Before having met David, I passed by his building twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays when walking to the Manhattanville campus, where I had class. His building is nestled between Thrifty Deli and Loui and Loui, a Louisianan restaurant, both of which I’ve been to before. When we met, I briefly wondered if we’d ever crossed paths.
Once we’re through security, David slides his index finger down the lineup that is pasted on a bulletin behind glass. His name is at the bottom of the list. We walk into a crowded room and sit at the only available bench, right before the judge. After just a few moments, David quietly but urgently rushes out the door. “Stay here,” he whispers to me, and so I do.
It’s not long until I hear his raised voice coming from behind the courtroom doors.
“Where are the documents? Where are they?”
The documents that David is referring to are of his apartment’s rent history. What he’s trying to prove, or, rather, what his landlord is trying to disprove, is that David is a rent-stabilized tenant.
The rent stabilization system is the largest affordable housing program in the city. Roughly 50 percent of the city’s rental apartments, which house approximately 2.5 million people, are stabilized. The law was enacted in 1969 to provide New York renters a sense of relief and security from soaring rent prices and baseless evictions. It promises a set of rights and protections, such as the right to renew your lease (unless on grounds allowed by law), the right to pass down your apartment to a family member who’s lived with you for a period of time, and protection from steep and unexpected rent increases.
These are the rights that David is fighting for.
Although David’s building is recognized as rent-stabilized by the NYC Rent Guidelines Board, the status of his particular apartment remains contentious because of something known as “vacancy decontrol.”
First introduced in 1971 by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, then revoked in 1974 by the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, and then partially brought back in 1993 through the state legislature, vacancy decontrol gives landlords the opportunity to deregulate an apartment—that is, to remove it from rent-stabilization and increase the rent.
Recently, rising pressures and prices in real estate in West Harlem and the greater New York area have made particular landlords impatient, unwilling to wait for a rent-stabilized tenant to leave voluntarily. When this happens, some often resort to harsher and, often times, illegal tactics to force a tenant out.
“If you have rent-regulated housing, there’s a huge target on your back because of vacancy decontrol,” explains Larry Wood, the program director at Goddard Riverside Community Center who has been involved in tenant advocacy in West Harlem for over 30 years. Landlords who have the intention to mass displace their rent-stabilized tenants resort to a spectrum of tactics from a subtle buyout offer to ignoring home maintenance issues and denying services.
Once a tenant moves out of a stabilized unit, the landlord has the choice to renovate and bump up the apartment value—until the monthly rent reaches $2,733.75, which then makes the apartment “market-rate,” removing it from rent-stabilization status for good and stripping away a myriad of rent and eviction protections from future tenants.
When I visited David’s apartment for the first time in December, my first thought was how hard it would be to pack everything up if he had to leave. Almost every inch of his wall is covered with paintings. His shelves are cluttered with board games, green and purple mardi gras beads, and photographs.
“You can see, I’ve made it my home,” David said to me. “It’s not just an apartment with white walls, it’s my home. I’m not trying to get free rent, I’m not trying to dupe anyone out.”
Before the Manhattanville expansion in 2008, Columbia was just “over there,” David says as he points in the direction of the Morningside campus. The direct and indirect displacement of Morningside Heights residents
was always a troubling and cautionary tale for those who lived above 120th street, but there was still a sense of distance and time.
Although the expansion merely confirmed the ordained change that was anticipated by Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights residents, the new campus also meant Columbia’s presence was no longer possible to ignore.
Whether you were in favor of, impartial toward, or against Columbia as an institution, it didn’t matter. Within a decade, local businesses and residents in the Manhattanville area were being asked to leave en masse—and this only refers to the directly displaced.
Once the New York City Council approved the expansion in 2007, the priorities that centered the debates between Columbia and the community quickly shifted. It was no longer about “if Columbia is going to expand in Manhattanville” but rather “what now?”
That same year, the New York City Department of City Planning published a Final Environmental Impact Statement, forecasting the possible adverse outcomes of the expansion. It estimated that by 2030, within a half-mile radius, the satellite campus would attract about 3,362 University-affiliated residents—this term referring to graduate students, faculty, other employees, and their possible families. According to the FEIS, this expected mass migration to Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights would prompt as many as 1,318 units to be “at-risk,” meaning residents would be subject to upward rent pressure and therefore involuntary displacement, at a time when rents were also soaring across the city.
Despite living within the “at-risk” area, David didn’t know any of this jargon until he began feeling the impacts of indirect displacement.
In November 2014, David’s former landlord, Arnold Sandy Wax, sold his properties—all those that David’s tenant association represents—to BCB Property Management, a private equity real estate firm, for $81 million.
The following month, tenants in 3149 Broadway who were at the end of their lease were suddenly not being asked to renew it, according to David.
As tenants started moving out, empty apartments began to get renovated, turning the whole building into an active construction zone 6 to to 7 days a week from as early in the morning as 6 a.m. to as late as as late as 6 p.m. Four to five units were being renovated simultaneously in his 22 unit building. Hallways were filled with dust and construction noise could be heard outside the building.
The constant renovations took a toll on maintenance and living conditions of the building overall. David recalls the hallways being cluttered in construction materials and exposed electrical wires. There were also incidents where tenants lacked cooking gas or a working radiator.