Fighting for Tenant Rights on the Lower East Side

Cooper Square Committee’s Brandon Kielbasa and tour participants | Photo via Emily Gallagher

What impressed me most about the illuminating tenant rights walking tour recently hosted by the Cooper Square Committee (CSC) was the guides’ willingness to name names. Soaring rent can often seem like a vague, mysterious force, like bad weather, for which no one in particular is responsible. But sign up for the tour (more are planned for the fall and information can be found here), and you’ll learn which landlords are pressuring beleaguered tenants to leave their apartments on New York’s Lower East Side. “There are no more mom and pop landlords buying in this neighborhood,” said guide and CSC lead organizer Brandon Kielbasa, who has worked for more than ten years in housing advocacy, when he briefed our group in CSC’s East Fourth Street office. Financial firms are sopping up the Lower East Side’s historically low-rent walkups, looking to extract higher profits by cycling out non-affluent tenants and capitalizing on rising demand in the area. This highlights another phase of gentrification in which speculative investors, not just wealthier residents, put upward pressure on rents.

CSC aims to promote awareness and solidarity among renters, continuing its focus on organizing which started with its founding in 1959, when it formed in opposition to Robert Moses’s attempt to level several blocks of Cooper Square as part of a slum clearance plan. The tours are one point in a larger plan to support people struggling to stay in their homes and thereby stall gentrification in one of Manhattan’s most linguistically and ethnically diverse communities. Alongside recent trends toward unaffordable housing in the neighborhood, a quarter of Lower East Siders live below the poverty line and nearly as many residents are rent stressed.


Construction at 143 Ludlow Street, one of the featured buildings, in April 2013 | Image via Google Maps

The tour visited four buildings in and around the Lower East Side whose residents CSC helped organize. A positive central message was that, at best, organizing is highly effective against concentrated real estate interests. At worst, each case provides important lessons for future actions. Kielbasa and his fellow guide, city historian Emily Gallagher, led group discussions on strategies for organizing. What to do in the face of hostile landlords? “Coming together quickly is very important,” Kielbasa said. “Your building would be cleared if you wait six months.”

Kielbasa and Gallagher helped participants understand the essentials of New York’s regulated housing structure: that rent-controlled housing is a rarity, but many more New Yorkers live in rent-stabilized apartments, though they may not know it. Rent-controlled apartments, which comprise less than two percent of the city’s rental apartments, were all built before 1947 and inhabited by the same family since 1971. Rent-stabilized buildings need to be six or more units, built before 1974. Each year, the Rent Guidelines Board sets rent increases for rent-stabilized units (this year to a historically low one percent for one-year leases), which still comprise a large share of housing in Manhattan.

The city’s landlords would like to see the amount of available rent-stabilized housing diminish so they can charge unregulated market rates, according to Kielbasa. So far, they’ve been getting their way. The number of rent-regulated apartments in Manhattan declined by nearly 20 percent between 2000 and 2012. Unlike other forms of affordable housing, rent-stabilized units do not remain regulated forever. They are allowed larger rent increases if apartments change hands between tenants. Landlords can typically command full market rates once the allowable rent for a vacant apartment exceeds $2,500, the threshold at which most units are deregulated. As progressive as Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan sounds, there will probably be fewer rent-regulated units by the time he leaves office because thousands of units shift to market rate each year, as architect and critic Michael Sorkin recently warned.


128 Second Avenue | Photo by Joshua Leon

Despite all this, the Lower East Side remains a bastion of relative affordability. 21 percent of housing on the Lower East Side is public, which insulates some of its poorer residents from these real estate shifts, and 42 percent of its housing is rent regulated, which keeps rents affordable for many despite the area’s lower-than-average incomes for Manhattan. CSC concentrates much of its energy on this class of housing. It helps organize building residents into tenants’ organizations, or in some cases organizes tenants living under the same hostile landlord. The group advises the residents of their rights and options, trying to overcome the social isolation that advantages unethical owners. For Kielbasa, it is imperative that residents share their experiences and converse about their rights.

As a case in point: one of the buildings we visited was 128 2nd Avenue. This walkup is shared with the longstanding Stage Restaurant, declared “endangered” by the Daily News after new owners purchased the building. The building was not, in fact, cleared after the new owners took over, tour guides said. Worried residents organized within a month after the sale, keeping turnover low.

Other buildings haven’t fared as well. There are reportedly only eight original tenants left in 143 Ludlow Street, where the building’s owners, Samy Mahfar’s SMA Equities, unleashed what NY Curbed called a “reno-demo hell” that helped push rent-stabilized residents out. The tour did not enter any buildings, but the website Bowery Boogie has a photo journal of the mess tenants went through. The noise and alleged safety hazards translated into 120 complaints to the City’s Department of Buildings and an eventual lawsuit. Kielbasa said organizing was slow to get off the ground in this case, making it harder for tenants to respond against SMA’s aggressive effort to push them out.


Tour participants near 43 East First Street | Photo via Emily Gallagher

Residents in 43 East 1st Street, another featured building, had complained that units within their building were converted into hotel rooms. Their landlord, they claim, was looking to jettison tenants in favor of more profitable (albeit illegal) nightly rentals to tourists, creating high levels of turnover for landlords while reducing residences to way stations. The building wasn’t listed on the booking website Airbnb, but it may as well have been. As CSC has long argued, these uses take badly needed apartments off the market for actual New Yorkers in the middle of an affordable housing emergency (granted, some residents also use the booking site legally to supplement their incomes). Fortunately, the tenants of this building got together quickly, Kielbasa said, successfully pressing the city to shut down the illegal hotel rooms.

I came away knowing more about how the commodification of housing by some real estate interests operates at the potential expense of the majority of New Yorkers, about two-thirds of whom rent. In addition to warning about the current wave of gentrification impacting the Lower East Side, the CSC is trying to underscore the efficacy of activism with these walking tours. On the eve of the Rent Guidelines Board’s vote on rent increases for rent-stabilized apartments, one tour participant asked about the impact of electing de Blasio, who called for freezing rents on these homes. While encouraged, Gallagher reminds us not to wait around for the higher circles of government to institute fundamental changes on their own. Citing the history of tenant actions on the Lower East Side, she insisted that “The unity of our community is the actual backbone of tenant rights.”

Joshua K. Leon is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College. He writes on poverty, development, global health, and urbanization, and lives in Manhattan.