The 40th District has three candidates running against the incumbent Mathieu Eugene: Pia Raymond, Jennifer Berkley and Brian Cunningham. These candidates are vying to represent Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Flatbush, Kensington, Midwood, Prospect Park, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens.
Read our discussion with Jennifer Berkley below. Responses have been lightly edited for length:
You are running against an Incumbent. Why did you decide to do it right now?
I was working for several years as a housing advocate and tenant organizer. In the last ten years under the incumbent, District 40 has lost close to 40% of its affordable housing. That to me is a crisis.
It is within the ability of city representatives of the district to assist and help tenants. And even though we have tremendous resources in terms of being able to utilize 311, when tenants call 311 there are landlords that are bullying them, harassing them, or doing underhanded things to get them out, those calls aren’t always routed to people who can help.
I believe, unlike my opponents, really have a plan. One of my plans is very simple. I want to create a landlord blacklist, which will be similar to the so-called tenant blacklist which exists that … by putting together a list of landlords and management companies that are taking tenants to court to evict them for things that are unfair and unjust.
And if you’re in a rent stabilized apartment, the only reason you should be ever terminated from your lease, would be if you do not pay. A significant number of cases that come through housing court, however, are based on holdovers. A holdover for issues unrelated to nonpayment. Although there can be some overlap, it’s mainly for other issues.
By creating a landlord/management blacklist, what we would do is we would report every landlord/management company that has extensive amount of no cost holdover evictions in housing court. Data will be collected and turned into a database. So when potential renters, when they are looking at apartments in different areas, they would see a familiar name and there would be some description there, and possibly rent elsewhere.
I would also like to institute a series of fines and sanctions against landlords who are doing these kind of things. And have a comparison system, if you’re a landlord or management, and you would see what would be a reasonable amount of… you exceed a certain of evictions at this quarter, you would get fined. And I know that there are some good players, and sometimes landlords get a bad reputation.
Letter Grades for Landlords.
For the ones that are good, I would create a similar kind of thing, like the restaurants do now, the Board of Health, where they can earn a letter grade, and promote that letter grade. So if you have a really good landlord, they should be able to promote what’s good about them. The landlord blacklist would be widely available online, you can get through it from 311. We can easily promote the top 10 worst landlords list every year from the public advocate’s office, and use the publicity to generate interest in it.
Beyond housing, the other thing is that I am the only candidate in this race who has hands-on, on the ground experience and results, where I have been solely responsible for keeping families and individuals in their homes. I have a record of this, I am an advocate, and organizer.
If elected I would put more resources towards community based organizations, say the Flatbush tenants coalition, and CAMBA, and Brooklyn Housing Services. All those groups could use additional resources. I know from interactions the Flatbush tenants coalition, there is way more demand than they could possibly meet. If they could have five full time organizers, they could really take a big chunk of this and deal with it. And having such a small staff and few resources could make it difficult to take on these problems. And when my opponents all say they want to put in more money into legal services that are available to tenants in housing courts. I say at that point it’s too late. Once the tenant is in court, they are on the road to bigger problems. I say use the resources up front to keep the tenants out of court.
I also feel that the lack of accessible and affordable childcare is a major issue in our community that has been neglected. Not really hearing and seeing any solutions from any of my opponents. I’d like to pilot an after school community in our current school buildings, following the Beacon model, though this would be open to anyone.
Overall, to sort of address the lack of services of all ages in our community. Opening an intergenerational community center that can serve the needs of everyone in the community from birth to seniors. This could be something that could happen with the right amount of attention.
I also have concerns related to helping our small businesses. There’s a lot of economic pressure put on them. I’ve been talking about some sort of tax, credit for commercial property owners who rent their space to small business to offer a 7-10 year lease to tenants in exchange for a tax credit on their property on some kind. There are already so many ways commercial landlords are getting various tax breaks for different things. For this they’d actually have to do something. One of the largest issues is keeping up with commercial rent—the ability to have a longer term lease at a lower price.
I think these solutions are all manageable, all things to get done within someone’s first term. All things I feel strongly about.
2. How do you address the issues presented in the Brooklyn March Against Gentrification, Racism, and Police Violence this Saturday?
I’ve been participating in a number of the initiatives that Equality for Flatbush has put out there. I think that my suggestions for concrete policy changes that would lead to results for people, I feel as though I am the only candidate who has thoughtfully put out policy recommendations that would lead to positive results for our community, as I’ve delivered in the past.
I think that we can combat a lot of negative aspects, like gentrification, by going after landlords that are aggressively kicking people out, leading to drastic neighborhood change to unfair and illegal practices of eviction. They put people out, increase the rent.
I think that a normal amount of transition is to be expected in a community of an aging population. There’s a real problem, and a dedicated effort other than to make money to get people out of their unit. That leads to gentrification type problems. I believe our community has a responsibility for long term tenants, who’ve lived here for decades.
I lived here for ten years. The changes are profound and dramatic. And there has to be a way, and there is a way, by looking at new alternatives and ways.
Some of my opponents say “Oh, I’m just going to build more affordable housing”. It doesn’t work like that.
Whenever there is a problem, my approach to it is very practical – I am a very practical person. When I see a problem, I think what are the causes, and how we can as a neighborhood we can go to whatever’s causing it and fix it there. So by the time we get to four steps later, we don’t need these big ticket solutions.
My opponents talked about putting more legal into housing courts. More lawyers in housing courts is not the answer. The problems tenants have that get them into housing courts. I don’t think my opponents understand that realize that or get why that is.
3. Did you end up working to get the A/C’s fixed in the Flatbush library? Because we did quote you as saying “I’m getting on it.”
I don’t recall being interviewed by anyone about the AC situation at the Flatbush library. But, it’s true that I made several calls to different city agencies in an attempt to find out if there were other solutions to the problem so that the library could operate normally. I was informed that every idea I suggested (which included a suggestion to briefly convert to ductless air conditioning) were deemed too costly or time consuming to provide a quick fix. I continue to be saddened by the unfortunate circumstances, and hope this will be addressed as promised this fall.
4. Do you believe you can win?
Yes, I know I can win. My message has resonated more so than that of my opponents who are just politics as usual.
I’m ready to fight for my community and continue to deliver the results we all need and the future we deserve. I look forward to serving my community on the New York City Council.
I have received a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood, the backing of 15 local tenant associations, including the 60 Clarkson Tenant Unity Association, and individual endorsements from members of Black Lives Matter-NYC.
For more information on Jennifer Berkley, check out her website here.
*Updated at 4pm to clarify a sentence*