janel Towers, Gluck tried to convert the entire building to market-rate rents right away. Gonzales and other tenants protested and went to the courts and to the HPD to ensure that the building would go into rent-stabilization. Gluck had also tried sending three-day eviction notices to tenants, but the strong tenants’ association challenged these in court. “We said no, that’s not going to be tolerated,” Gonzales recalls. However, Stellar Management was able to hit tenants with MCIs. As she wheels from apartment to apartment, Gonzales points out the increases that have forced the new, market-rate tenants to leave at ever-increasing rates. “That apartment started out at $1,000, now it’s going to 1,300 for that after renovation. This was $1,350, now it’s almost up to $1,500 for a one bedroom with a terrace. This one had two renovations.”
Gluck claimed “unique or peculiar” circumstances, a loophole that would allow him to raise rents beyond stabilized rates, even in pre-’74 Mitchell-Lamas. The Janel Towers residents are following the case, which is being fought primarily by another building, as a “concerned party.” If they win, rents in the renovated apartments will have to go back to regulated rates.
While the economic downturn has illuminated trouble in the affordable multi-family rental market in the form of court cases or deterioration, academics and activists say that the problem has been brewing across the country for some time. The recent foreclosures of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village were the most notorious examples. But organizers feel that the rise in resulting foreclosures were inevitable. “It was the decade preceding this that was total insanity,” Mazzoni says. “We’re closer to a reality-based economy than we were before.”
Eugene Schneur is the managing director of Omni LLC – a company started by former Mets player Mo Vaughn – that is widely regarded as a responsible manager of distressed, low-income rental buildings. Schneur says that foreclosures and the recession were “like the chicken and the egg. You’re just overpaying with everybody buying and selling and giving out loans. Sooner or later somebody’s going to get caught with the hot potato.”
Omni and other for-profit and non-profit management companies believe that affordable housing can be run responsibly while still making money. Schneur believes “you can run, own, manage and responsibly operate affordable housing if you don’t overpay for it to start. We purchased a lot of units in ’07, ’08, but we also were outbid a lot of times by astronomical amounts. We also purchased some properties where there was a provision involved that you made sure these remained affordable.”
The economic crisis “just forced major investments that were being supported by steady infusions of credit into an assessment of whether they were actually good investments or not,” says Mazzoni. He adds that the ground rules themselves don’t seem to be changing: “For the last few decades, this is a place for wealthy people and large businesses that come from a narrow sector of the economy. The capital is going to move with the culture. Whether or not the entire economy is in a downturn, it doesn’t seem like the trend toward gentrification has abated at all in New York.”
Rafael E. Cestero, the NYC Housing Commissioner, has often been quoted comparing the aftermath of the current economic downturn to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. In the New Housing Marketplace Plan, he recalls how in the 1970’s, when “the City was on the brink of financial ruin,” the HPD “moved aggressively and decisively to turn abandoned properties into the homes that spurred revitalization of many of our historic neighborhoods across New York City.”
In the 1970s, the value of land in New York City fell drastically as people moved out to the suburbs. Landlords who could no longer pay property taxes resorted to neglect and even burning buildings to collect insurance. That’s very different from today’s crisis of developers pushing into lower-income communities to gentrify, driving prices artificially high and then being unable to repay their debts – always to the detriment of tenants.
In some ways, Cestero is right that the wake of an upheaval can be fertile for sowing new structures. However, the policies that were put in place in the 1970s by the city, state and federal governments were partially responsible for the current challenges facing low-income tenants. It was in the 1970s that the shift from public housing to public-private partnerships took off. “After the demise of public housing – every program dreamed up has been premised on the idea that government can’t build housing anymore,” Angotti says.
Mazzoni adds that as progressives lamented the segregation that housing projects seemed to be fostering, their position converged with the “conservative backlash” against government-built housing. Eventually, even support for new construction in programs like Mitchell-Lama died out. As DeFilippis outlined in his report, this caused a shift towards “voucherization” or subsidies, such as the Section 8 voucher program, which are attached to households rather than designated units. As rent subsidization became increasingly attached to tenants rather than buildings, the number of apartments earmarked for low-income families naturally grew smaller. This was compounded by the fact that the public-private partnership buildings, at the federally, state or city-funded level were all subject to withdrawal from their programs after a certain number of years, for example in the case of the Mitchell-Lama buildings.
