Brooklyn Boro

Tenant activists look to ride their momentum into elected office

After a big rent reform victory this year, tenant organizers are setting their sights on a new goal: Albany.

August 29, 2019 Emma Whitford
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Fresh off a legislative session during which they helped win the strongest protections for rent-controlled tenants in New York in decades, tenant organizers from Brooklyn are exploring a burgeoning venue for their advocacy: elected office.

Among them is Marcela Mitaynes, 45, a veteran tenant organizer with the nonprofit Neighbors Helping Neighbors who’s planning to run for the Assembly in Sunset Park’s 51st District, a seat occupied for more than a quarter century by Assemblyman Félix Ortiz.

Mitaynes, who immigrated from Peru as a child, got involved in housing activism in 2007 after a speculative landlord pushed her out of her rent-controlled building. She was standing outside of the State Senate chambers on June 14 when legislators voted for the package bill protecting thousands of tenants from steep rent increases, and ducked out to buy champagne for the bus ride back to New York City. “People were screaming, we were hugging, we were crying,” Mitaynes recalled.

Already this summer, Mitaynes has noted the relief among Sunset Park tenants whose landlords can no longer legally revoke their below-market rate “preferential” rents. But she still wants to see rent increases associated with apartment repairs eliminated. And as a market rate tenant herself, she wants to prevent steep rent hikes for all tenants — not just those whose apartments are rent controlled. All of this, she says, will require a “fighting spirit” the incumbent lacks.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

In Crown Heights, another tenant organizer, 30-year-old Phara Souffrant Forrest, is planning to challenge Assemblymember Walter Mosley of the 57th Assembly District.

Phara Souffrant Forrest (front, right) is planning to run for office in the 57th Assembly District. Photo courtesy of Crown Heights Tenant Union.

Born and raised in the district, the Haitian-American nurse has organized with the Crown Heights Tenant Union since 2016, when her apartment building went through a condo conversion. She was arrested with other tenants during an action at the State Capitol in June.

“When faced with [the] possibility of losing my home, all of my priorities shifted and housing became number one,” Forrest said in an email to the Brooklyn Eagle. “My housing status determined my access to health, education, employment, and cultural identity. No one should be without stable, safe and dignified housing.”

Mitaynes and Forrest are seeking the endorsement of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America — a multi-step process that involves a questionnaire and will likely conclude in late September. The DSA includes, among its higher-profile members, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and State Sen. Julia Salazar.

In Ortiz’s district, 57 percent of tenants are rent-burdened — meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent — compared to 55 percent borough-wide. Nearly half of the renters in the district are Latinx, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Community Service Society. Mosley’s district is 44 percent rent-burdened. More than half of the renters there are black.

Both incumbents accept real estate donations, a nonstarter for the DSA.

“I will never, ever be influenced by donations I receive,” Mosley told the Eagle. “Like any democracy, one should always look forward to a challenge, to stand on one’s record.”

Ortiz also said that donations do not influence how he votes. “Anyone is free to run, and I am proud of my record of standing up for my constituents,” he added, noting that he has “a lot of respect” for Mitaynes’s organization, Neighbors Helping Neighbors.

Both Ortiz, who is assistant speaker of the Assembly, and Mosley signed on to this year’s rent reform package.

Michael McKee is treasurer of Tenants PAC, of which Mitaynes is a board member. Any future endorsements aside, he noted, “Walter Mosley has been very helpful on tenant issues in Albany and he was very helpful this year.”

Adversaries with deep pockets

Tenants running for office will likely face strong opposition in 2020 from the deep-pocketed real estate industry, which is still smarting from last session. “They’re certainly not going to take this lying down,” McKee said, noting that real estate interests are already donating to sympathetic Democrats and suing to block the new laws.

The Community Housing Improvement Program, a trade association for landlords of rent-stabilized buildings, declined to comment. But a spokesperson pointed to a prior statement from Director Jay Martin condemning the “draconian effects” of the 2019 laws.

“People are thinking, ‘Let’s see what happens with the package that passed, and see if there is as much damage as the real estate industry is saying,’” said Democratic consultant George Arzt. Arzt is also the spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party, though he was not speaking to the Eagle in that capacity.

Democratic strategists also predict that tenant-focused challengers on the left may struggle to differentiate themselves from incumbents who voted for the bills they celebrated in June.

“I don’t think any incumbent can sit on a challenge from the left in this environment,” said Evan Stavisky of the Parkside Group. Still, “It’s difficult to say that incumbents who voted for the most sweeping rent reform in generations aren’t on the side of tenants. You can try to make the argument that they didn’t go far enough, but it’s harder to draw that contrast.”

Cea Weaver, a Brooklyn DSA member and organizer with the statewide tenant coalition Housing Justice for All, pointed to real estate money as a powerful point of differentiation between incumbent Democrats and grassroots challengers.

“You can’t be on the side of landlords and tenants in New York politics anymore,” Weaver said. But rejecting real estate money increases the need for volunteers and small donors, she conceded. As more candidates seek DSA’s endorsement, “we’re going to need to increase our capacity.”

Pushing perseverance

Bushwick State Sen. Julia Salazar, a Democratic Socialist, sponsors so-called “good cause” legislation to extend eviction protections to market-rate tenants that faltered in Albany this spring. Though she declined to comment on any specific 2020 candidates, she told the Eagle that more allies in Albany are welcome. Salazar’s own chief of staff, Boris Santos, is a renter like herself and recently announced an Assembly run in the 54th District.

“People who have stakes in an issue directly are the people who should be leading the work to change it,” Salazar said.

Next year, Salazar plans to focus on public housing, with a bill to increase taxes for New Yorkers with annual income exceeding $1 million to fund housing authorities across the state.

Tenant organizing prepares legislators for these long-term fights, says Flatbush State Sen. Zellnor Myrie. A model for any tenant-leader primary challenger in Brooklyn, Myrie is president of the tenant association in the building in which he grew up and still lives today.

“You get accustomed to rejection,” he explained. “It’s going to take a lot of ‘no’s before you get a yes.”

Emma Whitford is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. You can follow her work on Twitter

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