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Scenes From a Rent War

Photo by Michael Short

Anderson Fils Aime kicks back and tells me a story.

Back in May of this year, a month after he’d begun working as an organizer for the Pratt Area Community Council, he was at a community meeting when a woman approached him. “A resident comes in with this package saying, ‘My landlord’s trying to raise my rent.’ I say, ‘Well, are you in a rent-stabilized building?’ She says, ‘I don’t know, I just got this thing from DHCR [Division of Housing and Community Renewal].’”

”This thing” was a notice that her landlord was opting out of the Section 8 program, under which rents in her building had been kept below market. On June 1, the building would convert to market rates. It was May 20th. “I’m scrambling for 10 days,” Anderson recalls, “it’s the Memorial day holiday, people are outta town—and I’m like, what is going on here?”

What was going on at that tenant’s building on 427 St. Johns Place in Prospect Heights has been going on across the city. The building’s 16 apartments were rehabilitated in 1984, when the owner took advantage of a low interest loan offered under the federal government’s project-based Section 8 program. In exchange, he agreed to provide tenants with affordable housing—the government making up the difference between 30% of tenants’ incomes and a ‘fair’ rent—over a 20 year period. Many developers throughout the city took advantage of similar incentives, sometimes under Section 8 and sometimes under the city and state’s Mitchell-Lama program. Now those agreements are expiring. Between 1990 and 2005, the city lost roughly 20,000 of the units built under Mitchell-Lama (13,000 of them in the last five years). The landlord of 427 St. Johns Place was looking to add the building’s units to the pile.

When a building opts out of the Section 8 program, the tenants are eligible for what are known as enhanced or ‘sticky’ vouchers. As opposed to project-based Section 8, which subsidizes a building as a whole, enhanced vouchers ‘stick’ to particular tenants and bridge the gap between 30% of their income and the new, higher rent. Anderson made sure the landlord accepted them.

Still, “two folks just picked up and moved,” Anderson recalls, speculating that they were scared off by the notices of the opt-out. “Left in the dead of night.”

“Designed as a protection for tenants,” says Pat Coleman, vouchers really reflect “a desire to further deregulate and privatize these housing programs.” Pat is the Preservation Coordinator for Tenants & Neighbors, a tenants’ rights group. He argues that the stringent conditions that accompany the enhanced vouchers force many tenants from their homes. “In our experience, when a building converts to Section 8 vouchers, I’d say between 10 and 30 percent of the residents don’t qualify for one reason or another.”

Dina Levy, Director of Organizing and Policy for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), agrees that “there’s some cracks in the program that people often fall through.” If tenants are able to wade through the slew of paperwork—often being disqualified for a single mistake—they must still contend with an extensive criminal background check. According to Anderson, one of the tenants at 427 St. Johns was disqualified when it was discovered that her son—who no longer lived with her—had a recent criminal conviction. She was forced to go without the voucher, and make the higher rent on her own.

Of course, many tenants can’t afford to remain in their homes without the subsidy. Regardless, “when you convert to vouchers, people eventually are scattered,” Dina says. “When they leave their buildings for whatever reason, that unit converts to market. What we lose is this obvious resource that anchored a community.”

For a stark illustration, check out UPACA II. Once a Section 8 building, originally renovated by a group called the Upper Park Avenue Community Association, it sits on 117th Street in East Harlem. On the fire escape just above the front entrance, a sign reads: “Apartments For Rent.”

Ann Bragg moved into UPACA II in 1972. By her count, since the previous owner opted out in 2002, 50 of the 72 tenants living there at the time have left. She never gets to know the new tenants because they’re “working all kinds of shifts” to make the higher rents, and turnover is high. As for the tenants who left, “a couple of ‘em are doing all right, they found other places and whatnot,” she says. “To me it was a scare tactic.”

She and her friends Ms. Brown (21 years in the building) and Ms. Gertrude (30 years) all receive enhanced vouchers, and all complain that the current owner has kept up the scare tactics. Ms. Brown says large charges have turned up on her rent bill, “but they never say what they‘re for.” Ms. Bragg is indignant: “When you call their office, the secretary there tells you, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ How can you not worry about it?”

