By Aaron Howell.
Followers of the Times‘ City Room blog may have seen that the United Nations has dispatched Raquel Rolnik (pictured), its Special Rapporteur for housing issues, to America. She’ll visit various U.S. cities on her trip, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans.
Right now she’s in New York. Runnin’ Scared caught up with her as she toured The Bronx, where tenants and organizers prepped her on what they described as the newest phenomena of housing woes, “predatory equity.”
At an hour-long presentation at the Sedgwick Branch Library on University Avenue and 176th Street — a futuristic 90’s building that looks part space shuttle and part Star Wars, — the rapportuer was told that in a four-square-mile area of the North and South Bronx, six private equity firms have officially driven 2,738 apartment units into foreclosure or risk of foreclosure.
Cesar Guzman, who lives at a building formerly owned by Ocelot Capital Group, said when Ocelot officially “disappeared” — meaning they literally can’t be traced, they “packed up everything and left town” — they also left his 16-unit building in foreclosure and total disrepair, with things to this day “getting worse.”
Other tenants told the the rapporteur similar horror stories. Dina Levy, organizing and policy director for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, who helped organize the tenants, found one common denominator in all these cases: buildings with over-leveraged mortgages that their rent revenues can’t support.
And when a building is over-leveraged, said Levy, the landlord inevitably fails to maintain it. “The landlords have these outrageous mortgage payments,” she said. “And they either have two choices: they can pay the mortgage, or they can fix the building.”
Every single building holding the 2,738 endangered or foreclosed units saw a dramatic increase in violations, going from a handful to over 200 in less than a year. For Guzman and many others, this meant no heat and no hot water last winter. (He told us he took a cold shower this morning because the boiler broke down — again.)
Before leaving the prep talk for her tour of a few of the foreclosed buildings, the rapporteur said she’d file reports with the City, the U.S. government and the U.N. But, she added, “I am glad to see that you tenants have organized. Nothing can ever replace people’s organizing. Without pushing from below and taking direct action, nothing ever changes.”