Black Metropolis: In Search of the Underclass

Give Me Your Poorest

On a recent Saturday afternoon I took a walk northeast from City Hall in search of fish in a barrel: a poor black family in a housing pre­dicament. In particular one crowded into an apartment with anoth­er family. The Times pegged the nomadic or the doubling-up the “couch people,” rightly citing their travails as an invisible and fluid homelessness. The stories of these women living on the Lower East Side suggests that these sojourns, housing compromises, are part of the everyday. Doubling-up has several faces, each as familiar as a next-door neighbor’s, or the one in the mirror.

There is that pioneer trap where you have a landmark in mind, head out for it, don’t find it, and are flung into being lost. After many blocks I look it. There’s a youngish black woman coming toward me on Henry Street with a child on a trike. Approaching her is like asking someone to dance — no matter how innocent the exchange there’s a subtext. I want her to be in dire straits yet be able to speak about it at length.

“Excuse me, do you know where the community centers are around here?”

“Not any that are open. What are you looking for?”

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It all comes out. The entreaty, the em­barrassed distancing words that sound like lying: Do you know any people that are doubling up — sharing apartments too small, in danger of being found out? My it’s-hard-to-get-people-in-that-kind-of-­situation-to-talk spiel. She looks up as she helps her son pull his trike up the curb. “Everyone’s doubled up … Me and him, we live with my mother.” And thus our time in the park begins.

Slowly — her son has decided to unlearn the peddling motion — we walk over to a small playground. On the way we chat about his mint trike, his new Nikes. “He wears out a pair every few weeks.”

Todd is two and a half and about that tall; his head’s pretty much shaven, with a filament part. He’s big-eyed and com­prehending. We sit down on a bench. He comes within inches of her. “Swings,” he says, squinting a little in the sun.

“I’m going to talk to this lady. We’ll play on the swings when I’m finished.” He goes off, but he does not get on the swings.

“There’s nearly nothing else you could do unless you move out of New York. I went to school. After I came back I moved in with my mom … for financial reasons. It’s hard to find an apartment, and even if you do, they tell you you make too much for Section 8 housing or it’s a co-op. The place I’m at now has a waiting list of 10 years.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Even though she’s not the perfect sub­ject of abjection, she tells me a little of how her living situation works. Her mother pays the rent, and Michelle buys groceries, pays the phone. ”He [meaning Todd] costs a lot,” she says. “My mother, we get along well, but not everyone gets along with their mother.

“I went to Skidmore. I was in HEOP. So I didn’t have to put out any money. I got a degree in government.” The more efficiently she answers the clearer it is she’s not the person I’m looking for. All that self-reflective speech betrays what Michelle calls “her peace of mind,” her confidence — admittedly sometimes wa­vering — that at 26 she is waiting out a difficult period.

“I’d say 90 per cent of the people you see out here are living with their parents. If they’re 18 and have a child, the chances of getting out are nil.” She comes dangerously close to describing what sounds like her situation — young, black, with a child.

“Education is the bottom line where black people getting ahead is concerned.” She’s a legal assistant, working for the city, reading leases, telling landlords to correct code violations in day-care cen­ters. Before that she worked at Xerox.

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Occasionally she lapses into silence. She looks thoughtfully toward Todd, who is playing some 20 yards away, and then away toward Water Street. Pensively: “The neighborhood’s changing over. Buildings on Grand are becoming Section 8 housing, the people who live there now but don’t qualify, their rents are raised sky high.” She points down a walkway to a gutted building where plywood boards block out the windows. “That’s going to be a co-op, I think some Chinese people bought it. Now they double up, to save and buy.”

Michelle’s mother has lived in her building on Water Street for 22 years. She owns her two-bedroom apartment. She and her husband moved there from Har­lem. “My father’s a retired fireman. He studied with Countee … Countee Cullen. He studied French, he named me because he loved French. My grandmother owned a candy store in Harlem, but I think they sold it.”

Todd returns to the bench, fixes his eyes on his mother’s, puts a small hand on her knee, and says, “Swings?” Mi­chelle answers, “Not yet.” Much of Mi­chelle’s concern centers on Todd. “Day care is so expensive. I pay over $300 a month in day care for a private nursery. The reason I put him into that is because I’ve heard things about public nurseries and feel more comfortable in that situation, but it costs … Well now he says his ABCs instead of popping his head to the disco beat.” We laugh. “There’s plenty of time for that later.”

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Todd runs off toward a white man in his thirties whose daughter may be a year older than Todd. This is 10 minutes after she talked about instilling suspicion of strangers in children only to be stuck convincing them that it is okay to get on a school bus. She looks to the playground swing set, eyes the man, then says, “Well, he looks like he can push a swing.” A smile supplants the concern, and by way of a seeming non sequitur she goes on, “I was thinking the other day I better start reading the Bible.”

Her free association is not without its undercurrent of concern. “A lot of people around here going off the deep end with all these epidemics going around, like the crack epidemic. Jesse Jackson was on the TV the other day, and said he’d been going to high schools telling kids that not doing drugs and alcohol should be the norm. He made a good point, talking about Martin Luther King. When Rosa Parks was about to sit in the front of the bus, she called King up, if he’d been spaced-out he wouldn’t have been able to answer that call. His point was if you’re spaced out you can’t help yourself or any­body.” She brings it on home: “That’s the hard thing about growing up around here, because you see people you grew up with going this way and that. On drugs going this way,” she gestures down and for the first time looks a little low.

And where is she going? “I think I’ll move out of the city. Well, a lot of people I know that are my age are relocating to the South. If I were 26 years old, 15 years ago I wouldn’t have the same problems.” As I walk by Todd he looks at me, then toward his mother, expectantly.

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The next day I retrace my path past the Pueblo Nuevo development, back behind the Hamilton Fish swimming pool. I head into the courtyard of Masaryk Towers, a light tan co-op development between Co­lumbia and Rivington.

The development is jimmied between two darker colored city housing projects, six 20-story buildings to the north of the Williamsburg Bridge. You can see the slats of the bridge frame momentarily the motion of cars traveling into Manhattan. I sit next to two large, smooth-skinned women on a brightly painted bench. My wait for an in is punctuated by the clack of plastic baseball bats against Wiffle balls, of bike gears shifting.

In the courtyard there is a great deal of Sunday afternoon activity. A Hispanic man has joined the two women. A security guard passes again. A little guy pops a fly then pulls decidedly at his shorts. A Monopoly $20 lies face up in the scrubs, blown from somewhere. At 5:30 the flag, the American flag, is lowered and folded by the security guards. I am not in the right place. The two women and man leave. I get up. On the corner of a bench is a black woman in her fifties, sitting alone.

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“This place is a mess. When I moved here in 1968 it was very nice and brand new, supposed to be middle-income hous­ing, and it was very middle-income be­cause they screened you and everything. Everything’s going to hell.” The ground rules are clear: she will not tell me her name. No not at all. “Etta” is wearing a green pantsuit with a print top, the print the reverse of her pants’. She is wearing sensible sneakers. Do people double up here? I ask her for the second time. The first time she stared the question down; now she hesitates. “If they are, they’re keeping it to themselves. If you got some­one staying in there with you, you better keep your mouth shut.” She paused. “Well, there was a lady on my floor and they were about to throw her out. So we signed a petition and wrote letters to keep her here. She’s here so far. But she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat not knowing if she’d be thrown out. That’s why you can’t lift a finger to help folks, as soon as they get mad they go tell on you.” She goes on to talk about other things she considers newsworthy: the death of friends, the death of both her babies, muggings, and a suicide in the complex. Occasionally she interrupts herself to point out each of her neighbors as they come in or head out. Though her reminiscences are sometimes painful she accents many of them with a laugh, head thrown back. “If I died in my apartment they would know. I keep an eye on my neighbors. They would notice.”

Etta is about the same age as Mi­chelle’s mother and has lived in the co-op nearly as long, moving here from “the projects,” with her husband, who’s since passed away. “It was multiracial, when we moved here. Sulzberger Rolfe man­aged it. They are the best landlords in the New York state. When this place started to go to pits was when they threw Sulz­berger Rolfe out.”

I fish for her opinions. “Well it seems that many people double up because rents are so high, or because they are trying to avoid becoming homeless.”

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“Yeah, but you can’t bring these home­less people into the house because they’ll have you out on the street. I read in the newspaper where this lady was trying to be kind and brought a homeless woman into the house and when she was sleeping stabbed her, she was only trying to be kind, that’s homeless for you. But the way they keep raising rents, that’s what throws a whole lot of people out. These rents aren’t stabilized. No, they’re fixing to go up. No, there are a whole lot of problems. When you want to come home in the evening and relax, not have no headaches — this place is a headache.” She quiets. “But you know what? When we did this we thought we were getting away from the stuff we had to face in the projects, but hell it looks like we jumped from the frying pan into the fire.” It’s getting dark and I turn off the tape re­corder to leave. “Yeah that woman took in roomers because her husband’s old and smokes a lot, so she can’t leave him alone. Well, I wrote letters.”

From this bench the complex looks a little more worn. She’s looking out to­ward the security booth. “Oh yeah, this is a melting pot, always been, but it looks like the better class of people are leaving.

“Here comes my longtime neighbor. Hi.” She’s says confidingly, “I have to keep an eye on them because sometime they sneak away.”

Around the block from Etta’s co-op in Hamilton Fish Park Alice and her sister, Felicia, are just hanging with a man and his girlfriend. The girlfriend’s two sons are off to the side of the bench climbing up along the fence then dropping back down. It isn’t clear till much later that the two young boys are part of the group. In front of Felicia a dark blue stroller reclines, the baby quiet and sleeping.

“Do you live around here? I’m looking for people who are doubling up in apartments.”

“Ooh,” Alice looks up. “I could sure tell you about that.”

“Would you? I don’t have to use your names.”

During this time the man has been standing with his foot on the bench, ciga­rette in hand. “Doubling up,” he says, kind of mulling it over. “Yeah, I know about that.”

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Alice then says a little more evasively, “Maybe you could go ask other people in the park. I definitely want to talk to you, but could you go away for 10 minutes, just walk around? If nobody else talks to you then come back.” We compromise and I go sit on a bench near the Pitt Street entrance to the park and wait.

A few minutes later Felicia, who’s wear­ing sponge curlers and a bright yellow T­-shirt, comes over to me. “My sister wants to know if you have a number where she can reach you. She’s a little upset right now. She gave this woman some money for Pampers and milk — they don’t give them to you in hotels like they do in shelters — and the woman hasn’t come back. That was at one o’clock.” With my luck they think I’m a narc.

Felicia sits down and tells me that right now she’s at the Third Street shelter, but that she’s moving. A bird shits on my foot. “Shit.” “What happened?” She half laughs. “It’s supposed to be good luck.” Maybe it’s a sign that they will talk. It becomes evident that this is something of a family reunion, a touching base. “I only see my sister so often because we’re moved around. Sometimes I don’t see her for months and I don’t know where she is. It would be different if we had the same case, but we don’t. We’re split up. Tomorrow I’m moving to a hotel in Brooklyn.” She mentions her nine-­month-old baby son — who’s recently had pneumonia — and she talks about how she hates air-conditioning. She gets the phone number and takes a slow walk back to the bench down on the other end of the area, stopping for a drink at the fountain.

