Brooklyn Boro

‘The year of the tenant’: Brooklyn’s biggest housing stories of 2019

2019: Year in Review

December 31, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
A Crown Heights tenant at an April protest. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane
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A lot happened in Brooklyn this year — from environmental policies to infrastructure changes to housing reform. We’ve wrapped up the key pieces for you in “2019: Year in Review.” 

From rent reforms to deed theft to tenant activism, it was a historic year for housing in Brooklyn.

Here’s some of what happened:

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Historic rent reforms were passed

This June, state legislators passed a historic package of bills to increase tenant protections and close loopholes that landlords often use to raise rents, leaving members of a newly energized tenant movement ecstatic and relieved. The news came after tenants and advocates faced off against landlords at hearings, claiming that a loophole in the former laws was pushing longtime, low-income residents out of their rent-stabilized homes.

The legislation encompassed eight bills that were supported by a vast coalition of tenant and housing activist groups.

Since then, the sweeping package of reforms has given about one million New York City tenants new power, like this group of Crown Heights residents taking their landlord to court for allegedly inflating rents in renovated units, and ignoring hazardous conditions in unrenovated ones.

Genna DeSimone and her neighbors talk strategy at a tenant association meeting in the lobby of 1151 Dean St. in November. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

To boot, a new state law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month will prevent landlords from harassing rent-regulated tenants or fostering dangerous and disruptive conditions that compel them to move.

Landlords throughout the city have long attempted to drive out rent-regulated tenants through campaigns of attrition — not turning on the heat or making necessary repairs, for example — or by deliberately creating hazardous conditions, like conducting large-scale renovation projects in basements or neighboring units.

Now, a landlord who engages in that behavior against one tenant can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor under the new law. Those who deliberately create unsafe conditions for two or more tenants can be found guilty of a Class E felony.

The measure expands on an existing law that protected tenants who demonstrated physical injury as a result of their living situations.

Tenants spoke out, and often

Osbourne Johnson, 57, has been a tenant at 178 Rockaway Parkway for 20 years. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Osbourne Johnson, 57, has been a tenant at 178 Rockaway Parkway for 20 years. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

In April, about a dozen Brooklyn tenants marched in the rain to demand their building manager and landlord address needed repairs in their buildings. In May, tenants rights advocates rallied outside of Brooklyn Housing Court, calling on the city to bolster Right to Counsel, a law that guarantees low-income tenants the right to an attorney in housing court proceedings.

Many tenants also took their landlords to court. In July, five tenant families in Bushwick filed suits against their landlord. The families claimed they’d been enduring decades of negligent repairs and shoddy building work, including leaky roofs and rotted walls, and now are suing their landlord to force immediate repairs. The next month, another group of Bushwick tenants did the same. (Though, some were eventually pushed out of their hazardous homes when conditions got too bad.)

Ana Rosa, one of the plaintiffs in the complaint in Brooklyn Housing court against the landlord of 149 Irving Ave. Photo: Kelly Mena/Brooklyn Eagle

In August, residents of 12 rent-stabilized northern Brooklyn buildings connected to a nonprofit run by one of the city’s worst slumlords requested in court that an independent manager be put in charge of the properties, which they say has been neglected for decades.

Many tenants got results, too.

In April, Airbnb removed all listings from three Prospect-Lefferts Gardens apartment buildings just days after the landlords who own them were sued for allegedly harassing and terrorizing rent-regulated tenants.

NYCHA in the limelight

This summer, frustrated public housing residents pointed to exposed wiring, peeling paint, loose tile and other issues that have been plaguing their apartments for decades in a plea for help from the first federal official to visit their property in nearly 30 years.

“The apartments are very old. There’s a lot of issues. I have a loose light that constantly goes out in my room … There’s chipped paint that the kids can put into their mouth,” said Uma Kettrel, 27, holding his seven-month-old daughter.

The Red Hook Houses. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Kettrel, his elderly mother and other Red Hook Houses residents were visited in August by Lynne Patton, the federal administrator for New York and New Jersey under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Patton was looking to highlight some of the more egregious and immediate hazardous conditions facing the largest NYCHA complex in Brooklyn — a sprawling 32-building complex with 1,411 total units.

But, it wasn’t the best year for the public housing complexes.

