Bushwick Beyond the Brand

Tenants under pressure pay the price of gentrification

By Laura Lorenzetti and Andrew Welsch

Jesse Duarte returned home last month after she dropped off her three children at school to find that the lock to her Jefferson Street  apartment in Bushwick had been changed. All her belongings, including the family dog, Totis, were locked inside. She had no way to get to them. All because the landlord said Duarte owed him $21.

“For what reason would someone say I don’t want you here? Is it because I’m a bad person or causing problems?” said Duarte, 28, through a translator. “Just because someone is Hispanic. Because they want to put in people who they can charge double or triple the rent.”

Brooklyn residents wait in line address landlord and tenant issues at housing court in downtown Brooklyn. Photo by Laura Lorenzetti.

As wealthier white residents move into Bushwick, the economic calculus for landlords is changing, presenting them with incentives to coerce their longstanding tenants to move out so they can replace them with newcomers paying higher rents. Between 2000 and 2010, the white population of the neighborhood grew 216 percent, according to census data, while the black population declined by 8.7 percent.  At the same time, the Hispanic share of the population decreased from 67 to 65 percent, and Bushwick’s longstanding Latino population is struggling to maintain its foothold in the rapidly changing neighborhood.

The racial change in Bushwick reflects a demographic trend that has been reshaping much of the borough.  “There’s displacement everywhere in Brooklyn,” said Kayla Schwartz of Housing Court Answers, an advocacy group that helps tenants navigate the courts.  Brooklyn Housing Court is so jammed, she said, that the Fire Department had to clear the building three months ago because it was over capacity.

Duarte’s problems began in September when the building was sold to a new landlord, Empire Cornerstone, LLC. A Mexican immigrant, she had lived there with her husband Edwin, 32, a Honduran immigrant, in a two-bedroom rent stabilized apartment for 10 years.  The rent was $1,010, and the previous landlord had allowed the couple to stretch payments across the month, they said. This worked well for the family, whose weekly income is $675 from Edwin’s construction job.

The new landlord wanted the rent paid in full on a set day.  But for now he wanted $2,221 for February and March rent to be paid in two installments on March 16 and 26, Duarte said.  Just before March 16, the landlord demanded immediate payment in full, she said. She gave him a money order for $2,200 on March 22; she was short $21.  The landlord changed the locks on April 10, Duarte said.

A company spokesman declined to comment on the incident. Empire’s website describes the building, along with another at 400 Stanhope St., as being on the edge of New York’s art scene. Their website says they have “plans to renovate apartments as tenants choose to vacate.” 

Duarte went to court the same day to get an order to enter the apartment. She reached out to Yolanda Coca, a housing specialist with the Brooklyn Housing Independence Project, who explained tenant rights to Duarte and set her up with a legal aid lawyer.

Coca, a Bushwick resident for 31 years, deals with such cases on a daily basis. She holds a weekly session for tenants to  discuss their harassment cases – complaints range from knocks on the door at all hours of the night and threats to call immigration to false accusations and  offers of thousands of dollars to move out, she said.

“It’s the fight that never ends,” said Coca.

“It’s a neighborhood in transition, so there’s a lot of money to be made by rent arbitrage,” said Sebastian Riccardi, a lawyer from the Legal Aid Society. He said that landlords hope to replace current residents with younger ones who will pay more and move out sooner. “There’s a lot of the dark side of gentrification going on in Bushwick.”

New residents aren’t aware that they’re displacing older residents and don’t engage with the established largely Hispanic community, Coca said.

“New people are part of the problem but not part of the solution,” she said.

Coca, originally from the Dominican Republic, spends hours each week at housing court in downtown Brooklyn, helping Bushwick tenants.

On a Monday in late April, Coca waited in court with Riccardi and  Mario Hierro, who was fighting to stay in his apartment in a walk-up building on Jefferson Street. The new landlord didn’t show up for a 9:30 appointment. Finally, at 11 a.m. the landlord’s lawyer made an offer. He would pay Hierro $40,000 to move out.

Hierro initially declined because he would have to pay taxes on the $40,000, moving costs and a higher monthly rent in a new apartment.

“My expectation is to win the case. Everything will be fine,” said Hierro.

A housing court judge determines a fair market rent by looking at the rent paid over the previous four years, Riccardi said.  Hierro had lived rent-free for the last five years in exchange for being the building super for the old landlord; before that he paid $550 per month.  The judge would balance the $550 against current market rate rents, and his rent would probably rise considerably.  In the end, Hierro accepted the buyout.

Coca doesn’t like to see cases end this way. Each tenant who is coerced out of their apartment or accepts a buyout weakens the position of those tenants who remain. She tries to help tenants strengthen their position by organizing associations.

Coca is working now with the few remaining residents of a building on Jefferson Street, where the hallways smell like feces, paint is peeling off the ceiling and the apartments are overrun with mice and cockroaches. Tenants say the new landlord has been refusing to fix anything, offering them buyouts to leave instead.

By forming an association and taking the landlord to court, they hope to win the court’s approval to form a tenant-run co-op, where a building supervisor would work with the tenants to repair the building.

Nearly 125 such co-ops already exist across Williamsburg, Bushwick’s close relative that has experienced intense gentrification over the past 15 years.

Duarte won in Housing Court and was able to get Totis out that evening from the bathroom where the dog had been locked in. Three days later she reclaimed her apartment. But it was a bittersweet victory: she came home to a destroyed space, she said. The landlord had moved all her family’s clothes and belongings to storage and had smashed all of the large furniture, leaving pieces of particleboard dangling from armoires and dressers.

But Jesse was home and she plans to stay there.

“Other people don’t even have the capacity or the money and they get scared,” she said. “In this case, I stopped being scared of courts. Going to court is about fighting for what you want. It’s a right. Some of us don’t have papers but we all have rights.”