It’s safe to say that this has been one of the most stressful weeks in recent electoral history for America as a whole. One way I’m dealing with the anxiety of our country’s future hanging in the balance is focusing on the positive things that we do know.

We’re lucky that many state election results are in, so we can say with some certainty that a substantial progressive presence is slowly but surely growing in Congress. This is due in part to NYC representatives in the House, both new and incumbent. These candidates share many of the values that make the likes of Bernie Sanders such stand-out politicians; here are a few who are particularly notable in the area of housing justice.

Newcomers:

Representative-elect Mondaire Jones of the 17th District (not in the boroughs, but close by i.e. regions of Westchester, White Plains) doesn’t have an official detailed housing platform yet, but he is bringing a host of progressive goals to the House, including ensuring safe and secure housing for LGBTQ+ youth in NYC.

Furthermore, incumbent Yvette Clark of the Ninth District (Brooklyn) and the main driver of the Affordable Housing and Area Median Income Fairness Act, which notably lowers rent and redefines affordable housing, was reelected. Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez, 14th District (eastern Bronx and north-central Queens) incumbent and political superstar also made a strong return. Her housing plan includes the Green New Deal for Public Housing, a progressive policy cornerstone of both environmental and tenant protections. Additionally, re-elected incumbent Nydia Velázquez of the Seventh District (parts of BK, Queens, and Manhattan) has been a trailblazer in the House for NYC reps by, among other things, introducing the Public Housing Emergency Response Act and pushing for rent suspension during COVID-19.

Although Democrats lost seats in the House this time around, the Progressive presence is becoming more assertive with each passing election. This seeming paradox signifies the distinction in policy priorities between establishment Democrats and Progressives; the latter group has certainly shown more concern for housing justice, and I am excited to see what they are able to accomplish in NYC as we move forward.

We’re almost two weeks into October, which means that twelve days ago, rent was due for New Yorkers. Due to the surge in unemployment that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of tenants have been unable to pay their rents on time and were counting on an extension of Governor Cuomo’s eviction moratorium. However, the governor refused to fully comply. Instead, towards the end of September, he elected to extend the provisions of the Safe Harbor Act to pre-COVID housing court cases. These provisions do not cover tenants facing holdover evictions, meaning that since October, thousands of people have been forced out of their homes despite virtually no change in the status of the pandemic and its effects on New Yorkers. Additionally, the legislation does not prevent landlords from harassing tenants through “frivolous litigation”, leaving the rent crisis still largely unresolved as people attempt to carry on their daily lives.

Since the beginning of October, individuals and grassroots organizations have been marching in protest, calling for a total moratorium on evictions. New York’s Housing Justice for All, an organization made up of over seventy organizations fighting for statewide housing, has led marches and standing protests each week of this month, some of which have resulted in arrests.

One of my personal observations is the lack of substantial coverage from the perspective of those protesting. If anything, there has been some misleading reporting, with headlines claiming the Cuomo is extending his moratorium until January 2021, which is clearly an incredibly conditional statement. In any case, the much bigger story in the world of New York housing since the beginning of the pandemic has been the rapidly spiraling prices of real estate due to the mass exodus of upper-middle-class and wealthy homeowners from the city, especially Manhattan. As this group heads to the suburbs, several major media outlets and countless prominent social media influencers have focused on the idea of a rapidly emptying New York City. At the same time, New York’s poorer tenant population is having its homes forcibly taken. These people have nowhere else to turn, and in many cases, they have been in the city much longer than those who are wealthy enough to move away. It is truly shameful that these tenants receive such a lack of consideration and proper justice from both the government and the media.

Hello!

My name is Sophia Singh, and I am a senior at Fordham University Rose Hill in the Bronx, New York. I decided to start this blog recently to drop some of my thoughts on tenants’ rights, protections, and laws in New York City (all 5 boroughs, not just Manhattan).

To start things off here, I am going to write a bit about a situation that I researched last spring, in a class that focused on learning more about the Bronx community that graciously hosts our student body for some of our most formative years.

Tenants’ rights violations and tenant harassment by landlords have been serious issues in the Bronx for years. This particular project was focused on 919 Prospect Avenue, or 830 East 163rd Street, in the Woodstock neighborhood of the South Bronx. Examining 919 Prospect Ave as an example of the ongoing tenants’ rights crisis plaguing many Bronx residents reveals important truths about the power dynamics in urban living situations as well as the importance of community coherence in tackling this issue.

