By: Justina Walker, Legal Advocate
Imagine working for ten to twelve hours every day, seven days a week. You’re exhausted. It is in part physical, but extends far beyond that. It is not normal, for those who come from more privileged backgrounds, but it has become your normal. The exhaustion you feel, you resent, and have contempt for is also necessary to your survival. To not be exhausted is to not resist. Not resisting almost guarantees your inability to secure housing. Now imagine picking up your phone to hear your neighbor of eleven years screaming. She tells you that there are men currently in your apartment, removing all of your things and putting them on the street. All of your possessions: clothes, photos, furniture, knickknacks, china sets and shoes. There is no need for you to ask her why. You already know the answer. You’ve known the answer every day that you lived in this apartment with this new landlord. You have overheard your landlord mention how, “Haitians are dirty”. He cites you, your family, and your people as the cause of the mice infestation. Slowly, you have seen how your neighborhood has begun to change around you. White faces begin to move into your building. Prices of local goods have already begun to increase. It was only a matter of time before he came to your door. Though you have paid all of your rent up to date and there is no legal grounds for eviction, the laws do very little to offer meaningful and substantive protection to low-income tenants, particularly low-income tenants of color.
So what do you do? After your long day of work you run to the train, then to the bus and sprint down the street towards your home of over fifteen years.
There are physically intimidating men at your door, in your apartment, telling you that you must vacate the premises immediately. They present you with no paperwork. Fortunately, you speak enough English to understand what these men are telling you. Exhausted, you stand firm and assert your rights. You demand they leave. When the police finally arrive, these men reluctantly and haphazardly bring your things into your apartment and leave. When they’re gone you’re left alone in your home feeling violated, angry, frustrated and triumphant, if only for the night.
For years Ms. Baptiste has been living with horrible conditions in her apartment. She has received no repairs, no heat, inconsistent hot water, and has cracks in the walls, broken windows, mold on the ceilings, a mice infestation, and rusty bathroom fixtures. She is not alone in this experience; this form of violence rarely occurs in isolation. The building she resides in is predominantly comprised of Caribbean immigrants, many of whom have lived in this building and been a part of this community for decades. They each have suffered at the hands of their predatory landlord. The conditions they face reflect more than a “bad” landlord, negligent in his responsibilities. Tenant neglect is an all too common tactic used by predatory landlords to force rent regulated tenants out of their building. Once this has happened, their unit can be gut renovated, deregulated, and made available to affluent and often white tenants, capable of paying over three times the previous rent. As a Legal Advocate who does fair housing work, my responsibilities include examining this neglect from a discrimination angle. In Ms.Baptiste’s building, my colleagues and I knocked on the doors of white tenants to assess their conditions. After speaking with these tenants, it was evident that the white tenants were not having the same experience as the black tenants. When in need of repairs, the landlord makes them in a timely fashion and they receive new appliances as opposed to their Black counterparts who have been given roach infested, second-hand smoke detectors. Fair Housing laws protects tenants by maintaining that race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap cannot be reason to justify providing different housing services or facilities. In addition to this, it is illegal for landlords threaten, coerce, intimidate or interfere with anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting others who exercise that right. It is also illegal to make any statement that indicates a limitation or preference based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap. In Ms. Baptiste case, we are working with her to ensure that these rights are protected and respected.
While that is the scope of the work we hope to pursue with Ms. Baptiste, it is important to recognize the totality of protections afforded under the Fair Housing Act. Fair Housing rights do not only protect against different treatment and conditions for one’s apartment– they also make it illegal for individuals to misrepresent the availability of housing or refuse to rent, sell or lease the building for discriminatory reasons. Upon hearing the word “discrimination” one may, almost instinctively, begins to think of Jim Crow “whites only” signs. Hollywood has sensationalized violence against poor communities of color and these depictions do little to represent the insidious and pervasive forms of discrimination that exist today.
To do this work, it is essential to center the lived experiences of those who have been directly affected. Last summer, my college friend and I began searching for an apartment. We had just graduated and were eager for our lives as recent college graduates to commence. It is no secret that looking for a reasonable place to live in New York is difficult. Anyone without a six figure income, fair skin, and access to a broker knows this to be true. Finally, we found a place that was within our budget and whose accommodations were reasonable. After the viewing, I reached out to the Hasidic Jewish man who showed us the apartment and expressed wanting to move forward in the application process as soon as possible. He informed me that the city had placed a stop on the property and he was unsure as to when we would be able to move in. As we already experienced housing discrimination earlier this summer, we had developed a more intentional way of navigating the housing market as young black women. We were skeptical of the words of those in the real estate trade and always asked ourselves, “Could this be a form of discrimination? Is he lying to me? Is this person treating me this way, because I’m a Black woman?” When confronted with racism, sometimes I have doubts asking myself, “Is this in my head?” However, unfortunately being a Black woman in the U.S constantly means experiencing gas lighting.
I contacted a different broker showing the same property and arranged to view it. After this second viewing, we informed this new broker that we would like to move forward in the application process. He provided us with an application. Hesitant, I inquired if we would be able to move-in by the first of the month without problems or delays and he vindicated my previous suspicion by informing us that move-in on the first would not be an issue. Disparate treatment. Clear as day, here was my proof; one apartment, two different brokers and two different responses. I am sharing these stories to illustrate that housing discrimination comes in many forms. Discrimination in each of its manifestations is extremely violent and an innate element of gentrifying neighborhoods. Violence that I am referring to here extends far beyond a physical altercation. I am referring to the injury sustained by people on a systemic level. Dr. Paul Farmer writes,
“Structural violence is one way of describing social arrangements that put individuals and populations in harm’s way… The arrangements are structural because they are embedded in the political and economic organization of our social world; they are violent because they cause injury to people … neither culture nor pure individual will is at fault; rather, historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces conspire to constrain individual agency. Structural violence is visited upon all those whose social status denies them access to the fruits of scientific and social progress.”
Sometimes racism looks like a cross burning on a field and more commonly it looks like poor people of color disproportionately living in substandard conditions. Currently in parts of New York like Bushwick, Crown Heights and Harlem it looks like the appearance of “quaint” coffee shops, opening in “new” “up-and -coming” areas. Designating these areas as new not only erases the long term work of community residents, but, as activist Suey Park and Dr. David J. Leonard writes in a post at Model View Culture, an independent media platform covering technology, culture and diversity, it “represents a socio-historic process where rising housing costs, public policy, persistent segregation, and racial animus facilitates the influx of wealthier, mostly white, residents into a particular neighborhood. Celebrated as ‘renewal’ and an effort to ‘beautify’ these communities, gentrification results in the displacement of residents.” And this displacement of residents is inherently violent, as is the refusal to allow new tenants of color into a neighborhood. In the opulence and comforts of the rich, lies the poor and disempowered, low-income tenants of color.
In addition to taking action after a landlord or real estate agent has abused their power, it is necessary to consider the socio-political, judicial and economic climate that allows for this type of violence to occur. It is within the financial interests of property owners to effectively screw over poor tenants of color, rather than to treat them with the rights afforded to them. For property owners, it is financially easier to allow a tenant live in a mice infected apartment than it is to fumigate the apartment. And in many cases it is easier to drag a tenant through court for months, in unscrupulous attempts to harass them out of their homes, than it is to adequately address the heinous conditions present in their apartment. New York City’s current housing system incentivizes violence against poor communities of color. This, coupled with persistent and blatant racism on the part of real estate agents and brokers, limits housing choice for Black and/or Latino New Yorkers, pushes them to the fringes of neighborhoods, and represents a violent structure that we must utilize every tool in our power to combat.