ny.curbed.com /2020/7/31/21349659/new-york-city-eviction-defense-new-frontline-rent-crisis

New Yorkers Are Using a 1930s-Era Tactic to Stop Evictions

Caroline Spivack
10-12 minutes

It was a balmy July afternoon when the movers suddenly arrived to the sleepy, brownstone-lined block in Crown Heights. Among the stately homes, a four-story architectural hodgepodge stands out: A row house with a muddy brick facade and an ornate coffee-colored porch canopy. Usually, the shabby, stone courtyard in front of the building didn’t get much traffic. But on this day, a pair of mask-clad men lumbered through the space, lugging a room’s worth of furniture out of the building as Gennaro Brooks-Church, one of the property owners, watched from the concrete stoop of the Dean Street building.

The men heaved out a mattress, followed by a leather sofa, a champagne-colored settee, and an assemblage of wooden tables and chairs that were stacked on the curb just beyond the property’s waist-high wrought iron gate. But the items dumped outside didn’t belong to Brooks-Church. Rather, they were the contents of his tenants’ apartments, some of which were being forcibly — and illegally — emptied.

As tenants stood on the narrow front porch and watched their homes get dismantled piece by piece, they frantically messaged neighborhood organizers for help. What happened next was nothing short of a community revolt. The anti-gentrification group Equality for Flatbush rushed out a call to action on social media: “URGENT: Illegal Lock Out In Progress 1214 Dean Street - Go and Support Tenants Now!” It’s not uncommon for renters to face illegal eviction in quiet desperation, unable to stop the sudden loss of their homes. But after months of simmering tensions over a murky eviction moratorium, limited rent relief, and pandemic-induced unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression, the neighborhood wasn’t going to let anyone be put on the street.

The tense scene that followed played out amid a statewide pause on evictions and orders from the Department of Investigation to prevent city marshals from removing tenants. Legal eviction is an impossibility right now and has been for months — leaving some landlords desperate to remove residents who are unable to pay rent. But that’s expected to change on August 5, when a court-ordered halt on eviction proceedings expires. And if the coming months bring even a fraction of the 50,000 new eviction cases housing lawyers expect, what happened at Dean Street will be remembered only because it happened first. Similarly packed stoops, porches, patios, and courtyards across the five boroughs could soon become the frontlines of the city’s rent crisis.

This neighbor-led social safety net is often referred to as “eviction defense,” and it builds upon a foundation of tenant activism laid by organizers in 1930s New York. Now it’s poised for a modern day resurgence. That day in Crown Heights, neighbors sped over on foot and by bicycle after seeing Equality for Flatbush’s call. Bikes were left haphazardly leaning against trees and the fences of neighboring buildings as dozens of mask-clad Brooklynites crammed onto the sidewalk and spilled out into the street. The impromptu protests began — a chorus of claps and chants, shouting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Gennaro Brooks has got to go!” Someone draped a forest green banner printed with “Equality for Flatbush” over part of the gate, joined by a poster featuring a black fist outlined in white with C.H.T.U. branded on the knuckles — a literal sign of solidarity from the Crown Heights Tenant Union.

In a matter of hours, a barricade of bodies formed outside the building. A few Dean Street tenants —many of whom were Black, queer, and/or women — shared their stories of losing work and their struggles during the pandemic over a megaphone.

One resident, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of reprisal, said she was recovering from having a tumor the size of an apple removed from her brain when Brooks-Church barged into the building unannounced. “Having our house invaded by an aggressive, male bodied stranger when I am struggling to walk and am literally defenseless has left me terrified,” she said. “The stress and harassment [the landlords] are putting me through could quite literally kill me.” (Brooks-Church, who co-owns the building with his ex-wife Loretta Gendville, told organizers that he hadn’t told the tenants to leave. Curbed reached out to both Brooks-Church and Glendville by phone and email for comment. Neither responded.)

A white banner spray painted in red lettering, “Resist Illegal Evictions.”
A banner hung off the porch of 1214 Dean Street.
Courtesy of Jeff Strabone

The rush of support for tenants at Dean Street may have been galvanized by local tenant organizers, but it’s a strategy born out of Communist-led organizing during the Great Depression. In the anthology The Tenant Movement in New York City, 1904-1984, Fordham University history professor Mark Naison notes that, by the fall of 1930, grass-root networks called Unemployment Councils had formed to protest inadequate government relief and “provoked a great deal of hysteria and more than a little disorder” in the world of tenant activism.

