Tenant Profile: Alicia Blackwell

Alicia BlackwellAlicia Blackwell is a lifelong New Yorker, born and raised in West Harlem. In the past 70 years, she has seen the rich culture of her neighborhood flourish and then seemingly disappear before her eyes. 

In her youth, she took advantage of everything her vibrant neighborhood offered, playing basketball, dancing, and playing bass guitar live. She studied foreign languages at City College of New York and travelled the world with dreams of becoming a translator. She is exceptionally independent, and when asked if she was ever married, she smiles and responds without regret: “I didn’t have time.” When she reminisces about growing up in West Harlem, you can easily picture the vibrant, bustling community full of influential politicians and artists. 

“Harlem was a gold mine of opportunity and wealth,” Blackwell remembers. “I could see the development happening in the rest of the city, and I knew from a long time ago, this neighborhood was going to change.”

She was right. Wealthy investors bought the land and popularized the false narrative that Harlem was impoverished and worthless before they came along to “improve” it. Rather than helping the community to flourish, they transformed it until it became unrecognizable. Landmarks like the Apollo Theater, once home to jazz and soul legends and still the host of notable cultural events, are now surrounded by corporate giants who have no interest in preserving Harlem’s culture. Now, Alicia regrets, “Harlem seems to be just a name.”

The gentrification in West Harlem is the result of city planning and developers that prioritized profits over people and weakened the city and state’s once strong rent laws. Deregulation has created a significant financial incentive for landlords to push tenants out of their homes, with many resorting to harassment and other illegal tactics.

When Blackwell’s building was full of long-term Harlem residents invested in the community, it had an active tenant association and better opportunities to hold the landlord accountable. As the neighborhood changed, the tenant association disappeared. Now, the landlord is actively harassing tenants. Many tenants are short-term residents, and the longer-term residents fear becoming the next target. Blackwell is one of the few rent-controlled tenants left, part of the city’s dwindling population of rent-controlled tenants, who are generally elderly New Yorkers living off of fixed incomes.

Alicia first reached out to Met Council when her landlord deliberately cut her phone line, jeopardizing her safety by taking away her ability to communicate with her family, friends, and doctors.  The landlord has also been using construction as a form of harassment. It has led to ceilings that appear ready to collapse; increasing numbers of cockroaches taking advantage of holes in walls; and dust and fumes so intense they cause health problems. Alicia is a cancer survivor with other health issues who should not need to decide between homelessness and living in an apartment building with dangerous conditions.

Alicia BlackwellLandlords commonly go after seniors first, because either they view them as easy targets without support networks to help them fight back or because their rents tend to be among the lowest. Blackwell believes that cutting the phone lines was intended to harass older tenants, because they are much less likely to have cell phones than younger people. “The people who are the lifeblood of the city are seniors,” she remarks. “I don’t see how human beings could want to destroy the lives of people who have come before them.” 

Alicia Blackwell isn’t alone in this fight. Every day, landlords use various methods to try and force tenants to leave their buildings. With the fight to renew the rent laws in June quickly approaching, her message to Albany legislators is simple: “Wake up.”

 

This article is part of a series or profiles looking at how the rent laws affect tenants around New York. Read the full article on Met Council on Housing’s blog, everythinghousing.org”