Alice never comes over to the bench, though she calls the next day for infor­mation on housing. ■

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"


Black Metropolis: Strangers in Paradise

Of Homeboys, Homelands, and the Island

I guess it made odd sense that my talk with Hank didn’t occur while we walked about the side streets of Freeport (where I live), or Roo­sevelt (where he lives), or Hemp­stead (a focal point for both of our towns), reminiscing about our lives in these places. It occurred inside of his brother Keith’s (a/k/a Wizard K-Jee) new Datsun 200ZX, on the Southern State Parkway jetting east, going to reg­ister for the New Music Seminar. K-Jee had been driving for the last sever­al hours, as both had just gotten back from the Annual Greek Picnic in Phila, and K’s usually Newport-kicked voice was hoarser than a dog. “I was scream­in’,” he admitted. “Screamin’ and getting my dick sucked.” “Man,” Hank added, “I feel like I’ve been living in this car.” While few Manhattan Islanders use cars to get around, life on the L.I. would be close to Twilight Zonian without them. To this day, Long Island keeps its beach­front mystique mostly intact, and the myths of its car culture are numerous. So it seemed strangely correct that denizens of the land away-from-it-all would set up discussion about the away-from-it-all while going away from away-from-it-all back to it-all. Ya dig?

Of Hank Shocklee: He’s a bespectacled brother of intense intensity in his late twenties, long of limb and levity, and like the album he coproduced for Public Ene­my, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, given to subtle wordplay and noisy pontification. I can remember infinite twenty-to-three-­in-the-morning mornings where, along with Chuck D, Mr. Bill, K-Jee, and M.C. Flavor-Flave, he would elaborate on mi­nute points of hip-hop music theory, such as the emotional resonance of bass-line tonalities, or how to tell which bonus beat records the other hip-hop record produc­ers were using. Then, with an easy fade, he’d delve into an “I Looked Inside Your Mother’s Pussy and Saw …” snapping contest with Flavor; two grown men rev­eling in the formal elegance of Black swing-&-slide-side culture. Then, as they continued the discourse, we would leave their rented studio in Hempstead and go to the 7-Eleven in Uniondale, where Hank would bait “Jim,” the East Indian store­keeper, on the prices of his goods, Flavor would continue to be loud, Bill would move silently through the aisles and get exactly what he wanted, and Chuck would slowly and deliberately unroll one dirty, rolled-up, ain’t-never-seen-the-in­side-of-a-Gucci-wallet dollar bill, take out some change, and buy a macaroni-in-a-­can-something-or-other and call it din­ner. Those were indeed the best of times.

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A recent reviewer of P.E.’s album said that the crew “speaks for an embattled black underclass.” This assessment is white liberal myth-math. The fact is that Hank Shocklee, the members of Public Enemy, and I are all products of Long Island’s Black middle class, the brothers and sisters of the two boojie mannequins gracing the cover of the August Ebony, the beneficiaries of super-oxygenated lei­sure time. When I first told my friend that the Voice wanted a look at L.I. life through his eyes, he said, “Great! I’ll take ’em to Wyandanch!”, a middle-class, pre­dominantly Black town in Suffolk Coun­ty. Then, dropping into a gun-in-your­-face crouch, he mouthed, “We’re the ones that escaped from New York!” His jab was aimed at one, the failure of white Long Island to make any social or emo­tional space for the Black side of the family and two, the resulting resonance of the gangster-ethic fantasy, as it creeps into Black suburban life. The so-called gangster response in Black L.I. life is partly an updated version of what whities used to call cowboys-and-Indians, dis ful­fillment, a stylee balance of the need to dominate and the need to pay back. As I told a friend, every one of those hundreds of bullets that killed hundreds of Detroit youths was meant for a white person. As with most middle-class life, there is a dichotomy present here that escapes lib­eral platitudes, rhetoric, or Voice section concepts.

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Speeding (67 m.p.h.) down the Grand Central: “You don’t even really under­stand living in Long Island until you grow up. Living in Long Island is like …” Hank searched for a word.

Paradise,” said K-Jee, his rubbed-raw vocal timbre giving an appropriately dreamy quality to his utterance.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s like a fantasy. You’re talking about moving from Harlem into a place where you have your own house that you can own. That’s like, a monu­mental achievement for a people, espe­cially back in the ’60s. If you moved to Queens, you were considered middle-­class. If you moved to Long Island, they’re thinking that, well, you must be rich. That’s why I had to go back to saying that you don’t really understand Long Island until you grow up, because you’ll find out that you’re not rich, you’re not middle-class, you’re working-class.”

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Along with the reality of new, unfound wealth comes the knowledge that L.I.’s integrationist scheme is also carefully packaged. “You’ll find out later on that there were traps, or … I shouldn’t say ‘traps’ … there were things written or set up for you to move into certain areas of Long Island. They’ll set up low-income housing just so Black people can live in a cluster. And if they can get them in a cluster, and subsidize their living expenses, they can keep them together, in a controlled environment. Black home­lands. That goes on all over Long Island. Massapequa Park, for example, is a square mile, and it’s actually just a hous­ing complex. But it’s called Massapequa Park because it’s low-income; low-income is a nice way of saying that they’re all Blacks. Garden City Park, same thing. These things are subsidized by the rich white communites.

“The integration results in, ‘Yes, Black people can spend their money at the same stores that the white people spend their money at. Black people can have a home just like their white counterparts, and feel like they’ve made advancement.’ But the underlying factor is that the whites are just creating ghettoes all over again. They actually want to keep things separate, or there wouldn’t be a Massape­qua Park. There wouldn’t be a Roosevelt, which is a mile long. Which can easily be called Freeport, or Uniondale, or Bal­dwin. It’s not, because the whites wouldn’t go for that. ‘Um, that’s too close. That means you can attend our schools. That means you can now walk in my town, and I cannot harass you, be­cause you live in the same township.’ If I say, ‘Harold you live in Roosevelt,’ and Roosevelt is on one side of the street, and I see you walking in Baldwin, which is on the other side of the street, I can now harass you. ‘What are you doing in Bal­dwin, when most of your people live in Roosevelt?‘ It’s just another way of segregating. But then again, they’re not going to do it overtly, like they did in the South. They’re not gonna say, ‘Well, yes, Black people can only be such-and-such,’ because Black people will revolt against that.”

Other Blacks who’ve settled in Long Island — after our more incendiary broth­ers and sisters made their points in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Harlem — ­might agree. Mrs. Mildred Clayton is a native of Hawkinsville, Georgia, who moved to the Village of Westbury in 1969. As interpreter for the African-American Museum in Hempstead, she’s a person professionally concerned with Black life on Long Island, especially in terms of the sometimes-strange pieces that make up the puzzle called its history. Like how Freeport got its name (it was a duty free p.o.e. for slaves and other cargo; same thing in Texas, Maine, and the Baha­mas), or what percentage of New York’s supposedly-slave-free population were slaves on 18th-century Long Island (15 per cent, higher than the average for any Southern state during the pre-Revolu­tionary period).

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Like the rest of the Black population in Westbury, Mrs. Clayton lives in a neigh­borhood called New Cassel. “But,” speak­ing of her neighbors, “they always say, ‘Westbury,’ she says, adding a laugh. “Since the ‘white flight,’ if you will, you have a lot of African-Americans living in the village part of Westbury. So the re­maining whites sort of migrated to Old Westbury. I think there may be three African-Americans living in Old West­bury. Like you say, Massapequa, Massa­pequa Park; you have Garden City, and you have Garden City Park. And I do know that the majority of the African­-American population in that town lives in Garden City Park.”

In the morass of racism and living, though, the really unbelievable often pops up, and shows the demarcation between Black and wack to be more than meta­phorical. In April, as part of a series on Long Beach’s increasing gentrification, Newsday ran an article titled, “Putting Blacks Behind ‘The Wall’.” It told of North Park, the oldest Black neighbor­hood in Rick Rubin’s hometown, and through text, diagram, and photographs, gave the old news: how Blacks had been isolated from the rest of Long Beach by zoning policies, traffic guidelines, and a wall. The wall is the back of the block­-long Long Beach Plaza Shopping Center, and it effectively divides Long Beach into two towns: one Black, one the other thing. On the white hand side: the shop­ping center, new storefronts, new resi­dential development. On the Black side: old frame houses. Blacks do not even have direct access to the shopping center from their side. Instead of window dis­plays or store entrances, they see locked metal doors, a wide alley, and garbage bins. And a very white, two-story high, concrete wall.

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“Racism had or has nothing to do with it,” said City Manager Edwin Eaton of the gentrification. “It’s very funny, people tend to forget that when they lived in those rundown buildings it was because the city did not go after them.” Gee, Ed, thanks for letting them stay until you saw a way to make more money out of the space they took up. The problem that he and a lot of white folk have has to do with their second-hand definitions of rac­ism. Racism is not an attitude; racism is not a belief. Racism is numbers. Racism is a result. Racism is what happens. For example, whether or not Mr. Eaton planned to move the sambos and reach out so the gentry could inherit the beach is irrelevant. What has actually hap­pened? The result is racist. Or, digressing only slightly, guys, whether or not Ward ‘n Koch planned for the N.Y.C. Schutz­staffel to kill 250-plus Blacks and Latinos without convicting the cops for murder is not important. Stephen Sullivan gets a good night’s sleep every night; Eleanor Bumpurs just sleeps.

Ironically enough for me, though, the same issue of Newsday reported that a federal jury had found Garden City police not guilty of following a racially discrimi­natory policy in its handling of Blacks, despite the under-oath testimony of Lieutenant Charles Ryan that possession of Black skin would be reason enough to question a person in the area under “certain circumstances.”

Circumstances like walking. Mrs. Clayton told me about what happened to her brothers. Think First Blood: “I have a brother who, in 1977 or ’78, was just walking through the town of Garden City. I guess it was after 11 o’clock — and he just had to go through there, walking to wherever it was he was going. He said a police car came up to him, and they asked him why he was walking through there, and he told them where he was going. So they escorted him out. They gave him a free ride to the edge of Garden City. They gave him a lift. That was the first time. I have another brother who lives in Ohio and, in 1979 or ’80, he came to visit my sister and me. He was coming through Garden City at about two or three in the morning, and they detained him overnight. I had to go pick him up the next morning. They just let him go. No charge, nothing — just that he could go. They didn’t give any explanation as to why they had detained him or what. It did happen.”

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Bizarre as these particular examples of civic courtesy may be, they aren’t new, and if you’re Black, you don’t escape it. Money, it has been said, cannot buy one love, and sometimes the trappings of upward mobility lend themselves to particu­larly sour situation comedies. Bury The Cosby Show. Dr. Jesse Pone Jr., David Dinkins’s former college classmate, has lived on Long Island since 1955, and is presently one of those three African­-Americans living in Old Westbury. “I think we may be up to eight now,” he says. Like his neighbors, but unlike Hank, Mrs. Clayton, or me, he’s part of Long Island’s upper class, albeit the Black one composed of small groupings of determined professionals and the like. Dr. Pone has a big, big house with a swimming pool, with a tennis court, with one of those lawns you break out a John Deere for. He’s got a really long driveway, and owns or has owned a Lincoln, Cadil­lac, and a Rolls-Royce. He has also been stopped in all of them by police. Once, in his spanking-new Caddy, he found him­self at a Carvel, surrounded by three members of the Oceanside Five-O and their wheels. Another time, while driving the Lincoln in what was then his home town of Westbury, he was asked to pull over and produce his license-and-registration. He did, but not before noticing one of the cops had his hand on a gun in an open holster.

