THE BLOG
03/05/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

Spike Is Right! Crooked Landlords Terrorize Brooklyn Tenants (Pt 1)

Some say Spike Lee is exaggerating, but if anything, Spike understated NYC's housing crisis. Marty Needelman, who has been defending the 99% of Brooklyn for the past 40+ years, says plainly: "This is a war."

As Chief Counsel of Brooklyn Legal Services, Marty Needelman advocates for Williamsburg's most vulnerable residents. Marty helps poor people keep their homes, despite landlords who use shady tricks to push them out.

Once the tax benefits of owning a rent-regulated building are outweighed by the value of market-rate apartments, most landlords move towards deregulation. The problem is that some do it through crime. We are talking about landlords who turn off the heat, the water, the elevators. We're talking about landlords who ignore vermin infestation. We're even talking about landlords who toss Molotov Cocktails into residential buildings to terrorize paying tenants.

Spike was not exaggerating.

As little as 20 years ago, Williamsburg was among the poorest and most densely populated neighborhood in New York City, home to waves of working-class immigrants: Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans. Now, Williamsburg hosts film shoots, art festivals, and vibrant entrepreneurship. Factories were converted into luxury lofts and waterfront high-rises are popping. This development has brought incredible resources to the area, but the rent-regulated homes of Williamsburg are being systematically and violently dismantled by crooked landlords.

Why is rent regulation important? Rent regulation is the basis of upward mobility for working-class and immigrant people, modulating the surge of NYC's ever-rising costs. It allows families to put down roots, for communities to grow, and for rich kids to attend the same public schools as poor kids. It levels the proverbial playing field. Rent regulation is the cornerstone of urban progressivism, an ideal in which Marty has a very personal stake. Multilingual Marty married a woman from outside his Jewish community and has faced the wrath of fellow Jews -- but the hostility Marty gets from fellow Jews is due to his law practice, not his marriage.

As I was walking around Williamsburg with Marty, I figured out pretty quickly that he's a celebrity. People of all ages and hues shout his name, offer handshakes, and provide chatty updates on matters both personal and political. You might not have the privilege of hanging out with Marty, but you can meet him in this "I Am Moral Courage" episode we shot in 2012:

The Moral Courage Channel tells the stories of people who are fighting corruption in their faith, culture, or workplace. Whether they are standing up to a bully, breaking up a gang, or simply seeking truth, the heroes of our stories refuse to fail. You should find a hero who inspires you -- and free subscriptions for all!