“It’s like they’re holding you hostage,” she says.

Asked where they would go if they had to leave the building, Ms. Gertrude, who came to the U.S. from St. Kitts 40 years ago says only, “Where am I going to move and go?” “My husband died right here in this apartment,” Ms. Bragg says steadily. “Why should we have to accommodate these developers?”

Up in the Bronx, Robin Gouldborne asks the same question. Last February, she received notice that her building was opting out of the Mitchell-Lama program. The notice “wasn’t given to us per se; it was pasted on the front door by the elevator. It was a lotta legal jargon that we didn’t understand.” Some of the seniors in the building have already moved out, afraid of what might happen.

Robin has lived in the neighborhood since she was 10, and in her building for 17 years. She remembers how the building was back in the day: “Beautiful. It was—how could I say—old school. The older residents could, you know, chastise the little ones. A community raising a community, that’s what it was.” These days Robin works full time as a social worker while she’s been earning a Master’s in Public Administration; her husband operates a work train in the subway, one of the few good unionized jobs left in the city.

And yet without their subsidized rent, “there’s no way we can afford to stay here. I’d have to go upstate, somewhere where it’s cheaper, more reasonable,” Robin says. “But that takes me away from my mother—my mother lives real close to me and she’s in a wheelchair. It takes my daughter away from the school that she’s been in since kindergarten. I don’t even want to think about it.”

She brought the opt-out notice to a community meeting, where she met a representative of UHAB, who met with the tenants to explain their situation and explore options. At the meeting, Robin came up with a crucial fact: she lived at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue.

In 1973, hip-hop was born in 1520’s rec room. As Jeff Chang tells it in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Cindy Campbell wanted money for a new wardrobe to wear back to school. So she rented the rec room in her building, got her brother to DJ, and charged at the door. These days, her brother is better known as DJ Kool Herc, and the parties that started in the rec room were where he broke the breaks out of his records so the dancers wouldn’t have to bother with anything but the instrumental. B-boys, Bambaata; it all followed.

After a vigorous lobbying campaign, Robin’s building is now eligible to be a state landmark. Advocates think the protections that status provides will be enough to win the struggle to preserve affordability at 1520.

Lately, the current owners have kept the rec room locked. Parties held by people from outside the building are in; Robin’s Girl Scout troop is out. She’s determined to hold the annual summer picnic on Labor Day weekend: “We’re not gonna let them stop us.”

Back in East Harlem, the Movimiento por Justicia en el Barrio called a march to protest several landlords, including Ann Bragg’s. So on Sunday, August 26th, Ms. Bragg, Ms. Brown, and Ms. Gertrude show up at the corner of 116th & Lex for the first march Ms. Gertrude has ever attended.

A mix of white, black, and brown faces mill about. Signs declare: “Exigimos seguridad en Nuestros Edificios,” “Stop New Construction Without Community Board Process” and “Manhattan Valley Coalition Supports Affordable Housing: Where’s Melissa?” As in Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito, who the Movimiento charges has failed the community.

After a long round of speeches, Ms. Bragg takes her turn at the megaphone: “It’s about time to let the powers that be know enough is enough. I’m proud to see that we have come together as one to fight back against these building owners.” With that the march sets off, Ms. Gertrude and Ms. Brown bringing up the rear, 125 people chanting: “Aqui estamos! Y no nos vamos!”

The trio marches as far as Melissa Mark Viverito’s office, where the movement pauses to protest in front of the closed storefront. Wearied by the walk, they turn back while the march continues up to an HPD ’Assistance Office’ on 7th Avenue and 124th Street located in the only abandoned building on the block.

“This is ground zero of the housing battle,” Anderson Fils Aime declares, “The things we do…within the next two years, are going to affect our city for the next thirty.” UHAB’s Dina Levy lays it out: “We’re going to have to face up to the fact that we have to have legislative intervention. And if we do that, we should do it in perpetuity so we don’t have to do it again in 20 years.”


Nicholas Jahr


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2007

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