This didn’t solve the problem of segregation that public housing was seen to have contributed to. The Furman Center at New York University releases an annual “State of the City” report. The 2008 report found that the Bronx, which has the lowest area median income of any borough, also has the highest percentage of subsidized and regulated stock, as well as higher percentages of Hispanics and Blacks than New York City as a whole.
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the government came up with a solution to landlord abandonment in the form of the Tenant Interim Lease Program (TIL), which enabled tenants to take ownership of the building and convert them to co-ops. While the TIL program created 30,000 units of tenant-owned housing, the regulations were such that these units could be resold at much higher prices after some years. Now, such a solution would be difficult. As Waters puts it, “You’re looking at piles of money involved.” DeSloover from UHAB, one of the groups that grew out of helping tenants create co-ops, says that “the stumbling block to creating co-ops now with these private equity buildings is the debt. The mortgage loan on these buildings makes it completely unfeasible for tenants to take over.”
Additionally, Mayor Rudy Giuliani instituted a “third-party transfer program” in the 1990s, which allowed a foreclosing building to transfer from one company to another without going through city ownership. By the time Castro spent a few years working in a TIL support center in the mid-90’s, this program was being used more and more to co-op buildings that had been owned by the city for years, not new foreclosures.
Still, activists agree that the current moment could provide openings for solutions like the TIL program. “History never repeats itself in exactly the same way, but there are new opportunities for community organizations to take control of their land while a lot of the predatory people are running for cover,” says Angotti. Neil Smith also says that he sees “a place where there was a lot of hope in the ‘70s in the urban center. I’ve lived through a real clampdown in terms of political will, but I see that hope opening up again.”
Part of that hope comes from organizations, like UHAB, that grew out of the co-op movement of the 1970s but who are now working with overleveraged buildings like Castro’s or former-subsidized buildings like Gonzales’ to ensure that low-to-moderate-income tenants are protected from predatory landlords. Groups like UHAB, Tenants and Neighbors, and many others across the city run regular workshops and meetings to organize tenants and push for change.
Before UHAB got involved in her building, though, Castro had taken the initiative to spur the landlord into making repairs. With her building having racked up over 500 violations, she had already started paying for repairs out of pocket – over $600, she said, on things that should have been fixed by the landlord.
Since she was spending all this money and receiving no services, Castro started withholding her $934 rent. She says she doesn’t want to pay a penny until her needs are addressed. “We want what we pay for. We gonna pay for all the rats?” she asks.
“Rent strike is a time-honored strategy in New York,” said DeSloover. However, rent striking is not a strategy that UHAB openly advocates in such cases. In the case of the Ocelot and Hunter residents, rent strikes have also been less of an organized strategy and more of an individual reaction to landlord negligence. Castro said the tenants “each decided that we’re not going to pay rent. Evidently – afterwards – we found out that quite a few people were holding rent.”
Although it is legal, organizing groups don’t officially recommend rent strikes as a negotiating tool, especially because the housing courts make available a “tenant blacklist” with records of non-payment. For tenants, it’s often more about the emotional appeal of withholding, even though they usually have to pay back reduced rent when repairs are made. “Rent strikes have been at the heart of tenant activism for generations,” said Mazzoni, “people who don’t intend on ever moving from their apartment may not be as intimidated” by the blacklist.
DeSloover agreed that rent strikes “can be very effective if it’s a huge group of the tenants who are doing it in a concerted way. It hits the landlord hard – they realize that they’ve got a major problem; they realize that they’re going to have to deal with it. It’s a way of bringing sort of that pressure.”
Though Castro and others in her building haven’t paid the rent for over a year now, it seems to have made no difference to Hunter. Castro finally decided to sue the company in housing court through a process called HP Action, in which a judge can issue a stipulation requiring the company to make repairs.
