Volume 76, Number 40 | February 28 - March 6, 2007

Tenant Advocacy

Designing a better community

Meeting challenges and effecting change on the Lower East Side

By Damaris Reyes and Ginny Browne

It seems like just yesterday that a tenant of a Section 8 building on E. 11th St. came running into our office after her ceiling collapsed due to a night of heavy August rain. Or that a young man who had just lost his mother to cancer called us frantically as his New York City Housing Authority manager showed up at his apartment door and illegally evicted him. Or that an upholsterer who has served the community for decades came to our office seeking emergency assistance as her lease was ending and her landlord was raising her rent fourfold.

These are but a few of the episodes that come to mind in a look back on the previous year here on the Lower East Side. Together they represent an alarming snapshot of what has become a multifaceted crisis facing low-, moderate- and middle-income residents in our community. Throughout the neighborhood, longtime residents and merchants who have built their lives and livelihoods here are at risk of displacement due to an increasingly charged housing and commercial real estate market.

As property values rise, landlords are escalating the pressure on tenants and small businesses, often resorting to illegal means in an effort to vacate their spaces and obtain higher and higher rents. In rent-regulated apartments, landlords are harassing longtime tenants in the hopes of driving them out through deprivation of essential services, frivolous litigation, aggressive buyout offers and verbal intimidation.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, owners of federally subsidized affordable housing developments are trying to opt out of their programs, putting thousands of low- and moderate-income residents at risk of homelessness. And when all else fails, other landlords are making use of a loophole in the New York State Housing Code to clear out whole buildings under the guise of demolition, when their real intention is to renovate interiors and raise rents to market rate or higher.

While the housing crisis intensifies, countless small businesses that have historically provided our community with jobs and a diversity of goods and services at affordable prices are similarly being forced out. When their leases expire, local merchants are facing rent increases up to five times higher, pushing them to either raise prices or close, creating an environment in which only bars, high-end boutiques and chain stores can survive. In all, the L.E.S. has become a hotbed for development that, rather than serving the needs of the existing community, caters to a higher-paying, incoming population from which local landlords and large real estate companies are expecting to profit.

For 30 years, Good Old Lower East Side has organized with L.E.S. residents to preserve the community’s affordable housing stock and fight for policies that revitalize the community and create real economic opportunities for local residents.

Last year, GOLES counseled more than 1,200 L.E.S. tenants and assisted in the formation and strengthening of 30-plus tenant associations throughout our neighborhood. Our successes have come in the form of winning quality repairs in rent-regulated units, stopping illegal evictions and rent overcharges and working with project-based Section 8 buildings to prevent landlords from opting out of the program.

On the policy level, GOLES and other housing advocates are organizing citywide to enact legislation that would allow tenants to sue their landlords in Housing Court for harassment and organizing statewide to close the “phony demolition” loophole in the state Housing Code. We are also fighting statewide the repeal of vacancy decontrol — a 1994 law that allows landlords to deregulate apartments if, upon the most recent vacancy, the rent has reached $2,000. Additionally, PHROLES, our public housing organizing project, is working to preserve public housing.

Responding to our community’s changing needs and challenges, we have expanded into economic development and land use. We are working to connect longtime businesses with technical and legal assistance that will help them remain profitable and secure their future in the neighborhood.

We recognize that truly harnessing the economic opportunity in our neighborhood also means connecting underemployed and unemployed residents with meaningful jobs through which they can support their families. GOLES collaborates with industry-specific organizations to train local job seekers for jobs opening up in the community while organizing with residents and workers to make sure that those jobs are good jobs.

As the L.E.S. undergoes unprecedented development, it is more important than ever that community members are both informed of specific proposals and plans for their neighborhoods and are also empowered to get involved and affect the planning process. GOLES’s newest project, F.O.C.U.S. (Finding Our CommUnity Strength) on the L.E.S., is a two-part project that will simultaneously educate and engage L.E.S. residents in local development and land-use issues — including neighborhood rezoning, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area development and East River waterfront development — and will include a comprehensive community assessment utilizing a large-scale survey of residents’ priorities for the future development of their neighborhood.

Right now, the L.E.S. is undergoing a critical rezoning process that will play a tremendous role in shaping the future of our neighborhood. Through F.O.C.U.S., GOLES is working to engage L.E.S. residents in the zoning process to make sure we win zoning provisions that promote affordable housing development, protect existing affordable housing stock and preserve the character of the neighborhood. Along with other local organizations, GOLES is supporting Community Board 3’s 197a Task Force zoning proposal, which we believe is our best hope for accomplishing these goals.

In the coming year, GOLES will to continue to fight to preserve the residential and commercial diversity of the L.E.S. and to engage residents in the community planning and decision-making that will affect our community for decades to come. Please join us!

Reyes is executive director and Browne is economic and workforce development organizer, Good Old Lower East Side

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