“As far as Garden City is concerned, that’s an area that you just don’t travel through,” says Pone. “You avoid. You cir­cumvent, which is a statement of fact. I will go down Franklin Avenue; I will go down Seventh Avenue; I will go down Cathedral Avenue. But in terms of those other streets and stuff, fine! I go through those streets on business days. Otherwise, you will end up getting pulled over, and you don’t know what the disposition of the person’s going to end up being. I think that one of the things that hap­pened to me — and it may sound funny — ­was that even though this guy had me in discomfiture, he was not the ass that so many of the police officers are.”

Which is debatable, because what hap­pened was this: About four or five years ago in Old Westbury, the good doctor got out of his ’69 Firebird and heard this sound: “STOP WHERE YOU ARE! PUT YOUR HANDS ON TOP OF THE CAR! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” He started to look around, then heard this sound: “DON’T TURN AROUND! PUT YOU HANDS OF TOP OF THE CAR!” He did, while turning to see from where this voice was coming. What he saw was a police car with Nassau County insignia, a policeman standing in a no-miss crouch, and the working end of a .38.

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The doctor replied as calmly as was possible under the circumstances: “I pay the mortgage here.”

No joke. They were 150 feet into his driveway.

“Well, show me some identification.”

“Then,” said the doctor, “I did the Richard Pryor thing: ‘I Don’t Have It In My Pocket. It’s In The Glove Compartment Of My Car. Will You Kindly Take A Look To Make Sure That You Don’t See Anything That You Can Mistake As Be­ing A Shining Object, Or As Me Reaching For Something.’ We went through that dance.”

Eventually, the question was popped: “Why did you stop me?”

“Well, I saw you coming through West­bury and you were taking some shortcuts driving all through the neighborhood and things there and I didn’t know what you were in the process of doing or where you were going and you just looked suspicious and I just followed the car and when you pulled in here I had to know what you were doing here. We’re having so much trouble in the neighborhod, and I just couldn’t identify you as coming into this particular situation here. [Of course, Pone did not recall hearing of any distur­bances, and at the time, he had been living at that address for about a decade.] Anyway, probably, this won’t happen again.” And he left.

“I came on in the house and I said, ‘Well, fine, at least maybe he was protect­ing my property in term’s of who’s suspi­cious and stuff by coming around here,’ and I thought I was fairly cool, until I woke up about three o’clock in the morn­ing in a cold sweat.”

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“When they ask me why did I move to Old Westbury,” Pone adds, “I say, ‘Because I couldn’t afford Muttontown or Upper Brookville.’ O.K.? Now, if I’d had a hundred million dollars, I wouldn’t have bought this house. But I’d have bought one of those up the way there.

“I want to make one thing clear: that even though I had that unfortunate incident, and that there have been others, by and large, the overwhelming amount of my experience has been positive. If a person can afford not to live in traditionally Black areas, there is no reason why they should not purchase a home and live wherever they choose to. Anybody that’s able to move and to buy are entitled to anything that they wish, and they should do it, ’cause they need to show them that we will. We need to do that.

“Roosevelt is one square mile, but it has two of the nicest parks in Long Is­land, Roosevelt and Centennial Park,” Hank said to me on the phone. “Why?” It’s a few days after our first conversa­tion, on one of those Freeport nights that I’ve learned to love — slightly misty, cool, dark, a wind blowing up from the ocean. “I mean, have you ever been to parks in Nassau County? Roosevelt has the nicest parks in Nassau County. Very beautiful! Spacious! Lots of basketball courts!” An edge crept into his voice. “What are they trying to say? You go into East Meadow, you’ll find Eisenhower Park. You go into Levittown, you won’t even find a park. You’ll find a lot of schools, though. You go into Huntington, you’ll find a lot of schools. What are they saying? Are they saying they want our education to be in the parks? That they want us to play ball? That they want to keep us pacified, happy? It goes back to the white ‘Knee­-grow’ joke — If you wanna stop five Black guys from raping a white girl, throw ’em a basketball.”

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Hank’s leaving for California the next day. Up to that point, we’d been talking about P.E. and the refraction of suburban angst, WLIR’s chicken white-man musi­cal parochialism, and Metro 700 (its un­official farm club, and just as stink). Mostly, though, we’re going over the time about three years ago that the posse (he, Bill, Chuck, I) and others were standing outside of White Castle’s in West Hemp­stead, and a cop from nearby Warden City came by and asked for some I.D.

“Why did that cop come over to us that night?” I ask him.

“I don’t know. We were too close to West Hempstead.”

“At White Castle’s? There are always a lot of Black people there.”

“Yeah, but we were outside for a while, it was a lot of us together, and anytime there’s a lot of Black people together at one o’clock in the morning, they wanna find out why.”

“Black people not going anywhere, but just standing?”

“Right. White people can do it all day long, and a cop’ll ride by and say, ‘How ya doin’,’ and ‘Everything’s O.K.,’ and ‘Ev­erything’s cool,’ but when Black people get together, they must be trying to incite a riot. Cops are community servants in white communities, and in Black commu­nities they’re like deterrents. Crowd control.”

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“How did that make you feel that night, when that occurred?”

“I felt … I dunno … I felt … I felt like they wanted me to feel. Like tearin’ up shit. So they can have a reason to say, ‘See. Can’t let ’em get together.’ ” Again, Hank’s voice became just a touch more agitated. “I was very pissed off. ‘Cause, here we are, everybody’s college-educated, and they’re treatin’ us like we had rec­ords. Like we bad a history of starting trouble. And like I said, these people are probably not ‘racist,’ but in order for us to prove that we’re not the stereotype that they think we are, we gotta prove to them five times that we’re not. When we deal with a white person, we gotta deal with the fact that we gotta prove some­thing to them. We always gotta show them that we are not what they think we are.”

“There are some Black people who’d say, ‘I’m not interested in proving any­thing to a white person.’ Are you com­fortable ‘proving,’ or what’s your attitude in general?”

“Well, my attitude is, I play them how they play themselves in a particular situ­ation. I don’t deal with white people on a whole; I deal with a situation. I know that the stereotype is always there. I’m not here to prove them wrong or anything. I’m just there for them to respect me and what I do. I don’t want them to like me, or anything. I just want them to respect me.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"


After Seven Months in Exile, Victorious Chinatown Residents Finally Return Home

On the hot afternoon of August 30, workers and tenants greeted one another as they lugged suitcases and baby chairs up the narrow staircase at 85 Bowery. An elderly woman emerged holding a container of rice, and workers tossed a plastic-wrapped broken table into a dumpster by the curb. Plastic-wrapped mattresses and furniture jammed the living room of a second-floor apartment, a few feet away from a kitchen with an immaculately white new stove.

More than two years after the building’s landlord tried to evict its 85-odd tenants, saying he needed to make repairs, and more than seven months after the city department of buildings ordered residents to vacate the building because the staircase was a “significant life-safety hazard,” the tenants were coming home.

“All the family members get new homes,” Li Hao, a Fujianese immigrant who has lived in the building for 17 years, told the Voice, speaking in Mandarin through an interpreter. “We’re very excited.”

“As far as I know, there are a few glitches, but people have the keys and legal possession of their apartments,” said Seth Miller, the tenants’ lawyer. There’s still a lot of garbage and damaged furniture in the building, added Jinming Cao, the English-speaking cousin of a building resident, but almost all the tenants are back in.

The building’s landlord, Joseph Betesh, along with replacing the staircase and doing other structural work, put in new floors, ceilings, wiring, and kitchen and bathroom appliances. In an agreement reached in July, Betesh promised that the tenants’ apartments would remain rent-stabilized, that he would not raise their rent to pay for the renovations, and that he would pay them a total of $770,000 to cover legal and architects’ fees, compensation for loss of property, $25,000 per household to residents of 85 Bowery, and $5,000 per household at 83 Bowery next door. It allowed the landlord, however, to demolish partitions some tenants had built to create more privacy in their apartments.

The agreement also set August 31 as the deadline for the tenants to return — with fines for the landlord starting at $150 a day per apartment if that didn’t happen for reasons other than a major disaster.

The Department of Buildings lifted the vacate order for the second through fifth floors, where the apartments are, on August 29, but left it in place for the commercial space on the first floor and in the basement.

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“We’re pleased that the city helped preserve affordable housing for dozens of vulnerable New Yorkers and save a fine old building from, quite literally, falling apart,” the department said in a statement. “A huge amount of work was done to make 85 Bowery safe — major structural retrofits for nearly the entire building, a new main staircase, asbestos abatement, new fire-safety protections, new kitchens and bathrooms in all units, and more.”

“The rehabilitation of 85 Bowery has been completed ahead of schedule,” a spokesperson for Betesh said. “Our team has replaced the staircase that initially caused the vacate order, replaced dozens of rotted floor joists on each floor of the building, and rectified all issues regarding the unlawful partitions installed under previous ownership. Additionally, new appliances approved by the residents have been installed in each apartment.”

“It’s a major accomplishment,” said Zishun Ning of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, who helped organize the tenants.


That accomplishment didn’t come without a struggle. Betesh, the owner of the Dr. Jay’s clothing-store chain, acquired the two five-story buildings at 83 and 85 Bowery in 2013, as part of a $62 million package containing nine other Bowery properties. He gradually began trying to oust tenants. In 2016, he filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court to evict all the residents of both buildings, on the grounds that they were not rent-stabilized, he had already terminated their leases, and the buildings needed to be vacated to make emergency structural repairs.

Legal arguments over rent stabilization, a tenant countersuit demanding repairs, and wrangling over structural issues — including whether the listing staircase at 85 Bowery could be fixed while the tenants stayed in their apartments — continued for most of the next two years. Last December 20, the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal recommended to State Supreme Court Judge Kathryn Freed that she reject the landlord’s arguments and declare both buildings rent-stabilized. That would have given the tenants, virtually all of them Chinese immigrants who pay $550 to $1,250 a month in rent, the legal right to stay unless they could be evicted for cause.

But on January 18, the Department of Buildings issued a full vacate order for 85 Bowery, after an inspector deemed the staircase structurally unsafe. The department gave the owner two weeks to replace it. Almost all the residents were taken to a hotel in Brooklyn used by the city to shelter the homeless.

The two-week deadline wasn’t met. The buildings department decided that it wasn’t realistic because the staircase had to be completely replaced, estimating that job would take another six to eight weeks. That prompted a four-day hunger strike by tenants demanding that the city department of housing preservation and development take over the repairs. Meanwhile, Betesh had agreed to rent rooms for most of the displaced tenants in a hotel around the corner.

In April, workers performing asbestos abatement threw some of the tenants’ belongings in a dumpster in the street. That prompted a second hunger strike, to demand that the city stop colluding with the landlord. The Department of Buildings, says Ning, “allowed them to continue to delay.”

