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Is COVID-19 Forcing Displacement in Low-Income Areas?

2501 Davidson Avenue

A block off Jerome Avenue in the Fordham Manor neighborhood of the Bronx sits 2501 Davidson Avenue. It’s across the street from a Community Garden and half a block up from rows of well-maintained single family homes. The 1935 Art Deco building has style -- it stands six stories high and houses 74 units. 


But inside the apartment building is a whole different story. Edward Iciano has lived in 2501 Davidson Avenue his whole life. He says the building’s rapidly decayed in his lifetime. Edward’s 19. 


Edward: “There would be things like loiterers, prostitution, littering, drugs, things like that, that should not be in a building, should not be a place where people live.”


Edward says he and his neighbors have filed many complaints to their landlord, Moshe Piller, but haven’t seen changes. Piller owns more than 70 buildings in New York City. In 2015, he was fourth on the Public Advocate’s list of worst landlords. Edward’s building currently has 52 open violations filed by the city.


Edward: “The door within the building is broken, there are people who come & smoke within the building, and somebody, there was so much spit one day, my own mother fell walking down the stairs”


Ramón: “Just a couple days ago in Edward’s building, in all of New York City it was raining hard, and apparently Edward’s building has no roof because it was raining inside. So now people woke up with a bunch of ballooning ceilings and the whole lobby was wet, the stairs were wet, it was a waterfall.”


That’s Ramón Mendez-Rívas, a tenant organizer at the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. When Ramón showed up in March to encourage tenants to come together to demand livable conditions, Edward decided to take a leading role.


Ramón: “What Edward said, it’s true. I went in the building and there was no lock on any of the doors. There were people in the lobby doing illegal activities that really put the people who live there in harm’s way.


Ramón and Edward have been working closely ever since. Ramón grew up in Astoria where he watched gentrification displace his neighbors. He wants to prevent the same thing from happening all over New York City. 


Ramón: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the neighborhoods that are most displaced are neighborhoods of people of color and Black people. That’s definitely because the resources aren’t there, both from the state and economically, so they’re left at peril.”


Ramón arrived at Edward’s building about a week before the pandemic hit.


Ramón: “First I always check out the buildings on just fix nyc, which is an amazing website that allows you to check out the building status, how the buildings are doing, and for tenant organizers like myself we can scout the area way faster and make targeted visitations because we see what the city has reported about how many evictions the building has, how many complaints. Since I work in that community, I’m already familiar with the issues people have, but in that particular building it was definitely extra. Something I want to stress is that before coming into the pandemic, before people wanted to extend the moratorium, cancel, people were already rent burdened. People in Edward’s building are already paying $1500-1800 in rent for a place they’re not safe. 


Since Ramón and Edward started organizing, the tenants have been documenting all of the problems their landlord hasn’t addressed.


Edward: “We collected signatures from tenants throughout the building, we collected evidence, we collected things going wrong with the building, like testimonials so there’s no way to deny what’s going on. What we’ve come to do in the building as tenants, we’ve set up our own cameras outside our doors because the cameras in the lobby don’t seem to work.


Currently Edward and 14 other units are on a rent strike to protest the unlivable conditions. Ramón says tenants were already struggling to pay rent when the pandemic hit, so there was no time to waste.


Ramón: “What the pandemic did was put us on high speed, something that we were maybe planning to do 2-4 months from now, in a different way, the pandemic forced us to do it now, with the rent strike.


Edward: “The issues that were going on in New York City were already happening, the pandemic just hit and it kind of lit the fire to the gasoline and now it’s more serious. And what it did, it put awareness, a lot of people realized, now that they’re not working, now that they’re at home, that there’s a lot of things going on.


Edward and his neighbors are among thousands of New York residents whose rent troubles have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s become the focus of a tenants rights coalition called housing justice for all. Northwest Bronx Community and clergy is part of that coalition so is Tenants and Neighbors where Allie Fischgrund works. She agrees with Edward and Ramón. 


Allie: “I think this has really brought a lot of tenants who may not have felt like tenants rights were really an issue that pertained to them who felt secure before the pandemic. I think that has made a lot of them realize how vulnerable they really are. So in one way it really has strengthened the movement.”


Edward’s building lies within a neighborhood on the verge of gentrifying. In 2018, the City Council voted to upzone 92 blocks from 165th to 184th street along the 4 train. While development can help reinvest in neglected communities and combat urban decay, it often renders low-income neighborhoods unaffordable to their long-term residents.. Ramón and Allie worry the eviction crisis will speed up displacement in Black and Brown communities. That’s why their coalition is fighting to cancel rent for the duration of the pandemic. 


Allie: “I think it is possible and it is necessary and if we don’t we're going to see massive waves of displacement an issue that was already burning especially vulnerable black and brown communities. so long as they’re forced to pay rent they're going to be at risk of eviction.”


Edward’s landlord Moshe Piller has been accused of creating similar and worse conditions for tenants in his other buildings in New York City. Edward hasn’t seen evidence of intimidation or aggressive tactics to force people out of his building, but he definitely gets the impression his landlord doesn’t want him living there. Ramón says this is definitely part of a tactic.


Ramón: “When we have Black and brown people in the building, they don’t take care of it. But as soon as all the community gets out of the building, they’ll fix it up and they’ll make it very nice, and when certain people with higher incomes come in, you most certainly know the cameras will be in and the doors will be locked.”


Edward’s landlord didn’t respond to our request for comment.


The statewide eviction on moratoriums was supposed to end last Wednesday but Governor Cuomo just extended it another 30 days. Whenever the moratorium does end 14-thousand families who had been served eviction warrants before the pandemic even began will be at risk of being forced out of their homes. And the 1 and a half million New Yorkers who’ve filed for unemployment since the COVID-19 outbreak took the country by storm will be at risk as well. 


For now Edward and his neighbors will continue their rent strike but they’re afraid for when the moratorium ends and housing courts reopen. I'm Nora Thomas, WFUV News.


Eliot Schiaparelli contributed reporting to this project.