I was scared. It was 2006 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and our apartment of thirty years was becoming more and more uninhabitable. We had a new landlord who had just bought the building that had already deteriorated after over thirty years of negligence. The new landlord refused to make repairs to our apartment with leaking ceilings and no heat in the winter. We, he told us, needed to pay for the repairs ourselves.
As our apartment felt like it was falling apart, rent was suddenly spiking for many of us. Some tenants in the building had preferential rent, an amount in a rent-stabilized apartment that is lower than the maximum rent a landlord can legally charge but also allows space for the landlord to increase the rent at any time he pleased. (Thankfully, this practice was made illegal in New York’s June 2019 tenants’ rights reforms.) My fellow tenants were at risk of getting priced out, and I could not lose my home of thirty years that I shared with my family.
I came to my first tenants’ meeting because something had to be done. As I stood in the lobby of our thirty-five-unit building with ten of my neighbors, I felt some unease. Who from our group might be working with our landlord? This was our first meeting, and we were still building trust with each other. The organizers and attorneys from Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a Sunset Park–based community organizing group, began to speak to us about how we could fight for better conditions as tenants united. But the organizers were still strangers to all of us.
Just as we were beginning to slowly feel more comfortable, our landlord burst into the meeting — with three NYPD officers.
The landlord yelled, “I want these people arrested. They’re trespassing and harassing my tenants.”
Fear entered the room. We knew the police officers weren’t there to protect us. And we didn’t know our rights — we thought the landlord could terminate our leases as he pleased. Fearful of losing our homes, we were paralyzed.
The organizers and attorneys took the lead and made clear they had every right to be there. Eventually, we moved the meeting to my apartment. But not a single other tenant felt comfortable continuing the meeting. The landlord’s use of the NYPD had worked in terrifying us. The NYPD was there to maintain the status quo, where the landlord had power and we didn’t.
Now that I’m a tenant organizer with Neighbors Helping Neighbors in Brooklyn, I’ve seen this scenario play out many times: the landlord or property owner calls in the NYPD to prevent tenants from legally assembling. Often, I’ve then had to explain housing law to police officers — as long as tenants are not obstructing the property, they’re legally allowed to gather. I’ve tried to work with community officers, with little to no success. Their loyalty is to property owners. Often the intimidation tactics used by police work, which makes organizing much more difficult.
The hardest part of tenant organizing is overcoming fear. Who are we to turn to if the public figures we’re told are supposed to protect us are actually the ones harassing us?
Even with the law on our side, tenants fear retaliation. I’m commonly asked questions like, “What if the landlord calls ICE on me? What if they try to hurt my children?” With the police on their side, these scenarios are not unrealistic. When the police arrive to support landlords, it reinforces tenants’ worst fears: that nothing but an owner’s goodwill stands in the way of our families being thrown out on the street. It’s a tactic to undermine tenants’ hard-won solidarity, and it is effective.
We Need to Defund the Police
This shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve seen over the past few weeks how the NYPD responds when working-class people legally gather to build and demonstrate our collective power — with violence and intimidation. The policing system that assaults protesters in the streets and brutally murders black and brown people across this country, including the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, is the same mechanism that protects landlords and actively works to undermine the rights of tenants and working-class people.
If a tenant calls about landlord harassment or an illegal eviction, the NYPD reaction typically is that they can’t do anything. It’s a housing issue, they say, and tenants need to go to court. They never make any report, which is needed when tenants go to court to challenge abusive landlord behavior. There is no record of the complaint call.
But if a landlord calls the police on a tenant organizer like me, you can bet they will show up. I’ve had to carry around a copy of housing law with me, just to prevent NYPD officers from arresting me. I’ve seen landlords report to police officers that young children have been abandoned in their building when, in fact, tenants are meeting in the lobby with the kids.
Over and over in my work as a housing activist, I’ve seen the way policing disproportionately punishes tenants. Housing is a human right, and housing stability is essential to that equation. Police erode that stability. Their presence makes clear what every working-class tenant already knows: their rights aren’t taken as seriously as those of the people who own the building.
We need to defund the police. The violence that officers commit, most horrifyingly illustrated by the unnecessary deployment of chemical weapons and batons against peaceful antiracist protesters, is central to every level of policing. The city spends $5.6 billion on a police force that deliberately and systematically undermines the housing security of New York tenants, and terrorizes people of color and working-class renters with impunity.
After years of organizing, I am seeing progress. What once were distant leftist pipe dreams, demands like defunding the police or universal housing, are now widely supported. This is because we organized and demanded more.
We have to keep fighting until power is transferred from landlords to tenants, a project I’ve been deeply involved in for years and that led me to run for the New York State Assembly’s 51st district on June 23. And we have to recognize that the NYPD and police all throughout the country are a barrier to that project.