Brandon Kielbasa and Claire Birmingham, Tenants’ Rights on the Lower East Side

20140902124559-CSC_Negs_20131111_0028An interview with tenant rights organizer at the Cooper Square Committee, Brandon Kielbasa, and Lower East Side tenant leader, Claire Birmingham…

Brandon Kielbasa is a tenant organizer and housing counselor working for the Cooper Square Committee in New York City’s Lower East Side as the Lead Organizer. He has also worked with the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development, Urban Justice Center, Manhattan Legal Services, New York State Attorney General, University Settlement’s Project Home, and the Good Old Lower East Side.

Claire Birmingham is a Lower East Side resident and tenant leader with Cooper Square Committee. She organizes with fellow residents for tenants’ rights.

How did you get involved with the Cooper Square Committee (CSC)?
CB
: My story is that I lived down the block and my building was sold to a new landlord who turned out to be quite an aggressive landlord that partnered with a private equity firm. Their MO was to go and flip buildings so there were a lot of aggressive tactics that he was using on us, mostly horrendous construction harassment. There was no communication. We were all up in arms. He bought the building and within two months 75 percent of the apartments were vacated. Those of us that were left banded together and came over here [the Cooper Square Committee] and said, “What’s going on? What can we do? What’s our game plan?” Then Brandon helped us to form a tenants’ association and then put us in contact with some other people who had the same landlord so we formed a larger tenants’ association. And since then we’ve kept our fingers in, seeing what we can do to help with housing in the community.

BK: I started almost eight years ago—February 2007—as paid staff. I started out working as a counselor, which meant helping people on a one-on-one basis. At the time that was all Cooper Square had funding for, although our roots were in community organizing and helping tenants come together collectively to address housing issues in the neighborhoods, mostly affordability and harassment. But after a couple of years we were able to tailor our funding for me to be more of an organizer so I could step back into that role and they could have somebody on the ground too. So for the first three or four years I was half tenant counselor, half organizer, and then the last two or three years I’ve been in a full-on organizing role and lead organizer as we’ve been able to bring on a couple of other staff.

Brandon Kielbasa and Claire Birmingham, Tenants' Rights on the Lower East Side

What are the most common forms of tenant harassment?
CB
: I think it really ranges, different tactics. Some landlords are very aggressive and will hire relocation specialists. They’re very aggressive with tenants. They’ll knock on your door at all hours. They’ll follow tenants to work, question their family members, and question their coworkers. They’ll say things like, “we know you’re not the tenant, we’re just going to throw you out. Your time here is up.” Not necessarily speaking any truths, just being very aggressive. So that’s one tactic. A softer tactic would be not cashing your rent on time. You hand in your rent and then three weeks later they suddenly cash it. Or they say they lost your rent. It’s not like horrible stuff, but it’s just little stuff to make you stressed, sort of like Chinese water torture. Your lease renewal doesn’t get sent to you. Then you have to go pick it up yourself a month late if they were supposed to sign it and send it back to you. So there’s a range, from serious aggression where people are actually afraid to annoyances that are there to wear you down—like the Grand Canyon wasn’t made in a day. And in between there’s stuff like rampant construction. They’ll do construction in a building and there’s no mitigation of noise or dust. The law says they’re supposed to clean the dust or wipe down things or cover the door. They’re only supposed to work during certain hours, only certain days but they’ll just do whatever they want because they don’t think people will challenge them on it. So with Brandon’s help we really did that in our building and I know a lot of other buildings have done that too, stood back up to them and said, “no you can’t do this.”

