The Second Battle of Bushwick

Thirty years after the blackout riots, it's getting hot all over again

Like it or not, artists are the shock troops of gentrification. By dint of their willingness to adopt urban spaces abandoned by industry, to live alongside the kind of poverty that would otherwise terrify the middle class, they inevitably soften up the neighborhood for real estate's juggernaut (often eventually displacing themselves; ask any former Soho pioneer from the '70s). It happened on the Lower East Side and Williamsburg; it's happening in Harlem and even in parts of the South Bronx. Now, step by step—or stop by stop, since the burgeoning hipoisie have largely followed the path of the overcrowded L train through Brooklyn—it's arrived in Bushwick.

Not that that's a bad thing, by most measures. A neighborhood that ranks in the top 10 poorest areas of the city, that has the highest rate of asthma hospitalizations and the most serious housing-code violations, can use all the help it can get. New investment means new residents, new stores, new jobs. And, whether city fathers choose to admit it or not, it means much closer municipal attention to crime and the quality of local life. For those who already own a modest piece of the rock, and who held on through the bad years, rising real estate values also yield a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza, a hike in net worth that trickles down to the rest of the family, providing a nice cushion against an otherwise fickle economy. When the price of limestone two-family homes in Windsor Terrace, a central Brooklyn neighborhood once considered Park Slope's poor cousin, topped $1 million a few years ago, the Irish-American families who had bought them in the '60s on a wish and a prayer danced in the streets, celebrating their impossibly good fortune.

They won't go: Tenants Nereida Sanes and Gladys Melendez are fighting eviction and demanding repairs at 1430 Putnam avenue.
photo: Filip Kwiatkowsi
They won't go: Tenants Nereida Sanes and Gladys Melendez are fighting eviction and demanding repairs at 1430 Putnam avenue.


This story was reported by students in a class on urban investigative reporting at Hunter College inspired by the work of longtime Voice writer and Hunter alumnus Jack Newfield. The reporters are: Tony Antoniadis, Elizabeth Bieber, Robert Cruse, Ruben Gonzalez, Johanna Gustavsson, Miyako Hannan, Iesha Irish, Kelle Jacob, Alex Neustein, Tamaki Ondo, and Steven Rummer. The story was co-written by Voice staff writer Tom Robbins, who served as the Jack Newfield Visiting Professor of Journalism at Hunter, with assistance by Anna Lenzer.

Tune in: Tom Robbins on the New Battle of Bushwick

The people directly in harm's way, however, are those clinging to the lower rungs of the economic ladder: renters who never came close to raising a down payment for their own home, let alone a sparkling new condo with granite counters and backsplash. For those living in buildings of fewer than six units—the cutoff for rent-regulation protections—it's just their hard luck: Eviction is usually as simple as a lapsed lease and a new rent set far beyond the pocketbook of the current tenant.

But those in rental buildings of six apartments and over—roughly half of Bushwick's housing stock—are supposed to enjoy the full protections of the law. They're entitled to basic services like a paint job every few years, regular visits by an exterminator, and a locked front door, not to mention security against illegal rent hikes and harassment. But try telling that to the avid buyers now answering the clarion call of a new hot real estate market in, of all places, Bushwick. In the past two years, residents and community groups say, new landlords have flocked to this once woebegone territory, their apparent mission to empty and re-rent these now valuable properties—regardless of the rules—as fast as possible.

Although no one's keeping score, there's a huge displacement going on here of working families who are otherwise entitled, under statutes, regulations, and common civic decency, to hold onto their homes. As old a story as gentrification has become, it's still a double-edged sword that can cut ruthlessly at the poor unless tempered by tough enforcement of housing codes and rent rules.

"It's happened so fast," says Roberto Marrero, a Legal Services attorney who has handled housing cases for the poor in Bushwick and Williamsburg for 10 years. "Rents were all around $600; that was what owners got. Then all of a sudden, in the last couple years, they doubled. Everywhere people looked, owners were asking $1,200—like that was the magic number all of a sudden." Even if the rent hike is well above the maximum set under state rent-stabilization guidelines, owners just take the chance that they won't get found out, Marrero says. "If no one challenges it for four years, it's legal."

Angel Vera, a housing organizer for Make the Road by Walking, a community group whose offices are located just down the street from the new condo tower, says he encounters the same scenario over and over. "The landlord wants the building and not the tenants. They'll wait them out as long as they have to, not giving heat, hot water, or other services."

Yolanda Coca, a tenant organizer who lived down the street from Maria Hernandez when she was shot, and who still makes her home on Null Street, says she's been swamped by families trying only to get the law enforced. "They are living in terrible conditions and still facing eviction," she says. "It breaks my heart."

Frayed wood-frame and brick apartment houses—occupied residences that a few years ago had few takers on the open market—have seen their sales prices ginned up to $500,000 and more. The high price tags are a speculator's gamble that existing tenants can be bought out of their leases for a couple of thousand dollars ($5,000 for those stubborn enough to demand more), or that they simply won't want to stick around with no heat, hot water, or basic services. There's also the pressing sound of a clock ticking. The new investors are desperate to make their score, locking in new tenants and high rents quickly before the great New York real estate bubble finally bursts.

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