In September, thousands of NYCHA residents faced sudden, unexplained water outages. In fact, more than 7,000 NYCHA residents across the city were without hot water — or, in some cases, any water at all — one Thursday morning as the agency grappled with unplanned outages in 35 buildings across 11 developments, some of which started as early in that same week as Monday.

Issues with heat and hot water have plagued NYCHA for years. During last year’s heat season (Oct. 1 through May 31), more than a dozen Brooklyn NYCHA complexes experienced 10 or more unplanned heat or hot water outages, according to data obtained by the Legal Aid Society.

Earlier in the year, roughly 60 families in the Red Hook Houses had their gas turned off. At the time, many believed it would be a temporary issue — nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

But, as reported in a Brooklyn Eagle follow-up, days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months. Though the families had their gas restored in late May, they started demanding in June that NYCHA reimburse them for money laid out on meals.

Members of the public attended a hearing on Public Housing and Public Safety at City Hall Thursday. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg
Members of the public attended a hearing on Public Housing and Public Safety at City Hall. Photo: Noah Goldberg/Brooklyn Eagle

Similarly, NYCHA residents attended a hearing on Public Housing and Public Safety at City Hall that same month, calling for more security cameras at the Woodson houses in Brownsville. Despite two mysterious, unsolved murders of women over the age of 80 in less than four years at a NYCHA senior housing building, the authority had still not installed cameras in the building, a NYCHA official confirmed at the hearing.

Residents of the Bushwick Houses also asked if the city was doing enough to protect them. One year since an unsolved double murder at the complex, several residents and workers told the Eagle they still live and work in fear.

Brooklyn deed theft makes headlines

In February, protesters at Brooklyn Supreme Court declared that homes in gentrifying black and brown communities in Brooklyn were being “stolen” from their rightful owners through the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s Third Party Transfer program.

In July, the Eagle investigated the program, and what it means for residents like Bushwick resident Yudy Ventura, who had owned her apartment for more than 30 years when she learned her building was going to be seized by the city.

Yudy Ventura. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

The next month, amid accusations of racism and malfeasance, local leaders unveiled their plan to reform the embattled city-run housing program.

On Aug. 1, Councilmember Robert Cornegy Jr., who represents a large population of black homeowners in Central Brooklyn, unveiled legislation alongside Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams to tighten the scope of the controversial program, which was launched in 1996 as a tax enforcement program aimed at collecting unpaid taxes (such as water bills, property taxes, maintenance fees, etc.) and at stabilizing some of the city’s most “distressed” properties while still preserving affordable housing for local residents.

A study said NYC housing can’t keep up

A report published this fall said that New York City’s housing market hasn’t kept up with its stellar job growth. That discrepancy is exacerbating displacement and homelessness — most significantly in Brooklyn and Queens — according to Department of City Planning data.

The 2019 Geography of Jobs report, published in late October, shows that as the number of jobs in the city has increased, there is not enough new housing to keep up with demand. According to the report, New York City had the largest housing production to job growth deficit for the region, which includes the lower Hudson Valley, North New Jersey, Southern Connecticut, Long Island and the New York City metro area.

Brownstone buildings line a street in Park Slope. Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP

However, the report did have some good news for Brooklyn. In the borough, private sector growth included adding more than 198,000 jobs from 2009 to 2018, with the largest growth coming in office jobs — which includes financial activities, information, and professional and technical service jobs.

This employment sector also represented the highest valued employment as workers in office jobs earn an average of $131,600 per worker, according to the report.

And, as always, a new ‘Bad Landlords’ list

Megan Adams, in apartment 4E, complains of lack of heat, mold and mice in her apartment. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
Megan Adams, in apartment 4E, complains of lack of heat, mold and mice in her apartment, which is owned by the city’s worst landlord. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

More than half of the properties owned by New York City’s 10 worst landlords are in Brooklyn, according to a new list published this week by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

Of the 85 properties owned by the 10 worst landlords on the public advocate’s list, 44 are in Brooklyn — accumulating a staggering 5,921 violations from the Department of Housing Preservation & Development, or more than four violations per unit owned. Citywide, the public advocate documented 11,830 HPD violations across all the properties owned by the 10 landlords.

The annual list of worst landlords continues a tradition of shaming problematic property owners and building managers first started by then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in 2010; Williams’ predecessor, Letitia James, kept it going.

Of the 44 buildings in Brooklyn, nearly half are in zip codes 11221 (Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick) and 11226 (Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Flatbush).

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