BK: Tenants can have isolated problems here and there. Those are problems that anyone might face, but it’s different if you get a new landlord and they aren’t giving you your lease, you can’t get repairs, and you and all of your neighbors are facing problems like this. Or those situations where a landlord has moved out half the tenants in the building somehow and all of a sudden they’re doing construction with no concern for the existing tenants’ welfare and safety. These are situations that are full of harassment.  The pattern ends up being the proof when it comes to harassment. In fact, that’s how we legally defined tenant harassment: a pattern of behavior that is intended to displace tenants from their units. So an isolated problem wouldn’t legally be considered tenant harassment, but when your rent check gets mixed up for six months in a row and then the landlord is now trying to take you to court for non-payment of rent then you have a pattern that looks like harassment. When we get into conversations about tenant harassment and gentrification I often find myself talking about how gentrification is really a nice-sounding term for something that most long-term community members see as a keenly orchestrated, often violent, wave of displacement that hits their communities. Imagine dealing with a situation for months on end where your building is being filled with toxic lead dust or not knowing if you’re going to come home to find your ceiling collapsed on all of your possessions.  These situations are physically and psychologically tormenting; and the folks in these communities that are dealing with them frequently have their backs against the wall without many options for affordable housing outside of the apartments they currently have.  They are living in communities where all they see is luxury housing being built up around them and secondary displacement pressure increasing every day. Their buildings often end up being sold from one bad landlord to the next, each one trying to chase them out along the way. All the bad stuff that Claire was talking about happens repeatedly: Constant rent mix-ups and court cases, repeated rounds of construction, tenant re-locators banging on doors providing misinformation to tenants about their rights with hopes they will take a paltry buyout offer and give up their affordable apartments, etc. So tenant harassment is probably one of the biggest problems we have when it comes to housing issues here in the Lower East Side.

CB: I moved to the city in the mid-to-late-Eighties from New Jersey, but I was so happy to live in the city because I suddenly felt like this was my home. I felt at home right away. And I just feel like over the past few years that I’m not wanted here, like I’m an outsider and I don’t belong here. I feel like New York is done with me and wants me gone. And that’s directly from that harassment from landlords and the real estate industry where I, someone who has always been a good tenant, always been a good neighbor, is being treated like a deadbeat, like I’m an undesirable.

BK: One of the things we work really hard to do here at the Cooper Square Committee is to help tenants understand that they should never just outright trust their landlord in New York City.  I don’t feel bad saying it. You can treat them with respect and you can demand it as well, but when they tell you something you should always get a second opinion about it, especially if you’re rent stabilized. So we’re trying to stop this perception that the landlord has the utmost authority and for people to start to understand their rights. Also, they shouldn’t fear their landlords. And most of the people I work with at Cooper Square Committee, the long-term residents of the Lower East Side, don’t view themselves as hardened activists. They’re just community members that are standing up for themselves. They’re regular people, they need to hold onto their apartments, and New York City at this point isn’t providing a lot of options for them. You have people hanging onto their apartments and, if they get displaced, they’ll probably get priced out of not only this borough, but the entire metropolitan area at-large.

We here at CSC feel like these issues are something that folks have some obligation to get involved in if they care about their community. There’s some self-interest in it because you’re going to be protecting your home by getting involved, but thinking about things and saying, “If I give up here and this same set of landlords and investors who are roving around the city looking for the next hot neighborhood to gentrify and bankroll by displacing all the working-class tenants… I’m gonna do something about this,” that makes a big difference. We think that folks should consider this perspective when confronted with housing issues. So looking at things from your own personal perspective, but then looking beyond that, I think is essential. I think all New Yorkers should think about this when it comes to housing and community.

Mahfar-Press-Conference--3Do you think gentrification is inevitable?
BK
: No, absolutely not. I think it is systematically propagated by the real estate industry. It is a notion they continue to back as something inevitable so they can make huge profits in these neighborhoods. They back the legitimacy of the idea that it is inevitable so they continue doing what they’re doing. Because who benefits from gentrification? It’s the banks, the landlords, and the developers. Most of the regular, long-term residents don’t get anything from it. In fact they consistently lose parts of their community from gentrification and also get additional displacement pressure when it happens.

CB: I think that’s part of the myth that gets sold to us: “Oh it’s going to happen. Neighborhoods change. Of course it’s only a few disgruntled people who like living in a dirty neighborhood.There’s no reason a neighborhood should be dirty. You don’t need to have luxury housing to have a nice neighborhood, but there’s this idea that it is not only going to be nicer for everybody, but it’s going to be morally superior. And if you don’t like it then you don’t belong here. It’s a sales pitch.

