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The fight to keep New York City a place working families can afford

Mike Fishman | 5/31/2011, 11:36 a.m.
Sprawling Brooklyn apartment complex Flatbush Gardens represents how life in modern day New York is...
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Sprawling Brooklyn apartment complex Flatbush Gardens represents how life in modern day New York is a tale of two cities-one city growing increasingly wealthy, the other struggling to get by. But Flatbush Gardens is more than a story of injustice and inequality-it is a story of how working people are fighting to make our city a better place for us all by bridging the gap between the very rich and everybody else. New York has experienced an exodus of working families

who, no longer able to afford rising rents with their stagnating pay, have fled to other cities where it's easier to live. Meanwhile, the number of millionaires in New York City has skyrocketed by nearly 20 percent since 2008. Real estate baron David Bistricer exemplifies this trend. Over the past few years, Bistricer has helped change neighborhoods throughout the city by putting more and more luxury condos on the market.

In 2005, Bistricer's Renaissance Equity Holdings took over the low- to moderate-income 59-building apartment complex named Vanderveer Estates, renaming it Flatbush Gardens. Despite the bright new name, the sheen of its slick advertisements and promises of a clean, safe place to live, renters and maintenance staff say the complex is rotting from the inside out. Some have even called it a "hellhole."

The New York Daily News reports that Bistricer's real estate company has begun harassing and even trying to evict elderly residents with rent-stabilized apartments. Long-time Flatbush Gardens residents also say they are being pushed out of the affordable housing complex to make way for higher-paying tenants. Just like the residents, workers are also being kicked to the curb.

Flatbush Gardens' 70 maintenance and grounds workers are currently locked out of their jobs because they refuse to accept devastating cuts to their wages and health care benefits. These workers have been outside on the picket lines every day in protest of this unfair lockout through the snowstorms, torrential downpours and blistering cold days that have plagued our city over the last five months. They have rallied elected officials, tenants and community supporters to let Renaissance know that they won't be bullied into accepting pay and benefit cuts that will threaten their foothold in the middle class.

The workers have even taken their case to the federal government. The National Labor Relations Board is investigating Renaissance's unlawful lockout of the workers. After workers filed a complaint, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration found dangerous conditions for employees and residents inside the complex. Renaissance was slapped with a $51,000 fine from OSHA for 20 violations of workplace safety and health standards affecting maintenance workers at the complex. Sixteen of the citations are "serious" violations that, according to OSHA, have a substantial probability of resulting in death or serious physical harm.

Despite these efforts, Renaissance continues to show disregard for the workers and tenants by continuing this brutal lockout and forcing over 10,000 tenants to live in squalor. Bistricer has even shown up on the New York public advocate's Worst Landlords list.

Like David in the Bible, the workers at Flatbush Gardens refuse to cower when facing a giant. They continue to stand together in the fight for their families' livelihoods.

As working New Yorkers, we should all recognize that the Flatbush Gardens workers' struggle is all of our struggle. What's at stake is keeping New York a place that working families can afford. Like the workers and tenants of Flatbush Gardens, we must remain steadfast through the many attacks on our rights to get paid wages that support our families and enable us to live in decent, affordable housing. It's important in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and absolutely critical across our city.

Mike Fishman is the president of 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union. 32BJ represents 120,000 workers in eight states and Washington, D.C., including more than 70,000 property services workers in New York.