“I was the one that was going to court, for me,” Castro says. “Then everybody joined on the bandwagon. I didn’t have a problem with that, because most of them don’t speak English. So that’s how I got involved and how I became the president of the tenants association. And I carry the weight.” Soon however, she was grateful for the support of UHAB and Legal Aid. She says “we would not have gotten this far if we hadn’t had them.”
Jackie Del Valle is an organizer with the Housing Conservation Coordinators, a non-profit that can provide legal services to tenants. She talked about the inherent inequalities of housing court, where the vast majority of tenants have no legal counsel, while landlords hire lawyers who spend three to four days per week in the courts. “Lawyers will often pull tenants out into the hallway and try and make them sign a deal,” she says.
Housing Court can also be frustrating in terms of the amount of time it takes for anything to change. While actual judgments at the overburdened courthouse are quick, low-income tenants often find it hard to take time off from work. Castro has been diligently rallying her fellow tenants to come to court almost every two weeks, despite the fact that someone (she suspects the new super) tears down her reminder notices. “Your whole morning is shot because you’re there,” she says. And the landlords “don’t get there till late. We’re there, 9-9.30am. They strolling in at 10.30, quarter to 11. Last time we were there for about 10 minutes in front of the judge. It’s senseless because they just stand there like dummies.”
While Hunter has signed stipulations for repair, the actual work has been slow to be undertaken or not happened at all. Eventually, Castro and her neighbors are considering holding Hunter in contempt of court, but this would entail a longer, more serious investment.
For most tenants, housing court is the best option for pressuring an owner. The tenants at Janel Towers have found housing court to be an effective way for solving their problems. Soltz proudly recalled when the tenants won an early victory over the landlord, who wanted to short sell some voucher-holding tenants. “Our attorney said that ‘when you first came to me I didn’t think you had it in you. But you were like a sleeping giant. Do you realize you cost the landlord several million dollars?’”
Besides taking the landlords to housing court, tenant associations, in conjunction with advocate groups, are coming up with creative ways of putting the pressure on predatory lenders rather than landlords. In November of last year, residents from Castro’s building protested in front of Dime Savings, the bank that allowed Ocelot to take out unsupportable loans. The bank caved and agreed to meet the tenants, but Castro feels that their promises were just lip service. “They just didn’t want to start anything. The first thing they said was ‘Oh, we’ll get an exterminator there.’ Well, we still haven’t seen an exterminator.” However, the heat and hot water situation at 1585 did improve.
The strategy of targeting the lender rather than the owner was pioneered by a Bronx non-profit, the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition, and activists say it can be useful to make banks enact regulatory default, which is where the owners are in violation of certain terms of the mortgage that are supposed to ensure good maintenance. Tenants and Neighbors have organized such protests before as well. Emily Goldstein points out that “largely because of the economy, the banks are now more relevant – they’re just as culpable as the landlords. There’s eyes on the banks right now and a lot of anger.”
Putting pressure on backer Fannie Mae worked in the case of the remainder of the Ocelot properties. Once UHAB and others had pressured Fannie Mae not to sell its debt online, these organizers sat down with the HPD and the bank to find a responsible owner. Eventually, Omni bought the debt from Fannie Mae and is pursuing foreclosure so that it can take ownership of the buildings. “There was a significant discount,” Schneur says of the debt, “I think there may be some situations where the lender might want to get rid of the asset, write it down and get it off the books.” The company signed a non-disclosure agreement, but UHAB believes that Fannie Mae may have written off up to $12 million. Omni also put up $1 million to start repairs before they actually take ownership, as the foreclosure process could take up to a year.
The mayor’s office recently announced an allotment of $750 million to finance the purchase and repair of distressed buildings like the Ocelot properties. The city plans to first focus on buildings identified through a City Council program that finds buildings with the worst violations.
While tenants and activists cheer this decision, it is a short-term solution. It won’t, for example, help Janel Towers tenants keep their rents down. Tenants here have refocused their efforts at targeting politicians to enact regulatory legislation. Gonzales, who has always been politically-inclined, started hitting her state representatives. Several advocate groups have joined forces to fight for a few key pieces of legislation that are getting mired in an on-the-fence State Senate, which is being courted by a strong landlord lobby. One of these bills would repeal vacancy decontrol; another would ensure rent-stabilization for all former Mitchell-Lamas. Part of the problem is that representatives from the rest of New York State face no electoral backlash in their districts for voting against tenants’ rights and are thus easily swayed by the wealthy landlord lobby.
