In NYC, affordable housing is under attack. As the forces of gentrification move through Brooklyn, landlords and developers are doing everything in their power to displace rent-stabilized tenants — particularly in minority communities like Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, that have long been underserved by the City.
“Working a Building” in Brooklyn
On October 4, 2016, the former tenants of 300 Nassau Street’s rent-stabilized units were finally able to return home. It had been three years.
Residents had been living in the building for decades. But as of the 2013 evacuation, they were in limbo. Most of them found themselves floating between homes while waging a protracted war in Housing Court.
The Navarro family is among former residents in units that landlords Aaron and Joel Israel intentionally made unlivable. One fellow resident of 300 Nassau Street, Catalina Hidalgo, remembers 2013 as a nightmare year. She had to wash her 18-month-old twins in the kitchen sink while she was without a functional bathroom for two months, as a direct result of renovations downstairs that may have included foul play. Then the Israel brothers offered her $50,000 to move out, accusing her of holding up the building’s renovations.
Finally, in December 2013, Hidalgo and other residents of 300 Nassau Street came home to find the water heaters, boilers, and electrical system destroyed, when the landlords took an axe to the building’s essential utilities in a brutal move to push tenants out of rent-stabilized units.
The Greenpoint building is one of many in Brooklyn owned by the Israel brothers through their company, JBI Management. In Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick, rent-stabilized residents argue that they were aggressively targeted for neglect, harassment, and buyouts. Then their old homes are flipped over from dangerously deteriorated units to all-new apartments on the market for $3,500 per month.
JBI Management markets themselves as “adding value” to properties in Brooklyn. But Governor Cuomo’s office describes it as attempts to “aggressively and illegally move apartments out of rent regulation.” It’s what NYC real estate experts call “working a building” — developers and landlords buy up a building by evicting rent-stabilized tenants — and it’s a strategy of urban colonialism that is sweeping through the borough, threatening historic Black and Latinx communities and decimating affordable housing.
Why Does Rent Stabilization Matter?
Rent-stabilized units are given out by the City via lottery to qualifying low-income tenants. Rental prices in rent-stabilized units can only legally increase at a rate fixed by the City. That means switching to market-rate from rent-stabilized prices can be a difference in the thousands. And where those switches take place in Brooklyn, they always seem to target racialized minorities, particularly Black and Latinx communities.
The destruction of rent-stabilized housing in Brooklyn is a practice of urban colonialism that is sweeping quickly in historically racialized neighbourhoods and ransacking them with high rents, highly targeted investments and divestments, and slipshod construction that puts long-time residents at physical risk.
In cases where new luxury developments displace rent-stabilized apartments, the market rate rises dramatically. What was once a $1,500 unit in a $3,400 neighborhood might end up listed at $5,000. Rents in Williamsburg and Greenpoint rose by nearly 80% over the last 15 years.
At a market level, every rent-stabilized apartment lost and former resident facing homelessness is another big bump to absurdly high housing prices in Brooklyn. Fewer rent-stabilized units and more high-priced market-rate units translates to local rents skyrocketing. Working a building in turn makes it easier for developers to take apartments out of stabilization by artificially raising the market price while the unit is vacant. As the case of 300 Nassau Street shows, the same shady landlord practices associated with gentrification in Washington Heights and Harlem are threatening to undermine affordable housing in Brooklyn, from Greenpoint to Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Rent Hikes Pose Risks in Bed-Stuy
Ignored by investors and City services alike throughout its history, the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s historic brownstones are well-accustomed to taking care of each other. There is a long tradition of mutual support and creativity in Bed-Stuy. Residents all-but perfected the art of community building over the decades, including collective childcare, food distribution services, home maintenance, and art and music initiatives.
But all that is changing with the steep decline of affordable housing in the area. Average rents for a studio apartment in Bed-Stuy rose a shocking 23% in 2016, and neighbourhoods all over Brooklyn — Bushwick, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Crown Heights — are encountering the same trends. In Bushwick, average rents increased by a whopping 23% in 2014 alone. The hikes are hitting the neighbourhood’s large Latinx community hardest, displacing residents that have been thriving there for generations. Just south of Bed-Stuy, average prices for apartments in Crown Heights recently hit $2,250 for a 1-bedroom, and over $2,300 for a studio.
