Update Report – Our Work During the Pandemic
Ridgewood Tenant Union
December 30, 2022
Note: The Ridgewood Tenants Union created the Ridgewood Mutual Aid Project in March of 2020. The funds collected through the mutual aid project are used to help meet the material needs of our members and neighbors and are not used for political or legislative lobbying. This report, aside from providing a glimpse into our mutual aid project, is an overview of our overall work which seeks to build tenant power in our part of Queens.
The Ridgewood Tenants Union is an anti-gentrification, independent, and tenant-led housing rights organization run solely by volunteers that was formed in 2014 with the mission of building tenant power and fighting displacement in a neighborhood long controlled by homeowners and the politicians that advocate for them. We are NOT a non-profit. Even though tenants are a majority in the neighborhoods the group works in, which is Ridgewood, Maspeth, Glendale, and Middle Village, there is no strong and organized tenant voice advocating for our right to safe, truly affordable, and stable housing, especially for working class tenants of color, those that are undocumented, and our homeless neighbors.
The Ridgewood Tenants Union has been filling a long and overdue void, especially during the pandemic. Our part of Queens is not highly served by non-profit or service organizations that provide services to community members and during the pandemic, many of our neighbors did not have access to immediate support to meet their survival needs. Due to the lack of service provision in our neighborhood, we created the Ridgewood Mutual Aid Project in March of 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Mutual aid has always been an aspect of our organizing work but with this particular project the group was able to collect monetary donations for the very first time to directly serve the material needs of our neighbors.
With the mutual aid funds we collected we were able to provide groceries for our neighbors through food distributions, home deliveries, and our community fridge. We provided small grants during the beginning of the pandemic and organized a winter coat drive in year two of the pandemic. We purchased and secured COVID 19 masks and test kits that we’ve been distributing since the start of our project. We were able to do this and much more with the support of over 600 members that joined our mutual aid project and the donations of our neighbors and extended network of supporters.
This report offers a glimpse into our work during the pandemic and how the generous donations from our friends, neighbors, and our extended network of supporters have been used from March 2020 to the present.
SUPPORTING OUR NEIGHBORS
Our mutual aid project has been trying to fill a need in our neighborhood which is lacking in survival resources. Many of our neighbors and members lost work during the beginning of the pandemic and many of them continue to face unprecedented survival challenges. Our group cannot meet the needs of our neighbors alone, but we have been able to do our small part for those in our network and neighbors that have reached out to us.
Grocery Deliveries and Ongoing Support
- 507 families received groceries through direct grocery deliveries to their homes during year one of the pandemic. The majority of families seeking support for groceries have been monolingual Spanish speakers with an average of four family members in their household who weren’t eligible for traditional forms of government assistance, meaning unemployment or public benefits such as SNAP.
- In 2020 we were able to distribute over 300 hot meals prepared by Friend of a Friend and 50 turkeys through the generous donation of the FridgeGirls. We were also able to organize three large food distributions in 2020 and one large food distribution in 2021 with our donated funds. This helped provide groceries to over 1000 families in our neighborhood.
- In December 2021 we organized a winter resource fair that distributed winter clothing, coats and toys to over 150 families. We purchased coats with our donated funds and our neighbors donated items as well.
- In August 2020 our friends with Hungry Monk helped us pick up a used refrigerator in New Jersey which we purchased with donated funds. With the fridge, we created our Community Fridge Project which we launched in September 2020 and that has helped provide fresh vegetables, canned food, and other nonperishable food items to our neighbors. We partnered with our friends at St. John’s Bread and Life and received ongoing donations from them and other local sources, as well as purchased groceries for the fridge from our own donated funds.
- In May 2020 we launched our Homeless Outreach Project (now our Homeless Organizing Project) when the city shut down the subways at 1am and police started to harass our homeless neighbors out of the stations which many used as a refuge from the cold. We started to do nightly and weekend outreach to provide our homeless neighbors with necessary survival supplies such as clothing, food, toiletries and referrals to necessary services. When we saw firsthand how difficult it was for many of the individuals we kept meeting to access these services, we started advocating for better services alongside them. We’ve been able to work with over 50 individuals. Unfortunately, several of them have since passed away due to not having a safe and stable home.
This support continued throughout 2022 and continues to the present day as we strategize on the best ways to support all our neighbors who are in need. We will be able to provide this support until we exhaust our current mutual aid funds.
