Hundreds head out for tenant rally

Tenants carry signs at a rally for stronger rent laws. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Tenants carry signs at a rally for stronger rent laws. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

On Thursday night, hundreds of tenants and housing activists and numerous politicians gathered to rally for stronger rent laws, with the laws expected to be renewed in Albany on June 15.

The rally took place downtown in Foley Square, followed by a march over the Brooklyn Bridge.

During the rally, politicians spoke on the theme of needing to end vacancy decontrol and end 20 percent vacancy bonuses and to reform MCI (major capital improvement) rent increases to make them temporary as well as reforming IAI (individual apartment improvement) increases.

City Council Housing Chair Jumaane Williams was one of the speakers, eliciting cheers when he told the crowd if the rent laws weren’t strengthened it would be the fault of one person — “Governor Andrew Cuomo.” He then led a chant of “We will remember!” that reverberated through the street.

Other speakers at the event included Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Assembly Housing Chair Keith Wright. Local attendees included State Senator Brad Hoylman, Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh and Council Member Dan Garodnick.

The real stars of the event, however, were the many creative signs brandished by tenants, including a bunch that depicted building windows with spaces for their holders’ faces to show through with the slogan “Not moving.” Some tenants carried signs or wore boxes designed to look like buildings. Even more signs included, “Blood sucking landlords call for stronger rent laws” with a graphic of a giant bedbug, a banner with landlords depicted as dragons shootings flames onto a building, and the ST-PCV Tenants Association’s graphic of a vulture overlooking Stuyvesant Town.

One of the Stuy Town residents marching, Nancy Arons, commented on statements recently made by Cuomo about how the rent laws could just be extended as they are or tweaked slightly. The reason for this, the governor had explained, was all the turmoil in Albany.

“Well,” commented Arons in response. “That’s not our fault, is it? He wants to run for president, but if you don’t support the people who vote for you, I’m not going to vote for you for president. He thinks he’s his dad, I guess.”

Another marcher was Kavanagh, who, while heading across the bridge, discussed the fact that the “LLC loophole” has been getting some attention in Albany. The loophole has allowed developers to funnel enormous amounts of campaign cash to elected officials through numerous limited liability companies.

Legislation authored by Kavanagh would cap contributions from corporations to a total of $5,000 per calendar year to candidates and/or committees. The legislation passed the Assembly on Tuesday. “Now it’s up to the Senate,” said Kavanagh, although he added that new Senate leader John Flanagan has been dragging his feet on bringing it up.

As for whether or not the legislation will be voted on in the Senate before session ends in five weeks Kavanagh said he doesn’t know. But, he added, “I want to say this is about doing the right thing because people are watching and people are realizing the corruption both in legal and illegal forms.”

One of the rally’s organizers was the healthcare workers’ union, with an 1199SEIU speaker explaining that 70,000 healthcare worker members live in rent regulated housing.

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Reform a possibility with Silver no longer Assembly speaker, TenantsPAC wary of potential distractions from rent laws

TeantsPAC Treasurer Mike McKee (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

TeantsPAC Treasurer Mike McKee (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

After a whirlwind week that began with an arrest of one of Albany’s most powerful men and is ending with Sheldon Silver no longer having the title of Assembly speaker, what has remained up in the air is just how much actual legislation will get done as Albany is distracted by the implementation of a new speaker, and possible implementation of a new, more egalitarian power structure.

While not one to complain about reforms in Albany, the timing is naturally a concern for tenant advocates like Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC, considering the rent laws are scheduled to sunset this June.

Two weeks ago, when news of an investigation into an alleged long-running bribery and kickback scheme perpetuated by Silver started to surface, McKee said it was too soon to predict how it would affect one of Albany’s “three men in a room” – or tenants.

But as of Monday evening, some of Silver’s fellow Assembly Democrats were calling on him to resign and an idea that had been floated a day earlier to appoint five Assembly members to act as speaker while he worked to beat the rap against him had fizzled.

Democrat legislators calling for him to resign early on included Comptroller Scott Stringer, State Senator Brad Hoylman and in the Assembly, Democrats Brian Kavanagh and Keith Wright.

“He should understand that he’s lost the confidence of a majority of our conference,” the New York Times quoted Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh as saying of Sheldon Silver after a closed-door meeting on Monday night. Kavanagh did not respond to calls for comment from Town & Village.

However, by Tuesday night, Silver’s ouster (or resigning) as speaker along with an announcement that a replacement would be coming soon was pretty much a done deal, according to published reports. Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle will be interim speaker until an election is held on February 10, according to City & State.

