NYCHA tenants may launch rent strike in northwest Queens

NYCHA tenants in Queens are laying the groundwork for a potential rent strike, which they believe may force the authority to make long-neglected repairs.

Nearly 70 people gathered at the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City Monday, where they listened to advocates explain how a rent strike could work. About one in five participants indicated they are interested in participating in the action, according to chairperson of The Justice for All Coalition, which organized the meeting.

The Long Island City and Astoria-based group said it is working to organize a framework for a rent strike that protects all participants and aims to have tenants positioned to start withholding payment in March, but is not yet committed to that date, according to White. She said NYCHA residents have expressed interest in the action, but the coalition is also open to working with tenants in the larger northwest Queens community who may want to engage in a rent strike. 

The coalition argued the tenants should act now because once Amazon opens its campus in the neighborhood, the cost of living would increase and their woes would only multiply as rents ratchet up in the surrounding neighborhood.

“We want to shut down NYCHA because we’re not getting repairs done,” said Sylvia White, chairperson of the Justice For All Coalition. "It’s forcing them to take a real good close look at what they are doing to the people in the community."

White said the goal is not to shutter the agency, but simply to fix egregious problems in people’s homes. 

Tenants at the meeting complained about rat infestations, peeling paint, heat outages and repair requests that they claim are routinely ignored by staff who appeared uninterested in assisting them.

Brooklyn City Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr., who dropped into the meeting to plug his campaign for public advocate, voiced support for a strike.

“I believe there should be a rent strike until Albany and City Hall gets serious about funding NYCHA,” Espinal said. “I will stand with the tenants.”

The city has proposed raising revenue for the public housing stock by leasing out about one-third of all NYCHA campuses in arrangements that bring in private operators and, in some cases, allow for the development of private apartments with the goal of subsidizing NYCHA operations. Tenants and advocates at the meeting were deeply skeptical that bringing in private landlords would solve their problems.

The advocates were particularly upset that Amazon, one of the most valuable companies in the world, is on track to receive nearly $3 billion in tax incentives to move into a community where they said the government had failed to maintain decent housing conditions for low-income New Yorkers. They said Amazon will usher in a wave of gentrification and displacement that poses “a major threat” to poor residents in Queens.

“You can consider Amazon a neutron weapon of gentrification,” said Dannelly Rodriguez, an Astoria resident, while questioning how many locals will snag some of the 25,000 full-time positions slated to be stationed at the tech giant’s Long Island City campus. “How many of those jobs are going to the residents of New York City? That has not been answered."

A rent strike at Queensbridge — the largest public housing development in North America — could be a savvy tactic for this political moment, said Marian Rich, a longtime organizer for Committee for Independent Community Action.

“If you have the largest development in NYCHA withholding rent, that’s going to have an impact,” said Rich, who said her organization will provide legal services and advise tenants on how to deposit their rent in escrow accounts for safekeeping during the strike. “If everybody did this, you could change New York City overnight.”

The distressed housing agency is attempting to negotiate a settlement in a lawsuit over hazardous conditions, after a prior agreement with the federal government was rejected by a judge. NYCHA referred requests to comment to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. 

“This Administration is fighting for working New Yorkers every single day," de Blasio spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie said in a statement. "We’ve committed nearly $5 billion dollars to NYCHA, which has resulted in more repairs and faster services for residents. We’ve financed 34,000 affordable homes in last year alone. Amazon’s new headquarters will provide economic opportunity for all New Yorkers, regardless of their background."

Correction: An earlier version of this story and headlines should have noted that a rent strike has not yet launched.