MUTUAL AID FUNDS
We launched our first ever grassroots crowdfunding campaign through a platform called Chuffed.org in March 2020 and through this campaign we raised a total of $57,980.56. In July of 2020 we launched our second crowdfunding campaign through another online platform called Open Collective. Open Collective offers our mutual aid project a fiscal sponsorship which ensures that mutual aid donations can be tax-deductible. We had also been tracking our initial donations through a public Google sheet to ensure transparency of all our donations–the public document can be found here. Instead of tracking donations manually through our Google sheet, Open Collective provides us with built in transparency so that everyone can see where donations come from and where they go. Up to this date, we have received a total of $83,000.68 (before fees) in mutual aid donations.
Donations From Our First Campaign Plus Miscellaneous Donations – March 2020 to Present
Public document with more detailed info on where donations came from and how they were spent.
Donations From Open Collective – March 2021 to December 2022
Through Open Collective, we have a fiscal sponsor for our “collective” through which we receive donations for our mutual aid project. To date, we have raised a total of $75,684.83 (after fees). Our Open Collective holds the donated funds for us (and charges a fee for each transaction through its website) and when we have an expense through our mutual aid project, our members front the money, hold on to their receipts, and get reimbursed through Open Collective.
Currently, we have over 35 sponsors that donate to our Open Collective on a monthly basis and a total of 549 individuals have donated money since July 2020 to keep our mutual aid project going. The funds go to our community fridge, support our homeless neighbors, help us purchase groceries for neighbors, and the list goes on. With these funds we are also able to pay for interpretation for meetings, our Zoom account, and other necessary supplies necessary for meetings and events we organize. We currently have a balance of $35,301.22 in donated funds.
Overview Of How Open Collective Donations Were Used
This is a summary of how donations into our Open Collective fundraiser have been used from March 4, 2021 to the present. The donations are divided amongst our various projects, our general mutual aid project, our homeless organizing project, and our community fridge we operate in partnership with King’s Juice Bar.
Open Collective operates through a reimbursement system and the total expenses in this summary include the processing fee charged by the website.
OUR ORGANIZING EFFORTS
Many things changed for the Ridgewood Tenants Union during the pandemic. When we decided to create our mutual aid project, it was out of a necessity to support our neighbors through the tough times that were to come, but because these efforts took a lot of capacity and energy from a small group of members, our tenant organizing efforts were not a frontline priority. However, as the pandemic unleashed more burdens on our neighbors, we noticed that more landlords started to ramp up their harassment towards their tenants..
In January 2021, the federal government created the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and on June 1st applications started being accepted by New York State’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA). There were many problems with the application and many hiccups with OTDA’s website so we helped our members apply. We helped 25 of our members apply and a majority of their applications were accepted. This financial assistance has helped our members in paying anywhere from $12,000 to $27,800.00 in back rent. All the applications were from members that had lost their jobs in 2020 once the pandemic hit and a year later, were struggling more than ever to pay their ongoing rent plus meet their various survival needs.
ERAP provides protections from eviction–generally, a tenant cannot be evicted for up to one year after their landlord accepts the rental assistance. However, this protection is not enough and now that we are in year three of the pandemic, more and more of our members are at greater risk of losing their homes. Although a lot of our housing stock in Ridgewood and surrounding neighborhoods is rent regulated, a majority of our members live in private, unregulated apartments. This is why while we were helping members apply for ERAP, we were also working to create a local campaign to inform our neighbors about the Good Cause Eviction Law.
The Good Cause bill would expand tenants’ rights in New York State by bringing tenants living in unregulated apartments protections against unfair evictions and high rent increases. This bill, which will be introduced again in 2023 in Albany, is important because a majority of renters live in “market rate” unregulated apartments with no strong protection against evictions. For example, based on census data from 2018, in Senate District 15, which includes parts of Ridgewood, Maspeth, Glendale, and Middle Village, there are 38,000 unregulated apartments (compared to 28,000 rent-stabilized units). Good cause protections would allow tenants a stronger chance to remain in their homes regardless of lease status and protect them against unconscionable rent hikes. It would also give tenants more leverage to organize for better conditions! Through our local Good Cause campaign we informed our neighbors on the benefits to them if this legislation were to pass. We also brought this to the attention of our local elected officials who did not support this bill, Assemblymember Jenifer Rajkumar and Senator Joe Addabbo, as well as joined citywide efforts with the Housing Justice for All Coalition which has been fighting diligently to get the bill passed.
