Crown Heights Tenants Unionize to Demand Repairs

Frank González (left), with community organizer Joe Loonan. Crown Heights tenants organize to reclaim their rights. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

In the midst of the intense cold hitting New York last February, members of the Crown Heights Tenant Union came together to knock on the doors of 856 tenants living in the 21 apartments owned by Pinnacle Group in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. They aimed to help residents organize into tenant associations to fight together for their rights against the real estate management company. The group owns some 15,000 apartments in New York City, and many tenants have accused it of failing to carry out basic repairs and attempting to push residents who for years have paid below-market rents out of their homes.

Frank González, 64, a former taxi driver who now works at a hardware store and is partially incapacitated due to spine problems, remembers that he opened the door to a tenant organizer who rang his bell, and ended up convinced to create a group to fight for tenant rights. He says that he has seen results in less than three months. (…)

“The truth is that, if you are on your own, they take advantage and pretend they do not hear you, but ever since we got organized to make demands together, we have seen the landlord make repairs,” said the Puerto Rican-born tenant, one of the 75 residents who met with a representative of the real estate company three weeks ago at a community board meeting in Brooklyn. At the meeting, the tenants said they were unwilling to endure “more abuse.” González said that the residents are beginning to be treated respectfully and taken seriously.

“Last week, after months of complaints, they finally fixed the steps in the back, where you take out the trash, which were falling apart. They are also installing cables and new cameras inside and outside of the building, they are painting the roof, and fixed a leak we had,” said González, who has lived in the building for eight years. “They are now acting faster. Had we not come together and complained, things might have stayed the same.”

González meets with his fellow residents every month in the hallway to talk about their needs, and said that they have already drafted their next demands and requests.

“They have to change the piping, because the water comes out dirty. These buildings are over 100 years old. They have to fix the heating problems now, before the winter comes. The floors in many of these apartments are uneven,” complained the member of the tenant union of his building, adding that, in some cases, the negligence seems to have a purpose. “They have tried to kick some tenants out. Since most of us here are seniors, they want to kick out the people who pay the least to rent [the units] for more money. They know that they can charge more to younger people.”

Mike Hollingsworth, whose family came from Guyana, has been a resident of another Pinnacle Group building near González’s for 30 years. He pointed out a related issue that tenant associations are battling.

“We are seeing a lot of tenant displacement across the city. Before 2016, my building’s owners started to turn it into a condominium, risking stabilized rents. I am obviously not a fan of that,” said the resident. (…)

“This issue goes beyond Pinnacle Group. It is everywhere, and it threatens the rights of the tenants who are being forced out of their rent-stabilized units,” said Hollingsworth. “My building is the perfect example: They are turning empty apartments into $1 million units that are no longer affordable, and using construction, noise and dust as a harassment strategy.”


“Real fear” among immigrants

Lisa Mathis, a coordinator with the 4-year-old Crown Heights Tenant Union, said that residents in that area of Brooklyn have defended themselves more successfully when they have formed tenant organizations.

“In Crown Heights, many landlords use harassment as a displacement tactic, others refuse to take rent and suspend services, and it is very common to see them starting construction inside the buildings to make people become fed up with the noise and dust and leave,” said the leader, adding that, in addition to the Pinnacle Group buildings that have organized this year, 20 others in the area now have tenant associations.

Mathis warned that the immigration status of tenants is also being used by some landlords as a displacement tactic.

“There is real fear among immigrants at this time, to the point that some people are even afraid to go to court and fight a housing case for fear of being arrested by ICE,” he said.

Council member Laurie Cumbo – representing District 35, which includes Crown Heights – said that, while she does not have enough information about the complaints of the Pinnacle Group tenants, organizing to make demands needs to be a priority. (…)

“I absolutely believe that tenants need to come together, now more than ever. If they do not have a tenant association or are not organized yet, they need to start the process now so they can protect their homes, the rents they have been paying, and to ensure that they will not be displaced.”

A spokesperson for Pinnacle Group defended the company’s managerial actions, adding that the claims that it resorts to strategies such as neglect and failure to make repairs to push out tenants who have paid controlled rent for many years are false.


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