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Deception, Destruction, and Displacement: One Woman’s Story of NYC’s Housing Crisis

by Annika Heegaard

· Housing,Human Rights

There were six men with hammers just smashing the flat. Smashing it.” That is how Jadwiga Bronte described her welcome home on April 26th, 2012. Jadwiga had been living in her apartment on North 8th and Bedford, in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 2011. “The rent was ridiculously low,” Ms. Bronte said. She paid just $700 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

But Jadwiga’s luck with finding affordable housing in an increasingly unaffordable neighborhood was short lived. About one year after moving into her apartment, her landlord, Jamal Alokasheh, asked Ms. Bronte to leave for the day so he could fix a leak. She let her landlord in under the impression they had a good relationship. “He smiled at me in the hallways and we would talk politics,” she said.

According to Ms. Bronte, his plan was to--along with two other buildings--demolish and evacuate the housing so he could rebuild and profit from accelerating gentrification. Jeremiah Moss, author of Vanishing New York, defines gentrification as a process in which “members of an upper class invade a lower-class neighborhood, purchase and upscale the houses, displace the people, and change the character” of the neighborhood. For Williamsburg in particular, gentrification has resulted in a 174% property value spike since 2005. As a consequence, marginalized communities have been forced to leave. Thomas Agnotti and Sylvia Morsi in the book Zoned Out state that from 2000 to 2013 the white population in Williamsburg, Brooklyn has increased by 73% and the Latino population has decreased by 18%.

According to Dan Kaminsky, who runs a gentrification walking tour in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the roots of gentrification were planted in 2003 when Mayor Bloomberg took a ride across the East River. After looking at low-income parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, he made the decision that he would later ‘rezone them.’

Angotti and Morsi define zoning in the book Zoned Out as the act of prescribing how land (from commercial to residential) will be used, including how much and how little will be put on the land.

According to Zoned Out, in 2005, parts of North Williamsburg and Greenpoint were re-zoned with the end result being that buildings were allowed to develop vertically, adding up to 20 stories. This type of re-zoning is called “upzoning.” It permitted 55 million square feet of residential development and allowed for increases in rent, and most importantly, investment. This is what has led to rapid gentrification and consequent serial displacement.

Re-zoning and gentrification provide landlords, like Mr. Alokasheh, with an incentive to displace low-income residents from rent-stabilized apartments with the goal of raising the rents of residential units. His rent-stabilized apartments are part of the 966,000 rent-stabilized units that still exist in New York City. It is a number that is vanishing quickly. Rent-stabilized properties are buildings built before 1974 with six or more units that the city’s Rent Guidelines Board has dictated are subject to a maximum of only a 1.5% to 2.5% increase on rent each year. Once an apartment’s rent is more than $2,733.75 a month, rent-stabilization disappears, and the rent is subject to the landlord’s discretion. Additionally, vacancy, building improvements, and increases in household income (exceeding $200,000), also provide landlords with an opportunity to escape rent stabilization.

Ms. Bronte wasn’t the only tenant in one of Mr. Alokasheh’s properties who was feeling the pressure of gentrification. Her landlord owned two other buildings on the block, one of which had been populated with members of an old non-English speaking Polish community. “Unaware of their rights” and “afraid of deportation,” as Ms. Bronte put it, this building was evacuated with ease. The other one, however, had the cellar floor smashed, making it unsafe for residents to live in and essentially led to tenants being forced out. According to the New York Times, one of Mr. Alokasheh’s buildings had to be evacuated when building conditions became “compromised.” After he had supposedly repaired what was hazardous, tenants returned to their homes only to find padlocks preventing them from entering. Once they had broken down the doors, they found two collapsed cellar walls and little to no water and electricity service.

According to Ms. Bronte, it seemed obvious that her landlord was attempting to push her out. His plan, she believed, was to make his apartments unlivable, so he could rebuild and charge a higher rent in the new Williamsburg. Despite having her walls pulled out, the plumbing destroyed, and every feasible item strewn across the room, she remained in her apartment, limiting herself mostly to the one room that had not been destroyed. She would use the bathroom in her neighbors’ apartments and sleep in the dust in her own.

In an effort to prevent these actions from happening to her neighbors, Ms. Bronte created a tenant association. The government provided their association with a lawyer who would serve as a liaison between the tenants and Mr. Alokasheh. Ms. Bronte went to the courts herself to hold Mr. Alokasheh accountable for the demolition of her apartment and destruction of everything in it. “I asked for $24,000” she said. “He refused to renovate, refused to admit I had been his tenant, refused to admit I paid rent. My final solution was to demand compensation.” The judge awarded Ms. Bronte $24,000.

In 2013, Ms. Bronte left the United States. Her apartment is still vacant in 2018. Her story is not rare, it is not unheard of. It is part of the cycle of displacement that threatens the right to life, security, property, and health, for more than 130,000 homeless New Yorkers each year. For this population, and for more to come, it is a humanitarian crisis.

Jadwiga Bronte’s apartment on North 8th and Bedford. The demolition, taking place while she was out for the day, was done by her landlord, Jamal Alokasheh, in an attempt to evacuate the building for higher rents. The bathtub and the sink have been torn out of the wall and dragged across the apartment. Dust, pieces of the wall, floorboards, and dirt blanket every corner.

Photo by Annika Heegard

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