Powered by the vocal support of elected officials and labor organizers — and by their own cheers of “up with the tenants” and “down with the slumlords” — renter activists and allies took to the streets to protest a raft of recent eviction notices that they critiqued as union-busting retaliation.
Those protesters gathered on Wednesday evening outside of City Hall and — after a speaking lineup that included a U.S. senator, the president of the state senate, the executive director of a major state labor union council, and a leader of the Blake Street Tenants Union — marched up Church Street to 101 Whitney Ave.
There, the group heard from the president of the Board of Alders, and still more tenants union leaders from Blake Street and 1476 Chapel St., as they rallied outside of the offices of Ocean Management, a local megalandlord-property management-real estate investment outfit that is run by Shmuel Aizenberg and that controls more than 1,000 mostly low-income apartments across the city.
“Up with the tenants, yeah yeah! Down with the slumlords, boo boo!” they cheered along the way.
By the time they got to the sidewalk in front of 101 Whitney, they took up the chant: “Hey hey, ho ho, Ocean Management’s got to go!”
The reason for the sign- and cheer-filled street action was Ocean’s recent delivery of 16 notices to quit, the first form required in an eviction proceeding, to tenants at 311 Blake St., home to the Blake Street Tenants Union. According to the tenants union, those move-out orders all cited lapse of time as the reason for the pending eviction lawsuits, meaning that the tenants’ month-to-month leases had expired and the landlord did not want to renew.
Renters and tenants union organizers rallied with Mayor Justin Elicker at that very same Whitney Avenue spot as recently as last Thursday to call on Ocean to withdraw the eviction notices and to return to the rent-negotiating table with the tenants union. The group filed an anti-retaliation lawsuit against Ocean earlier this week seeking that same outcome.
And, on Wednesday, they hammered home on that same message yet again — albeit with more megaphone-amplified and street-blocking firepower, plus the backing of more elected officials from every level of government.
All the union wants is for Ocean to “rescind those evictions,” “agree in writing not to do it again,” and “come back to the negotiating table in good faith,” Blake Street Tenants Union member Sarah Giovanniello said to cheers on the front steps of City Hall.
“So even though Shmulik Aizenberg is trying to scare us, we are not going to give up,” she continued. “The Blake Street Tenants Union is here to tell every tenant in this city, in New Haven, in Connecticut, that even when your landlord tries to threaten you, to make your children sick, or make you feel powerless, you have the power when you organizer with your neighbors.”
Speaker after speaker after speaker agreed over the course of the protest — which took place later on the same day that the city’s third officially recognized tenants union formed at another Ocean-controlled property on Quinnipiac Avenue — agreed with Giovanniello’s call to action. (Ocean did not respond to a request for comment by the publication time of this article.)
“This is about a landlord retaliating against people who are asserting their legal rights,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. “That is the worst kind of exploitation.”
He said that Wednesday’s rally and protest merited his attention as a federal legislator because what’s happening in New Haven is everyone’s business. New Haven should be watching. Our state should be watching. Our nation should be watching what is happening in New Haven. Because this is a test of a moral imperative, not just a legal issue.”
New Haven State Sen. and President Pro Tem Martin Looney identified the source of the housing problem being protested Wednesday as “the kind of thing that happens economically in many places when there is excessive consolidation.”
“We are seeing larger and larger numbers of units owned by fewer and fewer numbers of landlords,” he said. “That is always a dangerous thing.”
With members of Yale’s UNITE HERE unions and the statewide SEIU before him, Looney drew a connection between labor organizing in the workplace and tenant organizing in megalandlord-owned housing.
“Just as the organization of unions is so critically important to protect workers in dealing with the corporations, the same is important in dealing with landlords who are so large that they are in themselves equivalent of corporations. … It is a terrible thing to be isolated in dealing with a landlord. The strength of a union brings friendship, brings camaraderie, brings insight, brings knowledge, brings security.”
Kooper Caraway, the executive director of the SEIU Connecticut State Council, carried forward that promise of labor-tenant comity.
“The labor movement across the state of Connecticut is done with the strategy of organizing workers solely in the workplace,” he said. “We are going to knock down the walls of the workplace and fight exploitation wherever it is across the state.”
That includes housing.
“It’s a new day in New Haven,” he continued. “The tenant and labor movement is coming together in a way that will be replicated across the country. … Working class people across the entire country are dealing with rents that are way too high and wages that are way too low.”
And soon enough, the group was in the street, marching up Whitney Avenue with signs and cheers.
By the time they go to Ocean’s offices just north of Trumbull Street, they lined up in a semicircle on the sidewalk and listened to still more speeches, from Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers, from 1476 Chapel Tenants Union leader Amanda Watts, from Blake Street Tenants Union leader Jessica Stamp.
“We believe that housing is a human right,” Walker-Myers said. She pointed to the local tenants union law that the city passed last year, allowing for the formal recognition of tenants unions and their participation in the investigation of Fair Rent Commission complaints. “We’re on the front lines. We’ve got your back.”