Initiatives Place, Displacement, & The Politics of Housing

Am I Rent Stabilized? Data Visualization as Housing Activism with Chris Hendrick

Map of Bushwick community in Brooklyn showing how land is used

Am I Rent Stabilized? is a project created by cartographer Chris Hendricks that urges tenants to learn more about their rent histories and rights. His civic engagement through tech and data has given renters a valuable resource in the current housing market.

Chris Hendrick is a cartographer completing an MFA in Design and Technology at Parsons, The New School for Design. Chris created website Am I Rent Stabilized?, a project that urges tenants to learn more about their rent histories and rights. He was also part of a team that redesigned the Bushwick Community Map, a mapping project that seeks to provide local residents and community organizers with housing and urban planning data to help track the changes happening in Bushwick and to protect residents.

How did you get into your research?
Last semester I was in a class called “Tactical Urbanisms” co-taught by two artists Melanie Crean and Caroline Woolard. The class was about housing and land use in New York and how designers could assist community organizations to create interventions. We worked in groups and my group partnered with the North West Bushwick Community Group to redo their website. The website is more of a tool to visualize and inspect housing related data for Bushwick because a lot of people there—and a lot of communities in general—don’t have access to this information of who’s buying property, where construction is planned, and that sort of thing. From there I was exploring the idea of mapping rent stabilization and I found out there wasn’t really data for that. The best thing I could find was a list of buildings that the New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR), a state agency that covers a lot of stuff having to do with tenant rights and that kind of thing on the state government level, puts out. And this list was in a PDF format so it wasn’t really that usable in terms of doing analysis or anything from a data perspective. So I actually submitted a freedom of information law (FOIL) request and was able to get data in excel format for multiple years that I could then process and aggregate and analyze. One of the things I found out was this whole process of registration for rent stabilized units. Landlords are required to register them with the HCR but there’s nothing enforcing that so they really have no incentive to. So I looked at the HCR lists and compared it to a query I did for the tax lot data on New York. How the law was passed in the 1970s, anything built before 1974, with more than 6 units, that isn’t a condo likely has rent stabilized apartments in it. So there’s a database called PLUTO that has all the tax lot data for New York. I ran a database query of everything built before 1974, with more than 6 units, that isn’t a condo, and that didn’t belong to NYCHA. I found out there was a discrepancy of about 10,000 properties between the HCR list and what was likely rent stabilized. It was really revealing in the sense that there could be all these other properties that have rent stabilized units that landlords aren’t registering with the HCR. So I mapped the data, made a visualization, said “that’s great, but how could I take it a little further?” And that’s where I got the idea for Am I Rent Stabilized? I’m trying to get people to check their rent history because a lot of landlords apparently lie to tenants about whether or not they’re rent stabilized.

How did you get an interest in maps and cartography?
I did a couple years in art school. I went to school in Philadelphia for undergrad. I did two years in University of the Arts and then went to Temple for Geography and Urban Studies, so I got exposed to maps and GIS and that there. I wasn’t that excited about it then but I think a few things happened. One was in between when I switched schools I worked as a bike messenger for a while. I started really getting interested in how cities work and why cities are such dysfunctional places sometimes. Then I biked across country and used a bunch of maps from a cycling advocacy group. Then I was in the Bay Area for five years and I ended up getting work that way and I started exploring. So I guess I took it more seriously after school. I actually worked as a cartographer for a travel guide publishing company similar to Lonely Planet called Avalon Travel. And I worked for a nonprofit called GreenInfo Network that does GIS and mapping for other nonprofits in California and the US. So I’ve had some experience there in terms of just having it as a job.

How long did Am I Rent Stabilized? take to complete?
It was over the course of a few months. The actual website I just threw together in an afternoon or a couple of days and have been fine-tuning it since then.

How do you humanize data?
There are organizations like Code For America or BetaNYC, which is a Code For America brigade so it came out of that. They’re like the main nonprofit organization in the city that I’m aware of that’s doing a lot to work with the city to make more data available to the public and encourage developers to make apps with the data. One of the things they’ve done is called CityGram where you can sign up for 311 notifications from a certain radius of where you live. So every day you’ll be sent an email or a text message about all the 311 things that are happening in your neighborhood or in any location. That’s one way that open data from government and technology can be used to promote civic engagement or transparency in local government, ultimately making cities better places. But there are still a lot of barriers to that.

Did you encounter any resistance gathering the data?
No. My FOIL request got sent to the rent guidelines board which is the city agency which determines how much landlords can increase rents on stabilized units each year and they were pretty good about getting back to me and giving me the Excel data. So I haven’t really encountered any resistance. I have submitted another FOIL request, trying to ask for the number of rent stabilized units per building on the HCR list and they haven’t gotten back to me about that.

