Editorial: Onus is on tenants in fight for affordability

Two weeks ago, the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association announced that it had reached a settlement with CWCapital over five MCIs thrown residents’ way last fall.

It was a rare victory for tenants, albeit a bittersweet one.

It was a victory in that getting the owner to budge, even an inch, on a rent increase is a near-impossible task, at least in Stuyvesant Town. Attorneys, elected officials and the state housing agency (DHCR) had to get involved, and the talks took months. Ultimately, retroactive fees were eliminated for all, making the Tenants Association’s settlement much better for tenants than an offer initially offered by management to reduce them by about a third. The settlement worked in CWCapital’s favor too since MCIs (major capital improvements) are permanently added to the rent roll and for many tenants, 95 percent of the MCIs’ monthly portion will still have to be paid.

The ones to finally get a real break were the “Roberts” tenants, in renovated apartments, who pay higher rents, and now as a result of the settlement, don’t have to pay any of the five MCIs at all. However, it’s worth noting that this break comes just under a year after 1,100 of those residents were hit with mid-lease increases as a result of another settlement, this one of the “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer” class action. In many cases, these increases were hundreds of dollars. Like the MCIs, they were rent hikes tenants didn’t count on having to pay in addition to the annual increases authorized by the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB).

Add those increases onto the other fees residents may see permanently tacked on to their rent bills (individual apartment improvements, air conditioner surcharges) and it just compounds the obvious fact that rent stabilization is just not what it’s cracked up to be and the MCI system is hardly fair to renters.

Local elected officials are sympathetic to the fact that this is just another way for landlords to gradually turn affordable apartments into market rate ones. However, in fighting them, they end up running into brick walls. Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh has authored a bill that would cap MCIs at what the cost of the improvement to a property actually is. This way the incentive for landlords to make improvements for the sole purpose of jacking up rents would be gone. However, that bill, like so much other tenant-friendly legislation, isn’t likely to get passed by the State Senate any time soon.

Knowing this, as well as the DHCR’s history of never meeting an MCI it didn’t like, and it’s tempting to throw one’s hands up (or just throw up) at a system that forces people to invest in the maintenance of properties they don’t own. After all, you don’t pay your dentist a fee for new equipment just installed in his office in addition to the bill you get for his service. Nor would you be expected to have to pay for a college campus building’s new roof after already having written a fat check for tuition.

As for what tenants can do about this particular obstacle to the continued existence of affordable housing, it’s impossible to guarantee what tactic would work. However, the onus is on tenants to at least try to fight MCIs. Otherwise, they will continue to be big business for landlords.

One way to do this is to financially support groups that fight on renters’ behalf like Tenants PAC, which works to get tenant-friendly politicians elected or the community’s own TA. (Because hiring attorneys for MCI battles isn’t free.)

Being knowledgeable about what tenants’ rights actually are is also helpful. Attending TA events is one way to do learn about the issue. The next TA meeting, which will focus on MCIs, will be held on May 10. Those who can’t make it can of course expect to find coverage of the event in this newspaper.

Another option is to get more active when the TA and other tenant groups hold rallies or take lobbying trips to Albany or, once a year, the Rent Guidelines Board vote in Manhattan. On Monday, May 5 at 6 p.m. the Rent Guidelines Board will hold a preliminary vote at the U.S. Customs House for what this year’s increase will be for the city’s million-plus stabilized renters.

Yes, this process has regularly been blasted as a sham, a circus and even the annual screw by tenant advocates. However, this year’s nine-member panel does have a new chair who’s been appointed by a new mayor. And unlike the previous mayor, Bill de Blasio at least claims to be interested in the maintenance of the city’s dwindling stock of affordable housing as well as the creation of new units.

So, could there, for once, be a chance that tenants showing up at RGB vote and hearings will have an impact on the board’s decisions? Especially if they speak up about MCIs and other non-RGB imposed increases renters have to face? There’s only one way to find out.

Correction: Not all “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer tenants” are exempt from having to pay the MCIs. Those who don’t have to pay any of the monthly portion are the “Roberts” tenants whose modified legal or “preferential” rents are lower than their maximum legal rents.

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3 thoughts on “Editorial: Onus is on tenants in fight for affordability

  1. This would have been a great editorial……………….. if you had written it about 15 years ago.

  2. The situation here in ST/PCV is but a microcosim of what has been going on in the entire city. And, all of this is consistent with the decline of benovelent capitalism and the upsurge of a “greed is good!” ethos is this nation..

  3. Wish we had a TA worthy of joining. We just have a board of wannabe owners who don’t care one iota about the tenants. They should step down but then how would they aid and abet Dan Garodnick, his favorite predatory equity firm (Brookfield) and his former law partners to make millions even billions off tenants?

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