Last April, Lucy Rinzler-Day and 32 of her neighbors stopped paying rent in their East Williamsburg apartment building.
Rinzler-Day had launched a tenant association in her building two months prior, recruiting 42 of 45 tenants. In March, they sent a letter to their landlord, Raj Associates, with a list of grievances and advised the landlord they would withhold their rent if they were not addressed by month’s end.
The biggest issue, according to Rinzler-Day, was a rent hike that she said surpassed the 2.75-3.20% increase cap for rent-stabilized units. She took action after she received an increase of more than $500 on her first lease renewal and learned from a neighbor that her building was rent-stabilized. Other complaints listed by the tenants included a faulty front door that encouraged package theft, broken washer and dryer units and defunct air-conditioning units producing black mold.
Six months later, following a full rent strike, two negotiation meetings with the landlord and long email chains working through demands, the 924 Metropolitan Tenant Association emerged victorious. Building management nixed the rent hikes, returned three renewal leases they were withholding, and agreed to complete all repairs demanded by tenants. In return, the tenants paid back all due rent.
“I think that it was really the strike that pushed them over and the fact that we've been so consistently on our A-game,” Rinzler-Day said. “I think they didn’t take it seriously at first.”
This was just one of the most recent strikes against Brooklyn landlords in recent years, and one of many supported by the Brooklyn Eviction Defense Tenant Union, which encompasses 65 associations across the borough. The organization provides resources, training and other support for new tenant associations.
“[Rent strikes are] a powerful tactic for tenants, rent-stabilized or not, and landlords fear it,” said Brooklyn Eviction Defense organizer Nicolás Vargas. “Withholding rent shows the landlord — and reminds the tenant — that they need our rents in order to subsist.”
“Sometimes it can take months of one-on-ones, door knocking, meetings and so on, to get everyone on board with collective demands and to build the trust to take collective action like a rent strike,” Vargas said. “Sometimes, if the conditions are dire and the trust is already there, it can take weeks.”
Right now in Williamsburg, a group of tenants is conducting a partial rent strike, which started on Sep. 1, against their landlord, Simply Better Apartments. Tenants from 17 units in four buildings owned by Simply Better — 442 Lorimer St., 54 Maujer St., 164 and 181 Havemeyer St. — are ignoring rent hikes and only paying the rent they believe they legally owe.
This strike started with a story much like that of 924 Metropolitan. In June 2022, Simply Better tenant Alyssa Krinsky received a $550 rent increase for her Havemeyer Street apartment, which seemed steep to her. After all, she spent half a year without a working stove.
She started going door-to-door with Brooklyn Eviction Defense members and discovered that her neighbors were also facing steep rent hikes and dealing with issues like gas shut-offs. Before long, she had built the Simply Better Tenants Association, which includes nearly 80 residents from across the four buildings.
Organizers got to work requesting rent histories for 32 units, and found out the units had been rent-stabilized for decades before 2013, when new ownership began buying out some residents to destabilize their apartments, said Simply Better tenant and organizer Jacob Conway.
Management also stopped providing rent data to the city, which clouded the steps taken to bring some units past the rent cap of $2,500 for stabilized units, he said.
“By doing very easy back-of-the-envelope math, we figured out that there is no legal way for them to have reached the requirements set by the city to consider our apartment no longer rent-stabilized,” Conway alleged.
Organizers calculated the rents they would pay based on apartment size if their units hadn’t been destabilized and informed management of their intention to pay these rates moving forward in their demand letter, Conway said.
Though management has sent late rent notices and letters from lawyers, they have not responded to emails and phone calls from tenants, Conway said. They have, however, continued to accept the reduced rent payments.
“Our residents are our absolute top priority which is why our buildings are in excellent condition and regular maintenance work is performed in a timely and professional manner," a spokesperson from Simply Better wrote in an email to BK Reader. "Certain units in these buildings have not been subject to the rent-stabilized program for around a decade or longer – and that process occurred under prior management and ownership. Any units that are a part of the rent-stabilization program strictly follow that process and the associated rules and regulations.”
On Nov. 15, the tenant association informed management that further lack of dialogue would result in an escalation to a full rent strike.
“We're optimistic,” Conway said. ”The win on Metropolitan has definitely helped give us momentum and lift our spirits. It's really promising that they won their fight against their landlord and we hope we’re hopeful we can replicate those efforts.”
Raj Associates did not respond to requests for comment.