By Yonah Lieberman
My first few days as a tenant organizer were a blur. Near the end of my first day I followed another organizer into the basement of a building through a door she had (literally) kicked in. She called out into the darkness to see if there were any drug dealers or users in the space — there weren’t — before turning on her phone’s flashlight so we could see the horrendous shape it was in. What should have been a place for tenants to store things was a maze of trash and debris that had been neglected nearly past the point of no return.
Over the past five months, I’ve come a long way from that basement. Just last week I helped lead a protest against a slumlord in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park. In the midst of a swarm of men and women speaking in Yiddish and store fronts with so much Hebrew I could have been in Jerusalem, we chanted: “Fight fight fight! Housing is a right!” and “Affordable housing is under attack! What do we do? Stand up, fight back!” It was exhilarating and empowering for me and the 30 tenants who joined us.
Still, not every day is so easy. Sometimes I’m confronted by landlords who have all but abandoned their buildings. Other times I’m confronted with landlords who will stop at nothing to prevent us from organizing. I’ve arrived at buildings only to find the landlord’s goons blocking us from entering. I’ve had people tell me that management went around (falsely) telling tenants that the meeting we’ve organized is cancelled. The superintendent of a building even once physically grabbed me and threw me out of a building when I refused to end the meeting I was facilitating with tenants.
At some point, as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, I decided that I wanted to be a community organizer after college. But I never envisioned that my first job would be on the front lines of the fight to maintain safe, permanent, affordable housing in the toughest market in the country. Yet that is where I find myself everyday. When I first began organizing, I felt well over-matched. Housing — and more specifically, affordable housing — in NYC is incredibly complicated and politically charged. Being the largest city in the country, New York’s number one problem is how to house everyone in reasonably priced apartments with livable conditions.
The issue of affordable housing in NYC is confusing. We all know about the housing and foreclosure crises that hit our country starting in 2008. Most of the media focused on families that lost their single-family homes. Since my first day, through organizing with tenants and researching slumlords and predatory equity companies, I’ve learned that the loss of single-family homes was only part of the story.
The other piece is centered on affordable housing complexes across the country. Predatory equity groups bought huge numbers of affordable housing buildings by taking out enormous mortgages from irresponsible banks. To pay back the mortgage, landlords try to increase the building’s income by cutting maintenance costs and evicting and displacing long-term tenants, replacing them with wealthier, younger, and whiter tenants who would pay more.
This has been happening since 2008 and is still happening today with no end in sight. It’s happening in poor neighborhoods where old tenants will pay more and more for bottom-barrel apartments and in gentrifying neighborhoods where new tenants come to NYC expecting to pay outrageous rents. And this status quo is unsustainable.
That was why we were protesting last week. For three years, tenants in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy have been working with a community supported, non-profit landlord on a plan that will keep their buildings affordable in perpetuity. And we’re weeks away from the deal going through! But a group of predatory investors, working with a broker named Sanford Solny, have gotten involved at the 11th hour, trying to prevent the deal from happening. We don’t know who Solny works for: just that they’re a group of investors in the religious Jewish community who are working with notorious slumlord Bernard Neiderman. Last week, we delivered a letter to Solny’s office (no, he did not let us in, though his receptionist mouthed “sorry!” from the locked glass door we slipped the letter under). We don’t know yet what the outcome of our protests will be, but we know we put Solny on notice and we know that the next steps of this campaign will only build upon our momentum.
Being a tenant organizer in New York is rarely as glamorous as I envisioned — sometimes I wonder why I ever thought it would be glamorous. But the routine — which is everything but routine — is always keeping me on my toes. The learning curve has been steep, but if this is what I’m able to learn and accomplish in five months, who knows what the next seven have in store.
Yonah Lieberman is from Washington, DC, attended the University of Michigan and is a Tenant Organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.