That “disorder” came mainly in the form of rent strikes —which modern tenants have again turned to as forms of political protest — as well as outright eviction resistance (which today is often referred to as “eviction defense”). When evictions were attempted in New York during the ‘30s, Communist organizers would literally hoist furniture up off the streets and move it back into apartments — and they’d urge neighbors and passersby to resist marshals and police if an eviction was repeated.

According to Naison, “hundreds, possibly thousands” of these incidents took place in neighborhoods hit early and hard by the Depression — Harlem, the Lower East Side, Brownsville — as New Yorkers increasingly recognized that supporting one another was a matter of survival. These actions sometimes generated crowds of hundreds of participants, resulting in tense standoffs with police. But in many instances they unfolded peacefully with tenants managing to retain their apartments.

The political power of an eviction defense is all about its visibility, says Tom Angotti, Professor Emeritus at Hunter College’s department of urban policy and planning. “Publicizing what’s going on is half the battle,” says Angotti. “No elected official likes to see someone publicly thrown out in their district, and the government being either silent or complicit.” Eviction defense as an organizing tactic got a loud signal boost in July from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez who hosted a virtual workshop on the strategy. But eviction defense, as in the days of the Communist-led resistance, doesn’t require political sympathy to jolt a community. It merely requires neighbors to come together and support one another in a time of need. The effort often begins with locals who may not have heard of the concept, but for whom standing idly by is not an option.

For Crown Heights resident Aiysha Johnson, the choice to join the tenants of Dean Street was a gut reaction. “If my landlord tried to push me out, I’d want my neighbors to stand with me,” she said.

The 24-year-old, who recently lost her job as a barista, joined in the chants and mingled on the curb outside the building with other locals — some of whom lived only a couple of blocks from her, though they’d never met. Many shared stories similar to her own: They feared eviction as their unemployment benefits and options dwindled. “It’s a scary time, but that solidarity — just that act of physically showing up for each other when it feels like the government has abandoned us — that’s a real power to me,” said Johnson. This may have been her first foray into tenant activism, but she says she aims to “be there for my neighbors when the shit hits the fan” going forward.

And she’s not alone. The eviction blockade was also a crash course on tenant activism for Danni Inmani, who uses they/them pronouns. The 23-year-old, who also lost work due to the pandemic, rushed over when they saw posts about the action on Instagram. “I didn’t even know people did things like this. I just had to come out to show my support,” they said.

The idea of a large crowd of strangers convening to defend tenants from landlords might have seemed improbable just a few months ago. But at 1214 Dean Street, a mass of infuriated, frustrated people came together to do just that. When asked how long Inmani planned to stick around the building, they replied without hesitation: “I’ll be here every day if I have to. I’m not going to let these beautiful Black people be displaced from their home and in an illegal manner.”

“The beauty of the situation,” as Imani Henry, the founder of Equality for Flatbush described it, “is that strangers literally came out to protect each other. People have had enough.”

The neighborhood’s frustration, which had been festering for a long time, eventually exploded on Brooks-Church’s doorstep. After hours of idling on the street, protestors advanced onto the stoop, shouting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as a visibly agitated Brooks-Church could be seen pacing back and forth through the rounded door frame. “You belong in a Charles Dickens novel!” Jeff Strabone, an English professor at Connecticut College, hollered at Brooks-Church from the top of the stoop. He had biked three neighborhoods over from Cobble Hill to support the Dean Street tenants.

Suddenly, the protestors funneled past the double doors, parting around the landlord like water, and into a large common area that was quickly packed as tight as a rave. The blinding lights of phone cameras, trained on Brooks-Church, glimmered off the glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling as a chorus of boos and jeers erupted. “Get out! Get out! Get out!” a woman shrieked as the landlord calmly moved through the crowd toward the front porch. Someone pulled out a tambourine leading the group in a darkly funny Steam-inspired chant of, “Na Na Na Na Hey Hey-ey Goodbye!”

Finally — after a four hour standoff — Brooks-Church descended his stoop, sauntered down the block to his SUV, and drove off.