Monday, August 27, 2007

FIGHTING TO KEEP A ROOF OVER THEIR HEADS


It happens here, there and everywhere. Gentrification. It's been going down for decades. But this time, in East Harlem's El Barrio, residents have had enough.

"It is hard to believe, but the new owners are worse," said Juan Haro to the New York Daily News. Haro is a leader of the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, a community organization that for over two years has battled abusive landlords in East Harlem.

Last March, Dawnay, Day Group, a giant British corporation, bought from landlord Steve Kessner 47 rent-stabilized and rent-controlled buildings in East Harlem for some $250 million.

Kessner was a powerful landlord who the tenants battled through protests, street marches and court actions. He was forced to make hundreds of repairs and, finally, got out of East Harlem.

"Instead of the powerful landlord evicting the immigrants, the immigrants evicted the powerful landlord," Haro said at the time.

Ah, but it is then that things took yet another turn.

It seems the British corporation which bought the property had plans - gentrification plans. Phil Blakely, the company's director, told The Times of London in March a little about those plans.

In that interview Blakely made clear his intention to take advantage of lax tenant protection laws in New York to displace current tenants and raise rents tenfold.

The corporation isn't just looking at New York.

Mr Blakeley said recently: “Our intention is to build up. We are not just looking at New York — that is just a start. Our aim is to have in excess of $5 billion within a short period — within a few years.”

Anyway, as so many Americans from here, there and around the corner can tell you one way landlords, be they some lone jerk, or some international corporation go about clearing an area is by simply letting everything fall down on their tenants.

And that is exactly what has been going down in East Harlem.

Cristina Ortega will tell you that the landlord is trying hard to make life miserable for working-class tenants.

Her case, Ortega told the Daily News, is an example of the landlord's tactics. Her apartment's bathroom ceiling caved in more than a month ago - and has not been repaired yet.

Conditions are dangerous. While taking a shower, Ortega's 16-year-old daughter was hit on the head by a large piece of the ceiling. A few days later, her 15-year-old daughter was rushed to the hospital after another falling piece injured her eyes.

"I notified HPD," Ortega said. "They have done nothing."

Azucena Rodriguez, 29, who lives at 316 E. 117th St., said her landlord, Dean Realty, hasn't done much-needed repairs like fixing locks, creating a haven for drug dealers, prostitutes and alcoholics.

"They're tearing the community apart. They're destroying the culture. They're transforming it so that it can be a community for the wealthy, similar to midtown Manhattan," Juan Haro, who heads Movement for Justice in El Barrio in East Harlem, told Newsday.

Besides letting residences disintegrate, Movement for Justice says the corporations used other tactics to get rid of the people. These include:

Bribing tenants with money to get them to abandon their apartments.

Attempting to collect more money from tenants by making false charges for repairs and legal fees.

Sending threatening letters falsely accusing tenants of overcrowding.

Now, the residents of East Harlem are largely Latino and have a pretty militant organization working with them. But you don't have to be Latino or African-American to be gentrified right out of your home.

In Philadelphia, for example, the white working class neighborhoods of Fairmount, Fishtown and Kensington have been or now are dealing with ongoing development and displacement.

Working people and the poor have very little political or economic defense against developers who want to buy up their crumbling apartments and rehab them into luxury condos and lofts, and city and state governments are only too pleased to ease the way for this transition.

And, of course, another group often victimized is the elderly.

Take the case of Marie Tinghitella a 90 year old resident of Williamsburg neighborhood in New York.

One day out of the blue she received a Marshals Notice of Eviction to vacate the apartment that she called home for the past 50 years. With the Support of a community group, Saint Nicholas and Legal Aid for the Aging she was able to vacate the eviction notice for a couple months while she searched an affordable and decent place to leave. She was lucky, I suppose.

The conversions of old rental apartments to new condos significantly reduce the number of rental housing units needed for people who will never have the means to even consider owning a home. What happens to these people?

