Fight to keep rents low - MRNY vigil to prevent rent spikes, one block at a time

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With the Rent Control Board hearings looming, Make the Road Members gathered for a vigil outside the Bushwick Playground near Putnam Avenue where a number of row house apartments are being removed from rent-stabilization protections.

“This is a vigil to raise awareness in the community about the need to save rent-stabilized apartments,” said Elsa Jimenez, a Make the Road member and resident on Putnam Avenue.

The vigil, held last Thursday, consisted of speeches, refreshments and a sidewalk dance party designed to get community members from Putnam Avenue to join the festivities and learn more about the Rent Control Board hearing, and MRNY lobbying efforts.

Several organizations sent representatives to the event, including Neighbors Helping Neighbors in Sunset Park, St. Nicholas NPC in Williamsburg, and the Bushwick Housing Independence Project (144 Bleecker Street).

“Basically Bushwick is a hot market with real estate, and landlords are harassing tenants in order to make over apartments and make a profit,” said Angel Vera, a housing organizer with Make the Road. “On this block, they have been successful.”

Although there are hundreds of locations in Bushwick where buildings are being removed from rent-stabilization, Make the Road chose the Putnam Avenue address because a number of its members live on the blocks between Irving and Knickerbocker avenues.

“I’m worried that rents are going to be higher,” said Gladys Puglia, a Make the Road member and the emcee of the vigil. “They were $600 and we’re going to lose [the apartments] and they will be out of the program.”

According to Puglia and other tenants in the building, the landlord, Russell Suriel, had been harassing longtime tenants to leave units at 1420 and 1418 Putnam Avenue, even offering an elderly couple $10,000. Other people claiming to be the landlord of the buildings have come by the building offering money to other tenants. Suriel, the landlord of both buildings, could not be reached for comment.

“They were offered $3,000 in advance and $7,000 if the apartment was in good condition,” Puglia said. “[The elderly couple] didn’t want to move, they were paying only $500. The woman was taking medication. In the end, they lost the apartment, they moved and are living somewhere else with relatives.”

Puglia will be attending the Rent Control Board hearings in June and organizing other Make the Road Members to lobby elected officials to enforce tenant harassment and rent-stabilization housing policies.

Make the Road staff invited staff from Assemblymember Vito Lopez’s office to attend the vigil, but they were unable to come due to a scheduling conflict. Earlier this month, the State Assembly passed a nine-bill package of housing legislation, of which two measures would keep apartments protected under rent stabilization or rent control and reduce the percentage by which rent would be increased upon vacancy to a limit of ten percent. The bill is being debated in the state Senate.

“Vito supported it. It’s a good bill,” said Vera.

While housing legislation and the results of the Rent Control Board hearings will likely be finalized next month, tenant organizer Kennedy Rivera was encouraged by the show of support for an issue he knows well. The Bushwick Housing Independence Project works with individual tenants in Bushwick to help them fight landlords who are urging their displacement, often from rent-stabilized apartments.

“We need to keep up the rhythm,” Rivera said. “If you do it once, it doesn’t matter. This should be done more, not just when it needs to be done, so that people can open their eyes to this issue.”

Updated 3:46 pm, October 19, 2011
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