Del Valle called this fight “a unique time in the tenant movement in that so many groups are working together and sharing research. That’s how the policy ideas and the legislation come about.” Gonzales and Soltz meet with tenant association leaders from the 16 other former-Mitchell-Lama buildings owned by Gluck on a regular basis. “Thank god we joined the different coalitions,” Gonzales said of this exchange. “They knew their role and they contact us and if anything comes up, like harassment, any problems he’s giving tenants, or new laws that may come into effect – we keep up to the minute about these things.” Soltz, a rare records dealer who knew nothing about housing before but now receives 30-40 emails about affordability issues every day, grins and says that “the real estate industry made an advocate.”
Not everyone has the time and inclination to become a lobbyist, however. Castro has spent her whole life in service to others – first as a mental health nurse and later on the school board. “It’s a lot when you start dealing with politics. I says, ‘No, Martha, stay out of it – participate in this, and then you up to your neck.’” While she keeps up with the court dates, the fate of her building is still up in the air. Meanwhile, her eldest son has been pestering her to move to Florida and she’s slowly coming around to the idea. “You know how you fall in love with certain things and you don’t want to get rid of it – that’s how I feel about here. I been here so long, I’ve been so comfortable – just the thought of me leaving it kind of makes me scared.” She’s also loathe to leave her neighbors in limbo. “I hate to leave in the middle of something,” she says. In the meantime, she’s trying to get another tenant to take charge.
In both Castro and Gonzales’ buildings, tenant associations are the cornerstone of protecting affordability and quality. “If [the landlord] tries something else that’s not kosher for the building, he knows that we mean business!” Gonzales insists, “Any building that does not have a tenants association – God help them.” She speaks from experience: her two sons down the road are having issues with their landlord but finding it very difficult to organize because most tenants are unprotected by the regulations that accompany rent-stabilization or subsidies.
“We’ve been lucky in that sense that at least 50 percent of the tenants know that something is going on,” Gonzales says. But Soltz added that “There are certain tenants who are apathetic – others who feel that nothing bad is going to happen. A lot just don’t believe what you say. We also have a hard time organizing with the market-rate tenants.” For example, Shaun and Meredith Geldeen, a new couple who moved into Janel from out of state, are paying a lower rent than they would in Manhattan so they can save for a house. They say they don’t have time to be involved, nor are they planning to stay in the building long-term. Tenants who have a market-rate lease and are not protected under rent-stabilization are also often nervous about protesting in case the landlord retaliates by not renewing their lease.
As effective as tenant associations can be, ultimately, New Yorkers have to find a solution that works long-term. Tom Angotti talks about the “sustainable community” as “one that doesn’t have to everyday be consumed by fighting the most immediate dangers but can put its efforts into improving people’s lives economically, culturally – because they don’t have to worry about being pushed out all the time. That’s what really allows us to begin to have an advanced, developed city and even an advanced, developed country. The United States is a rich country but it’s not necessarily developed.”
Soltz won’t entertain the idea of moving out and neither will Gonzales. “I can’t afford it,” Soltz said. “It’s not an option. We got to dig in and fight.” Adds Gonzales, “We been here 40 years, our children were born here. We love the place.” But both know people in the unregulated apartments who are too poor to pay the increased rents but don’t qualify for government vouchers either.
In Castro’s building too, neighbors have given up and moved on. “Do you know how many people leave New York everyday because economically they can’t hack it?” she asks. “People want to live comfortable and not have to worry about if I go take a shower, that ceiling is going to fall on me. Or I gotta be careful where I lay the baby because a mouse will jump on her. We human beings. Treat us like human beings.” And while for now she’ll stay on and fight, every day she looks longingly at her suitcases. “I say, ‘We need to go. Where there’s no tall buildings and just palm trees.’”