A predatory landlord’s rapid expansion in Brooklyn has brought together a coalition of half a dozen local Council members and a local tenants association in an effort to warn their neighbors about what’s to come and try to protect their homes.
Councilmembers Lincoln Restler, Shahana Hanif, Jennifer Gutiérrez, Crystal Hudson, Chi Ossé, and Sandy Nurse, representing Brooklyn neighborhoods from Williamsburg to East New York to Borough Park, joined forces with the Greenbrook Tenants Coalition on July 27 to raise the alarm at dozens of residential buildings recently purchased by the private equity-backed Greenbrook Partners.
“This fight has been going on for years now, but our new canvassing efforts will help build greater tenant power,” said Councilmember Shahana Hanif in a statement. “Greenbrook’s goal is to make tenants feel isolated and alone so that they can be more easily bullied. Through our organizing work, we’re building tenant coalitions to ensure renters can stand side-by-side against these intimidation tactics.”
Greenbrook first reared its head in Park Slope, part of Hanif’s district, last summer, snapping up a number of apartment buildings, informing tenants they would not be renewing their leases, then hiking rents up high above market rates.
Since then, the firm, usually operating through a number of limited liability companies, including Freestone Property Group, has purchased around 90 buildings — building their portfolio up to a whopping 155, according to Who Owns What in NYC.
Empty buildings, high rents
Fourteen people, including Nurse and members of the Tenants Coalition, gathered in Irving Square Park in Bushwick ahead of a canvass Wednesday night.
After a quick training, the canvassers were ready to visit 20 Greenbrook-owned buildings nearby. The very first tenant they visited said Greenbrook had tried to raise her rent substantially and called the company “monsters,” Nurse said.
“I knew right away that we were on point,” in doing the canvass, the councilmember said.
LT Tierney, a member of the Tenants Coalition, became aware of Greenbrook Partners when the company purchased her Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment building last year. Shortly after the purchase was finalized, the new landlord told one of Tierney’s neighbors that their rent would be increasing by 50% when the lease ended.
“There’s no way someone’s budget in New York City can sustain that kind of difference,” Tierney told Brooklyn Paper. “So what’s your choice? You leave.”
But Tierney’s neighbor chose to fight — as have dozens of other Greenbrook tenants across Brooklyn. The purpose of the canvass was to meet all the tenants who haven’t left yet, she said.
“We’re trying to hit these buildings before all of these longtime community members vacate so that we can invite them to our coalition, inform them of our rights, encourage them to stay and fight so we can preserve some of the characters of our neighborhood and try to make some small headway in the fight against private equity,” Tierney said.
For some, it was too late. Two recent Greenbrook acquisitions on Cooper Street stood empty and under construction. Some tenants said their apartments had noticeable damage or structural issues — floorboards that don’t quite meet the walls or fire damage on the exterior of the building.
Greenbrook Partners did not immediately respond to request for comment via phone, and an email sent by Brooklyn Paper was bounced back on Thursday.
Restler, whose office organized the first canvass back in March, joined a separate team in his North Brooklyn district on the 27th.
Like Nurse, Restler said he didn’t know the extent of Greenbrook’s recent purchases in his district until he saw the list compiled by the Tenants Coalition. He was even more surprised to discover that the company had purchased the building right next to his childhood home.
He and a volunteer knocked on apartment door after apartment door and found the building largely vacant. One of the remaining tenants was a familiar face to Restler — a neighbor who had always been “incredibly helpful” to his family and their community.
“We were already too late again,” Restler said. “What’s so upsetting and devastating about this is that as rents go up and up and up … if you’re forced out of your home, you probably can’t afford to continue living in your neighborhood. You may struggle to find an apartment in New York City altogether.”
The Greenbrook Tenants Coalition is hosting a virtual information session for new Greenbrook tenants interested in learning about their landlord and how to fight back against common tactics on Aug. 4.
Restler and the Coalition encourage tenants to seek out the rental history of their unit from the state’s office of Homes and Community Renewal, and to find out if their unit is rent-regulated. Some formerly regulated units have been illegally deregulated and tenants may have the grounds to fight back.
Taking action against Greenbrook and other predatory landlords
Nurse and Restler are both strong advocates for Good Cause Eviction, which would guarantee tenants the right to renew their leases and would cap annual rent increases. The bill did not pass in the most recent state legislative session, which ended last month.
Restler also said he has been strongly in support of state legislation that would force more transparency for LLCs, which real estate giants like Greenbrook often use to obscure the people and companies who own and maintain buildings.
“The Council has a substantial role to play in reducing the burden on tenants,” Nurse said, both to help tenants who have already been forced out and those trying to remain in their homes, who are usually forced to hire lawyers and host late-night meetings with their neighbors to strategize against predatory practices.
“City agencies should proactively reach out [to landlords] to say ‘If you don’t take care of this, we will take the building from you,’” Nurse said.