The historic brownstones of Bed-Stuy are no strangers to folks fleeing high prices elsewhere in NYC. Many current residents of Bed-Stuy can trace their roots in the neighborhood back to the 1930s, when Black homeowners and tenants found in Brooklyn a welcome alternative to rising rents in Harlem.
Over time, rent-stabilization saved a lot of these renters from losing the homes they had worked so hard to maintain. But just as in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and in Manhattan’s East Village, rent stabilized tenants are often the first targets of developers and landlords looking to flip their buildings for higher profits — even if it means turning the former residents out onto the street. In Greenpoint, where the average monthly rent for a 2-bedroom is $3,400, a low-income family might be paying $1,500 for a rent-stabilized unit they moved into years ago. Once their lease is terminated, though, that rent is free to rise up to or beyond the neighbourhood’s average — well out of that family’s price range. And because there are fewer and fewer of these units available over time, thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers face impossibly unaffordable housing.
Residents of the historic Brooklyn neighbourhood have heard the horror stories of unregulated development — incidents of terminal neglect and harassment and displacements via demolitions — and are worried about the future of their community. Last year, a massive building collapse destroyed a stretch of Bed-Stuy termed “gentrification alley.” Its owners, operating through multiple shell companies, have continued construction in the area despite multiple Stop Work Orders issued by the NYC Department of Buildings against them.
Lying to the City: Demolition Evictions
Under the current housing laws in New York City, building owners can legally evict tenants, provided they have DOB permits and can show financing for a future project. In most cases, the law requires that multi-unit buildings be unoccupied before renovations take place. Developers must file paperwork to that effect with the DOB before work can begin.
However, the City has no system in place to verify that buildings are actually unoccupied. This lapse in regulation provides developers with the motive and method for forcing out their rent-stabilized tenants, through increasingly dangerous and duplicitous means. At multiple locations, the Israel brothers commenced heavy-duty renovations in occupied buildings while claiming to have evacuated tenants.
There are a few ways that landlords can legally evict tenants. One of them is through building demolitions — provided they file all the appropriate plans and permits for demolition with the City. If the landlord can show the government that they plan on scrapping their building and replacing it with a new development, they can legally end all those pesky rent-stabilized leases. The problem is, the City has no legal requirement for the landlords to actually carry out those plans after tenants are gone; landlords can push rent-stabilized tenants out onto the street in full view of the City, and technically not be breaking any laws.
At least that’s what attorney Michelle Maratto Itkowitz claims. In June 2016, she spoke at a Brooklyn real estate summit about “demolition evictions.” It’s a practice where developers go through the full legal process of demolition, then stop just short of putting any of those plans into action. The City deals with the paperwork but washes its hands of the follow-through. It’s a classic bait-and-switch technique for pushing out rent-stabilized residents that’s guaranteed to make owners rich and leave tenants struggling.
These kind of open lies are everywhere among Brooklyn real estate developers. Last September, rent-stabilized residents of 292 Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg complained to the City, alleging that ongoing construction at the building posed health risks. Owners of the building — which was very much occupied — filed permits with the DOB claiming vacancy. The City only realized the error after receiving repeated calls from tenants who were getting sick and injured from the work being done on site.
Cases like the Israel brothers’ buildings and these demolition evictions are the result of New York City’s failure to properly regulate development and defend affordable housing. The blind spots are enormously consequential and totally preventable. Because once this demolition eviction process starts, it can only end in chaos and displacement. Residents are harassed, buildings are damaged, and utilities are broken.
The destruction at 300 Nassau Street is just one stark example of this housing violence. Without adequate protection from housing violations, there’s no telling what’s in store for neighbourhoods like Bushwick or Bed-Stuy. New York City and NYC investors have a poor track record of looking out for Black and Latinx New Yorkers, including the rent-stabilized residents of Brooklyn. Developers are getting excited. Community members are getting apprehensive.