1970's: Disinvestment and Neglect
In the 1970's New York experienced a financial crisis that had citywide effects on housing. In Hell's Kitchen, the result of the troubled economy was disinvestment on the part of landlords and management agencies. Many landlords abandoned their buildings; others harassed and intimidated their tenants. Because of landlord negligence, neighborhood residents struggled with frozen pipes, fires set deliberately, and lack of heat or hot water; one elderly tenant froze to death in her apartment.
In response, tenants and other community members worked together to put an end to the corrupt practices of negligent landlords and improve apartment conditions throughout the neighborhood. HCC launched a technical training program that taught tenants how to operate and repair a boiler. These classes enabled tenants in abandoned buildings to take control of the provision of some of their most basic needs, reclaiming power from their neglectful landlords. The City began to seize buildings whose landlords were not tax-compliant and, with the Tenant Interim Lease Program (TIL), offered the tenants of seized buildings a chance to purchase their building, rather than being provided with another landlord. HCC helped tenants organize and apply for the program. After tenants qualified, HCC helped them transition to becoming active shareholders of their new low-income cooperatives called Housing Development Fund Corporations (HDFCs).
HCC also aided the community in negotiations with the City over zoning regulations. Many residents of Hell's Kitchen wanted to maintain the low-rise and diverse character of their neighborhood. In 1972, Housing Conservation Coordinators worked with tenants and the City to established a special zoning regulation called the Special Clinton District. The zoning limited the height of buildings, prohibited demolition of residential buildings, provided for new affordable housing, and protected tenants against harassment.
HCC's work in the 1970s continues to pay dividends today: hundreds of neighborhood residents have maintained their affordable apartments in HDFCs, our technical training classes continue to educate tenants and managers about safe, affordable ways to maintain boilers and other facilities, and the Clinton Special District protects the heart of Hell's Kitchen from harassment, demolition and inappropriate development.
1980's: Defense and Offense
By the end of the 1970's, tenants in the Hell's Kitchen had more control over the quality of their housing than ever before, thanks to pro-active government initiatives and the help of HCC. But the struggle for tenants' rights was far from finished. In the 1980's, the City tried to increase the cooperative purchase price for the HDFCs in Hell's Kitchen. HCC and local residents responded with the “$250 for Clinton and Chelsea Too” campaign. By informing tenants all over the city that prices could be raised for HDFCs in their neighborhoods next, HCC transformed the neighborhood-based struggle into a successful city-wide fight.
Today, there are more than seventy low-income cooperatives in Hell's Kitchen, purchased either from the City or directly from private landlords with HCC loan funds. HCC continues to work with many of the HDFCs, providing technical support, legal services, low-interest loans, and technical training.
The 1980's were also a time of expansion for HCC. While preserving the successful organizing component, the organization also began a Weatherization Program in 1981. Weatherization is the process through which buildings undergo renovations to improve energy efficiency and reduce operating costs. This is made possible by the installation of new heating systems, refrigerators, windows, roof insulation, at no cost to residents. Since its inception, HCC's Weatherization Program has assisted a number of the HDFCs and other low-income properties by improving the quality of housing without rent increases.
Case Study: Protecting Tenants in the Clinton Special District
In 1978, when tenants of 715 Ninth Avenue sought HCC's help in dealing with landlord harassment, it was the perfect opportunity to invoke the harassment clause of the Special Clinton District zoning. For years the landlord had refused to make necessary repairs and maintain the building; conditions got so bad that on New Year's Eve, 1980, the City demanded that the residents vacate the building because it lacked basic fire safety.
Working with HCC, the tenants filed a harassment suit against the landlord and, using the Clinton Special District protections, obtained a formal finding of harassment. HCC organizer Nancy Kyriacou helped the tenants devise a strategy to take control of their building. Tenants stopped paying rent to the landlord and, instead, pooled their rents into a bank account that they used to make basic repairs and restore their building to a livable state. Eventually the City awarded the building HDFC status, and today, residents of 715 Ninth Avenue own the building co-operatively and maintain a safe, livable residence for everyone in the building.
A boom in the real estate market, which began in 1990‘s and continues today, has caused a wave of new concerns for Hell's Kitchen residents, and resulted in a shift in HCC's role in the neighborhood. Instead of landlords abandoning their buildings, many developers want to take advantage of the increasingly lucrative housing market and the proximity of Hell's Kitchen to midtown Manhattan. The revived interest threatens the low-rise, residential, and diverse nature of the neighborhood. Residents who have lived in Hell's Kitchen their entire lives feel they are being pushed out of their homes by high-rise, luxury apartment buildings. Because many of the apartments in the area are rent-stabilized, the incentive created by housing market conditions also leads to increased instances of tenant harassment as landlords try to force out their rent-stabilized tenants.
As concerns in the neighborhood have become less about landlord neglect and more about gentrification and inappropriate development, HCC's has altered its role accordingly. In the realm of legal and technical services, including weatherization, this has meant that HCC provides the same services in different circumstances. In the past, our attorneys represented clients who were fighting to make landlords repair their apartments, instead of abandoning the building. Now attorneys help defend the homes of many rent-stabilized residents from landlords trying to force them out in order to rent to higher paying tenants, or to switch the building from affordable to luxury housing. HCC has also joined with community members in fighting developers whose plans are not consistent with the existing characteristics of the neighborhood.
2000 and Beyond: A Growing Organization
In the current decade, HCC has expanded dramatically to meet the complex needs of the West Side community. The legal services component grew from two attorneys to five, all of whom are busy full-time helping protect safe, decent and affordable housing in the neighborhood. The organizing component grew from two to three tenant organizers and added two community organizers, allowing HCC to take the lead in helping West Side residents shape the future of the broader community. And HCC worked with local elected officials to fund a complete renovation of the 10th Avenue storefront office, providing a more durable, professional space for the organization to carry out its services.
HCC has been at the forefront of recent battles to protect the affordability and character of the West Side community. In 2004 and 2005, HCC was pivotal in the fight against the West Side Stadium and for affordable housing in the Hudson Yards rezoning. HCC joined with community leaders and elected officials to form the Hell's Kitchen/Hudson Yards Alliance, a coalition that defeated the stadium, advocated for a more balanced development plan, and continues to influence the plans for the West Side Rail Yards in Hell's Kitchen South.
Since this victory, HCC has expanded its community organizing even further, engaging with issues such as phony demolition, illegal hotels, and tenant harassment. In 2006, HCC brought together more than 40 community leaders to launch the West Side Neighborhood Alliance, a membership-based group that brings neighborhood residents into positions of leadership and decisionmaking for our community organizing division. Today, community organizing joins legal services, tenant organizing, weatherization and technical training as one of HCC's core services we offer West Side residents.
Over its 30-year history, HCC has had contact with tenants and/or shareholders in approximately 90% of the buildings in the neighborhood. This has allowed HCC to develop the trust and expertise we need to help residents keep their homes, protect their rights, and preserve affordable housing in a rapidly changing neighborhood. West Siders with concerns about their apartments, their buildings or their community can visit HCC at our 777 Tenth Avenue storefront office or call 212-541-5996 to find out more. If you have a specific concern about your apartment, please see information about our intake hours and income guidelines for clients.