Tenants on Welfare Fear Rent Proposals Spell Eviction

New York Times, June 7, 1997
NEW YORK -- Maria Maldonado and Rosemarie Soto -- mothers, welfare recipients, next-door neighbors -- have watched with apprehension as, one after another, Hasidic families have replaced Latino households in their rent-regulated Brooklyn apartment building at 193 South Ninth St. in the heart of Southside.

In the eternal competition between Hasidim and Latinos for living space in Southside, the women believe the Hasidim have greater financial resources. Thus they suspect that the landlords of 193 South Ninth St., like many Hasidic building owners, are engineering the turnover in tenants in the name of greater economic stability and cultural self-interest. A steady influx of young white emigres from Manhattan has also fueled fears of displacement, particularly among Latinos in the neighborhood.

These concerns, which have been festering for years, have recently heightened wildly in Southside with the imminent prospect of two powerful forces of change.

The first is welfare reform, which among other cutbacks will eliminate a subsidy that pays more than half the rent for these women and scores of Southside households.

The second is rent deregulation, which could allow landlords to raise the rent on apartments that become vacant, raising fears that tenants will be harassed out of their buildings.

The two issues have been discussed in isolation from each other in Albany, but their combined impact is not lost on the people of Southside.

"Sooner or later, one way or another, we will be out," said Ms. Soto, a 32-year-old single mother of two boys who fears that dwindling welfare cash and any increase in rents will prove potent.

The landlord of 193 South Ninth St., Robert Guttman, one of three brothers who operate the building, said there was no explicit agenda for replacing Latino tenants with Hasidic families, and he discounted the widely held belief that Hasidic families were, as a rule, financially better off.

But he also made clear his hostility to Latino tenants, his preference for Hasidic families and his appetite for the opportunity offered by a loosening of rent regulations.

"Look at how they live," said Guttman, disparaging the Latino tenants of South Ninth Street as drug users and welfare cheats with multiple boyfriends. "They are all having a party. They are comfortable with that life. They don't pay the rent anyway. Like every landlord, I would like to see the rent regulations ended. Any landlord who could get $600 for an apartment he now gets $300 for would do it. If I have to put some people out, why not?"

Thus the ingredients of Southside's unease are manifest inside the old tenement on South Ninth Street. Ms. Maldonado and Ms. Soto can pay their rents of roughly $400 because of a longstanding New York state welfare benefit that provides recipients facing eviction with a supplemental housing subsidy.

Gov. George Pataki's welfare reform legislation, however, would eliminate that supplemental payment.

Currently, 27,000 welfare households in the city -- apartment holders facing eviction -- receive the supplemental shelter benefit to pay their rents. The supplement is known as the Jiggetts allowance, named after the recipient who successfully sued the city's welfare agency in 1990.

Close to 200 of those so-called Jiggetts recipients live in and around Southside.

Pataki's welfare reform plan could seriously affect their ability to pay rent, particularly if they do not find work soon. The governor has called for reducing the state's basic welfare grant, which averages $577 a month for a family of three, by 10 percent after 18 months, and by significant increments after that.

Further, his plan, through changes in the language of the legislation and the consolidation of the welfare payments into one overall grant, would effectively eliminate the Jiggetts subsidy for those facing eviction.

Simultaneously, state legislators are fighting over rent regulations. The leader of the state Senate has threatened to eliminate the laws limiting rents for roughly 1 million apartments beginning June 16. Assembly leaders are pledging to preserve the controls.

Pataki has proposed a compromise -- a vacancy decontrol plan that would allow landlords to significantly raise rents on regulated apartments only after the tenants have left.

No one expects complete deregulation to occur. But even minor changes loom large for a neighborhood where small bumps in rent can have great consequences and where there has been a long, angry history of landlord-tenant conflict.

The sense of risk and opportunity, for tenant and landlord, is clear on South Ninth Street, where welfare reform and rent control hang in the air, intertwined and ominous.

"I don't know what exactly the landlord will do if there is no more extra welfare money for rent and there are no more restrictions on what he can charge," said Ms. Soto, who receives a $130 Jiggetts subsidy monthly to pay her $416 rent. "I know, though, I won't be able to afford it."