The repairs took longer than expected, the department responded, because workers found that joists were rotten throughout the building, asbestos had to be removed, and the landlord decided to replace all the kitchens and bathrooms.

“Like many renovation projects,” Department of Buildings spokesperson Joseph Soldevere told the Voice, “once work starts, you uncover more work that needs to be done, and that was the case here.”

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Miller questions why the tenants had to leave in the first place. “The Department of Buildings has not gotten it through their thick heads,” he said, “that it is better from a public-policy point of view to take six months to do a job with the tenants in place rather than one week at the price of them being out on the street.”

In any case, Miller believes the landlord and his attorneys had “some kind of epiphany” and decided to stop fighting the tenants. “They had to convince city officials during a hunger strike that they were moving as fast as they could,” he said. “In order to be seen as doing the right thing, they had to do the right thing.”

Ning says tenants were also helped by support from organizations fighting displacement in their own neighborhoods, such as the South Bronx Community Congress, Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale from Inwood–Washington Heights, and the Filipino-American human-rights group Bayan-USA in Queens, as well as the Lower East Side–Chinatown Community Coalition, Youth Against Displacement, and the Democratic Socialists of America.

Most important, “the tenants were very united. They stuck together and were pretty persistent,” Ning said. “We hope that people feel more encouraged.”

Outside the building, Li Hao and fellow tenant Qiu Rong Wang said they’re grateful to the landlord for the renovations, the only problem being that the partitions were demolished.

Staying in the hotel was hard, says Li Hao, because the displaced tenants were not allowed to cook in their rooms and had to spend money to eat out. Now, she says, “we can feel the warmth of home.”

A newly renovated kitchen at 85 Bowery

Cuomo Lets Scofflaw Landlords Make Good — by Raising Rents

Mark Scharfman may not be the most infamous of New York landlords — at least not on the scale of a Croman, Walentas, or Kushner — but he’s still managed to attract a bit of notoriety in his decades-long real estate career. The owner of an estimated 4,000 apartments in the city through his Scharfman Organization, Beach Lane Management, and other holding companies, Scharfman has earned headlines for bringing the Gap to St. Marks Place and doubling the rent on the Cornelia Street Café. He landed a spot on the New York Press’s “50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers” in 2003 for his “Dickensian tales of tenant abuse.” In 2016, tenants at one of his Bronx buildings called Scharfman a “criminal” after he was charged with falsifying renovation documents to claim that the 125-unit building was vacant.

In that same year, Scharfman was one of numerous New York City landlords who received a letter from Gov. Andrew Cuomo informing him that he had illegally deregulated apartments that were required to be kept rent-regulated as a condition of getting city tax breaks — a measure that Cuomo said would end up re-regulating 50,000 apartments citywide. “There will be zero tolerance for those who disregard the law and reap these benefits while denying tenants affordable housing they are obligated to provide,” the governor said at the time.

Scharfman did indeed re-regulate more than 400 of his apartments, tenant advocates say — but this didn’t mean anyone’s rents went down. Instead, they say, Scharfman and other landlords used a scam they have dubbed “scheme swapping” to keep rents high while still raking in city tax breaks. And the Cuomo administration, they charge, has done little to crack down on the practice.

The Scharfman Organization, according to Aaron Carr of Housing Rights Initiative, is “one of the biggest, if not the biggest, J-51 tax cheats in New York City.” HRI, which has filed more than thirty class-action suits against owners over J-51 violations, estimates that Scharfman has received at least $10 million and probably more than $20 million in J-51 benefits over the past ten to twenty years.

“Scheme swapping is real estate fraud 2.0,” says Carr. It provides a way for landlords to keep rents high while the state can still claim credit for returning apartments to the rent-regulation rolls, he explains. “Our affordable housing stock is descending into a sinkhole, and all the governor wants to do is decorate it with Christmas lights.”


The city’s J-51 tax abatement program was created in the 1950s to help property owners improve rent-controlled buildings, such as by installing hot water in “cold-water flats.” In exchange, landlords agree to keep the buildings rent-regulated for the duration of the tax break, which can last between fourteen and 34 years.

For more than two decades, though — starting with the 1994 vacancy decontrol law that allowed landlords to deregulate vacant apartments if the rent was high enough — owners regularly removed apartments getting J-51 abatements from the rent-regulation rolls, and the state did little to check up on them. Even as Cuomo and then-attorney general Eric Schneiderman announced a crackdown on illegally high rents, noted ProPublica in 2015, “state and New York City officials have tolerated the problem for years — and ignored pleas to investigate.”

That article helped spur Cuomo’s 2016 enforcement effort. But instead, according to Carr, many landlords simply swapped in a new scheme for keeping rents high: If they had to re-regulate apartments, they would — but at the high rents they’d set while the buildings were illegally deregulated, not what the rents should have been if they’d followed the law.

Here’s how the scam works, according to some of the scores of rent histories HRI has helped tenants obtain from the state. At 709 West 176th Street, a six-story 1920s-vintage brick apartment building in Washington Heights, one Scharfman tenant’s apartment was registered with the state at a rent of $872 a month in 2010, then not registered at all from 2011 to 2015. After Cuomo’s letter, the landlord re-registered it in June 2016, setting the legal rent at $2,895 — though the tenant was charged a discounted “preferential rent” of $2,450, which can be raised to the legal maximum once the lease expires.

(The Scharfman Organization did not respond to phone messages left at its Westchester County office number.)

HRI has identified more than 1,000 buildings that had received J-51 benefits which had unregistered apartments in 2016. In more than 95 percent of cases where landlords later re-established them as rent-stabilized, Carr says, they scheme-swapped — re-registering the apartments at the illegally deregulated rent levels. The result, he adds, is that those apartments are now “rent-stabilized in name only.”

The method by which landlords are supposed to set re-regulated rents is complicated: For buildings that already had some legally deregulated apartments when they started receiving J-51 benefits, the rent in those units can be raised above the last previously registered amount by adding vacancy bonuses, increases for apartment renovations, and other legal charges.

But one thing is for certain: The state Division of Housing and Community Renewal flatly states in its J-51 FAQ that “the legal regulated rent to be registered cannot exceed the actual rent being paid by the tenant.” So while it’s hard to determine precisely where rent should be set for a re-regulated apartment, at most it should be the rent the current tenant is paying — meaning setting “legal” registered rents higher than tenants’ preferential rents, as the West 176th Street lease shows, is undeniably illegal.

“That’s the smoking gun,” says Carr.

DHCR insists it is enforcing the law. “We have zero tolerance for landlords who are trying to game the system by benefiting from the J-51 New York City–administered tax abatement and not registering their apartments as rent-regulated,” state Homes and Community Renewal spokesperson Charni Sochet told the Voice. As for setting rents too high on re-registered apartments, DHCR indicated that it can impose penalties on landlords who violate the law.

The state agency, however, has long had a reputation for weak enforcement. Until the creation of its Tenant Protection Unit in 2012, it only investigated whether apartments had illegally high rents if the tenant filed an overcharge complaint. But if landlords ceased to register apartments, they didn’t have to report rents to the state at all — making it nearly impossible for new tenants to tell if they were being overcharged.

“The DHCR is imposing, in most cases, no penalty for failure to register. That’s the real bottom-line problem here,” says tenant lawyer David Hershey-Webb, who says he has numerous cases involving scheme-swapped apartments.

The state housing agency says it is working to crack down on J-51 abuses. It says the Tenant Protection Unit analyzed rent-registration data to identify units that appeared to have disappeared from the registration rolls, including apartments receiving the J-51 benefit, and told their landlords that they had to either re-register them or document that they were lawfully deregulated. It adds that its Office of Rent Administration and statistical analysis unit are “using data mining and creating algorithms” to look through the registration rolls to find irregularities that could show illegal overcharges and deregulation.

Tenant lawyers, though, say it’s hard to tell if the state is cracking down on scofflaw landlords when DHCR won’t even release the names of the landlords that were caught violating J-51 rules in the first place. Attorney Robert Grimble filed a request for the list of names under the state Freedom of Information Law, but says it was denied on the grounds that it would “interfere with law enforcement.”

In May, Grimble, Carr, and other lawyers filed suit against DHCR to demand those names. “The list is important because it will better allow tenants, tenant attorneys, and tenant advocacy groups like HRI to enforce the rent-stabilization requirements of J-51 buildings that no agency is currently enforcing,” says Shaina Weissman, an attorney with Grimble & LoGuidice. “This could ultimately result in thousands of illegally deregulated apartments being returned to rent stabilization.”


The J-51 fight is complicated by the fact that until 2009, DHCR allowed landlords to deregulate buildings receiving J-51 benefits, so long as the tax breaks were not the only reason the apartments had been regulated. But in that year, the state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village tenants in the Roberts v. Tishman Speyer Properties case, who had sued their landlord, Tishman Speyer, after it raised rents in some apartments to more than $4,000 despite receiving J-51 benefits.

Two years later, a state appeals court ruled in Gersten v. 56 7th Avenue LLC that the rent-regulation requirement could be applied retroactively to apartments illegally deregulated before the Roberts decision. “There’s no argument anywhere for not registering after Gersten,” says Hershey-Webb, “but the DHCR still lets them not register.”

On August 16 of this year, the same appeals court muddied the waters, ruling 3–2 that an Upper West Side landlord who’d deregulated apartments while receiving J-51 benefits in 2003 did not have to re-regulate them, on the grounds that the 1997 state vacancy-decontrol law prohibits investigating rent overcharges more than four years old unless there’s evidence of fraud.

That ruling, however, would not seem to protect landlords who deregulated apartments after the Roberts decision, such as Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner is another scheme-swapper, according to rent histories obtained by tenants with HRI’s help. In March 2015, his Kushner Companies bought 310 East 83rd Street on the Upper East Side as part of a sixteen-property portfolio for $131.5 million. (The seller, Stone Street Properties — notorious for harassing rent-stabilized tenants so it could charge more rent for vacant apartments — had paid $73 million for the buildings in 2012.)

Afterward, the rent on one vacant apartment almost doubled from July 2014 to July 2015, from $1,875 to $3,619, according to a rent history obtained by the current tenant. In 2016, Kushner stopped registering the apartment entirely, and when a new tenant moved in that September, he received an unregulated market-rate lease for $2,675.

Two months later, according to documents obtained by the Voice, Kushner attached a rider to the tenant’s lease informing him that while the apartment was permanently deregulated, it had to be rent-stabilized “solely because” the building was in the J-51 program. The rider set the “legal rent” at $4,279 — the last registered rent plus an 18.25 percent vacancy bonus — but said the tenant could keep paying $2,675.

In reality, according to Department of Finance records available online, the building had been receiving J-51 benefits since 1996, when the apartment cost $725. (The benefits expired in July 2017.) DHCR said it could not comment on whether the $4,279 “legal rent” was illegal, as its policy is not to release rent histories to anyone except the tenant of the apartment in question.

In April 2017, DHCR sent Kushner a letter directing the company “to register ALL individual apartments as rent-stabilized.” Two months later, it followed up with a threat to fine him at least $1,000 for each apartment that wasn’t registered. Kushner has not yet registered any apartments in the building, according to the state housing agency, and failed to show up for a pre-hearing conference this May. An evidentiary hearing, the equivalent of a trial, was scheduled for August 1, but was postponed.

