2019-02-06 / Front Page

Justice For All Talks Amazon & NYCHA Rent Strike

By Thomas Cogan
The latest meeting of the Justice For All Coalition (JFAC), held on January 28th at Queensbridge Houses’ Jacob Riis Center, was an angry session. The gathered audience was largely, but not entirely, opposed to Amazon’s intended thrust into Long Island City, its proposed second headquarters. Amazon was the second topic of business at the meeting, the first being the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and a possible rent strike against it.

NYCHA’s massive troubles, proposed solutions, which range from radical to severe, are disturbing to its tenants. This is because it is widely believed among them that the entirety of the city’s public housing could be so changed or damaged it would render them homeless or otherwise put on their own to find themselves shelter.  But worry is one thing, action another. Because NYCHA as it currently exists is infamous for bad service to its tenants, some of them have been considering rent strikes, the largest possible one of which would challenge all the authority’s housing in the city. Some of those who were at the meeting want to go just that far.

JFAC’s Nick Velkov brought up Amazon’s second headquarters.  He called the deal a closed-door conference between Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos. He said too that an innovation clause in the memorandum of understanding gives Amazon leeway to do as it sees right, which includes instituting facial recognition technology at its home-away-from-home.

Stanley Moss, also of JFAC, brought Amazon and NYCHA into the same sentence by saying they are in a way connected: Amazon would offer to repair residents’ apartments and then somehow have them evicted. Another speaker, identifying himself as Dannelly, said Amazon is “a neutron bomb for gentrification.” It was his turn to talk, so he also said that the company’s glitzy promises of high pay are obviously fake and the top pay would be $15 per hour, nothing more. He said bitterly that while the affluent complain and get favorable results, the poor expect unsatisfactory conditions and live with them. They should instead shed their despondency and take action. For one thing, keep records of all appeals made to NYCHA, including the times they were made and if there were replies, and also when. If a rent strike is called, one must pay their rent, without fail, by putting it in escrow.

Moss said that a small group, of say 10 to 15, can get a rent strike started. When tenants as a group withhold rent, they get noticed. No money coming in from a significant amount of tenants disturbs the landlord.

The question period began with a woman named Brenda, who called herself a follower of Lenora Fulani, of the Committee for Independent Community Action. She proposed a march of 400,000 NYCHA residents and others on City Hall and Washington. Taking Moss’s lead, she said, “We have to make them uncomfortable.”

Yvette Kemp of JFAC said that the 30% rental cap, being not more than 30% of one’s income for rent, is observed more in the breach than in practice. She was inclined toward a rent strike.  Claudia Coger, a tenants’ rights leader from the Ravenswood Houses, also cautioned everyone to know just what a rent strike is. First of all, pay the rent; a strike entails withholding rent, not ignoring it. If it is not paid she said, the housing office will find the tenant. Dannelly thanked her for her warning. He said discipline is necessary if a rent strike is to be effective.

A woman saying she lives on the Lower East Side also said she travels to other rent protest meetings such as this one (next on her schedule was a trip to the Rockaways) and loves meeting the people there. She said she is working for City Council Member Rafael Espinal in his campaign to be elected public advocate.  She’d no sooner finished saying that when he walked in, greeting her after entering.  He said he’s open to the possibility of a rent strike but wants to find out more about it.

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer’s representative said the council member would like to help and advise with either the Amazon issue or the rent strike. Dannelly replied that all politicians are stunted by the capitalist system. A man from a protest group called Not One Block More accused Van Bramer of dishonesty for having signed a petition from Congress Member Carolyn Maloney that celebrated the coming of Amazon, and now he says he’s opposed to it.

The council member has said he regrets the signing and has become as vocal an opponent of the Amazon deal as anyone else.

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