The Crown Heights Tenant Union held three public protests last week, demonstrating their fierce opposition to landlords in the area who use illegal pressure tactics to force rent-stabilized tenants out of their homes. The protests focused on the actions of two landlords (G-Way Management and Ephraim Fruchthandler) in three buildings in Western Crown Heights, where gentrification has taken off in recent years, and many property owners are desperate to remove rent restrictions and cash in. Tenants in 410 Eastern Parkway, 1030 Carroll St, and 953 Carroll St – like many rent-stabilized tenants in New York – live with landlords who attempt to raise rents past legal limits, refuse to make repairs, deliberately cut off essential services like heat and hot water, and do construction at odd hours, all in an effort to get them to move. Many of these tenants have been living in their building and neighborhood for decades, however, and do not want to move. They have bound together and joined the growing ranks of the Crown Heights Tenants Union in an effort to protect their rights.
The unconscionable actions of landlords towards rent-stabilized tenants has become a central talking-point in city’s current political and civic discussion over gentrification, its effects, and what to do about it. Under New York’s rent stabilization laws, tenants in rent-stabilized units are entitled to perennial lease renewals and a cap on how much the landlord can raise their rent. (The cap is set annually by the Rent Guidelines Board and ranges from 0-5%). However, if a rent-stabilized unit is vacated, the owner can raise the rent up to 20% and in some cases petition to remove the unit from rent-stabilization all together, allowing them to charge whatever the market will bear. Landlords in high-rent areas therefore have much to gain by removing rent-stabilized tenants from their apartments. When tenants refuse, landlords often resort to brutal pressure tactics. In the worst cases, landlords’ deliberate neglect of building maintenance leads to dangerous and unsanitary conditions.
While these tactics are illegal, the enforcement process is so inefficient that landlords are rarely punished. City building inspections are rare and the housing court process is burdensome, especially for tenants who cannot afford attorneys. It is this imbalance of power and lack of landlord accountability that the Crown Heights Tenant Union is working to correct. The Union (with assistance from UHAB) provides support to tenants in the neighborhood through rights education and sharing best practices for dealing with landlords and the City’s enforcement process. The CHTU also helps tenants connect will lawyers who work pro bono. Rent-stabilized apartments are a huge source of affordable housing for low-income people in an exorbitantly expensive city, and the CHTU and UHAB are not alone in worrying about what will become of New York if they continue to be lost at their current rate (an estimated 50,000+ from 2007-2014).
Last week’s protests demonstrated the CHTU’s continued efforts to build political and public awareness of this issue. City Public Advocate Letitia James, State Assembly Representative Walter Mosley, and State Senator Jesse Hamilton attended these events, and spoke passionately with tenants and press about their commitment to addressing the problem. In front of 410 Eastern Parkway on Saturday, March 5th, James told a group of tenants, organizers, and reporters: “We’ve got to stand up for tenants, we’ve got to stand up for justice… For far too long government has turned a blind eye to landlords’s actions when they engage in illegal activities.” James and her office of the Public Advocate have worked to address this issue by suing numerous bad-acting landlords, while Mayor de Blasio has allocated large amounts of public funds to Legal Services for lawyers to work pro bono with low-income tenants to prevent eviction. City Council has recently tweaked the legal definition of “landlord harassment” to include repeated buyout offers – another common tactic – and is also debating several proposed laws that would impose greater penalties on offending landlords. These public protests, and the politicians and press they draw, reinforce the fact that these brutal tactics of displacement are a major social issue in New York, and the City government needs to do more to address them.
The most immediate and perhaps the most important goal of the protests, however, was to publicly expose and shame the perpetrating landlords. One of the protests involved a large march to the store-front office of G-Way Management, where the crowd of around 50 chanted “G-Way Management: shame on you!” and “Arrest G-Way Management!” At another protest, the artist collective “The Illuminator” projected large messages in light on 1030 Carroll St, calling out the landlord, Ephraim Fruchthandler, and his many offenses. The protests turned many heads and drew significant press, and the CHTU hopes that the bad publicity will damage these landlords’ reputation and business to the point where they will reconsider their behavior. Public Advocate Letitia James has employed this tactic of public exposure and shaming as well. Her “Worst Landlord Watchlist” website names the 100 “worst” landlords in New York according to records of building violations, Housing Court cases, and harassment complaints. The CHTU is currently working on a Landlord Watch List specific to Crown Heights, and G-Way Management and Ephraim Fruchthandler are sure to be on it. Calling for the boycott of these landlords, the CHTU is asking new-arrivals to make informed consumer choices, ensuring that bad landlords are not rewarded for their rapacious and deplorable behavior.
Study on loss of Rent-Stabilized Apartments: Gothamist, 7/15/15
Article on proposed tenant protection laws: City Limits, 3/7/16
Public Advocate Letitia James’s Worst Landlord Watchlist