Asked about the relatively low fines being charged — which could be worth no more than a month or two of the rent overcharges Kushner is receiving, Carr quips: “More than 10 percent of all political contributions at the state level are from real estate. This is what they’re paying for.”

Meanwhile, many of the buildings whose landlords received letters from Cuomo — including Scharfman’s at 709 West 176th Street and 710 West 173rd Street — are still receiving J-51 benefits, according to the Department of Finance. When the Upper Manhattan Scharfman tenant moved in in 2014, she says, her rent was about $1,650, but the lease said the legal rent was $2,650 — and she had to sign a rider stating that she understood that the apartment was “not subject to any form” of rent regulation “whatsoever.” When she renewed it in 2016, it didn’t include that rider, but it raised her rent to $1,770, and the “legal rent” to $2,770. (The maximum increase allowed by the city Rent Guidelines Board in 2016 was 2 percent.)

When she requested a rent history from DHCR, she adds, there were no records from 2012 through 2016. The last registered rent was $1,500 in 2011.

“How many more buildings is this happening in?” she asks.


Will New York’s New Airbnb Law Stop Illegal Listings?

This week, Mayor de Blasio made it official and signed a law requiring Airbnb, HomeAway, and other short-term rental companies to share data with the city on who is renting which apartments and for how long. This will fill a much-needed gap in the city’s woefully inadequate enforcement mechanism against illegal short-term rentals. But as with many laws, what the new requirement will mean for the city once it goes into effect next February depends on how it will be enforced.

Airbnb and its ilk have been skirting New York state laws for as long as the companies have existed. State law requires rentals to be for thirty days or more unless the host also lives on the property at the time of the rental. In essence, every single “entire apartment” listing on Airbnb is illegal and always has been, which is why it’s particularly humorous folks like Caitlin Connors have had no misgivings going on the record in the New Yorker sharing all the details about her almost certainly illegal Airbnb in Williamsburg.

But until now, the city had no practical way of enforcing the thirty-day requirement. Airbnb doesn’t share a listing’s exact address until booked. Murray Cox, founder of the watchdog site Inside Airbnb, notes that Airbnb’s listings are “slightly randomized,” displaying little dots near but not exactly at their actual locations. Even if the city office tasked with enforcing illegal listings, the slickly named Office of Special Enforcement (OSE), receives a specific complaint about an address, they have to then match that complaint with a listing, which can prove onerous or in some cases impossible. According to the New York Times, OSE issued 3,050 violations in 2017, a drop in the bucket compared to the 50 to 65 percent of the city’s 50,000 Airbnb listings that Cox estimates are “breaking some type of law.”

In order to properly enforce its own laws, the city needed either Airbnb’s cooperation or new legislation forcing them to turn over apartment locations. Naturally, the city opted for the latter. The new law doesn’t go as far as some other cities such as San Francisco have in creating full-on, publicly available registries for short-term rentals, but it will force Airbnb and similar companies to provide monthly reports to OSE on who is renting what and where. (Cox has no expectation the data will be made public.) Failure to comply will result in a fine of $1,500 for each listing not properly disclosed; the original bill proposed a fine of $25,000 per listing. After San Francisco’s registry went into effect, Airbnb listings in the city dropped by 50 percent, further bolstering Cox’s 50 percent illegal rental estimate for New York.

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But that doesn’t mean every illegal New York Airbnb listing will suddenly disappear. All this law does is require Airbnb to disclose information; because it doesn’t create any registry or force Airbnb to boot any listings from its app, the onus is still on the city to actively enforce the laws on the books. And not all illegal Airbnb hosts are equal.

Airbnb has long argued through its “one host, one home” marketing campaign that most hosts are up to nothing untoward and just trying to make a couple of extra bucks in our fair city. But this is a narrative New York legislators have thoroughly rejected. “They like to spin that they really intend to be good guys and it’s just some people who are bad apples,” State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan told the City Council in June. “No, their business model is a bad apple when it comes to the affordability of housing and availability of housing in the city of New York.”

Such remarks could suggest the political will is there to eradicate all illegal listings, but so far the City Council and the mayor have generally focused on what would otherwise be affordable housing getting instead rented on Airbnb, and commercial landlords who run Airbnb-rental businesses with multiple listings. By focusing on those two cases, the hope is such enforcement would put badly needed affordable-housing stock or otherwise glorified hotel rooms back on the long-term rental market.

Until we know which strategy the city will take, it’s impossible to say what this means for Mr. and Mrs. Tourist looking to score that Crown Heights Jewel for Two. And putting a few thousand apartments back on the long-term rental market probably won’t have much impact on rental prices, especially in a year with major market shocks like the L train shutting down and Hudson Yards towers opening their doors to tenants. That is, unless I nab one of those rent-controlled apartments that used to be on Airbnb. In which case, this is the best law ever written.


Saving Mitchell-Lama

Mayor Bill de Blasio made headlines recently with his announcement that he planned to spend $250 million to help 15,000 apartments in the Mitchell-Lama Program remain affordable for working- and middle-class New Yorkers. The Mitchell-Lama Reinvestment Program, announced October 26, will offer owners property-tax exemptions and low-interest loans in exchange for renewing their agreements to stay under Mitchell-Lama regulations for another 20 to 45 years.

The plan has won high praise from residents of co-op buildings in the program, who say it will help them make major repairs without getting into financial trouble, and discourage them from yielding to the temptation to cash in on the apartments they bought at subsidized prices.

Mitchell-Lama renters, on the other hand, worry that the mayor’s plan doesn’t have a clear mechanism to stop their landlords from opting out of the program and raising rents to market rate. The city has already lost more than half of its Mitchell-Lama rental units, and tenants worry that the rest are endangered without city action. “I’d like to know just how [de Blasio] intends to do that,” says Edmund Rosner of the Mitchell-Lama Residents Coalition.

The Mitchell-Lama Program, established by a state law in 1955, is arguably the most successful housing program for working- to middle-class people in the history of New York City. Almost 140,000 apartments, about half rentals and half limited-equity cooperatives, were built between the 1950s and the program’s end in 1978. These included the 5,900-apartment Starrett City complex in southeast Brooklyn, Confucius Plaza in Chinatown, Rochdale Village in southeastern Queens, and General Sedgwick House in the Bronx — the 1969 building dubbed the birthplace of hip-hop because it was the home of pioneering DJ Kool Herc.

“The entire Upper West and East Sides of Manhattan [are] gentrified except for the areas where there are Mitchell-Lama cooperatives or NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] housing,” Cooperators United for Mitchell-Lama wrote in a message to members in February. Mitchell-Lama complexes in those neighborhoods include the 652-unit Ruppert House on Second Avenue and East 93rd Street and Goddard-Riverside on Amsterdam Avenue and West 94th Street.

In exchange for low rents and co-op sale prices, the program gave developers property-tax abatements and loans with as low as 1 percent annual interest; they often also obtained the land cheaply through federally supported urban-renewal programs. Owners of rental buildings were guaranteed a 6 percent annual profit as long as they kept the apartments affordable.

The program was a lifeline for New Yorkers who made too much money to qualify for low-income housing, but not enough to afford family-size apartments on the open market. By the 21st century, as long-term residents aged, it had become an important source of housing for the elderly. The median income for Mitchell-Lama residents in 2005 was only $22,500 a year, Thomas Waters of the Community Service Society said at a state housing agency hearing in 2007.

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Currently, Mitchell-Lama rental apartments that receive federal subsidies are open to anyone earning less than $53,450 for a single person, or $76,300 for a family of four. For co-ops and apartments that don’t get federal subsidies, the limits are about $83,500 for a single person and $119,219 for a family of four. Residents whose income rises above those levels pay a surcharge of up to 50 percent on their rent or maintenance.

More than 40,000 Mitchell-Lama apartments, however, have been taken out of the program. The bulk of those were withdrawn in the last two decades as the real-estate market heated up enough to make the ability to charge market rents more profitable for landlords than continuing to get tax breaks in exchange for charging less.

Building owners have been able to do this under an amendment added to the law in the late 1950s to encourage developers to participate. It lets owners — both rental-building landlords and co-op shareholders — buy out of the program at the end of the regulated period by paying off any outstanding loans and forgoing future tax breaks. The regulatory agreements for about 15,000 Mitchell-Lama apartments in the city will run out during the next eight years, putting them at risk.

The city’s reinvestment program is likely to focus on co-ops, which the mayor’s office estimates are two-thirds of the 45,000 Mitchell-Lama apartments overseen by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. It is much harder for co-ops to leave Mitchell-Lama, as HPD regulations require two-thirds of the total residents to vote in favor of withdrawing in two separate referenda. The city believes that the program will help preserve Mitchell-Lama apartments as affordable housing, by keeping the buildings financially solvent enough to prevent them from deteriorating.

Independence Plaza North in Tribeca

Mitchell-Lama co-ops are limited equity, which means residents own their apartments but can’t sell them for a profit. In exchange, regulations and tax breaks keep monthly maintenance charges relatively low so long as the building stays in the program. If residents vote to leave, they can sell their apartment for a dramatic profit — but maintenance charges will go up substantially for those who stay.

Co-ops that privatize can try to offset the increased cost to current residents via “flip taxes,” taxes on the windfall profits made by those who sell apartments at market rate. This doesn’t always work. Trump Village IV in Coney Island, which left Mitchell-Lama in 2007, is now in financial trouble, says Cooperators United for Mitchell-Lama president Adele Niederman, because the flip taxes haven’t been able to cover repairing damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (According to Brooklyn folklore, Trump Village’s German American developer, Frederick Trump, pretended his ancestors were Swedish to avoid alienating apartment seekers in the heavily Jewish neighborhood, as the ghosts of Birkenau still hovered low in 1964.)

With Mitchell-Lama buildings now forty to sixty years old, the city says the reinvestment program will help by restructuring the projects’ existing debt, providing long-term tax benefits, and funding critical capital repairs. At Masaryk Towers, a 1,105-unit Mitchell-Lama co-op on the Lower East Side, HPD is helping finance a new boiler plant and a cogeneration system for electricity, in exchange for it staying in the program. Buildings can also get tax breaks for renovation under the city’s J-51 program.

“This is helpful. This is very helpful,” says Richard Heitler, chair of the board at Village East Towers, a 434-apartment Mitchell-Lama co-op on the Lower East Side. By enabling buildings to refinance loans at substantially lower interest rates, he explains, the program will keep their debt-service payments “absolutely level,” so they can increase their capital reserves without being forced to raise maintenance charges.

Such loans, he explains, will be similar to the one recently given Penn South, a 2,820-unit limited-equity co-op in Chelsea that is not a Mitchell-Lama but has similar characteristics. That $187.5 million federally insured loan, approved in April, will lock in low interest rates for the next 35 years, effectively giving the ten-building complex an extra $4 million a year for repairs, Penn South general manager Brendan Keany told Chelsea Now in April, and thus enable it to remain affordable until 2052.

“We have no interest whatsoever in privatization,” Heitler says. Most residents “care more about being able to stay in New York and live the good life” than in “windfall profits.”

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For those in Mitchell-Lama rental buildings, however, whether to stay in the program is strictly their landlord’s decision. “If an owner wants to cash out and is in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, the financial incentives to do so are pretty intense,” says Heitler.

