Brooklyn residents brave elements to rally against evictions in Crown Heights

large crowd of tenants at crown heights rally
Over 50 people braved the rain on Saturday, March 9, in a show of support for the tenants of 285 Eastern Parkway and tenants’ rights across New York City.
Photo by Oscar Fock

In 40 degree weather and drizzling rain, a crowd gathered in Crown Heights on Saturday, March 9, in support of the tenants of 285 Eastern Parkway, who are currently facing the risk of eviction.

But the rally was about more than one case. Donning raincoats and umbrellas, residents of 12 unionized buildings across the borough listened as leaders of tenant unions and tenant associations urged the audience to fight back against the deregulation of rent-stabilized housing. 

“We went around Brooklyn and told people what their rights were. We told people that if they get together and fight that they can win, they can stay in their apartments,” Nicolás Vargas from the Brooklyn Eviction Defense Tenant Union, which organized the rally together with the Crown Heights Tenant Union, said, detailing how his union got started.

The turnout was indicative of the magnitude of the issue, said Michael Hollingsworth with the CHTU.

“It speaks to the organizing that we’ve been doing in the community. It speaks to the fact that deregulation is a real problem,” he said. “And I think it speaks to the fact that a lot of tenants are just fed up, and we want to see actual change happen.”

tenant at crown heights rally
Martina Meijera member of the Tenant Union Flatbush, at the protest in solidarity with the building’s tenants.Photo by Oscar Fock

In July last year, the landlord, Renaissance Realty Group, first notified the tenants of 285 Eastern Parkway that it planned to demolish the building. Since then, the residents have fought building management with the help of CHTU and Brooklyn Legal Services, and the case has now gone to the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal for review. 

“It’s been very stressful,” said Lashawn Diallo, head of the building’s tenant association. “The tenants are elderly. Some people have conditions, and it’s aggravating the conditions because you’re very stressed out and worrying.’”

Their leases expire in May, and the landlord has not offered a renewal.

“That’s why we’re upset,” explained tenant Pamela Hickens. “What will we do? Live on the street?” 

tenant with megaphone at crown heights rally
Nicolás Vargas with the Brooklyn Eviction Defense Tenant Union. His union represents over 65 tenant associations across the borough.Photo by Oscar Fock

During the state’s review process, residents can stay even if their leases expire. If demolition plans are approved, tenants must be given “reasonable time” to move out; if denied, lease renewals must be offered.

There are primarily two legal ways for landlords to deregulate rent-controlled units. One, as with 285 Eastern Parkway, is demolishing the building. A move like this must first be approved by the Division of Housing and Community Renewal. A rent-controlled building can also lose its status under the Rent Stabilization law if it has undergone “substantial rehabilitation.” This means that if significant structural upgrades have been made, landlords can hike rents up to market rate; this requires no approval from the State. 

The ongoing battle is part of a broader movement among New York City landlords to deregulate the housing market to raise rents and push working-class tenants out, said the organizers of the event. 

“A lot of us Brooklyn have experienced different kinds of fights around deregulation. But ultimately, we’re fighting the same thing,” explained Jessica Dunn, also with CHTU, who led most of the chants. “So, we thought coming together and talking about each of our experiences would be a really good opportunity for us to build some power and to make clear how big of an issue this is in our neighborhoods.” 

Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest was also in attendance and spoke passionately to the audience. 

“We are under attack,” she said from the building’s stoop. “And it’s not because of the way we walk or the way we talk. We are under attack because corporate greed cannot get enough.”

Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest addressing the audience. She represents the 57th assembly district in Brooklyn, and is an outspoken supporter of tenants’ rights. Photo by Oscar Fock

The crowd, which included tenants from Crown Heights, Flatbush, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Prospect Heights, Prospect Leffert Gardens and Williamsburg, remained outside 285 Eastern Parkway after the event formally ended. 

“I’m watching around the city as it becomes less and less affordable for working-class people,” described Martina Meijer, a public school teacher. “There’s no reason for us to have to fight like this and have so many people unhoused. It’s a real disgrace.”

Enacting change requires a two-pronged approach, said Dunn. 

“The electoral piece is important. There are laws that can be changed to make sure that all of us can stay in our homes.” However, she added, “As a tenant union, we believe that it’s more than the electoral power. It’s also the tenant power, the community power. And showing that we won’t be moved from our homes.”