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There's a true economic snapshot of our times on view right now at the corner of Foster and New York avenues in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. This one is not statistics, like last week's higher unemployment numbers.
It is a genuine Kodak Moment, and if you'd been there on Wednesday, December 1, the day after 73 maintenance workers were locked out of their jobs at the sprawling housing complex called Flatbush Gardens, you could have captured our current era with a single picture: Workers standing in the drenching rain, waterlogged picket signs draped around their necks. Issue in dispute? Employer says wages are too damn high.
"Wet, wet, wet. Coat wet, pants wet. Everything soaked," said Fitzroy Pusey, 45, a handyman with eight years on the job and five children at home waiting for paychecks now on hold.
He said this on Thursday evening as he finished his second day of picketing. He was standing on the sidewalk in front of management headquarters amid a thick knot of residents and members of his union, Local 32BJ, all of them shouting protests into a chilly Brooklyn night. A dozen police officers stood nearby to make sure nobody charged the office doors.
Of course, no one did. Americans are not yet like those Italian students protesting tuition hikes pictured in the Times last week throwing flying kicks at helmeted cops. We have not had those rage-filled demonstrations, nor the massive ones spiraling across Ireland in protest of the latest austerity measures to make up for their bankers' greedy excess.
Not that our situation is any different. The day before the rally in East Flatbush, Republicans in Washington decided that 2 million unemployed Americans do not deserve additional unemployment benefits. Reason? Deficit too damn high. In the same breath, they vowed to save their deficit-swelling tax cuts provided by the last president to those at the top of the economic ladder. Reason? Unemployment too damn high.
You may find this hypocrisy breathtaking, but that shows how little you know about how things work. The fact is that the current economic crisis is an excellent opportunity for the powers-that-be to change the rules in their favor.
The battle playing out in East Flatbush is a perfect example. A few years ago, in the midst of the party that bankers were throwing everywhere, a millionaire real estate investor named David Bistricer bought a down-at-the-heels complex then called Vanderveer Estates. Of course, he hugely overpaid. This was the fashion at the time. Investors were throwing millions at apartment houses filled with working-class tenants, their eyes aglitter at the rents they could command once a little marble was laid in the lobby. Tongues clucked at the prices, but bankers happily went along. The music was playing and the dance would never stop.
It was an unlikely place to make a fortune. The complex is 59 dour red-brick buildings spread over 20 acres with 2,500 rent-regulated apartments housing the families of transit workers, nurses, and deli clerks. The buildings went up in 1949 as affordable homes for working New Yorkers. Comb through the old mortgages and you see that the pension dollars of state and city employees were invested to make this happen.
Cycles of negligent owners, abetted by an undertow of crime, left the complex ailing. It slipped in and out of bankruptcy. Brief efforts by court-appointed managers to remedy conditions found rats the size of raccoons prowling above the ceiling tiles and raw sewage in basements.
When he bought it in 2005 for some $140 million, Bistricer vowed to turn all of this around. He promptly set about renovating empty apartments. He ran ads aimed at luring middle-class couples priced out of Manhattan. The ads featured light-skinned couples strolling the Brooklyn Bridge. Residents, overwhelmingly black and Caribbean, blinked when they saw them. "I didn't know where that was," said Allan Jones, 65, a porter for nine years who also lives in the complex.
Meanwhile, longtime residents complained that their own problems went ignored. Last week, the city's housing code violations count stood near 8,000. Bistricer's people say those numbers are all wrong. But Alvin Augustine, 50, talked Thursday night about the air freshener he buys by the case to ward off the stench from the broken toilet upstairs. Yolanda Castellano told of the elevator door that slammed on her son. "So they closed the elevator. Now we walk up a flight," she said.
None of this was helped when the market collapsed in late 2008 and the bankers' music stopped playing. Bistricer's bills mounted.
This spring, the investor went looking for a bailout. He started with his workers. As the union contract expired, he announced that he would slice wages and benefits by almost half. The current pay rates—$18 to $21 an hour—are much too high, he said. "Manhattan wages," he called them. His own offer, he said, was in line with what porters and handymen are being paid these days in other multifamily buildings in the neighborhood.
Actually, the union's wage rate is the same for large residential complexes throughout the city. What the landlord really means is that owners whose employees are not represented by bothersome unions are able to get away with paying almost nothing these days, thanks to those high unemployment figures. Bistricer's argument comes down to this: If they can do it, so can I. And what better time to pull this maneuver than during an economic crisis?
At the rally Thursday night, Local 32BJ vice president Kyle Bragg summed up the situation as he shouted at the management office: "You came here speculating and made a bad investment. Now you're trying to put it on the backs of your workers, taking good jobs and turning them into poverty wages."
Since the lockout, Bistricer himself has stayed silently behind the scenes. His company, Renaissance Equity Holdings, issues statements via spokesmen. Last week, in response to a question about conditions in the buildings, the spokesmen had an explanation: "Some union workers did not perform their tasks as expected and required to address building conditions."
This was news to Celestino Saline, 59, who has worked at the complex as a handyman for 25 years. He has an added incentive for decent maintenance since he also lives there along with four children and three grandkids. "How do they say we're not working when they don't even buy the supplies we need to take care of things?" said Saline.
The one consolation here is that things could have been worse. A couple of years ago, Bistricer tried to buy Starrett City, the mammoth Brooklyn complex near Jamaica Bay. Starrett is twice the size of Flatbush Gardens and functions very nicely under a contract with the same union. In 2007, Bistricer made another preposterously huge bid for the development—$1.3 billion. Opponents, including Senator Charles Schumer and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, objected that Bistricer would have to sharply hike rents to pay his bankers. They also cited the little matter of a 1998 finding by a Manhattan judge of abuse and deception in Bistricer's past real estate dealings. The Starrett purchase was thankfully scuttled.
Meanwhile, Bistricer is trying to run Flatbush Gardens with replacement workers he's hired, betting that he can outlast the union. On Thursday night, local City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a former tenant organizer who worked in Vanderveer, showed up to cheer on the picketers. "We'll stay here 'til it gets warm if we have to," he told them.