In the mid-2000s real estate boom, some landlords made a business of buying up Mitchell-Lama rental complexes to convert them to luxury housing. Most notoriously, Laurence Gluck’s Stellar Management purchased Riverton Houses in Harlem, Independence Plaza North in Tribeca, and several Upper West Side complexes. Sedgwick House was taken out of the program in 2008, after it was sold to a new owner whom a housing organizer later described as a “predatory equity” landlord. According to figures from Cooperators United for Mitchell-Lama, about 51 percent of the rental apartments built under the program have left, versus only 9 percent of the co-ops.

Mitchell-Lama rental apartments built before the state’s 1974 rent-stabilization law are required to stay rent-stabilized after they’re taken out of the program. Once tenants move out or die, the landlord can use the usual methods to raise rents on vacant apartments and eventually deregulate them.

During the 2000s real estate boom, however, some owners leaving Mitchell-Lama were too impatient to wait for their tenants to leave. Instead, they took advantage of a little-used clause in the law that lets them raise rents more than would normally be allowed if there are “unique or peculiar” circumstances — claiming that simply leaving the program qualified as such a circumstance. After Stellar took Central Park Gardens on the Upper West Side out of Mitchell-Lama, it used that argument to try to raise the rent on one apartment from $496 to $3,015, and on another from $1,000 to $5,275. After six years of litigation, a state appeals court closed the loophole in 2010.

Tenants in buildings opened after 1974 have no protections when they leave the program. But residents of Independence Plaza North, a 1,340-apartment complex opened in 1976, were able to exert enough political pressure after Stellar took it out of the program in 2004 to negotiate a “model” agreement, says Edmund Rosner, who was at the time a vice president of the tenants’ association. Under a deal brokered by then–City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, annual rent increases for tenants not eligible for federal Section 8 subsidies were limited to slightly more than those normally allowed for rent-stabilized apartments.

“Incentives are fine, but you need more than that” to keep landlords in the program, says Rosner. “The bottom line is that government has a role to play, and that is to force the landlords to do the right thing.”

Many more owners will take rental apartments out, he adds, “unless something drastic occurs, like a freeze on exiting the program” — and doing that would require state legislation.

“It’s poor public policy for the city to allow this resource to go on the open market,” says Niederman. “If they’re honest about preserving affordable housing, this is where to do it.”





What de Blasio’s ‘Paying the Homeless to Leave Town’ Program Is Really About

“Get the fuck out of here!” exclaims Anthony Cepeda. “That is so awesome!”

Cepeda is one of the dozens of mostly homeless people streaming out of a Chelsea church’s soup kitchen one morning in mid-October, bearing paper-wrapped buttered bagels and Styrofoam cups of tea. He’s just been told that the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has a new pilot program that will help pay homeless people’s rent for up to twelve months if they find housing outside the city.

The unnamed program, which began quietly on September 1, drew public attention in late September, after DHS sent a group of shelter residents to look at seventeen apartments in Newark, New Jersey. Republican mayoral candidate Nicole Malliotakis called it an example of the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s policies on homelessness, accusing him of spending “the taxpayers’ money” to subsidize out-of-town rents. For others, paying for poor people to leave raised the specter of the Louisiana segregationists in the 1960s who bought public-assistance recipients one-way bus tickets up North, or the Trump-mouthed provincial executive in Alberta in the 1990s who sent them to British Columbia.

New York’s relocation-aid program is much more benign, according to both city officials and homeless advocates. For ten years, the city’s Project Reconnect has paid transportation expenses for people living in city homeless shelters who are looking to move outside the city; under the new pilot, the city will subsidize rents as well — for housing either in the city or elsewhere.

“It’s brand-new, so we don’t have a lot of on-the-ground feedback,” says Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless. “We haven’t seen people in our office who’ve been through it.”

The Coalition, the court-appointed monitor of city homelessness policy since it won a case establishing the right to shelter in the early 1980s, learned about the program last month in a meeting with the DHS. For eligible households, DHS will cover the amount by which their rent exceeds 30 percent of their income, up to the same maximum rent as in other city rent-assistance programs for homeless people: $1,213 a month for a single person and $1,515 for a family of four. To be eligible, individuals or families have to have spent at least ninety days in a city homeless shelter and verify that they’ll have a job or be able to afford their rent in the place they’re going. They are ineligible if they have open arrest warrants, open child-welfare cases, or untreated mental health or drug- or alcohol-use problems.

“For decades, the city has helped our homeless neighbors seek housing where they can best get back on their feet — sometimes that includes outside the five boroughs,” says DHS press secretary Isaac McGinn.

With the city in a never-ending housing crunch, looking for homes outside the five boroughs has become a last resort to avoid homelessness for many. The city has recorded more than 60,000 people living in homeless shelters every month since December 2015, the most since it began tracking them in 1983, and an increase of more than 50 percent in the last six years. About three-fourths are families, and the average stay is fourteen months. Those numbers do not include the unknown thousands sleeping on the street.

The reason, says Routhier, is that there is essentially “no housing” affordable to the poor. For someone making $25,000 a year, even a rent of $700 a month would be more than one-third of pre-tax income — and about the only place you can find apartments that cheap in the city is in public housing, which has 257,000 families on the waiting list for its 176,000 apartments.

Since Project Reconnect began providing transportation assistance in 2007, it has helped about 4,000 households move out of the city, according to DHS figures. The most common destinations are Florida and Puerto Rico, which together with Georgia and the Carolinas account for the bulk of all relocations.

For both the homeless and their advocates, the new rent-subsidy program is just an extension of that Bloomberg-era initiative.  “I don’t know to what extent this represents a significant break,” Sam Miller, a spokesperson for the homeless people’s organization Picture the Homeless, says of the new relocation-aid program. “We as an organization support anything that pays for homes instead of shelter.” However, he adds, a year of housing aid isn’t a long-term solution: “What happens when you move to North Carolina and the voucher runs out, or the job doesn’t pay enough for shelter?”

This is the long-standing catch-22 with temporary housing subsidies: People are likely to end up homeless as soon as the rental assistance runs out. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s two main initiatives — Housing Stability Plus, which gave families on public assistance rent subsidies that were scaled back by 20 percent each year, and Advantage, which offered subsidies that ended after two years — both failed dismally and were canceled, largely for this reason. More than 60 percent of the programs’ recipients wound up back in shelters, says Routhier. The city currently offers temporary rental-assistance programs for working families eligible for public assistance, long-term shelter residents, domestic violence victims, elderly and disabled individuals, working individuals, and people who have a relative or friend they can move in with.

There is one program that offers permanent rent subsidies: the federal Section 8 voucher program. But the maximum rents it will subsidize are less than what most vacant apartments in the city rent for: $1,460 for a studio and $1,768 for a two-bedroom. In any case, funding for the program is so limited that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which administers it here, has not accepted applications since 2009.

Those at the Chelsea soup kitchen like the idea of rent subsidies for housing outside the city, but are quick to point out its likely shortcomings. “It’s good for people who have a place to go,” says James Brown, a former taxi driver who’s been in and out of city shelters for the past ten years, as well as shelters in Dallas and Miami. “If you don’t have family, you’re just going to be wandering around, and they’ll put you in jail.”

Mohamed, who has been in the shelters for a bit more than a month and prefers not to give his last name, calls it “innovative,” but adds that “it seems very specialized. It’s not going to be a lot of people who’d know somebody outside, and you have to hear about it.”

Homeless advocates say that helping a relatively small number of people relocate doesn’t address the underlying causes of the city’s continuing affordable-housing crisis. Picture the Homeless cites a 2016 audit by Comptroller Scott Stringer that said the city owns more than 1,100 vacant lots that could be used to build 57,000 apartments. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) countered that most of those lots are not viable locations for housing; for example, some are in hurricane danger zones in the Rockaways. The actual number of vacant lots is murky, and HPD has refused to release its list. A package of three bills called the Housing Not Warehousing Act would require the city to conduct a census of all vacant land, but the City Council has not taken any action on it since a hearing in 2016.

Another possibility, says Routhier, would be for the city to reserve a larger share of vacant apartments in public housing for homeless people leaving shelters; it currently sets aside about 1,500 of the roughly 4,000 annual vacancies. On the other hand, providing a greater share of the minuscule number of public-housing apartments to shelter residents would leave fewer available for the city’s non-homeless working-class and poor people.

At current rates, it would take more than sixty years for all the people on NYCHA’s waiting list to get apartments, and a 1998 federal law, the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, generally prohibits cities from using federal funds to build new public housing if it would “result in a net increase” in the number of units. Mayor de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, which relies on enforced trickle-down from luxury development to create new “affordable” housing, will cater mainly to New Yorkers who make more than $40,000 a year. There have been numerous calls to create more housing for lower-income people, most recently by the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, but the mayor’s plan is the main one in effect.

DHS acknowledges the problem. Roughly 40,000 people in families with children live in the shelters, a spokesperson says, and more than one-third of families “include a parent that is earning income but cannot make ends meet — underscoring the economic factors, namely rents rising far faster than wages or incomes, driving homelessness.” On that basis, the spokesperson adds, if even one family participates in the relocation program, “it is a successful tool for that family.”

Anthony Cepeda would seem to be a perfect candidate. “I come from Nashville, Tennessee, and I’d like to go back,” he says. “I’ve got someone in Tennessee who wants to take care of me.”

But the requirement that participants have to have lived in city shelters for ninety days would trip him up. He was placed in a shelter in Brownsville — one where a resident was seriously wounded in May when he was stabbed with a pair of scissors — but left because it was “really horrible.”

“I didn’t feel safe,” Cepeda says. He’s now back on the street, along with thousands of others — in a city where rents keep going up far faster than people’s ability to pay them.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect DHS’s clarification that its new rent subsidies can be used for housing within the city, not just outside of it.


How Forcing Tenants to Move Became a Business Model for NYC Landlords

Benjamin Warren remembers when he had a “fair, decent landlord.”

That once described David Kramer, who in 1999 took over 1511-21 Sheridan Avenue, the eight-story Bronx building one block east of the Grand Concourse where Warren has lived since 1978. But then, says Warren, “greed set in.” In 2006, Kramer took out a $247 million mortgage on the building and forty other Bronx properties, splitting ownership with the private-equity firms Normandy Real Estate Partners, Vantage Properties, and Westbrook Partners.

“All of a sudden they were low on fuel,” Warren, who is a member of Community Action for Safe Apartments, recalls. A few years later, the building went through a winter where residents had only five hours a day of heat and hot water, and he caught pneumonia. So many people moved out, he says, “it looked like Exodus.”

After the building was foreclosed on and resold several times, the Toronto-based Medallion Corporation took over in March. Medallion immediately filed eviction notices against more than 50 tenants in the 222 apartments.

Tenant harassment as a business model — owners buying buildings with the intent of driving out rent-regulated tenants so they can charge higher rents — came to the fore when the notorious landlord Steven Croman made headlines for practices like repeatedly filing nonpayment eviction cases against tenants who’d already paid their rent. (In June, he pleaded guilty to loan-fraud charges for, ironically, claiming he had forced out more rent-stabilized tenants than he actually had.) But the practice has its roots in tactics first widely adopted by landlords fifteen years ago. Initially seen mostly in the East Village and the Lower East Side, the tactic has spread with gentrification to places like Crown Heights, Bushwick, Washington Heights, and other working-class neighborhoods with good housing stock and decent public transportation.

