Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 23, 2018

The New York City real estate/housing crisis, part 1

Filed under: housing — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

How poor people get screwed

This week the NY Times published two articles, each in excess of 7,000 words, about the class war being waged on the working poor. While anybody who has lived in NY for a number of years will be familiar with tales of greedy landlords, the revelations are genuinely horrific.

In the one titled “Behind New York’s Housing Crisis: Weakened Laws and Fragmented Regulation”, we learn about the dirty tricks landlords use to drive weak and easily intimidated Black or Latino tenants from rent-controlled (virtually extinct) or rent-regulated buildings in order to transform them into condos or high-rent buildings for the mostly white college graduates working in high tech, finance or other lucrative fields.

Once such a building gets into the hands of an unscrupulous landlord, the first step is to bribe some tenants to move out with an amount that might seem generous to the recipient but pocket change to the typically secretive real estate firm hiding behind a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). Once the apartments are vacant, the construction crews flout regulations and make the building unlivable through noise that continues through the night, dust, and odors.

Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood with a mixture of Black and Hasidic residents, has now become a hotbed of gentrification where thuggish building owners see buildings like the one on 632 Sterling in the same way a shark sees a seal (I suppose that this does not do justice to sharks that are only killing to survive instead of accumulating capital.)

Cynthia Wilkie, right, and her daughter, Wendy, temporarily rented an apartment for $2,110 a month — almost triple what they paid for the Sterling Place apartment they had to leave. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

A 62-year old African-American tenant named Cynthia Wilkie sized up Asher Sussman, the new owner: “All he was seeing was dollar signs.” Housing regulations stipulated that  construction would not “create dust, dirt, or other inconveniences.” Sussman started off by paying off a couple of tenants to move but Wilkie was determined to stay. She had lived there for 22 years and paid about $850 a month for a three-bedroom apartment she shared with her brother, daughter and two grandchildren. She had diabetes and had undergone double-bypass heart surgery. Her 33-year old daughter Wendy was blind and wheelchair-bound as a result of childhood brain cancer, while her brother had lost his right leg to diabetes.

By early 2016, the regulation-defying construction kicked in, as well as the elimination of basic provisions such as heating. The Times stated: “The second and third floors were gutted. A staircase was removed. A hole was cut into the roof. Debris was piled in corners, against walls. Dust was everywhere.”

Deemed unsafe, the city moved the Wilkies and other tenants to a Days Inn motel. After about a year, the authorities told her fragile family to move to a homeless shelter, something that was obviously unacceptable to Cynthia Wilkie. They eventually moved to an apartment in Brownsville, a neighborhood still relatively untouched by the gentrification bulldozer. It had a bathroom too small for Wendy’s wheelchair and cost $2,110 per month, almost three times the old rent.

The follow-up article titled “The Eviction Machine Churning Through New York City” reveals how the housing court that was originally intended to defend people like the Wilkies has turned into the landlord’s weapon. Not only do they have to contend with scumbag landlords, they must fend off the shysters they hire to harass them with eviction notices over various infractions that the Times characterizes as baseless in most cases.

After living for more than a half-century in a rent-regulated apartment on West 109th Street, Neri Carranza was targeted for eviction. Ángel Franco for The New York Times

Like the focus on Cynthia Wilkie in the first article, this one chronicles the horrors that a 94-year Puerto Rican woman named Neri Carranza had to put up with when her building on West 109th St. caught in the gentrification net.

After getting a job in a glass factory in 1956, Carranza found a small two-bedroom apartment to her liking on W. 109. Fifty-four years later when she was 87, she learned that the building had been sold to the Orbach Group that promptly served her with an eviction notice. Why? Because it claimed that she was not living there. This was obvious nonsense but since the Orbach Group had paid $76 million for her building and 21 others nearby, they were wealthy and powerful enough to hire lawyers who could overpower any housing attorney working for peanuts.

The Orbach Group was founded by Meyer Orbach, who is a part owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team. In addition to the usual tactics of illegal construction and baseless eviction notices, he came up with a novel idea of how to make the mostly Latino residents on W. 109 feel unwelcome. He put gates in front of each building that made traditional social interaction by sitting on the stoop more difficult.

