Tenants play limbo at the vote. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The city’s rent-stabilized renters will be seeing increases of 1.25 percent for one-year leases and 2 percent for two-year leases.
The increases were voted on by the Rent Guidelines Board on Tuesday evening, after two years of rent freezes for one-year leases, frustrating tenants as well as landlords.
Tenant advocates and community groups were pushing for at least another freeze and in many cases a rollback, but owner representatives felt that the increases didn’t go far enough.
Tenant member Harvey Epstein said in his remarks prior to introducing the proposal that ultimately passed that he and Sheila Garcia, the second tenant member on the board, knew tenants needed a rollback or at least a freeze, but he said that neither were possible at this year’s vote.
“It’s our job to do the best we can and live with the political realities,” Epstein said. “We take this job seriously and today is the first day to move to a better system.”
UPDATE: Jimmy McMillan, early today, announced he was calling off the strike in light of a judge’s decision on Tuesday to keep the rent freeze in place.
Jimmy McMillan is now running for Rosie Mendez’s Council seat. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Sabina Mollot
Jimmy “The Rent is Too Damn High” McMillan, now a Republican City Council candidate, is calling on the tenants of New York City to join him in a rent strike this October.
McMillan, an East Village resident who’s been in and out of court with his own landlord for years, said the plan is inspired by what he’s blasting as conflicting interests in the New York City Housing Court.
“The attorneys that sit on a committee that appoint New York City Housing Court (judges), stand before that same judge against the tenant representing the landlord,” he stated in a press release.
The 70-year-old Vietnam vet also believes this setup has impacted his own case.
According to current information on the New York Courts website, the advisory committee that helps appoint judges to the Housing Part of the Civil Court includes three representatives of the real estate industry, including the chair of the NYC Housing Authority, three members from tenants’ organizations, two members representing civic groups, two bar association members, two public members, one mayoral appointee and the commissioner of the state housing agency, Housing and Community Renewal.
McMillan’s plan to strike, meanwhile, is also aimed at raising awareness of his campaign platform — affordability. His goal is to see rents slashed across the board.
Council Member Dan Garodnick outside the courthouse where arguments were being heard over the Rent Stabilization Association’s lawsuit (Photos by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
Lawyers for a landlord group were met by an angry crowd of protesters as they arrived in court to argue against a citywide rent freeze Tuesday.
Despite freezing temperatures and snow, the sign-waving group of renters, made up mostly of seniors, led chants that at times called for either a rent freeze or a rollback.
Among their supporters was Council Member Dan Garodnick, who said, “We have seen what happens year after year, even in years when costs went down. Rents only seemed to go in one direction and that was up. As a result, evictions go up. Homelessness goes up. The Rent Guidelines Board acted totally appropriately in making that determination.”
Judge Debra James was hearing arguments from the Rent Stabilization Association, the plaintiff, and those seeking to intervene in the lawsuit, including a coalition of tenant groups, legal service organizations and 18 City Council members.
An East Village resident, Joanne Joemelti, argues that tenants shouldn’t be punished because of the ones that use Airbnb. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
With just a week to go before the mayor’s Rent Guidelines Board votes on the year’s increases for roughly one million people, the city’s stabilized renters, both tenants and landlords went before the board to argue why they needed a break — in rent rollbacks or rent increases high enough to cover operating costs, respectively. The usual reasons for both were mentioned: desperate tenants citing stagnant wages while rent increases have steadily been granted until last year’s historic freeze, and owners blaming soaring real estate taxes and other factors like water/sewer fees and building maintenance.
But one thing both sides had in common was a mutual loathing for the increasingly common practice of short-term rentals.
Tenants brought up owners who flout the law to rent vacant units to tourists since it’s more lucrative than monthly rent and doubles as a form of harassment to longtime renters who’ve lost a sense of safety and community. Meanwhile, equally frustrated owners lamented how tenants live elsewhere, while paying under market rent and earning a windfall through Airbnb.
The arguments were made at the auditorium of the Cooper Union building on Monday afternoon. Tenants and landlords lined up to speak along with several elected officials at an RGB hearing.
Politicians at a rally to save the supermarket in March (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Sabina Mollot
The Associated supermarket on West 14th Street, which residents of Chelsea had been trying to save since March, has closed.
The supermarket, which faced a $168,000 rent hike from landlord Pan Am Equities, according to Gothamist, closed after May 1. The store, which is owned by the same group of owners who run the Associated supermarket in Stuyvesant Town, had been paying $32,000 in rent.
Reached this week at the Stuy Town location, principal owner Joseph Falzon said he wouldn’t be opening another supermarket in the Chelsea neighborhood.
