March Over Bridge Sends Message to Albany

More than 1,500 people marched over the Brooklyn Bridge May 14 to demand that the state strengthen its rent-regulation and tenant-protection laws.More than 1,500 people marched over the Brooklyn Bridge May 14 to demand that New York State strengthen its rent-regulation laws and repeal restrictions on the city’s ability to limit rent increases. The laws, which protect about 2.5 million people living in 1 million apartments in the city and inner suburbs, expire June 15. 

“Albany and upstate Republicans should not be regulating our rents,” Public Advocate Letitia James told the crowd. “We’ve lost 400,000 units that rented for $1,000 or less,” said city Comptroller Scott Stringer. “This is a fight for the city’s soul,” said state Sen. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan).

“I believe in rent regulations,” said marcher Mauro Bossi of Manhattan. “If we don’t have strong laws, the landlords will be able to do whatever they want, which they’re already doing.” Bossi’s landlord, Steven Croman, is possibly the city’s worst for large-scale harassment of rent-stabilized tenants. He said Croman has tried to evict him twice by claiming that his Kips Bay apartment is not his primary residence and once for “nonpayment” after refusing to cash his rent check.

More than 20 elected officials turned out for the march, which began with a rally in Foley Square before heading over the bridge to a smaller rally in Cadman Plaza. Most of the marchers came from labor unions and tenant and community groups, from gentrifying neighborhoods like Bushwick and Flatbush where landlords are trying to drive out black and Latino tenants, the low-income but increasingly expensive South Bronx, and the more middle-class Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, where the landlord who bought the complex in the most expensive residential real-estate deal in the city’s history illegally raised some rents to more than $4,500 a month while using a city tax break designated for regulated apartments. 

Two women carried signs in a Dominican-flag pattern, with messages like “No Mas Aumentas” (no more increases) and “Queremos Ley Justa” (we want a just law) in the four quadrants. One held the hand of a girl about 5, with a pink bow in her hair and a zippered Hello Kitty sweatshirt.

The Crown Heights Tenants Union brought a loud group of about 40 people from Brooklyn, clad in red T-shirts with a black fist. They comprised Caribbean-immigrant longtime residents and younger, mostly white people conscious that they were being used as pawns when they moved into the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood seeking apartments they could afford.

“We live in a gentrifying building. Our landlord has been targeting a lot of the older black tenants who’ve been there for 20 or 30 years,” said Sara Duvisac, who pays $1,750 a month for a 1½-bedroom apartment there. “Our own rent is rising. I’ll probably have to leave this year.” 

Another CHTU marcher, Trinidadian immigrant Mureen Apparicie, has been living in her building for 35 years. The new management, she believes, is “trying to send us a message” by not making repairs for the longtime tenants. On the other hand, she added, they haven’t tried to offer her a buyout to leave.

“They wouldn’t dare come to me,” she said.

Local 1199SEIU, the massive health-care workers union, and the Hotel Trades Council, Local 6 of UNITE HERE, also brought large contingents. “What’s labor doing organizing and helping out with a tenant rally?” Local 1199 field director Dell Smitherman asked from the stage. “70,000 health-care workers live in rent-regulated units. The tenant fight is labor’s fight.” 

“People are being evicted and they raise the rent for the new people. I’ve worked on my job for 20 years and I can barely afford the rent,” said Local 6 member Elaine Coleman, a hotel room attendant who pays $1,400 for a two-bedroom apartment in Brownsville. “If it goes up any higher, I’m homeless.”

Other union groups included City University academics from the Professional Staff Congress, Legal Aid lawyers from United Auto Workers Local 2325, garment workers from the Service Employees International Union affiliate Workers United, and city workers from District Council 37 and Local 1180 of the Communications Workers of America.

As the marchers arrived in Brooklyn after their exodus from the borough of the real-estate Pharaohs, they were greeted by a tenant Moses: a white-bearded, kippah-wearing Jewish man holding a “Tenant Commandments” sign. The sign’s cardboard tablet outlined the tenant legislative agenda in Albany: Repeal vacancy decontrol, protect tenants with “preferential rents,” make major-capital-improvement increases temporary surcharges, eliminate the bonus rent increase for vacant apartments, and reform the individual-apartment-improvement system.

“Three men in a room are talking about extending the current rent laws,” state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn) called out through a bullhorn. “Is that enough?”

“NO!” the crowd shouted back.

Back at Foley Square, however, Assemblymember Keith Wright (D-Manhattan) had sounded a warning about the state of play in the legislature. “We don’t have a lot of friends in Albany,” he told the crowd. “The New York State Senate will not even talk about this issue.”

“Vacancy decontrol must go!” he added.

“Rent-regulated tenants are an endangered species,” Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) told Tenant/Inquilino. “We need to leverage the renewal of 421-a to strengthen the rent laws. There’s nothing more important on the agenda in Albany.”