Organizing for Housing Justice

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Fighting for A Sacred Space

Yue Yuan & Louise Liu

Queens-based tenant organizer Carlos Ortiz helps tenants citywide fight against real estate moguls and keep the roofs over their heads through the power of community.

 

Community Organizing Empowers Tenants Fighting for Housing Justice

Louise Liu

It was 6:00 pm in early winter. The sun was gone, and the lights were turning on. Community organizer Carlos Ortiz walked out of his office in Sunnyside, Queens and got on the Manhattan-bound 7 line. The train was not taking him home but shuttling him from one workspace to another. After going through the talking points on his cellphone and refreshing himself with coffee and snacks, Ortiz was ready to rock.

His destination was the Urban Justice Center in the Financial District, where Ortiz organized a meeting for tenants from all over New York City to discuss the strategy for an ongoing housing campaign. Rent hikes, poor living conditions, and mistreatment by landlords have frustrated many rent-stabilized tenants who turned to community organizers like Ortiz. Tenants hope he can help them fight against real-estate moguls and keep the roofs over their heads through the power of the community.

“What affects you the most? What would you like to see change?” Ortiz asked a full room of more than 100 tenants, referring to several housing issues that citywide tenants were facing. The 34-year-old Venezuelan immigrant works for Catholic Migration Services, a non-profit organization that aims to empower underserved immigrant communities in Brooklyn and Queens.

One particular issue was on the mind of every tenant — the rent laws. Ortiz explained to tenants the significance of tackling rent laws, which are going to expire in June 2019. “These are the laws about MCIs, about preferential rent, these are the laws that give incentive to the landlord to keep harassing you, to kick you out so they can take advantage of the loophole. Stronger rent laws — that’s what we want.” Tenants clapped and cheered in support of making the rent laws the priority of the housing campaign.

What affects you the most? What would you like to see change?

Ortiz often takes the lead in the Stabilizing NYC movement. Stabilizing NYC is a housing coalition that held the tenant meeting and consists of 16 grassroots neighborhood organizations from across the city. Tenants and community organizers also teamed up with the Urban Justice Center, a legal service provider, and the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (Uhab), a citywide housing advocacy group.

Organizing the citywide tenant meeting is one of the crucial steps for community organizers like Ortiz to move the housing campaign forward.

“A community organizer helps a community come together to analyze their circumstance and break their isolation so that instead of individuals facing problems alone, they face them together,” said Noelle Damico, a professor teaching a community organizing course at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

One of the most important things community organizers do is to build leaders, people who are able to feel confident about what they have to express, feel they are able to communicate with the wider public about their concerns, according to Damico.

“That is my neighborhood and I’m not going anywhere,” said Carmen Guzman Lombert, 56, who has lived in Hell’s Kitchen for 40 years and spent the last 26 years in the same building. She is a tenant leader with Housing Conversation Coordinators.

Lombert took the stage of the citywide tenant union meeting to complain about her landlord Steve Croman, one of the 10 landlords that Stabilizing NYC is currently targeting. Along with her were tenant leaders from across the city, like Lesvia Mendez from Queens and Corine Ombongo-Golden from the Bronx. They all have lived in their own neighborhoods for decades, and usually don’t run into each other, but the housing fight brings them together.

A community organizer helps a community come together to analyze their circumstance and break their isolation so that instead of individuals facing problems alone, they face them together.

Samantha Kattan, the co-director for Organizing and Policy at Uhab — an organization founded in the midst of New York City’s economic crisis of the 1970s and a member of Stabilizing NYC — mainly organizes tenants in Crown Heights and Brownsville in Brooklyn. She communicates with Ortiz and other community organizers across the city to share updates about their work weekly, and to listen to different housing difficulties each neighborhood is facing.

“Brooklyn started feeling gentrification pressure earlier than the Bronx. Landlords are going through the cycle flipping buildings to higher-income residents. They are really taking advantage of every single loophole,” Kattan said. “In neighborhoods where gentrification hasn’t really hit us hard yet, the landlords are a little less focused on actually trying to get people out and attracting new people to move in.”

