Chapter 4

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To make tenants’ voices heard by Albany, tenant leaders and organizers are bringing people together to fight for better rent laws.


Tenant Leader Fights Back

Boning Li

Tenant Robin Budnetz leads her neighbors to fight back.




Housing Crisis Comeback


From Physical Threats to Financial Abuse



Throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s tenants across New York City suffered from constant landlord abuse. For many, it is a black dot in their memory of the city that lasts forever.

After more than 35 years the housing crisis is rising from the ashes. The sad fact is that this time it has evolved from physical threats to financial abuse. According to long-term housing activists, the crisis has gone from bad to worse.



“Fight, fight, fight! Housing is a human right!”

On November 15th, as snow piled up, hundreds of tenants from across the city were marching along Wall Street protesting against skyrocketing rent increases. They were loud, stirring, and desperate.

Stepping on the thick snow, 68-year-old tenant leader Robin Budnetz recalled the unforgettable winter of 1983. That was the winter that the glass of the windows of her apartment and across the building fell out. Tenants sealed the holes with cardboard, plastic, and duct tape, but the wind kept breaking in. She remembers her son’s pale face and neighbors constantly screaming “cold”. The short, shabby building in Jamaica had no heat, let alone hot water.

The landlord at the time told Budnetz that he bought this building as part of a five-year plan and that he would not spare an extra dollar on it. The building was abandoned. Still, she said she would rather take the physical suffering of 1983, than the financial abuse from her landlord now.

“In 2015, Zara bought the building and applied for a very, very overestimated MCI,” said Budnetz. “This time, we felt in danger of losing our homes.”

MCI, or major capital improvement, are renovations a landlord makes that are applied to an entire building. It allows landlords to increase rents of rent stabilized and rent controlled apartments. In the three years since Zara came, they have carried out a series of MCIs including roof renovations,  gate replacement and work on retaining walls in the courtyard, claiming a cost of more than $2 million to be paid by tenants themselves. This is going to cause a permanent increase to the rent up to 30 percent.

The deeper Budnetz looked into the documents of MCI, the more firmly she believed that most of the MCIs are overestimated and unnecessary. “The ultimate goal is to drive people out of the building, because that’s where the biggest profits come from,” said Budnetz. “The landlords are playing by the same playbook to maximize their profit.”

Zara denied tenant charges of harassment or any wrongdoing in its use of MCIs and declined to respond to specific questions about these issues. 

Here is what is written in the playbook.

For rent-stabilized apartments, landlords are allowed to increase the rent by a small percentage when the lease is renewed. But when there is a vacancy in an apartment, landlords can raise the rent by 20 percent. MCIs allow the landlords to legally raise the rent which, in effect, chases the tenants out, creating the vacancy and the 20 percent bonus. When the rent reaches the bar of $2,733, an apartment is no longer qualified to be rent stabilized, and the rent can skyrocket to as much as the market can bear. Profit is then maximized. Since 1993, New York City has lost 152,000 rent-stabilized apartments.

I’d rather have a leaky roof but keep the roof above our head, than the financial abuse. I would rather look at the scrambling wall.

Robin Budnetz, tenant leader


MCI was introduced to New York City in 1974, with the purpose of encouraging landlords to make investments on their property to offer necessary services. When Budnetz fought for tenant rights in 1980s, she gathered everyone in her building to fill out and sign forms at the department of homes and community renewal (DHCR). Months later, when the roof and windows were fixed, the tenants were issued the first MCI notice that brought a minor increase on their monthly rent. They accepted it. Little did they know that MCI was not the solution to the crisis, but the seed of a new one 30 years later.

Before MCI, landlords were given tax write-off. But apparently the landlords wanted more than that. They wanted the tenants to pay for it.

Kathy Wakeham, housing activist


Some activists were more skeptical about MCI. “MCI was like double tipping and it was never fair to tenants,” said Kathy Wakeham, a housing activist who has lived in the East Village for decades. “Before MCI, both J-51 and 421a were implemented to the housing system, they give landlords a tax write-off when they spend money on upgrading the estate. But apparently, the landlords wanted more than that— they wanted the tenants to pay for it.”

What troubled Wakeham’s apartment the most in the 70s and 80s was a mice and rat infestation. After 40 years, she still remembers neighborhood stories of babies bitten by rats.

Bad landlords in the 70s are often described as cheap, shortsighted, and inattentive. They often abandoned the building because they saw no profit in investing, and would sell a few years later. “Instead of employing a plumber or an electrician, he would have his man do everything like the Jack of all trades,” Wakeham complained about her former landlord. “When you need services from the management, it takes a long bargain every time.”

Wakeham thinks that MCI can never be justified. “Repairing the roof? That’s something that has to be done anyway. It shouldn’t be a benefit to the landlord,” she argued. “They should not be given a reward for something they should be doing.”

With tax abatement policies and MCIs, money quietly flowed into the real estate industry in the last thirty years. Now, armed with legal teams, the landlords are coming back with a method less brutal and more lawful, at least as it appears.

“The worst thing is that everything is legal. They could legally raise the rent to chase tenants out or sometimes buy them out,” said Wakeham. “Landlords now have a full and strong legal team that knows exactly where the loopholes are.”

As landlords know better about their power in the game, New York City tenants haven’t seemed to keep up.

“Most tenants don’t know their rights better, despite the myth that NYC tenants are totally sophisticated and totally up to date on the law,” said housing activist Michael McKee, who lives in Chelsea and became an activist in the 1970s. “I can’t tell you how many times I run into tenants who don’t even know if their apartment is rent-regulated or not and don’t know what that means.”

“It’s never easy to organize people, because we are part of this country that everything is about the individual and we are not taught that there’s a benefit for people working together,” said McKee. “In some other neighborhoods, language and illiteracy can also be barriers.”

The landlords’ power comes from their money. And I remind tenants all the time that their money comes from the rent that we pay them.

Michael McKee, housing activist


The good news is that there are more community organizations in New York devoted to this cause now then during the first housing crisis. Organizations from all five boroughs keep tenants updated with changes, and educate people to fight back through the democratic process. Their most recent objective, is to renew the state laws to ensure rent stabilization that are set to expire in the spring.

“As tenants, being a small player in a very large world against the powerful landlords and real estate interests, we felt very much alone and powerless,” said tenant leader Budnetz. “So when organizations reach out to us, we see a whole richness developed.”




Organizing for Housing Justice

Yue Yuan & Louise Liu

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.”


2019: A Critical Year for Rent Laws in New York

Yue Yuan