What data would you want NYC to be more forthcoming about?
There are some things that there are privacy concerns about. It varies from department to department and from data set to data set. But aside from the number of rent stabilized units by building (because that must be out there somewhere) I want to look at how that’s changed over time. The other things [I’m interested in finding] are eviction data to see where evictions are happening.

Do they have records of tenant harassment complaints or things like that?
There’s the Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). So, if you call 311 and complain about your building or landlord who it generally goes through is the HPD or it might go to the Department of Buildings and so they both have their own systems for complaints. But 311 is the main source of a lot of this information. With that CityGram app basically what you can do is put in your address and have a daily digest of all the 311 calls within the area that you designate and within that you can see if there are things like housing code violations being reported. But eventually that gets sent to HPD. From there, it gets filed as a complaint. If the complaint is found valid, it gets filed as a violation and that data is online. But the stuff that is released publically is typically (this is true with a lot of government data sets from New York) at least a month old, so a lot of it is not current. So if you really need data of what’s happening now, I think 311 is your best bet. But it’s kind of cool that you can go on the NYC open data website and look at 311 data and look at all the different 311 requests for the whole city.

What is the future of Am I Rent Stabilized?
Well I’m currently redoing the whole site, working with some designers and tenants’ rights activists to improve the site. Once that’s done I really want to promote it, try to get the word out and get more people to use it. The goal is to really make it something that the general public wants to use. Or at least, to engage the general public to check their rent histories. Also I want it to be an asset for community groups, tenants’ rights groups, social services, or whoever wants to help people check their rent history and learn if their landlord might be overcharging them because a lot of people might not be aware of that issue. I should say this has been part of my own experience. The place I moved to in Brooklyn was an older building. And when I heard about this whole rent stabilization thing I thought, “I wonder if my place was rent stabilized?” And so I got my rent history, looked at it, and saw that when I moved in that it was rent stabilized and the year after I renewed my lease that it said it had been permanently exempt which made no sense. The way rent stabilization works right now is if your rent is under $2500 you’re still rent stabilized no matter what unless you’re making $200,000 a year. Only then can they disqualify you for income, but I don’t think that really happens that often. It’s mainly that thing about the rent going over $2500 and my rent was at $1900 at the time so there’s no way that my place wasn’t rent stabilized. So I looked back at a lease I had to sign with my management company. They threw in this little clause in fine print that said ‘I acknowledge that I am not subjected to the rules of New York State rent stabilization law…’ That was crazy to me. They lied to me and gave me some fake legal documents that really carry no weight. So that’s why I filed a complaint with the HCR. So I guess through my own experience dealing with this, too, I wondered how many people this happens to and they don’t even think to check. One of my neighbors in my building got bought out. My building was sold recently after I moved in. I think it’s about to get sold again. So the whole real estate thing in New York is kind of shady.

Do you feel the ultimate goal of your work is civic engagement?
Yeah, well Am I Rent Stabilized? could prompt civic action as opposed to just making a pretty visualization or a map or something. I think a lot of projects that BetaNYC or Code for America have done or that people do are along similar lines to that.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve come across in your research?
I’m a data nerd just from being a cartographer and a GIS person but the most interesting thing is how we can use data, in particular relationship to housing, to try to combat the power of the real estate industry here. They have so much political clout and money. And a lot of these developers and landlords have access to services that are paid for, where they get a lot of information and data on property. They kind of have the upper hand from a “knowledge is power” standpoint. A lot of community groups, just from my own work, may not be aware that this data is available and even if it is available, it isn’t very accessible. You have to be a hacker almost to do anything with it. So just having that realization that maybe we can really shift the power imbalance by making this data more accessible and usable was incredible

You hear about that power imbalance with regard to money or time or manpower but not very often data and the ability crunch numbers. That is very interesting.
Yeah, but there are other factors, of course. Like the ability to have a team of lawyers versus someone who is working class and works 40 to 60 hours a week.Normal people don’t have the time to deal with that sort of thing, especially if you don’t speak English.

Is there anything else that you want to add?
As more of the city’s data becomes available to the public and it’s made accessible and relevant to people, it’s going to be a really good thing for New York and other cities. It’s a pretty trendy thing that’s happening right now, but surprisingly there are still a lot of cities where they haven’t opened their data as much as places like New York have. Also, I think a lot of this technology, even stuff like what I’m making, I don’t think you can make something and let it sit out there. You have to do a lot of work on the ground to spread awareness about it and get people to interact with it and use it to really impact their lives.
— Melissa Bean