And as we were working in our neighborhood to spread the word about Good Cause, we continued to find ways to also raise awareness about a campaign that has been ongoing since 2015, when we first learned that AB Capstone was in the works to create a 17-story luxury tower at the intersection near Myrtle Ave and Wyckoff Ave right on the Ridgewood and Bushwick border. Ridgewood Tenants Union, as an anti-gentrification group, believes that luxury housing spurs the displacement of our working class neighbors and we have been opposed to this development project from the start. Unfortunately, the AB Capstone “Ridgewood Tower” is being constructed on land that is zoned “as-of-right” which partly means that the developer, Meir Babaev, did not need to seek special land use approval to build a high rise that includes no truly affordable units of housing.
Since 2015, the Ridgewood Tenants Union has held marches, protests, community forums, public speak outs, and outreach to our neighbors to make them aware of the dangers a project that includes no affordable housing can have on our neighborhood. We have also tried to get the developer to come to the table and we got closer in September 2020 when, during the first year of the pandemic, we went to his house in Jamaica Estates. The direct action we organized outside his home finally got his attention and his company, AB Capstone, finally engaged with us to organize a public community meeting. Eventually they ended up opting not to meet with community members in public to listen to our concerns and we spent another year trying to get the attention of city agencies and elected officials as to the lack of safety at the construction site, which included various complaints regarding inadequate worker and pedestrian safety. Then on April 6 of 2022, a worker named Holger Molina, fell to his death at the work site.
The death of Holger Molina brought us back to action and we held a meeting with the Department of Buildings and organized actions calling out the agency for not enforcing maximum worker protections. We also called for the city to revoke AB Capstone’s construction permit. To this date, they have continued to build their luxury tower as if nothing has gone wrong. The most recent effort to gain concessions from AB Capstone is from members with our Homeless Organizing Project, who have been doing outreach for over two years to our homeless neighbors.
Through that outreach, members have learned that there is a serious need in the neighborhood for services and access to survival items that would make a difference in the lives for those that stay in the streets. Our homeless neighbors have said that they need access to restrooms, showers, storage, mailboxes, and various other needs that they could access if a drop in center existed in our neighborhood. Our Homeless Organizing Project has shifted the demands in our AB Capstone campaign to call on the developer to lease the community facility in their project to an organization that can operate a drop in center to help bring some stability and dignity to our homeless neighbors.
In 2021 the steering committee held a series of meetings and retreats to discuss issues that have surfaced during the pandemic, especially around the creation of our mutual aid project, and how to bring the group back to its original purpose of building up the power of those most negatively impacted by gentrification. The committee agreed that there was a need to refocus and restructure the group to bring it back on track to building up our group’s mission. We updated our mission statement and updated our principles of unity to center our immigrant neighbors, people of color, poor and working-class people, and our homeless neighbors in our organizing work. One issue during the pandemic that the group had to deal with was the influx of new members, a majority of which were white. This influx of members left the steering committee with little capacity to carry out our tenant organizing work while trying to meet the needs of our mutual aid projects.
We also hit a roadblock in trying to organize and build the leadership of our Spanish speaking immigrant members, a population that was hardest hit during the COVID pandemic and who are some of the primary targets of predatory landlords. In April 2021 the steering committee approved a proposal to secure a new fiscal sponsor and fundraise to rent a space of our own and in February 2022 the committee approved a restructuring proposal. The purpose of these proposals were to focus on bringing our Spanish speaking members into the fold of our organizing and to put our principles and our mission into practice by focusing on building up a strong base of working class tenants organizing against landlord abuse. We are currently in a transition period.
LOOKING INTO 2023 AND THE FUTURE
To build on our mission and grow a strong base of tenants, the steering committee agreed in April 2021 that we needed a home of our own to make that happen. A command center for tenants to meet, learn, and build relationships to fight for their rights and fight back against predatory landlord practices. This would also be a space where our members could get their survival needs met, whether it’s something as simple as receiving mail or having a space to sit and relax.
In order to rent a space in the neighborhood, the group has agreed to secure a new fiscal sponsor. In 2020 we were referred by the Community Development Project at the Legal Aid Society to a private law firm that agreed to help us with the incorporation process. After meeting with them and holding internal discussions, the group decided that we would not become a non-profit but rather obtain a new fiscal sponsor so that we could raise funds to rent a space and pay for other group costs associated with running a space so that our work can thrive.
The steering committee decided that the group would solely focus on grassroots fundraising directly from our network. We believe it is best to raise funds directly from our network and membership so that we remain accountable only to our mission and our supporters. We will be coordinating a new grassroots fundraising campaign in 2023 and we hope that our extended network of supporters will continue to believe in our work and help us build strong tenant power!