Saturday, May 03, 2008

TENANTS DIS-UNYTED

UP FRONT News April 22, 2008
Published by Tom Weiss
Editorial Advisor: Willard Whittingham
"The paper that can't be bought and can't be sold."
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/UPFRONTNewsdiscussionforum
http://www.tomsupfrontnews.blogspot.com/
By Tom Weiss

The recent Rebecca Moore ("Take It to the Bridge")-led anti-gentrification protest in front of the Varvatos boutique, which occupies what used to be CBCG's at 315 Bowery in Manhattan, reported in The New York Times on "Page Six" in the New York Post, points up both the strengths and the weaknesses of what passes for a tenants rights "movement" in New York City.

One of its strengths is most certainly Ms. Moore, a musician/activist with whom I have been acquainted since 2005. As reported, Ms. Moore and what the Times described as a "handful" of protesters confronted arrivals at the April 21 party for John Varvatos' upscale boutique where shirts reportedly cost $250 and jackets $2,000. Ms. Moore, who is known for speaking her mind, found herself face to face with ($250?)shirt-untucked black-tied gentry hipster Arturo Vega. Vega, in response to Ms. Moore's heated references to "$40,000/ month rents and $800 pants, said, as reported in The Times, "'When you are good at what you do, money comes, people. Work hard and you'll be able to afford."

Arturo Vega is evidently a proponent of the Social Darwinism branch of the art world where only the fittest are supposed to survive. The art world is replete with millionaires who do not lack for corporate connections but clearly lack talent. Some of the stuff exhibited in the fancy galleries in Soho and Tribeca might have El Greco and Rembrandt spinning in their respective graves. And when it comes to music, even allowing for differences in taste, what passes for talent might in some cases cause similar activity in the resting places of for example Ludwig von Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, John Coltrane, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Scott Joplin, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

And perhaps the smug Vega did not recognize his opposition out there in front of Varvatos' shop. I've seen Ms. Moore perform on a number of occasions I've written about her unique musical gifts. And while as far as I am aware, she is not a "starving artist", when, during a break at a New Year's Day Poetry Marathon at St. Mark's in-the-Bowery Church a couple of years agol, I complimented her on her Johnny Cash black attire, she said, "It's my best shirt." In any event, she is among the millions unable to afford the hip stuff on sale in what used to be CBGB's.

Ms. Moore's protest notwithstanding, Varvatos' shop, a plethora of mega-priced high rise luxury housing towers, hotels, and "artsy" establishments (e.g. the Bowery Poetry Club, more about that place elsewhere in UP FRONT News) catering to the monied set, clearly demonstrate that the developers are winning the war to take over working class communities such as the Lower East Side, while starting invasions of other such neighborhoods such as Stapleton, S.I. (where I live). And in consideration of what passes for a tenants movement in New York City, it is likely to get worse.

The tenant movement here has been deeply split since the 1980's, when it was led by the broad-based grass roots New York Metropolitan Council on Housing. Met Council, led in the early days by leftists like Jane Benedict and Esther Rand, were an effective lobbying force and without their leadership there would have been no rent protection legislation at all.

It was the efforts of Met Council that led to the introduction of the strongest piece of tenant protection legislation ever into the state legislature. The bill, known as the Flynn-Dearie Rent Protection Act, would have effectively ended what I call "rent-flation" (legitimized under the loophole-riddled rent "stabilization" system) by requiring any residential building owner seeking a rent increase for any reason to prove need by opening his or her books. That provision was anathema to the real estate lobby because landlords have been cooking their books for eons. Flynn-Dearie, unlike much other tenant legislation, could have passed because it had bipartisan backing in the person of State Senator John Flynn, a Republican from Yonkers.

The bill died multiple deaths because the landlord lobby was supported by self-proclaimed tenants rights leader Mike ("The Knife") McKee, who urged the defeat of Flynn-Dearie, claiming that the "open the books" provision was "too cumbersome."

It was then the McKee started his divisive New York State Neighbors and Tenants Coalition, which split off from Met Council and the tenants movement has been factionalized since. Tenants received another defeat disguised as a feat in the passage of the Loft Law. In summary, Mike McKee and his collaborator in the lofts, Chuck ("Ol' Loophole") Delaney, helped to delay passage of loft tenant protection legislation by refusing to speak to Republicans (without whose support in the State Senate nothing could be passed). And then they managed to secretly insert into the loft bill a provision allowing owners to pass along "legalization" costs in the form of rent increases. That is how in the lofts tenants can experience 350% rent increases under "rent stabilization."

Once working class loft districts in what are now SoHo, NoHo, TriBeca, et. al. are now citadels for the rich. Tenants have Mike McKee, and his "liberal" political friends, to thank for that. Mike McKee, although quite widely exposed in UP FRONT News, however, retains major influence as a self-appointed tenants leader. He is tight with the pro-developer-oriented-but tenants-rights-spouting NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is the other half of what is something of a political same sex marriage with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Under what I refer to as the Quinnberg Administration, the developers have been on a rampage of luxury building which has threatened entire communties and cost lives in construction accidents.