BK: I think the myth of gentrification (it being inevitable) is comparable to the myth of the American dream.  The notion that “if you keep working hard… one day you’ll make it,” is a falsity these days.  Plenty of working-class people work very hard their entire lives and get little to nowhere.  Who benefits from their labor and continued efforts as they try to “make it?”  The 1%, the rich.  The credibility of this notion (the American dream), like that of gentrification, greatly benefits those in power.  Organizing can be a means for challenging these ideas and the power structure they support.

CB: When you look at what Jane Jacobs was saying, that you need a lot of different of housing in a neighborhood so people can be upwardly mobile. You’re young, you start out in a studio. You get married, you move into a one bedroom. You have kids, you get more, you have that option. People can’t do that now. They’re knocking out a wall in the closet and putting a crib in there so there’s no upward mobility aside from luxury housing. It’s just one big, giant step, rather than any kind of levels laterally or otherwise.

In your minds, what is the ideal future of the Lower East Side?
CB
: I’d like to see affordable housing strengthened. With the Republicans in power, it’s going to be an uphill battle. But Albany controls the rent laws so that leaves us vulnerable to politicians in other counties who have no stake in what our rent laws are, so it doesn’t matter how they vote. So the Real Estate Board of New York, a big lobbying agency, just pours money into that. I’d like to see us get home rule.

BK: For us to really secure the stock of affordable housing in this neighborhood we really need to get some strong rent laws on the books and also plug some of the systemic loopholes. The rent regulation laws for New York City actually exist at a state level, and something to keep in mind is that the real estate industry lobbies more than any other industry in New York State, even more than hedge funds. They are the single largest lobbyist by a long shot. They work very hard to keep these laws weak so they can continue to take affordable housing and convert it into luxury housing.

CB: What I would also like to see in the future of New York is more tenant protections extended to market-rate tenants. As it stands now, if you’re a market-rate tenant and your landlord is doing some things that are unsavory and you want to join the tenants’ association, you don’t want your landlord to know that because you’re hobbled. Suddenly, you want to stay another year and it’s a five hundred dollar increase. People don’t want to make waves because they have to protect their homes. That just makes sense. It doesn’t mean that they’re not behind you and what you’re doing but self-preservation says you can’t make waves. So I’d like to see that.

BK: These landlords are making their money; we’re just saying that community members, tenants, deserve a fair shake. They deserve safe, habitable, affordable housing.

CB: We’re talking about housing; we’re not talking about a luxury item. Not everyone needs a five hundred dollar handbag but everybody needs a place to live. So that’s why we’re saying this.

BK: I’d like to see even more of what Claire and I are working on, which is creating a well-connected tenant base in the Lower East Side. Tenants who really own the issue of housing in their community and say, “This isn’t something I have the option to get involved with. This is something I have to be involved in. If I care anything about New York City or the socioeconomic diversity of the city, if I care anything about the racial diversity or anything that makes New York such a wonderful place, then I have to be involved with these housing battles.” So, if anything, I’d like to see more interconnectedness, more organizing.

Kushner-Press-Conference-400Can former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vision of a developer- and investor-friendly city be compatible with that of a tenant friendly city?
CB
: Bloomberg came out and said that he was rebranding New York as a luxury brand. And that’s it in a nutshell. That’s not friendly to anybody except the very wealthy who can enjoy all the luxuries. But really a living, breathing city is not a luxury brand. It’s filled with all sorts of people. It’s a much dirtier place and it should be because people mix up together. And when I say dirty I don’t mean filthy sidewalks. I mean human. A luxury brand is sterile and not real. We’re a living, breathing city and I can’t see how those can mesh. But maybe you have a different take on that?

BK: Not really. I see the two as being very different.

CB: I think Bloomberg’s idea was Disney-fying New York, making it “New York Land” instead of New York City. So can New York be tourist-friendly place and still be big, ugly, dirty New York? There’s certainly a happy medium and it doesn’t have to be all “New York Land.”

BK: I think Bloomberg’s vision was to redevelop a lot in a city that’s very expensive to develop in, in a city where the real estate industry has a lot of power over that process. It doesn’t usually give communities as much control over that. So what you’re doing by having that kind of agenda is you’re welcoming in a lot of outside influence into communities and doing that with an industry that has proven to be incredibly money hungry. His policies gave ease to the redevelopment process and didn’t check the development in a way that would look at communities’ needs.

