Along the L train are signs advertising new renovated apartments for rent. Organic and well-stocked grocery stores cater to a new neighborhood. In the old neighborhood of Bushwick, signs are advertising eviction. Grocery stores are small, their worn down walls depicting their age. Now neither neighborhood has to be concerned about walking the streets of Bushwick late at night as crime has dropped almost 65 percent over the past 20 years according to the NYPD. With the onset of gentrification residents of Bushwick have seen rent increase sometimes so much as 20 percent during winter 2013, what is typically a slow real estate season. Bushwick is the new “it” neighborhood and, as such, landlords are doing whatever it takes to get old tenants out and new higher paying tenants in.
“You have gentrification pressure that leads landlords to use some tactics like not informing tenants of their rights so they can push out and price out the tenants, renovate and get a higher rent from those units,” said Kevin Worthington, Committee Organizer and Bushwick Representative for District 34 Council Member Diana Reyna’s office.
Landlord abuses range from pressuring tenants to accept payment to break their lease to delaying completing repairs, sometimes leaving walls openly broken for weeks in order to push tenants out.
“It’s bad,” said Raquel Navas Calero, a tenant who is currently in a battle with her landlord over unfinished repairs. “Sometimes we say a prayer.”
According to the Brooklyn Rental Market Report, as of October 2013 the average rent for a Bushwick apartment increased by 15.4 percent over the past year. This was the second highest increase in rent, second to Cobble Hill which saw a 17.7 percent increase. The New York City Housing and Vacancy 2011 Report found that the median gross rent-to-income ratio in Brooklyn was 33.6 percent. Residents used 33.6 percent of their annual salary to pay for rent. Housing is considered affordable if a person does not have to use more than 30 percent of their annual income towards rent.
“There’s always change going on in neighborhoods. There are gradual changes,” said Thomas Angotti, professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College. “But people start calling it gentrification when it displaces people over large numbers in a small period of time. It’s been a very rapid process in some neighborhoods; Williamsburg, Greenpoint and now Bushwick.”
While increasing rent has come to be the face of gentrification in New York City, landlord abuses have not gotten as much attention. In 2012, the Furman Center ranked Bushwick third in serious housing violations. Angotti finds that landlord tactics to accommodate for gentrification has become more prevalent.
“[Landlord violations] has become more and more common,” said Angotti. “It’s epidemic when you have building owners who can make ten times their original investment by getting their tenants out they tend to just do that. They find a way to do it whether it’s legal or illegal.”
In order to alleviate the situation, Worthington believes it’s a balancing act to accommodate new residents while not isolating the old. “Our challenge is taking advantage of the new demographics while helping current residents,” he said. “With help from non-profit organizations there is a good chance we can mitigate gentrification that comes with urban development.”
The Bushwick Housing Independence Project (BHIP) couldn’t agree more. Founded through Saint Barbara’s Church in 2004, BHIP is an open source for people in the community who need help with housing and landlord issues.
“The ideal is to avoid people winding up in court or winding up with eviction notices,” said Sister Kathleen Maire of BHIP.
Sister Kathleen has been in charge of BHIP since 2006. This non-profit organization’s primary goal is to educate residents in order to empower them. BHIP services include explaining different types of leases, individually evaluating housing cases and even bringing in representatives from the NYC Department of Housing Development and Preservation to explain how to report housing violations. Moreover, tenants are connected to other tenants who have gone through filing reports and going to landlord tenant court.
“Having as much knowledge as [tenants] can get and then listening to other tenants who have successfully managed their cases, we feel, is what gives them the strength then to be able to do it on their own,” said Sister Kathleen.
BHIP aims to create a communal feeling within this group of tenants. They connect tenants together, those who have gone to housing court with those who have not to help aid them in the process. Surrounded by the familiar faces tackling the same housing affordability and landlord problems, tenants serve as support both morally and with their own information and experiences. While the organization helps, the emphasis is put on spreading information to the community and avoid having to step foot in housing court.
“I always say to [tenants] that as a white woman I am suspect when I enter some of these buildings,” she said. “I’m an outsider. I look like an outsider, I talk like an outsider, I am an outsider–you’re not. People know you, and so you need to be transformed into the messengers that bring hope and some kind of solace to people who find themselves in very difficult housing situations.”
Despite the efforts of BHIP to stop landlord abuses before they become extreme, some tenants inevitably end up in housing court. Between 85 to 90 percent of landlords are legally represented in housing court estimated Jenny Laurie, Assistant Director at Housing Court Answers which is an extension of housing court that provides information to tenants and landlords. On the other hand, Laurie estimates that 99 percent of tenants do not have legal representation.
“You can probably count the number of represented tenants on both hands,” said Laurie.
Although Laurie would not confirm what triggers an increase in cases filed, she did admit that there has been a steady increase since 2010. Laurie said, “ 2011 was higher than 2010 and 2012 was higher than 2011.”
Typical tenant filed complaints are about lack of provided heat and water. For Navas Calero, the situation isn’t that simple. When the owner for her building changed in March 2013, they offered to renovate her apartment’s kitchen and bathroom. The renovation was supposed to take three weeks. Six months later and the repairs have not been completed.
“[The landlord] completely demolished the first floor kitchen and bathroom to the point that there’s a hole to the basement,” said Michelle, Navas Calero’s daughter, whom Navas Calero felt more comfortable with explaining her story. “It was a very stressful moment, but we thought there would be a good outcome just for three weeks.”
The damage is so extensive that Navas Calero and her family has to use another bathroom upstairs. Met with no response from her landlord about the issue, she believes that he is delaying repairs in order to push her and other tenants out of the building so it can be rented at a higher price. She is one of many landlord abuse cases that have emerged in Bushwick over the past few years.
“He wants everyone to get out. We live in there since 1990. Twenty-three years,” said Navas Calero. After endless months of struggling to get her landlord to listen, she is seeking help from housing court to alleviate the problem.
As the temperature drops and night creeps upon Bushwick, organic and Latino grocery stores alike close their doors. People retire to their apartments, unsure of whether their locks will be fixed, the rent will be stable or the landlord will listen. Tenants make the long journey back from housing court preparing for another day of arguing. “For Rent” signs gleam under the moonlight while rents climb ever higher. The streets are filled with the echo of Sister Kathleen’s laughter as she says, “I don’t live in Bushwick. I can’t afford to live in Bushwick.”