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On a Hot Brooklyn Night, a Heated Rent Strike

On the night of July 18th, anticipated to be one of the hottest of 2012, neighbors from three adjacent buildings in Sunset Park (545, 553, and 557 on 46th Street) joined together with supporters from Occupy Sunset Park for what could become the most significant tenant mobilization effort in Brooklyn in recent memory. Before their "Sidewalk Sleep-in", dozens took a "People's Inspection" of the decrepit buildings; they will be filing their own report.

Tenants had been organizing for two years prior to the involvement of Occupy Sunset Park. Since the alliance was formed with the local neighborhood assembly, their struggle has started to gain traction in the media and on the street.

For years residents have been living in fear of fires and electrical blackouts. Despite numerous complaints made to city agencies and politicians` offices, documented housing violations (including unsafe electrical wiring, a broken boiler, and disease-triggering agents like mold, cockroaches, bed bugs and rats) continue to threaten the lives of dozens of residents.

While many of these violations have persisted for some time, the situation became more dire in recent months as the buildings underwent foreclosure. The buildings` owner, Orazio Petito, has refused to do necessary repairs and continues to insist that tenants pay their rent. In the meantime, a cheap plastic fan is being used to keep the basement`s electrical box from overheating and catching fire.

In apartments that include a pregnant woman with two children, disabled tenants, and individuals with chronic conditions, residents went without heat and hot water during the winter months. Today, they face the threat of more blackouts and fear an electrical fire if they use much-needed air conditioning.

Tenants have been told by the Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD) Deputy Commissioner Vito Mustaciuolo that their landlord, Orazio Petito of Petito Management, has until July 19th to commence critical electrical repairs.

But for many residents, waiting weeks for a court order poses an intolerable risk to their lives. ``Do we have to wait for a tragedy before we see action?`` asked Sunset Park resident and tenant leader Sara Lopez this week.

On July 5th, the affected tenants and various community members and allies, including members of Occupy Sunset Park and Occupy Wall Street, held a rally to stress the urgency of the repairs. The rally was immediately followed by a march to Felix Ortiz`s office. Ortiz, a New York State assemblyman elected by Sunset Park residents, personally promised Lopez and other tenants that he would work to resolve their unsafe housing dilemma. After weeks of no action, the tenants occupied Ortiz`s office.

Tenants have made it clear that if their demands for immediate repairs are not met, they will consider taking matters into their own hands, utilizing the support from groups like Take Back the Land and Occupy Wall Street to take on the emergency repairs. Such a step would represent the first such tenant mobilization effort in Brooklyn in recent memory.

Participants in local assemblies such as Occupy Sunset Park are proving they will put their bodies on the line to support the long-time efforts of their neighbors down the street, and catalyzing new, creative opportunities to build power, reclaim the commons, and fight back against foreclosures, police brutality and community displacement. Occupy Sunset Park is one of over a dozen neighborhood assemblies that mushroomed throughout the five boroughs in November of 2012, during a call to extend New York city's Occupy movement beyond the space of Liberty Park. In the event that Liberty Square's occupation was evicted, this decentralization strategy aimed to assure that the Occupy movement continued to draw in more and more individuals ready to take action on behalf of their communities. As neighborhood assemblies facilitate stronger relationships through these shows of commitment, this movement to reclaim the commons and fight economic injustice, deepens its roots.

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