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Astoria rent center protesters arrested

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Two Brooklyn men said they were arrested on civil disobedience charges earlier this month after joining City Councilman Eric Gioia (D−Sunnyside) for a protest against an Astoria Rent−A−Center, which they allege practices “predatory lending” to Queens residents.

Gioia, who has previously accused the rent−to−own company of charging exorbitant prices for flat−screen televisions at other products in minority neighborhoods, joined community activists to protest Astoria’s Rent−A−Center at 32−75 Steinway St. Dec. 3.

At that time, Brooklyn Minister W. Taharka Robinson and Kirsten Foy, both of whom are members of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, said they were arrested after they sat down in the street and blocked traffic.

“They take advantages of residents in our communities,” Robinson said. “They are placed in low−to−moderate income neighborhoods where individuals are not as fiscally literate. We have to push off business practices that are tantamount to predatory lending.”

Robinson said he and Foy were arrested for obstructing traffic and that summons to appear in court were issued. An NYPD spokesman said the agency had no record of the arrest.

A spokesman for Gioia said he saw the men handcuffed, but did not know if they had been booked.

The rent−to−own company could not be reached for comment.

Rent−A−Center was founded in 1973 and has long generated controversy. Critics have alleged that many of the company’s stores are located in economically depressed neighborhoods, which has helped to perpetuate poverty in those areas.

Customers acquire ownership of products from the store over a period of time without taking on debt. The company rents the products, which include furniture, electronics and appliances, on the condition that a product will be owned by the customer once a term of rent is completed.

The rent−to−own chain has 38 city locations, including sites in Astoria, Jackson Heights, Woodhaven and Richmond Hill.

Gioia said an investigation conducted by his office last year found that Rent−A−Center customers could pay as much as 300 percent more than the retail price for merchandise.

He called on State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and the state Department of Consumer Affairs to investigate whether the company is violating the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which ensures that all consumers are given an equal chance to obtain credit.

“Rent−to−own stores are nothing more than loan sharks by another name,” Gioia said.

Robinson said he and other city activists protested outside the office of state Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D−Far Rockaway), chairwoman of the Assembly’s Consumer Affairs Protection Committee, last week. He called on the assemblywoman, who has held hearings during the past few years on updating state laws on rent−to−own businesses to better protect consumers, to crack down on businesses like Rent−A−Center.

In a statement, Pheffer said she had not been able to attract any state Senate Republican majority member to sponsor legislation on rent−to−own businesses.

“New York’s rent−to−own law needs to be improved,” she said. “The price control mechanism in the existing law is flawed and the required consumer disclosures are insufficient.”

According to the state Elections Board, Pheffer has received $2,350 in campaign contributions from Rent−A−Center in the past five years.

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e−mail at nduke@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 156.

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