As of 2011, when the building was brought to foreclosure, the average apartment rent was $966. That year, landlord Seth Miller purchased the property for $3.7 million; five years later, then-public advocate and current New York attorney general Letitia James listed the building as the worst in the Bronx, citing Miller as the main source of these problems. This reasoning is unsurprising because Miller has a history of abusive tactics as a landlord; Bill de Blasio was a public advocate when he called Miller’s buildings some of the worst across New York, including two in Crown Heights, Brooklyn where he withheld heat from sick tenants in the winter. James supported her 2016 claim by listening to the accounts of tenants, pointing to the legal action that was taken, and reviewing the precedent of prior assessments of the building, including 525 unaddressed city housing violations in one year.

According to a coalition of resistant tenants known as Tenants United Against Seth Miller, unsafe building conditions have plagued them for as long as Seth Miller has been in power. Reports of the building’s unacceptable living standard range from accounts of mice, rats, roaches, and bed bugs to children suffering from lead poisoning as a result of excess dust from intrusive renovations. Elderly tenants had their bathroom doors drilled shut, resulting in a lack of latrine access for weeks. Additionally, tenants reported being “constantly harassed, denied basic services, left without heat and hot water…and [being] taken to court for no reason” . Several tenants reported having to move while still paying rent because of issues such as a caved-in ceiling or mold infestations. All of these conditions and more are not necessarily unique to 919 Prospect; however, their extremity and Miller’s refusal to address any of them coupled with his consistent harassment and unreasonable financial demands earned him a top spot on James’ Worst Landlords List as well.

To fight against what many were calling Miller’s “reign of terror”, tenants rallied in protest outside of the building, spoke to the press and housing rights advocates, and formed their own coalition, determined to stand up to Seth Miller. In December 2016, as an act of response and resistance, over two dozen tenants living at 919 Prospect formed an alliance with the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, a non-profit legal services and advocacy organization in New York. The groups worked together to file a lawsuit against Miller, calling for a jury trial and a permanent injunction requiring him to correct his maintenance of an unsafe building, stop overcharging rent, and start offering timely lease renewals.

On December 22nd, Miller responded by filing for bankruptcy, claiming the case was a conspiracy to remove his control of the building in order to prevent it from moving forward. A federal judge refused the argument, saying that the bankruptcy claim was simply a preventative measure taken by Miller to prevent economic troubles in his own self-interest and not actually necessary. Miller was then removed from the building, and the tenants came together with James, the Urban Justice Center, Congressman José Serrano, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. assemblymember Michael Blake, Council Member Rafael Salamanca, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association Inc to sue for a court-appointed repairs administrator. The court responded by providing a trustee to oversee the necessary building repairs, resulting in improved conditions and safety over the course of the following two years.

Although the situation was appearing to take a turn for the better, challenges resurfaced for the tenants of 919 Prospect in April, 2019. After just over two years, Miller regained control of the building, firing those who were overseeing repairs and maintenance and hiring negligent superintendents who consistently harass tenants and ignore building needs. Since Miller has regained control, conditions have spiraled once again; tenants have reported sewage leaks and other abysmal conditions that require repairs. Miller and those that he hired are ignoring all of these needs.

Several resistance efforts ensued; tenants took to protesting outside of Seth Miller’s home. They further created a website to increase awareness of the issues in their building, publicizing tenant testimonials, images, and videos of the unlivable conditions as well as any news mentions of Miller and accounts of numerous lawsuits filed against him. They have even highlighted the charities that Miller and his wife donate to under the pretense of philanthropy, which the tenants prove is at odds with the wellbeing of the people of color that Miller exploits and mistreats in his New York properties. Organizers such as Anna Burnham spread word of the issue further on social media, using the hashtag #slumlordseth and publicizing protest efforts. On a policy level, Letitia James, who is now the New York Attorney General, worked to pass a criminal tenant harassment bill and highlighted 919 Prospect Avenue in its writing. James used the bill to considerably expand the definition of “tenant harassment” and furthermore ensured that the bill could be used in court against abusive landlords such as Miller. 

The 919 Prospect tenants association has furthermore preserved its rights to sue for harassment from the 2016 bankruptcy case. The group is currently preparing to bring a case against Miller in the New York Supreme Court. Thanks to Letitia James’ aforementioned efforts in policymaking, New York law now states that harassment includes failing to offer lease renewals, threats, intimidation, overcharging rent, failure to make repairs, and deliberately causing construction-related issues for tenants. Since Seth Miller has done all of these, the tenants are hopefully looking at a strong case.

The combined effort from impacted tenants, advocates, and political figures is a representative manifestation of community solidarity against the likes of Seth Miller. The question then becomes, of course, why do landlords have so much power, to begin with? Will these types of situations continue to spiral out of control even with new legislation and increased awareness?