The occasional landlord trying to force out tenants is nothing new. In 1987, a Community Service Society survey of low-income renters in the gentrifying East Village found about one-third reporting an “ongoing pattern” of harassment, such as aggressive offers of money in exchange for moving, says CSS senior housing policy analyst Victor Bach. It didn’t emerge as a widespread tactic, however, until after the state’s loosening of rent laws in the 1990s, and the subsequent rise of a new breed of real estate speculators.

Harvey Epstein, the Urban Justice Center director who serves as a tenant representative on the city Rent Guidelines Board, says tenant harassment first emerged as a “functional business model” for some landlords by the end of the 1990s. It proliferated, however, during the housing bubble of 2003–08, when private-equity firms like Vantage Properties, Pinnacle Group, and Dawney Day bought up hundreds of buildings at prices that could only result in profit if they cleared out all the rent-stabilized tenants. Pinnacle’s purchases included buildings containing 20,000 apartments, many in Harlem and Woodside; within two years, the company had filed eviction cases against 5,000 tenants. Vantage, says Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development executive director Benjamin Dulchin, tried to evict 60 percent of its tenants in some Washington Heights buildings within six months.

“All of a sudden, we were getting calls from all over,” recalls Sadia Rahman, a supervising attorney for the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project, who at the time was a lawyer at Catholic Migration Services in Queens. When Vantage bought a 44-building portfolio stretching from Sunnyside to Flushing for $274 million in 2008, she says, more than one-third of the tenants had their first rent checks returned, a prelude to what she calls “totally baseless” eviction attempts.

A common tactic, Rahman says, was to charge that the apartment was not the tenant’s primary residence. One of her clients, a man named Juan Diaz, was accused by Vantage of actually living in Miami because there was a “Juan Diaz” in the Miami phonebook. (In a 2010 settlement with the state attorney general’s office, Vantage agreed to stop “frivolous housing court evictions.”)

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These strategies may be legally dubious, but they often work. “If you sue ten tenants for nonsense, you can get four to relinquish their rights,” says Bach. In the Vantage portfolio, says Rahman, one issue was that, in immigrant communities, extended families often pass apartments down to relatives, so people could have been living in an apartment for twenty years with someone else’s name on the lease. The previous owner hadn’t cared as long as he got the rent on time, but Vantage did, because it allowed them to evict tenants who didn’t have leases in their names.

Other common tactics have included filing trumped-up eviction cases against tenants (by, say, not cashing their rent checks and then trying to evict them for nonpayment), aggressively offering them buyouts to leave, and cutting off services such as cooking gas. Once a tenant moves out, there is “construction as harassment,” where landlords demolish and renovate the vacant apartment in a way intended to create maximum nuisance for the people still living there.

Harassment is illegal, but “the risk of being caught is outweighed by the gains from displacing tenants,” says Kerri White, director of organizing, policy, and research at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.

Several factors combined to make harassment a business model, say housing lawyers, analysts, and advocates. In 1997, the state legislature weakened rent-stabilization laws in a way that offered landlords much greater profits on vacant apartments: If they could get the rent up to $2,000 or more, they could deregulate the apartment. (That threshold has since been raised to $2,700.) They were aided in this by a new automatic 20 percent increase on vacant apartments, which, when combined with the cost of renovations and sometimes outright fraud, could quickly reach the magic rent number.

“When the renting laws changed, also landlords changed,” says Natherlene Bolden, a longtime resident of Crown Heights and a founding member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union. Before that, she says, most tenants in her neighborhood “had a good rapport with their landlords.” One owner told her that getting rent late was “easier than evicting you and not being sure [how long] the apartment would sit without making any money.”

At the same time, gentrification was prompting landlords to dream of massive rent increases. “Once gentrification became prevalent about ten years ago, tenant harassment morphed into a horrible business,” says Bolden. Combined with minimal state enforcement of the laws against rent fraud, the financialization of real estate investments during the housing bubble that insulated banks from the consequences of making bad speculative loans, and the weakened regulations, it helped create a fundamentally new landlord business model.

Before 2003, rent-regulated buildings were seen as assets “more like a bond,” says Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society. According to Dulchin, landlords were largely content to make a 6 to 8 percent return on investment, a solid but limited profit.

In contrast, private-equity investors looked at those buildings as “historically undervalued” and “inefficiently exploited assets,” and issued prospectuses promising returns of 16 to 20 percent, says Dulchin. Those promises were based on projecting that 10 percent of the tenants would move out every year, five times the normal rate for rent-stabilized apartments. “You cannot get that through legal or ethical means,” he says. “It’s just not natural.”

This model — dubbed “predatory equity” — undermined the “fundamental mechanism” by which regulations keep rents within reach of the majority of New Yorkers, Dulchin adds. As long as building sale prices were based on the property’s existing rent-regulated income, he explains, landlords could still turn a profit without forcing tenants out. But once investors became willing to pay speculative prices based on the building’s potential income, harassment became an essential part of the deal, because owners couldn’t cover mortgages unless the rent-stabilized tenants were driven out.

The bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 and legal sanctions against Pinnacle and Vantage stalled predatory equity. But over the past several years, the harassment model has again spread across the city, most intensely in neighborhoods on the front lines of gentrification. Banks are “willing to lend crazy money to landlords based on the belief that they’re going to be able to get people out,” says Goldiner. “Even in neighborhoods where gentrification hasn’t happened, the landlords think it’s about to happen.”

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Tactics vary depending on the heat of the neighborhood’s housing market. The East Village and Lower East Side have seen some of the most intense harassment, with owners like Croman and Ben Shaoul seeking to empty out dozens of buildings. It’s been highly profitable: Shaoul, whose construction practices left tenants breathing dust and going without cooking gas for months, was able to sell buildings for almost twice what he paid for them within three years.

A tactic that emerged after the recession is hiring “tenant relocation specialists.” Some, most notoriously Croman’s Anthony Falconite, have relied on intimidation, banging on people’s doors and yelling at them to leave. Others are more sophisticated, says Rahman: They keep dossiers on tenants to suss out what kind of deal they’ll take to move, whether a cash buyout or taking another apartment at a temporarily discounted “preferential rent.”

In one building at Amsterdam Avenue and West 159th Street, buyouts for tenants ranged from $15,000 to $110,000, says Luis Tejada, head of the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center in Hamilton Heights. Harassment in that area now “is worse than before,” he says, particularly in the buildings between Broadway and Riverside Drive. They have large apartments and elevators, are close to Columbia University’s campus expansion, and many tenants are elderly Dominican immigrants.

In the Bronx, where market rents are the lowest in the city, landlords generally try to raise rents on current tenants through major capital improvement and fees, or by using preferential rents, where higher rents are filed with the state than are charged to tenants, to hold the possibility of later increases in reserve. At 1511-21 Sheridan Avenue, says Warren, the owners have often told new tenants that the “legal rent” is $1,400 — even when it’s much lower — but they can have the apartment for $1,100. The catch is that they can then be hit with a $300 increase when their lease expires. When tenants at 1511-21 Sheridan asked the state housing agency for their rent history, he adds, “every apartment that came back was overcharged.”

However, the 1997 state law set a four-year statute of limitations on contesting illegal overcharges except in cases of obvious fraud, says Rahman. And because immigrant tenants often pay by money order, notes Warren, they can’t defend themselves against a nonpayment case if they can’t find the receipts.

Speculation is beginning to hit the Bronx, too: 1511-21 Sheridan has been sold three times in the past three years, its price rising from $15.2 million in 2007 to $38 million this March. Apartments there were advertised this summer at $1,500 for a one-bedroom and $1,800 for a two-bedroom.

“Each owner was able to make a hell of a profit,” says Warren.

The city treasury also profits from rising rents, because the increased property values that result bring in more property taxes. Those higher property values, in turn, squeeze small owners with a more family-oriented business model who get hit with higher taxes based on the new speculative value of their buildings, as a Crown Heights landlord complained at a Rent Guidelines Board hearing last June.

Rezoning is another contributor. The Williamsburg rezoning of 2005, which enabled the construction of blocks of luxury housing, “opened the floodgates of speculation” in the area along with mass harassment, says Rolando Guzman of the St. Nicks Alliance. Since then, he’s seen it spread to Bushwick and Sunset Park. In East New York, rezoned last year to allow developers to build luxury housing with a percentage mandated as affordable, “we are seeing speculation rampantly,” says Goldiner, “but we haven’t seen the full impact.”

Several recent laws have attempted to curb landlord harassment of tenants. A 2008 city law enables tenants facing eviction to file counterclaims accusing their landlords of a pattern of harassment; before, they could only file criminal charges, which requires evidence of more extreme conduct, or go to the state housing agency. The state Tenant Protection Unit, created in 2012, has slowly begun investigating rent overcharges. In July, the city enacted a law guaranteeing lower-income tenants facing eviction the right to a lawyer in Housing Court. And in August, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a package of bills intended to curb harassment; these include measures defining repeatedly contacting tenants at odd hours as harassment, as well as requiring the Department of Buildings to audit 25 percent of applications for construction permits in rent-regulated buildings.

It’s great that Steven Croman is on his way to jail, says Rahman, praising State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for prosecuting him, but she notes that it took more than ten years of advocacy by tenant groups to get that action taken. The right-to-counsel law will be “very useful” in blocking “baseless cases,” she says, but she also fears owners will develop new tactics to get tenants out.

Meanwhile, the underlying structural incentive for harassment remains. As long as vacancy decontrol and gentrification make it intensely profitable to get regulated tenants out, notes longtime housing lawyer Martin Needelman — as long as people are willing to pay $1.4 million for an apartment on a Southside Williamsburg block where there are still occasional drug deals — there will be landlords trying to find a way.


Chinatown Tenants: Landlord’s Mass Eviction Attempt Based on Lies

The staircase to the second floor at 85 Bowery lists noticeably to the right. It’s a key point of contention in the dispute between the building’s Chinese-immigrant tenants and the landlord who’s been trying to drive them out for the past four years.

Joseph Betesh, the owner of the Dr. Jay’s clothing store chain, acquired the two five-story buildings at 83 and 85 Bowery, half a block north of the Manhattan Bridge, along with nine other Bowery buildings for $62 million in 2013. According to court documents filed by tenants, Betesh then refused to renew their leases. In March 2016, after trying to evict one resident on the grounds that the building was not rent-stabilized and so tenants had no guaranteed right to a lease renewal, he filed a complaint in State Supreme Court to evict them all.

Tenants charge that the landlord is concocting a string of excuses to empty the two buildings so they can be renovated for luxury housing or torn down for new construction. “We realized he wanted to evict everybody,” tenant leader Shu Qing Wang, who’s lived in 83 Bowery for five years, told the Voice through an interpreter at a rally in front of the buildings on July 19. The roughly 150 people there chanted, “Fan bi qian, bao jia yuan” — Mandarin for “No displacement, save our homes.”