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Riverton tenants sue CWCapital over ‘inflated’ MCIs

Assemblyman Keith Wright with tenants at Riverton (Photo courtesy of Assemblyman Wright)

Assemblyman Keith Wright with tenants at Riverton (Photo courtesy of Assemblyman Wright)

By Sabina Mollot

It turns out tenants in Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village aren’t the only ones attempting to fight MCIs.

At Riverton, an apartment complex in Harlem, the Tenants Association has sued CWCapital, which took over the property after it went into foreclosure, over what tenants claims are inflated major capital improvement (MCI) charges.

The MCIs were for work on roofs and elevators at the property as well as the redesigning of a park when Riverton was owned by Stellar Management. The MCIs vary in cost per apartment, and according to Riverton Tenants Association President Randreta Ward-Evans, it’s mostly seniors who seem to be overpaying.

“I have a senior who’s 97 years old who’s paying $200 more than she should be paying.” she said.

She added that tenants learned from attorneys, during a legal clinic held in March by Assemblyman Keith Wright, that many of them were overpaying.

“We knew we had a problem. We just didn’t know how massive it was,” she said.

In the lawsuit, which aims to collect $10 million for tenants, the Riverton Tenants Association argues that MCIs that have been charged are “inflated, overstated, excessive and fabricated.” It accuses CW of refusing to roll back the rent, despite requests by the RTA and continuing “to collect unlawful rent increases including, but not limited to, increases based upon purported Major Capital Improvements (“MCI”) since in or about 2010 or such other earlier date.”

The suit argues CW isn’t entitled to the MCIs because the company waited too long to collect them. “Pursuant to DHCR policy and precedent the Defendants waived all MCI rent increases if they did not collect same within 120 days of the applicable MCI order or in the next renewal lease after the MCI order. Defendants did neither.”

CWCapital subsidiary CompassRock Senior Vice President David Sorise and Karl Griggs, Riverton’s property manager, are also named in the suit.

While not mentioned in the lawsuit, Ward-Evans said numerous tenants have also complained of paying rent only to have their checks not be deposited. Then, “after three months they get eviction notices.” Though she isn’t sure how many tenants this has happened to, “It’s a huge group. I only know about the people who come to me, but I’m sure there are a lot of people that don’t come to me,” said Ward-Evans.

About 30 percent of the tenants are market rate while the rest are rent stabilized. A stabilized one-bedroom unit will typically rent for $800-$1,000 a month, while the market rate, renovated one-bedrooms are around $1,800. Many of the stabilized renters are seniors, who in some cases were there since Riverton opened as an alternative property to non-white would-be tenants of Stuyvesant Town, which was originally segregated.

Meanwhile, Ward-Evans said tenants at Riverton have enjoyed an “excellent” working relationship with CWCapital for the past four years. Tenant leaders meet with reps for the owner regularly on tenant concerns. “They respond immediately and I really appreciate it,” she added. However, she said tenants felt a lawsuit was the only option to fight the MCIs since an attempt to do so through the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), went nowhere.

“I think more tenants will probably take the same route of suing the owner instead of going to the DHCR because it seems that it’s always in the realtor’s favor,” said Ward-Evans. “I think this is going to be the first of many. It doesn’t have to be just Harlem. Going to the DHCR? Done it. Did it. The law has to be dealt with and changed.”

Meanwhile, Wright, who also lives in Riverton, summed up the situation as “a shame, really. “What you have here is yet another chapter in the story of our city’s affordable housing crisis. Honest, hard-working individuals who are robbed of the opportunity to remain in the place they have called home, some such as myself, have been here for decades. These overcharges are egregious and unacceptable but we are committed to seeing this fight through until the end.”

According to a report in the New York Times, Andrew MacArthur, a managing director at CWCapital, seemed surprised by the litigation.

In an official statement to T&V from spokesperson Brian Moriarty, CWCapital indicated the same thing. “We received this lawsuit without prior notice or discussion and are now in the process of trying to understand the specific complaint,” CW said.

“It appears this relates to actions ‘in or about 2010 or such other earlier date’ during which time the property was either owned by a prior owner or managed by a prior management company. Since CWCapital took control of the property we have enjoyed a positive and productive relationship with the TA and have worked hard to re-build the trust between the property owner and our residents that was lost with the previous owners. We have invested heavily in Riverton’s physical condition and have re-vamped maintenance and janitorial procedures to better serve our residents. We will investigate the claims immediately and fully.”

Council Member Dan Garodnick said that he was also looking at the suit to see if there were any parallels between the Riverton and Stuyvesant Town MCIs. The Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association told T&V earlier this month that it was conferring with counsel over the rejection by the DHCR of arguments made by the TA against two MCIs. One was for roof work, the other for elevators.