Mayor de Blasio has appointed two new members to the nine-member Rent Guidelines Board, a new chair and a new owner’s representative.
The two appointments – new chair Kathleen Roberts, a former United States Magistrate Judge, and owner rep Mary Serafy – “have years of experience in both the public and private sectors,” the mayor said in a press release on Tuesday.
The Rent Guidelines Board is responsible for determining rent increases for around one million apartments in the city each year, last year issuing its first ever rent freeze for tenants signing one-year leases.
In an official statement, the mayor said, “Judge Kathleen Roberts has years of experience serving New Yorkers as a United States Magistrate Judge and Assistant United States Attorney in the Criminal and Civil Divisions. Likewise, Ms. Serafy is well-versed in the field of housing, planning and development in both the public and private sectors.
“I’m confident that their addition to the Rent Guidelines Board will serve New Yorkers well – tenants and landlords alike – in establishing rent adjustments that are fair and grounded in real-life conditions in our neighborhoods.”
While the events taking place in Stuyvesant Town ever since the historic sale to Tishman Speyer have hardly lacked for headlines, from the point of view of a former resident, the story that was not being told — at least not nearly enough — was that of how the aggressive attempts to turn over apartments impacted individuals.
Lisa M. Morrison, along with two other people, have since written a book on the subject, called Priced Out: Stuyvesant Town and the Loss of Middle-Class Neighborhoods. The book, published by NYU Press ($28 paperback), was released on March 15 and is available at nyupress.org and on Amazon. Co-authors are Rachael A. Woldoff and Michael R. Glass.
The book includes 50 interviews with residents of all ages and situations (from seniors, some of whom are original residents, to younger people with families to singles, including college students.)
“It has a lot of different angles and kind of looks at the issue from different perspectives,” Morrison said. She also suggested the book is complementary to Charles Bagli’s Other People’s Money, which offered a behind-the-scenes look at the infamous $5.4 billion deal and the real estate feeding frenzy that led to such a speculative and ultimately predatory investment.
“Our book focuses on the community members’ experience, since I don’t think any other book has that,” Morrison said. “And the idea of being priced out of a community. It’s something that’s happening all over. It’s something a lot of people can relate to.”
Susan Steinberg, Al Doyle, Margaret Salacan, Anne Greenberg and Kirstin Aadahl, Margaret Salacan and a resident of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association protest outside a fundraiser for Governor Cuomo. (Photo courtesy of the ST-PCV Tenants Association)
By Sabina Mollot
Days after the deadline to renew the Rent Stabilization Laws, with no resolution in sight, the state legislature worked to extend the laws for another five days.
In a joint statement, Albany’s three men in a room, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, confirmed the governor’s signing of the bill, and claimed to be “moving in a positive direction toward a resolution.”
But rather than offer any detail, the statement then went on to tout the legislature’s passage of unrelated bills such as protections against sexual assault on college campuses and investments in infrastructure.
Heastie, however, issued a statement of his own, stressing that the Assembly wouldn’t bend on its efforts to win stronger protections for tenants.
“We have agreed on a short term extender bill with the Governor and the Senate which will allow for more time to come to a final agreement,” said Heastie. “But one thing is clear – the Assembly Majority will not compromise its principles and agree to a package that does not provide critical rent protections for the millions of New Yorkers who depend on these laws.”
The rent law legislation the Democrat-controlled Assembly hopes to pass is wildly different from the package put forth more recently by the Republican-controlled Senate. The Senate hopes to create a database in which tenants would have to verify their incomes. Tenant friendly measures are codifying the Tenant Protection Unit and imposing stiffer penalties on landlords who harass tenants. The Assembly hopes to repeal vacancy decontrol, reform preferential rents, MCIs (major capital improvements) and IAIs (individual apartment improvements) and lower vacancy bonuses.
Mayor de Blasio, surrounded by other elected officials, signs legislation that renews the rent laws for another three years. (Photo by Anne Greenberg)
On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law Intro. 685, which extends the Rent Stabilization laws in New York City until April 1, 2018. The 2014 Housing Survey shows that New York City currently has a rental vacancy rate of 3.45 percent, which constitutes a housing emergency, and this legislation, the mayor said, is necessary to restrict rent increases and prevent evictions. This bill was approved by the City Council during a meeting on March 11.
“Rent regulations are vital to protecting New Yorkers from displacement and keeping our communities whole,” the mayor said in an official statement. “Renewing and strengthening rent rules is a top priority for us in Albany this session, and we will fight alongside our partners in the City Council and our delegation in the State Legislature to ensure we have the tools we need to preserve more than a million rent stabilized apartments.”
