Rent Strike in Sunset Park

Housing is a Human Right
Tenants are withholding rent, demanding that electrical problems in the building be resolved, and the trash get picked up

I heard about this from an Occupy email asking people to show solidarity by coming to a 6pm daily “vigil”. It sounded like a great reason to hop on the bike and ride down 5th Avenue about 30 blocks to Sunset Park.

I arrived to find a half-dozen Latino tenants, nearly all of advanced middle age, standing out on the sidewalk. It was a bit awkward as I asked, “Is this the rent strike?” I looked well out of place, rolling up in a mint-green lady beach cruiser, a gleaming white, brand new helmet atop my head. But I persisted, and a young lady who I learned later was not a tenant, but a fellow supporter, confirmed that I had found the right place. She was kind enough to fill me in on some of the back story while the other ladies conversed in Spanish. A man resembling a steam locomotive stood nearby, wielding a large plumber’s wrench with unknown intent.

The building loses electricity all the time, according to the tenants. They might have outages 30 times a day. They have a fuse box in the basement that is overheated and exposed. Apparently the super’s solution to this crackling, sparking fuse box was to point a fan at it. The landlord, Orazio Petito, is on the public advocate’s Worst Landlords list. In response, many of the tenants have stopped paying rent – some for a few months, some for over a year.

CBS Local reported on the story:

Notice the last line of the report: “The tenants say they’re going to save up their withheld rent money, and make the repairs themselves if they have to.”

That reminded me of a line Chomsky often repeats about sit-down strikes really putting fear into the owning class: “That’s just one step away from workers running the factory themselves.” As in, why do these people need a slumlord like Petito when they can just band together and administer the building themselves?

The best story I’ve found on it is by Laura Gottesdiener in the Indypendent. Read the whole thing to hear the story of these amazing women, but here’s a choice bit about the value of these actions:

The campaign’s bold words and actions have inspired community members not only to stand up for their rights as tenants, but also to reconsider social and political marginalization itself. About 80 percent of the neighborhood’s residents live below the poverty line, and the majority speak either Spanish or Mandarin as a first language. But in a society where immigrant women who speak little English are often bullied, intimidated or ignored, these women are loud, assertive and highly public about their right to live with dignity. And they are teaching others to push back as well.

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