9:51 pm Jul. 12, 20101
At a protest for expanding tenants' rights at City Hall on Monday, it was high noon when a band began to play and the first speakers were called to the megaphone. A crowd of over 200 had come to support the “Real Rent Reform Campaign” because they were, as the mantra goes, “fed up” with the lack of legislative recognition from Albany. Speakers included City Council members Gale Brewer, Margaret Chin, Jumaane Williams, and Letitia James, tenant organizers, and plenty of people with landlord horror stories.
“I am from a low-income community,” Marcella Mitaynes announced to those around her, who were packed tight in spite of the unforgiving sun. Mitaynes said she had been paying $624 a month for her two-bedroom, rent-regulated apartment in Sunset Park when she was forced to leave. At her new place, she pays $1722. “I was a threat to my landlord because I was in my apartment for 30 years with my daughter. My daughter had every right to take over my apartment. But instead I was evicted,” she said.
“We feel the push from gentrification from Park Slope,” she added.
Mitaynes’ story was emblematic of what the crowd came to protest. Bob Kalin, a tenant organizer at Housing Conservation Coordinators, who has been doing this for 30 years, said, “It’s never been worse than it is now.”
Kalin has seen a lot in his time: buildings with mysterious fires, lack of heat in winter, doors propped open, illegal hotels. “We’ve had owners who have hired people to beat up people,” he said. Today, “it’s just kind of a Wild West atmosphere that’s happening.”
Such stories were common at the event. Leroy Johnson, who lives in the Parkview apartment complex in Flatbush, said he puts in maintenance requests that go unanswered, as do his neighbors. The landlord has ignored their requests for a meeting, and meanwhile, Johnson said, Parkview’s owner has been waiting for the building’s contract with the federal Section 8 housing assistance program to expire.
The result, Johnson said, is “people always being pushed.” He has lived in the building for 11 years, and watched as the tenants in rent-regulated apartments leave and their units are turned over to newcomers at market rate. Members of the Real Rent Reform Campaign said that outlawing the practice of removing apartments from rent-regulation rules—a process called vacancy decontrol—is their top priority. According to RRRC organizer Michael McKee—who also serves as executive director of Housing Here and Now—an estimated 300,000 rent-regulated apartments have been lost to vacancy decontrol since it was enacted a decade ago.
McKee, who has been a tenant organizer for 40 years, explained that the event’s mission was to “send a message to our friends in the State Senate.”
When the Democrats gained control of the State Senate two years ago, advocates like McKee expected legislative action to protect tenants against unfair treatment from landlords. As of now, no major reform bill has been passed. The latest legislative package up for discussion (fondly known as S2237-A) would provide greater security to tenants with apartments under rent regulation. But while the State Assembly did pass a bill addressing the issue, the State Senate, which did not, adjourned on July 1, and it’s still unclear when it will reconvene to wrap up unfinished business. The rally’s purpose was to push Albany to pass legislation for tenants when the Senate returns.
After the speeches, the protesters marched from City Hall to the New York City Housing Authority building shouting, “Housing is a right! Fight! Fight! Fight!” Thirteen—McKee included—sat in a line that blocked off the entrance to the building. As the protestors continued their chant, police officers asked them to get up from the sidewalk. An officer filmed the scene. One by one, the hands of all 13 were tied behind their backs, and they were led off by police officers on charges of civil disobedience.
McKee had said earlier that this would have been the first time he has been arrested since he demonstrated against the Vietnam War.
The rest of the protesters marched on toward the precinct, and a smaller crowd waited outside the precinct for support.