New York's catastrophic homelessness is about to get much, much worse: the skyrocketing property values (driven by speculators who buy apartments in order to get their money out of corrupt and failing states abroad, leaving them empty with the understanding that they can be cashed out on short notice, thanks to the white-hot market of other money-launderers) have attracted very deep-pocketed, anonymous hedge-funds that are snapping up buildings with rent-stabilized and rent-controlled units, who use a ruthless set of highly refined tactics to kick out all their tenants and then flip the building.
It's destroyed the lives of multigenerational New York families and created a kind of invisible homeless army of working families with children who go from shelter bed or relatives' couches to jobs and school, teetering on the brink of living on the street.
The tactics deployed to evict tenants -- elderly retirees, families, disabled people, veterans -- are shocking and ghastly, including trumped-up claims of mental illness used to secure involuntary commitals to mental institutions; threats to take away families children if they report the lack of heat and water (on the grounds that only an unfit parent would keep a child in a home without heat and water), hiring homeless people to live in the corridors of family buildings and defecate on tenants doormats, and on and on.
When a landlord embarks on a campaign to “unlock value” in his building, it becomes a consuming psychological torment for renters. “Landlord harassment is practically all anyone I know talks about,” a beleaguered tenant named Nefertiti Macaulay told me. “When it comes, it’s like a bomb’s gone off in your living room.” After an equity firm bought her building and began pressuring tenants to leave, Nefertiti tried, with mixed results, to organize a rent strike. Amiable and proper, with a tattoo on her shoulder of the famous bust of the Egyptian queen who bears her name, Nefertiti has lived her entire life in Brooklyn. After her experience with her landlord she became a housing advocate and currently works as a community liaison for Diana Richardson, who represents Crown Heights in the New York State Assembly. She told me of a seventy-one-year-old man and his ninety-year-old mother who have lived in the same apartment in another building for forty years. “The new owner wants to give them $60,000 to move, and they think they have to take it because the landlord says so. They’re more than likely to end up at the mercy of the [Department of Homeless Services], at an annual cost to the city of $43,000 per person. I see it happen all the time.”
One of the tactics owners employ is to hold rent checks without cashing them and then sue tenants for nonpayment. Delores, who has lived on Eastern Parkway for twenty-five years, found herself embroiled in this scheme. Between 2013 and 2015 her building was flipped twice. “We don’t even know who the owners are. When we call, no one answers. And when they do answer, they’re very disrespectful. They tell us they’re going to relocate us to East New York. Where in East New York? It’s like we’re bad inventory they want to off-load to some warehouse so we’re not in the way anymore.”
Some landlords bring tenants to court for putting up bookshelves (which may violate the letter of a lease that prohibits renters from drilling into walls) or for having a roommate or, in one case I know of, a pet canary. “Most people here don’t believe in the courts because they’re used to it working against them,” said Nefertiti. “That’s what landlords count on.” Many renters are unaware of the laws protecting them and have little knowledge of how New York’s intricate housing bureaucracy works, so they are easily intimidated by determined owners. A court date is also a missed day at work. Landlords don’t expect to win all of these skirmishes, but the barrage of lawsuits helps set the stage for a buyout: financially and emotionally ground down, the tenant agrees to relinquish his rights and depart.
An artist I know in South Williamsburg took flight after her landlord paid a homeless man to sleep outside her door, defecate in the hallway, invite friends in for drug-fueled parties, and taunt her as she entered and left the building. In East New York a mother tells of a landlord who, after claiming to smell gas in the hallway, gained entry to her apartment and then locked her out. In January, a couple with a three-month-old baby in Bushwick complained to the city because they had no heat. In response, the landlord threatened to alert the Administration for Children’s Services that they were living with a baby in an unheated apartment. Fearful of losing their child, they left, leaving the owner with what he wanted: a vacant unit.
Tenants Under Siege: Inside New York City’s Housing Crisis [Michael Greenberg/New York Review]
(via Naked Capitalism)