The two redbrick buildings were constructed in 1910. Owned by the same family between the 1930s and 2013, they were lodging houses renting out cheap cubicles until 1980–81, when they were converted to apartments, with twelve units in 83 and sixteen in 85. The current tenants are mostly restaurant and garment-factory workers, says tenant association representative Jinming Cao. Some have lived there for twenty to thirty years, and they generally pay $1,000 to $1,200 a month in rent.

Betesh tried to evict Wang first, in early 2015, Cao says. The other tenants in the buildings chipped in to hire a lawyer and architect. “People knew it’s not about one apartment,” Cao adds.

Later in 2015, both the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the tenants filed “HP actions,” Housing Court cases intended to force Betesh to make such repairs as fixing the stairs and getting rid of rats. In February 2016, the court ordered the landlord to complete the repairs by the end of that April. He never made those deadlines, says lawyer Seth Miller, who began representing the tenants in the fall of 2016.

Because the old leases had not been renewed, Betesh tried to claim that the buildings’ residents were “month-to-month” tenants — and in January 2016 he sent the residents of 27 apartments notices that those tenancies would be terminated in 30 days. That March, he filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court demanding that all of them be evicted on the grounds that the building had to be vacated in order to make critical repairs, that it was not rent stabilized, and that they had no right to stay because he’d terminated their rights as month-to-month tenants. He requested that the Housing Court case against Wang be included, that the tenants’ HP actions be stayed, and that the court issue a preliminary injunction prohibiting the tenants from using the building until the case was resolved.

For the landlord, Miller says, claiming that evictions were required by a structural emergency “looked to be a faster path than going tenant by tenant and having to deal with the rent-stabilization issue first.”

In a May 2016 court settlement that Public Advocate Letitia James helped broker, Betesh offered to give the tenants 99-year leases if they’d agree to be temporarily relocated during repairs. They rejected that deal, arguing that the repairs could be done while the building was still occupied, and fearing that rent increases, which the proposed settlement didn’t stipulate, would be far more than they could afford.

“After renovation, all the rent will go up. They didn’t want to tell us how much,” says Cao. “Once we moved out, we knew we could never come back.”

“Their plan is to spend $2.5 million to make the building gentrified,” says Miller. “The last thing they want is to have these tenants stay.” As major-capital improvements in smaller buildings are prorated over eight years, a $2.5 million renovation could yield permanent rent increases of more than $900 a month.

Milestone Equities, Betesh’s real estate company, did not respond to phone calls from the Voice.

The landlord’s lawsuit makes two main claims. First, it argues that the buildings should not be rent stabilized because they were lodging houses, not apartments, when the state rent-stabilization law was enacted in 1974 — and were converted to apartments just before single-room-occupancy rentals were put under rent stabilization in June 1981. It also claims that the conversion was a substantial enough renovation to qualify the structure as a new building.

Tenants at 85 Bowery say landlord Joseph Betesh is trying to force them out to make way for gentrification.

The tenants responded that the buildings should be rent stabilized, because they were built before 1974 and have more than five apartments, and a 1982 appeals-court decision held that the rent-stabilization law covered lodging houses retroactively. They also deny that the 1980–81 renovations were substantial enough to deregulate the building: Their architect presented evidence that the conversion did not meet the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal’s standard of replacing 75 percent of building-wide systems such as plumbing, heating, and gas supply.

A DHCR spokesperson said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation or administrative proceedings.

Milestone’s other major claim is that the buildings have too many structural defects to be repaired while the tenants are there. HPD cites the sagging stairway and halls among the eleven open Class C (“immediately hazardous”) violations at 85 Bowery. An engineer hired by the landlord claimed in January 2016 that 85 Bowery had to be vacated because of badly cracked joists on the stairwell and for asbestos abatement, and that 83 “is probably in as bad shape.”

The staircase at 85 Bowery is a major problem, Miller said at the July 19 rally, but the tenants’ architect estimated it could be fixed for about $110,000. Christine Hobson, a senior structural engineer at Rand Engineering hired by the tenants, wrote in a court affidavit in April 2016 that the bad staircase joists could be replaced while the tenants remained in their apartments if protective barriers were installed in the hallways. Regarding 83 Bowery, she added, “a building should not be vacated based on the supposition that it is ‘probably in as bad shape’ as another building,” and “a quick inspection of one apartment and building stairs is a slim reed upon which to recommend” that.

In a September 2016 court stipulation, Betesh agreed to let tenants stay temporarily in exchange for them agreeing to stay the HP action and extend the deadline for repairs. Later that month, however, he filed another motion demanding their immediate eviction, claiming that surveillance cameras he’d installed showed that most of the apartments were overcrowded, and alleging that tenants were illegally renting out rooms.

“The landlord wants people to think that they aren’t real tenants, that they aren’t the same people as are on the leases…. They lied,” Miller said at last week’s rally. “We’re going to show the courts and the city the truth. This is stabilized housing and can be repaired.”

In May, State Supreme Court Justice Kathryn Freed referred the disrepair and rent-stabilization questions to the DHCR. A court conference on the case is scheduled for November 30.

The battle on the Bowery is just part of a larger war currently playing out in a Chinatown being pressed on all sides by gentrification. The owner of 231 Henry Street, several blocks southeast, is also trying to evict remaining longtime tenants by claiming that the twelve-apartment building is not rent stabilized, says Bao Gai Huang, a 62-year-old garment worker who’s lived there since the mid-Nineties. The landlord stopped accepting his rent in 2016, telling him, “You’re not my tenant anymore,” he says. The case is now in court, with the owner ordered to accept rent and let the tenants stay temporarily — but already, vacated apartments are renting for $3,000 a month.

Betesh’s attempted mass eviction of his tenants “really shows how severe the issue of displacement is in our community,” Renquan Yang of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association said at last week’s rally.

While harassment intended to drive out rent-stabilized tenants has become a common business model over the last decade or so, mass evictions are relatively rare, because they need a plausible legal pretext. However, they are more common in Chinatown, because of the housing stock’s age and sometimes dubious legal status. In 2011, the new owner of a five-story building at 11 Allen Street moved to evict all the building’s tenants because the previous landlord had never bothered to obtain a certificate of occupancy. He succeeded, and apartments there now rent for up to $4,400.

The Chinese Staff and Workers Association contends that much of this displacement would not be happening if the city had included Chinatown in its 2008 rezoning of the East Village that set height, density, and affordability standards. A plan proposed in 2012 by the Chinatown Working Group would have put restrictions on new construction in Chinatown, including a requirement that 40 to 55 percent of apartments built be affordable to people making less than $40,000 a year. The Department of City Planning rejected the plan in 2015; a spokesperson called it “too vast an undertaking.”

Failing to extend the zoning restrictions much south of Delancey Street channeled development into Chinatown and the southern Lower East Side, says Zishun Ning of CSWA. Displacement has become “very rampant” in the past two or three years, he adds. “Because of the profits, they want to drive out rent-stabilized tenants.”

Just up the block from 83-85 Bowery is the teal-blue glass Wyndham Garden Hotel. Across the street is a new eight-story glass building. A scaffold platform over the sidewalk signifies the renovation of the seven-story building next door. Around the corner on Hester Street is a partially excavated vacant lot, the former site of a building that thirty people had to leave after it was irreparably damaged during the hotel’s construction in 2009.

Six blocks north, in another of the eleven buildings from the 2013 deal, Milestone Equities is offering a 3,500-square-foot loft for $13,500 a month. And if 83 Bowery is in serious danger of collapsing, that has not stopped Milestone from offering its commercial space through the RKF retail real estate broker, touting the more than 6,700 square feet available on the first floor, second floor, and basement.

The tilting staircase at 85 Bowery leads up to narrow hallways, the doors festooned with red-and-gold good-luck decorations. In a second-floor apartment with neat dark-red linoleum on the floor, four children with ages ranging from toddler to preteen play on the couch. Speaking in Mandarin through an interpreter, Shui Feng Zheng, who’s lived in the building for nineteen years, points out the tacked-up wood rectangles used to patch holes in the ceiling, and the new — actually working — gas stove installed after the tenants filed their lawsuit demanding repairs.

“I want to tell the landlord not to evict us because there are a lot of older folks here and a lot of young kids, including babies,” says Zheng, 46, a mother of three from China’s Fujian province. “Where would we go? The kids go to school here. This is our home.”


Plug-In Promises to Show You How Crappy That StreetEasy Apartment Listing Really Is

Renting an apartment in New York is invariably a game of roulette. A place may look great from the outside — central heating and exposed brick, you say?! — but then it quickly falls to pieces once you’ve moved in.

A new feature from the apartment listings site Rentlogic is aiming to give renters a heads-up about apartment woes before they’ve hung all the pictures and plants. The site’s original plan, to take city housing violation reports and provide letter grades like the health ratings issued to city restaurants, earned positive media coverage when it launched last year.

But Rentlogic CEO Yale Fox soon found that landlords weren’t eager to have their listings on a site that might give them a low grade — Citi Habitats pulled its listings after just eight days — and realized that apartment hunters aren’t necessarily inclined to toggle back and forth between his site’s ratings and rental listing sites like StreetEasy and RentHop. So Rentlogic is working around the problem with a new browser plug-in launching today that lets apartment seekers have their ratings and eat them too.

The Rentlogic plug-in, which works on Chrome, Firefox, or Opera browsers (Internet Explorer and Safari are coming soon), is intuitive and easy to use: Once installed, it opens a small Rentlogic pop-up window that floats over your choice of two hundred of the city’s most commonly used listings sites — though not Craigslist, whose listings often don’t even include addresses. And because it relies on city violations data, only dire issues tend to show up — I entered the addresses of several New York City apartments I’ve lived in over the years and all had received A ratings, despite the fact that in some cases, my experiences were only a B- at best. (If a landlord drops below a B rating from Rentlogic, I would run for the hills.)

Fox tells the Voice that the vast majority of listings sites get their information from brokers, who are disinclined to reveal an apartment’s flaws. By marrying the apartment’s data with its rating, Rentlogic hopes to provide a level playing field: “We don’t want to sway too close to landlords, and we don’t want to sway too far toward tenants.”

Fox launched Rentlogic after experiencing a series of housing nightmares that will sound familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with the chaos of the New York City rental market. In one case, Fox leased an apartment from the notorious — and now jailed — landlord Steve Croman, whose reign of terror covered 140 buildings across the city. The problems at Fox’s West Village building weren’t minor: Shortly after moving in, he (and his dog) began experiencing health problems that turned out to be caused by an abundance of mold sprouting in his swanky new pad. In another case, a $4,000-a-month apartment in Hell’s Kitchen turned out to be in “the most unbelievable state of disrepair for a building that was only a few years old.” The landlord demanded that he pay to have it cleaned himself, and balked when he tried to navigate his way out of the lease.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can get completely fleeced,” Fox says.

Fox emphasizes that Rentlogic isn’t simply out to crucify landlords: One mold violation, for instance, isn’t going to tank a rating, though multiple will. He compared a landlord’s relationship to violations to a driver who got a speeding ticket: “If you do it once, are you really a speeder? Not necessarily. But if you’re getting a speeding ticket every month?”

And as much as Rentlogic helps identify bad landlords, it also helps highlight the good ones, of which there are many. Without easily accessible ratings, he says, “there’s no positive enforcement for being a good landlord. There are a couple of bad ones that ruin it for the whole industry.”