I am a Jewish tenant organizer. This is not so unusual. Jews have been organizing ourselves and others since we left the Old World for New York City’s slums. We created labor unions when we lived in tenements on the Lower East Side, and we continue to organize today, often in partnership with other communities, around fair food, just immigration policies, domestic workers’ rights and countless other issues.
These days, however, being a Jewish tenant organizer sometimes means organizing against other Jews. In my role at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, in New York City, I often encounter Jewish slumlords dressed in Orthodox garb with tall hats and sidelocks.
I work in several buildings in the Bronx and Brooklyn where the tenants are almost exclusively low-income people of color. When I see a religious Jew outside a building I’m working in, I often assume that he is the owner or that he works for management, and I wait around and try to talk to him. I don’t like to make these assumptions, but then again, I’m usually right.
I work in buildings that are in foreclosure and swept up in the cycle of predatory equity. Developers pay enormous sums for low-income rent-regulated housing, hoping they can turn a profit. Often, either the new landlords harass tenants into leaving or they buy them out so that they can raise the rent.
But for a variety of reasons, in recent years some developers haven’t been able to transform the buildings as quickly as they anticipated. These predatory landlords eventually have trouble paying their massive mortgages, and so they skimp on repairs and maintenance, creating unlivable conditions for the existing tenants. All too often, these buildings fall into foreclosure, only to be purchased by a new developer who will continue this cycle.
UHAB watches this happen over and over again in buildings all over the city, particularly in areas that are targeted for gentrification. We view foreclosure in these distressed buildings as an opportunity for tenants to organize and to have a say in who buys their building next. Ideally the new owner will be responsible, make the much-needed repairs and commit to maintaining the building’s affordability for current tenants.