Do you think de Blasio will be more tenant friendly?
BK
: I think so generally. He’s new in office so we’ll see how far he takes all that he spoke of during his campaigning.

CB: One of the good things is the rent increase is decided by the Rent Guidelines Board which is a mayoral-appointed board of pro-landlord and pro-tenant individuals and they have public meetings and they determine the percent the rent can be raised by. It’s been staffed with Bloomberg’s guys for years and this year de Blasio appointed two very tenant friendly members, so that’s good.

BK: De Blasio recently appointed the Department of Buildings’ new commissioner. He appointed the HPD, New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which oversees a lot of housing maintenance code for buildings. So appointing new commissioners and seeing what they can do when it comes to regulatory improvements for those agencies and how they can benefit tenants is a huge thing. Looking at city policy, one of the things that he said he was on board with during his campaigning, and now again while in office, is mandatory inclusionary zoning. That is a policy that says when you build a building in New York City, you are required to build some affordable housing in it because the city has an affordable housing crisis. These are big things he can champion and support. We’ll see how far he goes, but it is a hopeful situation right now.

What are the challenging and rewarding parts of your job?
CB
: The reward is I don’t feel so helpless. I feel a little bit stronger. I feel like I have a little bit more say in what happens in my community. The hardest part for me is that people don’t understand the rent laws. I don’t know how to get that out to them.

BK: There are lots of rewarding parts. I’ve worked with hundreds of tenants to create campaigns that are really making a difference. Working with community members to create change is immensely rewarding and that’s happening every day here at CSC. One of the hardest things that we deal with is being able to unpack these issues and spread the information wide and far in a way that is understandable and compelling to tenants. We need folks to understand their role in combating gentrification and displacement. Helping folks to see themselves as “agents of change” and own these issues is important, because every time a landlord gets away with harassing and displacing tenants it becomes a more enticing situation for them. Some of the landlords are only renting to college students because it seems they believe that college students don’t look into their rights—as if they are like, “Hey I’m here for academic or social reasons, I’ll be out in two years or three years. I’m sorry, I’m not gonna get involved in all that.” By these tenants not getting involved they are really kind of aiding and abetting the badly behaving landlords, those who are decimating communities throughout New York City. Not to mention, if you don’t know your rights there’s a good chance you’re being overcharged and you’re basically being fleeced every month when you go to pay your rent.

What do you guys hope for the future of CSC?
CB
: I hope there is no future. I hope we’re not needed.

BK: My hope is to have an organization that works to collect tenant’s concerns and help them advocate for themselves. We at CSC want to be a conduit and facilitate organizing. We want to keep doing that no matter what the problems are.

Anything else you want our readers to know?
CB
: Here is the number for Rent History. Call this number (718)-739-6400. There is a short automated menu you go through, then you get a live operator, you give them your name and address and tell them you want your full rent history from 1984. Then in a few days you will get it in the mail. It will tell you, among other things, how much previous tenants paid for the apartment you’re in. Your landlord doesn’t get a notification. It’s between you and the City.

BK: Yeah, as Claire was saying if anything is funny or anything isn’t understandable with your rent history then you can come in and we can work with you to figure it out. But piggybacking off of that, get active! You’re here and whether you are conscious of it or not, whether you choose to accept it or not, you’re affecting things. So if you’re here and you’re renting in a neighborhood that has this fraught history, get involved. It shows respect to the community, it shows respect to the city—and if you’re here for the long haul it’s something you’re going to need to know.

CB: When you say get involved that can be a little daunting. Am I going to have to go to community meetings every night? How much? There’s no set amount of hours. There’s no sign-in sheet. If your level of getting involved is passing on the rent history number to your friend and harassing them till they get it then that’s great. Every little bit helps. Everyone does what they can. So when we say get involved it can mean any number of things.

If you or anyone you know is facing landlord harassment in the East Village/Lower East Side—or if you want to get involved in advocating for strong rent regulation in that neighborhood—contact the Cooper Square Committee at csc@coopersquare.org