The Low Income Housing Coalition says while two-thirds of the nation's households now own their homes, the remaining portion goes underserved. Low-income citizens are referred to as "those people" and the government is not doing as much for them as it does for owners.

"The picture that has been painted about home ownership has in a way demonized renters,'' Sheila Crowley president of the group said. "They are seen as the ones that have been unable to get there, despite the all the programs the government has pushed to get under way. There's an over desire to own, but there has not been the federal investment in rental housing that there should be.''

Development is, of course, not all bad. It's exciting to see dead urban center and old neighborhoods come back to life again. However, when the developers run roughshod over the long time residents who will be priced right out with little or no consideration, that is very bad. When low cost and affordable housing is eliminated with no thought for where the people who are in desperate need of such are to go, that is very bad.

According to the low income housing coalition, only 6.2 million homes are renting at prices affordable to the 9 million extremely low-income renter households a shortage of 2.8 million homes. Housing is considered affordable if it costs no more than 30 percent of household income.

Not everybody can own. It's critical to restore, produce and offer incentives for developers to construct affordable rental units - not just fancy new condos.

The following is from amNew York.


El Barrio residents protest gentrification
By Kristen V. Brown

Scared their neighborhood will be the next to succumb to gentrification and unaffordable rent increases, hundreds of protesters rallied in El Barrio Sunday against "greedy" landlords.

The protest, organized by the advocacy group Movement for Justice in El Barrio, called for a stop to the gentrification the group says is forcing out tenants of the East Harlem neighborhood and the "bad government" it claims has allowed landlords to treat tenants poorly.

Otoniel Santiago, who pays $1,100 a month for the two-bedroom apartment he lives in with his wife and two children, says his landlord has been piling extra charges on his bill -- up to $3,000 total one month -- with no explanation.

"They said I had to pay or they would take legal action," he said at the protest held at 116th Street and Lexington Avenue. "I think they want us to get tired and move out, then they will bring in people who will pay $1,700" a month.

Juan Haro, the group's director, said similar tactics have been used in buildings throughout East Harlem.

Prices per square foot in East Harlem skyrocketed 39.5 percent between 2005 and 2006, according to a recent study by the appraisal firm Miller Samuel -- the largest increase in housing costs anywhere in Manhattan.

The protesters, who yelled "Hell no we won't go," and the Spanish equivalent, "aqui estamos y no nos vamos," later moved their protest to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development's assistance center at on Seventh Avenue. There, the group set up tents and handed out awards to what it claims are the three worst landlords in the neighborhood: Dean Realty, Nasir Sasouness and the London-based Dawnay, Day Group. The grand prize of the day, however, went to the city housing agency.

"If HPD would enforce housing laws, landlords would not be able to take advantage of tenants," Haro said.

Calls to the landlords for comment were not returned by press time. A spokeswoman for the city's housing agency told Newsday that the agency has "spurred the preservation and reconstruction of neighborhoods throughout the city."

According to Anna Bragg, 49, an El Barrio resident her whole life, gentrification in El Barrio has been under way for 15 to 20 years, although it didn't become a prominent concern for neighborhood organizations until 2000.

The Movement for Justice in El Barrio plans to continue protesting until local government passes legislation to regulate housing costs and prevent gentrification from forcing El Barrio residents from their homes. They are presently raising suit against the Dawnay,m Day Group and planning a trip to London to protest in front of its headquarters.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You people are unbelievable. You blame prostitution, crime, etc. on LANDLORDS? Get real or get out. Maybe change your welfare state of mind and take responsibility for your own neighborhood instead of blaming people who have jobs and bring money to the community. Unbelievable.

Concerned citizen said...

Who do you people think that you are kidding? Steven Kessner was not driven out of East Harlem, he just elected to sell out at the peak of the market; a brilliant move. Still he is well rid of you squatters who overcrowd your apartments, ruin buildings and try every which way to avoid eviction.