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Just across the street from the contractor's sign, about 90 community residents gathered in a school auditorium to plot a neighborhood advertising blitz of their own, one infused with a bit more social purpose and arguably directed against the quest for $1200 apartments. They call it the Campaign of Conscience.
Spurred by what local politicians and community groups call an "epidemic" of evictions by landlords who are descending on the neighborhood, and the lack of legal protections for tenants who live in the small buildings that are being snapped up, Brooklyn's Fifth Avenue Committee designed the campaign. On November 16, community members designated a 36-block area as the "Lower Park Slope Displacement-Free Zone." From Sixth to Third avenues and from Bergen to Second streets, signs will be posted warning prospective landlords that evictions will not be tolerated. Buyers who do jack up rents can expect pounds of protest mail, calls from local clergy, and perhaps even a busload of demonstrators delivered to their front lawns.
"This strategy developed over the past months," says Benjamin Dulchin, lead organizer for the Committee. "In the spring, we had a 78-year-old blind lady who was evicted from Seventh Street when her new landlord jumped her rent from $500 to $1200; then, a few weeks later, we had the Soto sisters," two 80-plus-year-old women whose new landlord planned to triple their $500-a-month Baltic Street rent. "We were just sick of it, saying, 'Why can't we do anything?' " Legal options are few because rent laws don't apply to buildings with six or fewer units, and the most tenants can hope for is a six-month extension from a housing court judge.
With no law on their side, the community turned to old-fashioned tactics: They hired a bus and showed up at the Woodmere, Long Island, home of the Sotos' landlord. Dulchin says the 70-person protest-plus coverage in both The New York Times and the Daily News-"shamed" the landlord into making a deal. The Sotos, who each had their own apartment, were allowed to stay by moving into one unit at a slightly higher rent.
Now the Committee hopes to prevent the need for such tactics by making the community's resistance to evictions known to local brokers and their clients alike. "We'll let buyers know that if they want to kick people out just to raise the rents, they're not welcome here," says Dulchin. "We will go after them, we will make their lives really unpleasant, and hope that any other landlord who is contemplating this same thing will think twice. We will put public moral pressure on landlords to not evict tenants."
Moral pressure on landlords? The prospect brought snickers from local brokers, and even one tenant defender doubts the logic of a "campaign of conscience" aimed at property owners. "What conscience?" he asked. "Landlords as a group have the smallest conscience I've ever seen. I mean, there's conscience and there's money, and money is a very powerful thing." Broker Pat Hoffman, who has been selling Brooklyn real estate since 1983, says, "These buyers are paying exorbitant prices for these buildings, and have to pay the bills. You can't appeal to their conscience when they're paying $550,000. This is a business thing. This is capitalism at work."
Dulchin is not naive about the economic imperatives the campaign faces. "We're aware that it's not an easy fight; we're simply trying to get people to weigh their individual economic benefit versus that of the community. Right now, the logic of the market is making decent people do mediocre things. We want to interfere with the market and make it difficult enough for people who know that if that's what they intend to do, stay away."
And he's realistic about what can be accomplished: "We expect we will take 30 cases over a year, and we expect to lose half," he says, noting that South Brooklyn Legal Services will help tenants in court. "We figure we'll see a 10 percent reduction in the amount of displacement."
Especially hard hit by evictions are seniors, who typically live for years in small buildings and pay below-market rents. In many cases, they shared the buildings with their landlords, who were likely their peers. When the landlords die or sell, new owners boost the rent. Marc Garstein, a longtime Brooklyn broker, says the dilemma "is something that's bound to happen, and something I don't like hearing about." But he doubts the campaign will keep buyers away. "Developers don't read posters; they read bottom lines."
Dulchin makes the distinction between newcomers who want to live in the neighborhood and will let longtime tenants stay at reasonable rents, and those who are simply investing in real estate for profit with no regard for the community. "It's not like there is a pattern of any single villain, no corporation or evil landlord with fangs dripping blood buying up the neighborhood," says Dulchin. "In many cases, it's decent people making their own best decisions for themselves, and the fact is, it's an inexorable and cold decision. It's not like having the Village Voice's 10 Worst Landlords coming in. But we hope we can keep the worst away."