Tuesday, July 08, 2008

THE TENANTS MOVEMENT AND THE ENEMY WTHIN.MIKE (“THE KNIFE”) MCKEE AND CHUCK DELANEY

UP FRONT News December, 24, 2005
Published by Tom Weiss
Editorial Advisor: Willard Whittingham

“The paper that can’t be bought and can’t be sold.”

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I first met Mike McKee in the late 1970’s or early 80’s on a train going up to Albany, with a group from the Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants, (LMLT), that group led by Chuck Delaney. I was a loft tenant on the 5th floor of 190-A Duane Street, in Tribeca, under siege by my landlord, Thomas Berger, who, although he does not, to public knowledge, dabble in slums, belongs on everyone’s “worst landlords” list. I was active in the effort to get the politicians to enact rent protection legislation to stop the displacement of residential loft tenants. I had recently learned that Mr. Berger, of Forest Hills, Queens, who, over a period of several years, used every possible means, including major violence, and including no heat or any water for 5 ½ years, to displace me, was the founder and president of the Association of Commercial Property Owners, (ACPO), the loftlord wing of the real estate industry. He and his real estate lobbyist friend Lester Schulklapper, were very active on the other side in Albany and at City hall. Berger was – and presumably still is – at least a personal acquaintance of Ed Koch, who became one of the kings of budget cuts and of gentrification.

I managed to get onto the LMLT Steering Committee. My tenure there did not last long. It soon became apparent that, in particular, the unearthly-looking Delaney was using radical anti-landlord rhetoric to in fact delay and weaken protections for tenants. He did so by, while stifling dissent at LMLT meetings, refusing to speak with Republican legislators, a suicidal tactic since the Republican controlled the New York State Senate, whose approval by majority vote, was needed to pass any loft tenant protection legislation. Delaney, depended on professional leftists such as Councilmember Miriam Friedlander (whose response to dissent in her office was to throw the constituent out) and real-estate-beholden-but-tenants-rights-rapping legislators like State Senator Manfred Ohrenstein, who, together as Democrats, did not even have the power in Albany to pass a law in favor of virtue, let alone to legislation to protect working class, limited income artists and writers living in lofts from displacement.

So Delaney was very unhappy when, while he was railing against the Republicans but refusing to talk with them, I went to the Republican State Senate Majority Warren Anderson of Binghamton, a town I know well, and his downstate colleague from Staten Island, John Marchi, the two most powerful guys in the State Senate. Those visits, along with a somewhat confrontational letter I wrote to Mayor Koch, which yielded a grudging letter from him to me confirming in writing his support for loft tenants rights legislation in Albany, helped to revive a bill that was dying. I reminded the Republicans that it would hardly make New York City and State look good if some of our best and hardest working artists were out protesting all over the place because of imminent homelessness. The Republicans evidently agreed and stopped opposing rent protections for loft tenants.

Delaney’s next move came when, while I was in Albany on my own, I learned from the lawyer who supervised the drafting of the bill in the State Assembly, that a major legal problem had emerged and the bill could not move ahead and has to be redrafted. I im- mediatelty so informed Delaney, who, aided and abetted by Friedland, et. al., continued to support the stillborn bill, creating a one year delay in the enactment of loft tenant pro- tection legislation. Lots of people, with no protection against rent gougers, who proliferated in places like Soho, Noho, Tribeca, and what is now DUMBO, were evicted during that year.

Through all of this, Delaney, collaborating closely with Mike McKee and McKee’s New York State Tenants & Neighborhood Coalition (which Delaney, without consulting the LMLT membership, associated to loft organization to) propagandized ad nauseum for an “artist” named Mario Pikus who was being persistently threatened with eviction from his loft on Walker Street by his loftlord, Thomas Berger colleague-in-greed Eli Lipkis. Delaney and the succession of slippery lawyers who represented the marginally artistically talented Pikus over the years, took his case to the Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest court, on the totally backward strategy that a rent strike is justified if the owner has not gotten a “C of O”, a residential Certificate of Occupancy. Except that, in many cases, owners could not get certificates because of substantial code violations in spaces that, in many cases, had been rendered habitable, if not legal, by the tenants. Not even the most altruistic landlord is going to play economic Russian Roulette by investing into code compliance repairs if he cannot get even a reasonable rent. Sure enough, Pikus lost in the courts and, in something of a boost to the NYC art world, moved to Los Angeles.

Delaney, who, when he learned of a knife-wielding attack upon me by two of Thomas Berger’s “contractors” on the roof of 190A Duane Street, expressed open support for the landlord, with Mike McKee, also made a false complaint against me, via an always-on-edge state legislative aide who was on so much psychiatric medication that she was, at times, marginally functional, which resulted in my being arrested in the Legislative Office Building in Albany. That took place on the day of the final vote for a Loft Bill which, thanks to Delaney and Mike McKee, contained a cost pass-along loophole that would allow for rent “stabilization” in the qualifying lofts flexible enough to permit blatant rent gouging, of which people like Thomas Berger were expert practitioners.

It is, however, when it comes to the history of the most urgently still needed, even in resurrected form, Flynn-Dearie Rent Protection Act that Mike McKee’s true anti-tenant loyalties became very, very clear. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, when, in particular under Ed Koch, gentrification was causing homelessness, State Senator John Flynn (R.-Yonkers) and Assemblyman John Dearie (D.-Bx.) recurrently introduced a bill which, if enacted, would have required any landlord of a multiple dwelling who wished to raise the rent for any reason to open his or her books to state inspectors in order to determine if an increase was justified. The notion of the real estate industry opening its books is the equivalent of asking Dick Cheney to videotape for public consumption his meetings with oil and military executives. The real estate industry said, “No way!” And so did Mike McKee! Interestingly, McKee and his real estate allies used the same argument, i.e. that requiring landlords to open their books would be “too cumbersome.” McKee’s New York State Tenants & Neighborhood Coalition split the tenant movement, then headed by the Flynn-Dearie- supporting New York Metropolitan Council on Housing, and Flynn-Dearie went down, time after time. And, had it not been for McKee, it is conceivable, because John Flynn was a conservative Republican, with good upstate ties, that Flynn Dearie could have become law, especially since the governor, Hugh Carey, was a New York City Democrat. The multiple deaths of Flynn-Dearie “open the books” protections have left millions of tenants under the dubious protections of rent “stabilization.” It has enabled countless landlords to rent gouge and otherwise harass tenants and to create homelessness. Indeed, New York has the embarrassing distinction of being a city where you can be paying $1,900/mo. for a small rent “stabilized” apartment.

And thanks to Chuck Delaney, (a photographer who, last I heard, still lives at a miraculously reasonable rent in a small loft building on Pearl Street near Ground Zero, , which was the site of the highly publicized murder of another tenant, with, while the landlord has been a person of interest, no perpetrator yet found), rents in the lofts are in the stratosphere of gentrification.

Mike McKee is still seen at affordable housing meetings and is still at times paraded about as a tenants rights “spokesperson.” My suggestion is that Mike McKee, a reported spawning of a right wing think tank known as The Manhattan Institute, look for another assignment. How about “The Apprentice?”
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