In order to fulfill needs for all tenants from all neighborhoods, the housing campaign that Kattan and Ortiz are working on is not only asking to close all the loopholes that exist in rent stabilization, but to expand the rent laws, like adding just cause eviction that protects tenants from eviction for an improper reason.

“With previous fights, if all we were asking for were three or four bills, it felt very much like we had to pick like one or two to prioritize,” Kattan said, calling the position to just close the loophole a “compromise”.

Their current plan will benefit all tenants, especially putting tenants outside of New York City under the umbrella, who don’t even have basic housing rights, like the right to a lease renewal, incremental rent increases, or a housing court. A larger housing coalition, the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance, is extending the organizing efforts of Stabilizing NYC to tenants statewide.

The alliance is made up of more than a dozen housing and homeless advocacy groups from New York State, including groups from Long Island, Westchester, the mid-Hudson Valley, the Capital Region, the Southern Tier, the Mohawk Valley and Western New York. Citizen Action of New York, a grassroots organization working on social reforms which has eight chapters and affiliates across the state, is one member of the alliance.

“If we’re going to be able to empower poor people, working class people, people of color, we need some build power,” said Stanley Fritz, the NYC Campaign Manager for Citizen Action of New York. “If you don’t have money, your most impactful piece is your vote. But voting isn’t enough. You have to find a way to weaponize your voice for justice.”

Though housing is not the top issue the organization is focusing on, Citizen Action of New York has years of experience electing progressive candidates to offices who are committed to the issues on their agenda. Currently all the community organizing efforts are working around the calendar to push the legislation forward, which exactly fits into the expertise of Citizen Action of New York. “We can’t let this year go by without housing protections for all New Yorkers,” Fritz said.

“Instead of organizing in a vacuum, you are always organizing in a context,” said Professor Damico. “Community organizers always take a look at the ‘weather’, things that might affect the circumstances, like political winds, certain laws, or a judicial process.”

We can’t let this year go by without housing protections for all New Yorkers.

One leap forward to plant the housing crisis in the public’s mind was the housing march in downtown Manhattan on November 15th, which, despite the snow, attracted hundreds of tenants to take Wall St. and protest in front of the building of the Rent Stabilization Association, a statewide trade organization that lobbies for the interest of landlords.

The march was followed by a series of town hall meetings with incumbent and newly-elected state senators and assemblymen in all boroughs. On December 4th, under the leadership of Ortiz from Catholic Migration Services, Queens tenants invited newly-elected state senator Jessica Ramos and assembly member Catalina Cruz, and incumbent state senator Michael Gianaris to listen to their concerns. They all signed on the pledge to “stand on the side of tenants, not landlords.”

Ortiz and advocates are following a typical organizing formula. “You invite your public officials essentially to go on public record with their commitments and their responses,” said Professor Damico about the town halls. “That’s a time-tested strategy for engaging public official in building leadership. It’s a great classic next step move.”

Kattan organized a similar town hall in Brooklyn as well, during which New York State assembly member Diana Richardson and incoming state senator Zellnor Myrie supported the legislative change.

For public officials who didn’t show up or turn down the invitation, for example, state assemblyman Walter Mosley, Kattan will keep pressure on them by requesting smaller in-person meetings, doing petitions or signing letters to them how many people are engaged in this issue, according to Kattan.

Currently, the pledge has collected signatures from about 20 assembly members and senators, and community organizers hope to get 40 people to sign on before the legislative session starts in January.

“This is all getting as much support as we can around this platform before they’re even at a point where they would actually be voting on bills, so we can start the legislative session really strong,” said Kattan.

Professor Damico described community organizing as “putting people power up against money and other forms of power.” Ortiz echoed her idea.

“The beauty about organizing is, it’s not charity, it’s not the money you give out and then forget you are invested in helping people finding their own solutions, right? You are only a facilitator,” said Ortiz. “You come in and say, ‘We can give you resources. We can give you support. What do you want to accomplish? How do we imagine a better building, a better community, a better world?’ Let’s do it.”

 

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