Although McKee and entrenched rhetorically populist allies such as Julie Miles retain much influence, many tenants (some "organized" as there is a multiplicity of groups in New York, some not organized) are dissatisfied with the existing leadership. Mike McKee is about as popular among tenants as a whole as is Dick Cheney with Americans beyond the Beltway.

And since a number of people have asked me what ever happened to the Union of New York Tenants, more well known during its apparently brief existence as UNYTE, I am writing this article in part to answer that question.

Monte Schapiro, Ezekiel Finkelstein, Mark Hatalak, Rob Hollander and myself formed the "core group" of what became the Union of New York Tenants. UNYTE was conceived of as New York-wide vehicle for organizing to strengthen tenant protections, restrain development, and "illuminate" the politics behind the housing crisis. We agreed that existing laws are inadequate, that even the existing laws are not properly enforced, and that a new organizing vehicle was necessary in order to stop the landlord/developer assault.

While the core group for a time met on an almost weekly basis, involving long sometimes very contentious meetings, over the course of several months UNYTE had three public meetings. The first public meeting, held in the garden behind St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery Church in Manhattan got off to a weird start. About 15 activists, including the core group, were present and after the introductions a guy named Steve Chabra arose and, pointing out a couple of people who had wanted to videotape the meeting, and, expressing concerns about surveillance, demanded that they leave. His concerns could not be alleviated and after some discussion, the video people were allowed to stay and Chabra angrily stalked off. (At least to me, Chabra hasn't gotten any friendlier and, despite some rhetorical militance at a City Council hearing, was of no help when it came to supporting my efforts at strengthening an anti-harassment bill. Mike McKee is also good at populist rhetoric and then folding when it counts. I don't know whether McKee and ("Abraca")Chabra know each other but they certainly resemble each other politically.

In any event, there was general agreement at the meeting that a new New York-wide organizing effort was needed and that we would try to organize a larger meeting by circulating some literature and asking people to sign a UNYTE petition at the May 25, 2007 tenants
rights rally at Stuyvesant Town, Indeed, we got several hundred signatures at the very well attended rally, which was addressed by a host of politicians, including some actual tenants rights advocates such as Councilman Charles Barron (D.-Bklyn.) and some others masquerading in that capacity (e.g. Quinn).

Although there were many strong differences of opinion within the regularly meeting core
group, open political combat did not occur until the end of the first UNYTE public meeting in August, 2007 at the Orensanz Foundation on the Lower East Side At that meeting, attended by about thirty people, by general group agreement it was determined that I would be the coordinator of the Outreach Committee and that Rob Hollander would coordinate the Venue Committee. The core group, always open to new people, became the Program Committee. No date for a new meeting was set.

The first political problem occurred when, at the end of the long meeting, Mr. Hollander demanded that I surrender to him the sign-in sheets. I had gone around the room collecting signatures, checking penmanship so that I could type up the list for e-mail circulation to everyone. There were no photocopying services accessible then. Mr. Hollander was unswayed by my argument, supported by some others after the meeting had ended, that I needed the lists only to type up and e-mail out. After some convincing by Mr. Hatalak Mr. Hollander relented. I did as promised and within a few days everyone at the August meeting had a copy of the list of attendees with e-mail addresses.

There were other disputes, not always involving Mr. Hollander and me. While Mr. Schapiro put together a Statement of Program and Principles (to which I added some suggestions), he became increasingly disenchanted with the group's "viability." Also, since many in the original core group as well as those attending public meetings, were from the Lower East Side, some LES politics intruded. Some LES activists I know were reluctant to even participate in UNYTE because of the apparent factionalization among those fighting the gentrification-related bar proliferation in that community. (I am somewhat familiar with that struggle since I have attended some anti-proliferation meetings and testified in support of resisters like Ms. Moore at Manhattan Community Board 3 and at a State Assembly Committee hearing and written about the issue in UP FRONT News.

Nonetheless there was another, less well attended, meeting, this one "facilitated" by Mr. Hollander, who made certain to hold onto the sign-up sheet. I sat next to Mr. Schapiro and as I recall little was accomplished. I certainly do remember a guy named Steven Dibbs, who, for some reason, when I mentioned the name Mike McKee in critical fashion, responded with a torrent of personal insults at me and then stalked out. Apparently Dibbs took rather personally my criticism of McKee (who is said to have extremist links to both the radical right and the radical left, a syndrome that immediately evokes the name of Lyndon LaRouche, the man responsible, along with the late Bruce Bailey, for the ultra Columbia Tenants Union, more on the CTU elsewehere in UP FRONT News).

Then things started getting sneaky. An e-mail was circulated announcing a "Citywide Tenants meeting" on December 3, 2007 at Orensanz. No sponsoring organization apppeared on the flier, of which I received a copy from a friend. I decided to attend and stopped beforehand
for a slice of pizza at Rosario's on Stanton Street. Who should stop by but Monte Schapiro, who told me that he had received an announcement, emanating from Mr. Hollander, but that he and Mr. Finkelstein had no plans to attend.