The world of 193 South Ninth St., then, illuminates several realities in Southside. Welfare reform, complex and far-reaching, does not unfold in isolation, but rather as only one of a number of forces -- immigration reform, educational decline, rent regulation -- at work on a poor neighborhood.

Southside, too, has realized it is a rare hybrid of a neighborhood: impoverished, short on housing for the existing population, but also extremely appealing to prospective, more financially stable tenants.

The growth of a white artist population, under way for years, has accelerated. The neighborhood's easy access to Manhattan -- the Williamsburg Bridge and a direct subway line to Manhattan -- and as its location on the East River make it a draw.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood's Hasidim, in search of housing for their growing population, are branching out into the Latino sections of Southside, largely, so far, through the purchase of houses and buildings.

Wiping out or relaxing rent regulations has thus become a more explosive concern in Southside than in other welfare-dependent neighborhoods.

"In Southside, you can put it all together," said Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, the Democrat from Williamsburg who is also chairman of the Assembly's Housing Committee. "It could result in the significant displacement of the Latino population of Southside."

Pataki and Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno say they will retain protections for poor tenants. Mostly, though, those pledges amount to supporting the construction of affordable housing and toughening punishments for landlords who harass tenants.

"The poor people living in those rent-regulated apartments in that part of Brooklyn can't be happy with the housing they have," said Bruno. "If we don't do something, everything gets worse."

The exact number of rent-regulated apartments in Southside is hard to determine. According to the 1996 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, two-thirds of the rental apartments in the Greenpoint and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn are rent-regulated. Lopez estimated that as many as 5,000 of Southside's roughly 7,000 apartments were rent-regulated.

Interviews with residents and real estate brokers in the neighborhood produce consistent conclusions: rents in unregulated apartments are rising, and quickly, in a neighborhood where a $50-a-month increase can have profound ramifications.

Ken Firpo, a landlord and broker in Southside, said unregulated apartments renting for $625 a year ago were going for $725 now, and $700 apartments were currently being rented for $950.

"The Latino landlords are renting to these college kids and the Hasidim, too," Firpo said. "And if rent control goes, there will only be more motivation for landlords to buy people out or get them out otherwise. Hey, I have squeezed a few tenants out myself in the past. I could get $650 for apartments renting for $250."

Everyone is aware of what is happening in a neighborhood with a long history of landlord abuses, tenant organizing and fights over public housing. Each Hasidic purchase of a building belonging to Latinos is talked about. Longtime residents can tick off the buildings on Grand Avenue that have become occupied by Manhattan emigres.

Rent strikes are under way on numerous blocks. More than 1,000 Latino residents met at the Commodore Theater on Broadway last month and then marched through the streets of Southside chanting, "Hell, no, we won't go."

Indeed, the city, in an attempt to relieve tensions and increase housing, is on the verge of making a commitment to a multimillion-dollar plan to clear the way for more affordable housing for both the Latinos and Hasidim.

Some who are players in the transformation recognize the awkward dynamic.

"The fears of the Latinos are sensible, not hysterical," said Jennifer Miller, an artist and circus performer who has lived in Southside for 12 years. "Artists, including poor artists, have always been at the forefront of gentrification. It's clearly going on here."

Rabbi David Niederman, a Hasidic leader, said welfare-dependent Hasidic residents would be just as vulnerable as Latinos to the combined effect of welfare reform and rent deregulation.

"I hate when every issue goes the route of having the supposedly wealthy Hasidim set against the Latinos," Niederman said. "Don't we all have the same common enemy: being poor?"

For the moment, people like a woman who gave her name only as Arelis Q. wait for the politicians to negotiate the policy questions -- welfare payments for shelter and the extent of the changes in rent regulation. She is a single mother who lives with her two children in a one-bedroom apartment on Union Avenue. There is no lock on the front door. The house tilts so badly that the living room couch is balanced by a two-by-four under one end.

She pays $650. Welfare payments cover $286, with relatives making up the difference. Under Pataki's plan, there will be no government help if she faces eviction.

"Who knows what will happen," she said. "But I don't think the rent will go down."