Sunset Park Tenants Launch Rent Strike
Issue #
178

On the front stoop of a four-story brownstone in Brooklyn, three women sat and strategized.

“We should have broken down the door yesterday,” Sara Lopez lamented. “The day they help us,” she said, waving toward an official from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development standing on the street, “will be the day a dog dances outside on one leg.”

Francisca Ixtilico, a short woman who had been an organizer in Mexico, nodded. Breaking down the door had been her idea. She always had the group’s most radical ideas, which she usually introduced with the phrase “What we did in Mexico was…” Sue Trelles, the most poised and stylish of the trio, held her tongue; she wasn’t the door-breaking type, but she was willing to fight for her right to live with dignity.

The problem was that the building’s landlord, Orazio Petito, and his superintendent kept the basement door locked tighter than Fort Knox, preventing city inspectors from cleaning out the rotting garbage or fixing the overtaxed fuse box that sparked and shorted, threatening to set the whole building on fire. Of course, the door was really just one barrier in a thousand that the women had been battling all their lives: slumlords content to let them burn or freeze to death; employers who coerced and threatened them after accidents or mistreatment; police who never seemed to come when help was needed on their block; and the vague but ever-present forces of racism, sexism, language barriers, and threats of deportation. But when confronted with the laundry list of oppression that low-income immigrant women face in Brooklyn, the best thing to do, Lopez and her neighbors argue, is to start with the problem most likely to burst into flames.

That’s why, for over a year, Lopez, Trelles and Ixtilico have been knocking on doors, holding meetings and organizing a multi-building rent strike at 545, 553, and 557 46th Street in Sunset Park that is now drawing media attention. But as photos of tangled wiring and firecracker fuses appear on the nightly news, the real story is not the crumbling building or the landlord’s abuses, but the neighborhood activists who have turned this injustice into a powerful example of community-building and community-led organizing.

The rent strike started two years ago. Sara Lopez woke up early one morning. No one sleeps much in these three buildings — in the winter there’s no heat, in the summer there’s no electricity, and all year there are rats and cockroaches scurrying in the walls — but that morning Lopez had slept even worse than usual, and she was angry.

“I thought and thought and decided that I needed to do something,” she said. “So I knocked on 51 doors because I got mad at so much injustice.”

She enlisted Trelles to help, and at each door they spread a clear message: Stop paying rent. They didn’t make any political arguments about private property or capitalism or self-governance. Instead, Lopez — a retired public employee who says she still has faith in the power and intentions of the local government — was espousing a radicalism born from necessity and experience. She knew that tenants could run the buildings better than Petito, whom she called un payaso, which means “clown” in Spanish but sounds far more poisonous hissed in her Honduran accent. In the winter of 1982, after a former landlord simply abandoned the buildings without heat, Lopez brought the buildings’ families together to govern themselves — collecting money to pay the bills and replace the boiler and forming teams to clean the hallways, put the trash out and make repairs.

“We were the owners for six months,” she remembered.

The negligent landlords returned, however. Now, Lopez has once again brought the tenants together, hosting community meetings that grew until the whole first-floor hallway was packed. Many of the residents were afraid; a number of the tenants lacked U.S. residency papers, and once the strike began Petito was quick to knock on those families’ doors first, waving forged eviction notices and threatening to call immigration.

Ixtilico wasn’t intimidated. She recognized Sara’s ideas from her Catholic organizing group in Mexico, which used strikes and direct action to win house repairs, stop evictions and pressure local government to fund sports fields and other public projects. She placed a small red sign in her window for all the world to see: “Rent Strike.” Other tenants soon followed suit.

The campaign’s bold words and actions have inspired community members not only to stand up for their rights as tenants, but also to reconsider social and political marginalization itself. About 80 percent of the neighborhood’s residents live below the poverty line, and the majority speak either Spanish or Mandarin as a first language. But in a society where immigrant women who speak little English are often bullied, intimidated or ignored, these women are loud, assertive and highly public about their right to live with dignity. And they are teaching others to push back as well.

“What do you want to know about me?” Lopez asked. “I am a fighter, I fight for my rights, and I have a knife.” She started to laugh. As the fluent English speaker, Lopez is the de facto spokesperson of the group, but that doesn’t mean she censors herself. Trelles told me she was “proud to be an immigrant” from Ecuador and showed off her spotless apartment, decorated with her daughters’ academic awards and equipped with flashlights so her youngest can keep working and reading during power outages. Ixtilico chased a younger tenant down the sidewalk, insisting that she stop being afraid and tell me her story. (The woman did, saying she too had joined the rent strike, but asked that I not include her name because of her immigration status.) As for the men, the trio seem to appreciate them, love them and humor them — but, like many of the rent strikes in New York City’s history, this is a women’s show.

As the strike spread to include the majority of residents in all three buildings, the neighborhood began taking notice. Cars and walkers slowed to read the signs and discuss the strike, the news coverage and their own decrepit buildings.

“I’ve lived here for 12 years, and I’ve never seen something take off like this,” said Priscilla Grim, who lives a few blocks away from the buildings and works with the social media team of OccupyWallSt.org. Grim and other neighbors from Occupy Sunset Park and writers from the Occupy-affiliated Spanish newspaper Indig-Nación joined the strikers three weeks ago, bringing new organizing tools and media attention while learning from the women’s low-tech, word-of-mouth campaign. Soon, the residents and Occupy Sunset Park began gathering for bilingual meetings, sharing resources and planning press conferences and marches and even carried out a brief occupation of assemblyman Felix Ortiz’s district office. Housing activists from Take Back the Land and the New York City squatters’ movement joined in, pushing the conversation toward transformative visions of community control of the buildings.

The striking women already saw and believed in such visions, even if they didn’t have words for them quite yet. One afternoon, as the women waited to see if anyone from the rotating cast of building inspectors, health workers, fire marshals, police officers, elected officials or news cameramen would be willing or able to open the basement door, a man in a suit and a shiny black SUV drove up and started taking photos of the buildings. He claimed to be a prospective landlord checking out a possible investment.

“He’s probably a detective,” Lopez said, shielding her face from the camera’s lens.

“Besides, we don’t want any more landlords,” said Ixtilico.

Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance writer in New York City. She is the author of A Dream Foreclosed: The Great Eviction and the Fight to Live in America, forthcoming from Zuccotti Park Press.

This is adapted from an article that originally appeared at wagingnonviolence.org.