By Sabina Mollot
On the heels of the MCI settlement between CWCapital and the ST-PCV Tenants Association, around 250 tenants attended a meeting on Saturday to learn more about what the deal meant for them.
As usual almost all in attendance at the TA meeting, held at the Simon Baruch Middle School, were seniors. A bunch came armed with questions regarding the MCIs as well as quality of life and general affordability issues. However, those with unique circumstances were herded into another room at the school where there were tables to set up to help people understand the figures on their leases and with other problems.
Meanwhile, Tim Collins, the attorney for the ST-PCV Tenants Association addressed the crowd. First, he responded to some “grumbling” the deal has gotten since for most non-“Roberts” tenants, there’s only five percent removed from their monthly payments. Collins argued that as with any settlement, “you have to make deals. You have to trade something.” “Roberts” tenants wound up getting the higher reductions or full eliminations of the monthly payments because, said Collins, “they’re already paying very high rents.”
As a result of the deal, all tenants have had the retroactive portion of their MCIs (major capital improvements) eliminated. As for the monthly or permanent portion, “Roberts” tenants paying the full legal rent get a 5 percent credit. “Roberts’ tenants paying either the maximum modified legal rent or the maximum “Roberts” preferential rent get a 50 percent credit (as determined by the class action settlement). “Roberts” tenants paying less than the modified legal rent or “Roberts” preferential rent get a credit of 100 percent.
SCRIE/DRIE tenants are also exempt from having to pay the MCIs at all.
Non-“Roberts” tenants paying the full legal rent get a 5 percent credit. Non-“Roberts” tenants paying less than the full legal rent get a credit of 100 percent. The credits are retroactive to January of this year and appear as two separate credits on tenants’ rent bill from May (one for May, one for the other four months).
While discussing the settlement, Collins tried to discourage residents from filing individual PARs (petitions for administrative review) since that could unravel the settlement for all tenants, a clause CW insisted on. Those hoping to score a better deal, warned Collins, would have less standing as individuals with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) than a coalition like the TA has. He also pointed out that the TA had been at work for months in the hope of getting the best possible deal.
“I think we accomplished that,” said Collins.
He also shared with tenants that the settlement almost didn’t happen, with the talks breaking down twice. He declined to explain why, but admitted he wasn’t happy about having to agree that tenants would have to give up the option to file PARs.
But in trying to see it from the owner’s side, Collins said, “They wanted there to be finality. They wanted to have peace. They don’t want to fight 500 or 1,000 PARs that disrupt the deal.”
The deal does however make exceptions for tenants who want to file a PAR in unusual circumstances, such as the room count of their apartments being incorrect, since MCI costs vary based on the number of rooms in a unit.
Collins also reminded tenants that even before the negotiations, the TA had managed to convince the DHCR to knock 23 percent off the amount then-owner Tishman Speyer asked for in 2009. The challenge that followed came about after tenants received notices of the approved MCIs last fall and Collins saw that none of his arguments made in 2012 against the improvements, such as shoddy workmanship, had been considered.
The attorney also echoed the sentiment often made by local politicians that MCIs are not just a problem for tenants in Stuy Town, but a result of a law that favors landlords by allowing them to charge in perpetuity for building improvements.
“The main problem is in Albany,” he said.
Collins’ advice: Sign a one-year lease, not two.
Collins concluded his talk by urging tenants who have lease renewals coming up before October to take a one-year lease rather than a two-year one.
The reason, said Collins, who served as the executive director/counsel for the Rent Guidelines Board from 1987-1994, is that the RGB is expected to vote for a lower increase this year than what was handed down in previous years. Even a rent freeze is possible based on the preliminary vote last week. However, the increase voted on won’t go into effect until October.
Collins added that in recent years, the board’s increases amount to “nothing less than a scandal.”
The reason, he said, is that arguments made in support of owners involved projected operating cost increases that were much higher than what they actually turned out to be. At the same time, household incomes were dropping. Collins admitted that when he worked for the board, he took a somewhat hands-off approach, telling its members, “It’s not your job to make every apartment affordable or every building profitable for owners.” But over time, he started to feel like landlords were being given too much and advised the board to implement a rent freeze.
“This year I’m asking for a rollback,” he added.
Following his comments, TA President John Marsh chimed in to say Collins was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the TA, since what kind of lease to sign is always a gamble.
Council Member Dan Garodnick also spoke about the RGB, to recommend that tenants to participate in this year’s vote process by speaking at public hearings about their MCIs. With a new chair and new mayor, Garodnick pointed out that tenants have a better shot at swaying the board this year than they’ve had in the last 20 years. “I would encourage you to make your voices heard,” he said. “It’s quite an opportunity for tenants in this city.”
(Editor’s note: In a recent editorial, T&V also recommended that tenants tell the RGB about their MCIs, in the hope that hearing about unexpected increases tenants are made to pay mid-lease will have an impact on the board’s decision on the annual increase.)
The next public hearing in Manhattan takes place on June 16 at the Emigrant Savings Bank at 49-51 Chambers Street from 2-6 p.m.
Support for tenant-led purchase of ST/PCV
Another issue discussed at the meeting was the future sale of ST/PCV, with Garodnick saying a tenant-led deal has the support of the city’s housing commissioner.
Later, he told Town & Village that along with HPD (Department of Housing Preservation and Development) Commissioner Vicki Been, he’d also spoken with the deputy mayor for economic development, Alicia Glen.
“My sense from them was that they wanted to find a way to be supportive of tenants in our initiative if they can,” he said.
On the other hand, CWCapital has remained unwilling to talk business.
“Not just with us but with anybody,” Garodnick said at the meeting. “We all suspect that a sale is somewhere on the horizon, but we’re not sure when.”
(Three days after the meeting, the plan to foreclose on the Stuy Town’s mezzanine was made public.)
Why tenants are pretty much doomed thanks to Albany and City Hall
As always, there was also much depressing talk about the politics governing rent laws at the event. Local elected officials took turns at the podium explaining why tenant-friendly bills never get anywhere.
State Senator Brad Hoylman reiterated a point he’s made before, saying that until there’s campaign finance reform, the State Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, will remain a place that’s more friendly to landlords than tenants. He noted that many of the Republicans get millions in campaign contributions from real estate interests and also often live in upstate districts where there are few renters. The Olean, NY-based Cathy Young, who chairs the Senate Standing Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development, has blocked campaign finance reform from even being discussed on the Senate floor, Hoylman said. This, he explained, is why Senate members have been reduced to arguing about yogurt.
“Her district is closer to Detroit than Manhattan,” said Hoylman of Young, who’s also legislatively tried to undo “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer.” “We need to continue to fight for campaign finance reform,” Hoylman added. “It is fundamental to changing the power dynamic in Albany.”
Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh then spoke about how the state housing agency’s new Tenants Protection Unit was in danger of being de-funded by the State Senate.
Also at the meeting was Comptroller Scott Stringer who said that the mayor’s housing plan aimed at building or preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing won’t be enough to make up for the amount of affordable units that are getting lost each year. In the last 12 years,
Stringer said, “rent have skyrocketed by 75 percent,” while in the past 16 years, 400,000 apartments that rented for $1,000 or less disappeared. “Two hundred thousand (units), it’s just not enough to deal with the crisis,” Stringer said.