People being served with eviction notices like Ms. Carranza face a double jeopardy. If the Kafkaesque Housing Court that is stacked in favor of the landlord rules in his favor, it may be impossible to find a new apartment because your name goes into a black list. Even if evictions are relatively rare, many tenants grown weary of legal battles just throw in the towel and move.

One of her neighbors demonstrates how these buyouts end up to the tenant’s disadvantage:

Fallou Diop, whose family lived a few doors down from Ms. Carranza on 109th Street, was sued twice by Orbach: in 2009 for falling behind on his $1,144-a-month rent, and in 2011 for allegedly subletting rooms in his apartment. He paid his back rent. The “subletters” were relatives who had lived with him for 19 years. But about two years after winning the second case, Mr. Diop agreed to leave.

“I was sick of fighting with them and sick of the harassment,” said Mr. Diop, a retired baker who said he took a $50,000 buyout, a seeming fortune at the time. He then rented an apartment in the Bronx for $2,700 a month.

In June 2016, Orbach advertised Mr. Diop’s old apartment, urging prospective tenants, in capital letters, to “call today to view this beauty.” The monthly rent would be $4,200.

The deal did not work out so well for Mr. Diop. The buyout money ran out. At 65, he sleeps on his ex-girlfriend’s couch.

Grown weary of court battles like Mr. Diop, Carranza finally took a $100,000 buyout and moved to her niece’s house in rural Pennsylvania. The 94-year old woman, who does not speak English, has no church with services in Spanish to go to. Nor is there a grocery catering to Latinos. Nor friends to visit, nor stoops to sit on even behind a gate. There are not even sidewalks.

The Orbach Group saw W. 109th as the ideal location for Columbia students to rent an apartment. A 2015 NY Times article titled “Longtime Tenants in Manhattan See an Effort to Push Them Out” identified my old employer and Meyer Orbach as co-conspirators in a gentrification move against the working class and the poor.

Calling its new properties Columbia South, the Orbach Group began using a logo on its buildings and website that mimicked Columbia’s and offered tenants a free shuttle bus to the campus, only 9 fucking blocks away. Orbach sees the Columbia tie-in as a win-win situation. Not only are students able to pay higher rents, they are transient and thus enable him to raise the rent for the next student. After graduating, the student might get a high-paying job that will make living in an Upper East Side condo possible. In fact, there are buildings all around me that probably house many Columbia graduates now working as lawyers, doctors or investment bankers.

Ms. Carranza, who was energetic in her younger years, even earning a black belt in karate, made a visit to her old neighborhood as the NY Times describes poignantly:

Last fall, Ms. Carranza returned to close her bank account. She stood in front of her building, surrounded by friends, telling them that there were no Latinos in all of Pennsylvania.

“There’s no one to talk to,” she said. “You can talk to the trees.”

Her name was still on the buzzer at 247 West 109th Street. After a tenant invited her inside, Ms. Carranza ran her hand along the hallway as she walked, pointing out her apartment — No. 2 — and her mailbox.

After years of failed requests for the most basic repairs, her apartment had been completely remodeled — illegally, as no building permit was ever filed, buildings department records show. Two Columbia students paid about $3,500 a month to live there.

Ms. Carranza walked through the home she could no longer recognize, running her hand along the new kitchen counter, touching the new sink, remembering where she used to keep her French dining set, where she used to sleep. A stairway had been added, leading to new basement rooms. She gave one tenant a sideways glance.

“Do you think he’ll leave?” Ms. Carranza asked her niece. She paused, thinking. “What if they’d give me my apartment back?”

She would sit on the stoop again, and she would invite people over for dinner again, and she would fry chicken again. What happiness she would have, she said, if only she again had her home.

In my next post in this series, I will take up the CVS-ization of Manhattan.

4 Comments »

  1. I am really glad that you summarized these 2 NY Times articles.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — May 23, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

  2. Good timing for the summary. Hope to see future commentary exploring mega million apartments being built for international oligarchs, the scumbag Trumps of Eastern Europe and elsewhere. I’m seein “affordable “ and “starting at only 5 million” in the same sentence on the UWS.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — May 24, 2018 @ 4:18 am

  3. Horrifying.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 24, 2018 @ 11:58 am

  4. […] Part one: How the poor get screwed. […]

    Pingback by The New York City real estate/housing crisis, part 2 | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 31, 2018 @ 8:32 pm


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