When I arrived at the meeting, Mr. Hollander looked surprised. In what became perhaps a half hour encounter, it was made known that I was not invited to this public meeting. Mark Hatalak retreated to a far corner of the room. Mr. Hollander labeled me "divisive" and then
a guy named Quinn Raymond, who had shown up at the August meeting and subsequently manifested no interest in UNYTE, made a motion to have me banned from the meeting.

There were about 14 people in the room, including someone from The Villager, most of whom knew little if anything about the politics unfolding there. Hollander called for a vote and by a vote of 2 (Raymond and Hatalak) to 1 (me) I was banned. Democracy at work. Later the same evening I attended a booksigning event at Bluestockings with Mr. Schapiro and Mr. Finkelstein at which time they reiterated their view that UNYTE was not viable.

I wrote an article about the whole UNYTE situation in which I strongly criticized as always Mike McKee (who I believe is working with the landlords and has for years fifth-columned his way into the tenants movement with smooth populist rhetoric) and on this occasion Mr. Hollander.
To my surprise, after a rather lengthy series of e-mail exchanges among various people, including some testy ones between Mr. Hollander and me, Mr. Hollander acknowledged some wrongdoing and announced his resignation from UNYTE. Indeed, he urged me to do what I can to keep UNYTE alive.

At a City Council hearing on some anti-harassment legislation (Intro. 627) Mr. Shapiro and I were among those who testified. Although we were among a number of people who urged some strengthening amendments, in the absence of a potentially powerful organization, the Council passed what might be called a B minus bill - much better than nothing but also less than adequate. At the hearing and in other settings various people have asked me what is happening with UNYTE. My answer, up until now, has been "I don't know."

Of the core group, Mr. Hollander, who incorrectly claims I put him out of UNYTE (in fact he resigned) has again urged me to urge Mr. Schapiro and other to revive the group. While, as is apparent here, Mr. Hollander and I had and have serious disagreements, I regard him as a very knowledgeable community activist who certainly helps to keep the pivotal CB3 on its
toes. Where he and I seem to have our most fundamental difference is not with respect to the dangers of over-development and gentrification but with respect to the First Amendment.
As this article makes clear, while I have no problem with anyone disagreeing with my views, I do not honor demands that I not write about certain issues and about the people involved.

Under any circumstances, while the Lower East Side is in certain ways the Ground Zero of the development/gentrification wars, this is a struggle being experienced in working class communities in all five boroughs and beyond. I think LES activists need to reach out more.
As far as UNYTE is concerned, Mr. Hatalak some time ago told me he is too busy and Mr Schapiro and Mr. Finkelstein have urged me to call a meeting. I have been particularly per- sistent with Mr. Schapiro, who gave the group its name, which, as I understand it has some kind of "domain" status on the internet.

If Mr. Schapiro, Mr. Finkelstein, or anyone else recognizing the need for UNYTE wants to revive the group, it is not hard to reach me by e-mail. At this point, the outlook for tenants is not good. Another legislative session in Albany will probably pass without the introduction of legislation - a la Flynn-Dearie - that would require building owners to open their books in order to get rent increases. Millions of dollars will continue be given away in the form of tax abatements to real estate developers and corporate sports. The New Yankee Stadium involves lots of taxpayer subsidized goodies for George Steinbrenner and the moguls who will occupy the luxury boxes and watch $30 million/year athlete/egotists like Alex Rodriguez strike out in clutch situations delighting the good citizens of Boston and other cities. And the good citizens of the South Bronx, who have already lost two of their parks to the new Stadium, can expect tsunami of development, gentrification, and traffic as the neighborhood evolves into SoBro.

Politically connected developers such Ben Shaoul, the Bush-linked Carlyle/Extell, and Casandra (Staten Island) will move more aggressively into New York neighborhoods. Wildly inflated rents and mortgage payments will wind up in the form of dollars in banks in Shanghai. NYU will continue to colonize Lower Manhattan.( NYU, by the way, has been pushing me around for years since one of its people made a bureaucratic blunder while I was a pro-bono patient at the NYU Dental Clinic and blamed me for it. When they wouldn't do right and restore me as a patient, I made a complaint to the NYS Department of Health, which "substantiated" my complaint. Since that time NYU has covered up.)

Tenants should also be very concerned should Hillary Clinton hijack and subsequently further privatize the presidency. Perhaps she will retain Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg as two of her affordable housing advisors. Perhaps the most positive development for tenants has been the Christine Quinn slush fund scandal. I've been writing about the fraud Quinn for years. She is secretive, she is among the best political friends the developers and other corporate invaders have in New York, she is dishonest. Councilman Barron has called upon her to resign from the speakership. He is approximately 100% correct. as far as I am concerned, probably any of the announced or imminent candidates for the mayoralty, who include City Councilman Tony Avella (D.-Queens), U.S. Congressman Anthony D. Weiner (D.-Queens/Bklyn.), and NYC Controller William C. Thompson, Jr., is more qualified to be mayor than "The Flighty Quinn."

And as long as Mike McKee retains influence, Rebecca Moore's street eloquence in front of Varvatos nothwithstanding, tenants will be in retreat in New York City. Unless we get UNYTED.
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