Tenant organizing rights at stake in arrested activist’s case

State and federal law allows tenants to organize and meet in common areas without landlord interference

Nov.November 06, 2019 10:30 AM
E.L. Tower in Rochester, New York (Credit: Google Maps, iStock)

E.L. Tower in Rochester, New York (Credit: Google Maps, iStock)

A criminal case in Rochester could affirm or impair New York tenants’ ability to organize their buildings.

Ryan Acuff, a tenant organizer and outspoken member of the City-Wide Rochester Tenant Union, was arrested Oct. 22 for trespassing at a tenant celebration of renovations and improved living conditions.

Kawanais Smith and Ryan Acuff

Kawanais Smith and Ryan Acuff

According to Acuff, he was a guest of Kawanais Smith, a building resident and leader of the City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester. Acuff was in Landsman Development Corporation’s E.L. Tower to meet with tenants when he was arrested by a security guard in the employ of Landsman.

“They associate Kawanais and me with organizing in the building, and that’s what they’re trying to undermine,” Acuff said. “This is union busting and they’re still trying to evict Kawanais. This is all tied together.”

According to the Rochester Police Department, Acuff was arrested for trespassing. Acuff’s next court hearing is set for this afternoon in Rochester City Court’s Hall of Justice.

Landsman Development Corporation CEO James Goth

Landsman Development Corporation CEO James Goth

Landsman, which manages 2,200 apartments in Rochester and the surrounding area, came under fire three years ago when media documented dire conditions in buildings under the firm’s management. Pictures of black mold and icicles in Landsman’s Southview Towers galvanized the tenant movement in Rochester and helped spur a statewide organizing effort.

According to Smith and Acuff, Landsman is still smarting from the incident and sees the two tenants as troublemakers.

“The security guard said that Ryan was banned and he was trespassing and they slammed him down,” said Smith, who is facing eviction by Landsman.

Smith said the arrest was in response to the pair’s organizing — which contributed to the massive overhaul of New York State’s rent law.

This is the second time Acuff has been collared for tenant activities. He was one of scores of tenants arrested June 4 at an Albany demonstration ahead of the sweeping changes to the law.

According to longtime tenant organizer Mike McKee, retaliatory arrests for tenant organizing are commonplace, despite being prohibited by state and federal law. Tenants have the right to organize and meet in common areas without landlord interference.

“It happens all the time,” McKee said. “Listen, tenants get harassed for putting flyers up in a building. Sometimes they get sued for doing that. The laws don’t always get enforced, people just assume that the landlord has all the rights in our society.”

Rochester, like most New York municipalities, is not covered by the rent stabilization law. But after changes to the state law to allow qualifying municipalities to opt in, tenants including Acuff and Smith are pushing city officials to do so.

Landsman did not respond to a request for comment.

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