A spokesperson for the mayor noted that the legislation in no way shapes what the outcome will be in Albany in terms of parameters of the law when it comes up for renewal this June. In other words, an extension of the law in the city wouldn’t mean changes to the law potentially made later this year at the state level.
The Division of Housing and Community Renewal has rejected arguments made by the ST-PCV Tenants Associations against two MCIs for projects done years ago and now, retroactive portions of the MCIs are subject to collection. One was for new elevators in 2006, and the other was for work on building roofs in 2005.
The MCIs (major capital improvements) were for Stuy Town only and not all buildings got them. However, both were challenged through a petition for administrative review (PAR), which Susan Steinberg, chair of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association, said was shot down this week.
Steinberg said she got the notice from the state housing agency on Tuesday, which was dated August 29, denying tenants’ arguments that the old elevators hadn’t outlived their useful lives and other challenges that were related to the projects. “They kept repeating this phrase: ‘They do not see our claims as basis for revoking the administrator’s order,’” Steinberg said. The TA has 60 days from the date of the notice to challenge the order through an article 78. “We’re conferring with our attorney,” Steinberg said.
The elevator MCI costs tenants in 70 buildings between $9-13 per room in their apartments. The roof project took place at 31 buildings with MCIs of $7-8.50 per apartment. MCIs, which are paid in perpetuity, also come with a retroactive portion dated to the time of the work. Tenants who had filed PARs were exempt from having to pay the retroactive portion while the MCI was pending appeal.
Reps for the DHCR once told the Tenants Association leaders that one fifth of the MCI applications it sees come from ST/PCV. “I think Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper takes up one third of their filing cabinets,” said Steinberg. The TA has in the past blasted the DHCR for acting as a “rubber stamp” for the owner. The August 29 notice comes months after a settlement between CWCapital and the Tenants Association to eliminate or reduce five other MCIs that were approved last fall.
Reps for CWCapital and Homes and Community Renewal, the umbrella agency that includes DHCR, didn’t respond to a request for comment by Town & Village’s deadline.
Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly states that cost of the roof MCI as being per room, rather than per apartment.
Madeline Mendez, one of many tenants gathered outside the Cooper Union building holds a sign prior to the Rent Guidelines Board vote on Monday. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Although the rent freeze that stabilized tenants were desperately seeking did not pass at the Rent Guidelines Board final vote on Monday evening, the board still made history with its lowest ever increases of one percent for one-year leases and 2.75 percent for two-year leases.
The vote took place as it usually does in a packed Great Hall at Cooper Union but with some new faces on the nine-member board. Unlike in previous years, the vote did not go in favor of the chair, Mayor de Blasio appointee Rachel Godsil, who was urging the board to vote for a rent freeze.
Instead, the 5-4 vote was in favor of a proposal submitted by public member Steven Flax, also newly appointed by de Blasio, which the owner members adopted as their own. Flax ultimately decided to go in favor of his own proposal but he said that he had struggled with his vote.
“I heard what you’re saying and I know what you’re going through. I’ve developed and managed affordable housing — and you’re not going to like what I have to say,” he said as the crowd cheered him on, “but the takeaway is that it costs money to run buildings.”
Before the vote, Godsil recognized that Flax’s proposal was a historic low but argued that it was not low enough.
“I don’t think it’s supported by the data,” she said. “It doesn’t acknowledge the assumptions from previous years of expenses that did not occur. It is our goal to make sure that the tenants and owners are balanced and I don’t think this proposal does that.”
Tenants attend the preliminary vote of the Rent Guidelines Board on Monday night, hoping as always, for that elusive rent freeze. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The Rent Guidelines Board took an unprecedented step in its preliminary vote on Monday night in proposing a rent freeze for one-year leases on rent-regulated apartments. The vote took place at the U.S. Custom House on Bowling Green to the usual raucous crowd.
While the tenant members of the board initially called for a rent rollback for both one and two-year leases and the owner members proposed up to 5.5 percent and 9.5 percent increases for one and two-year leases respectively, the board ultimately voted on newly-appointed Chair Rachel Godsil’s proposal: a range of zero to three percent for one-year leases and 0.5 to 4.5 percent for two-year leases.
This was the board’s first vote with the members appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. In addition to Godsil, the mayor also appointed Sarah Williams Willard as an owners’ representative, Cecilia Joza and Steven Flax as public members and tenant representative Sheila Garcia, who received enthusiastic cheers from the crowd when her name was announced in the roll call.
“We’re here to simulate what’s fair for both landlords and tenants and the board has ignored its mandate to make a fair decision,” Garcia said when outlining the proposal from the tenants’ side, eliciting more cheering from the public. “It’s my job to make a balance. We’re calling for a rent roll back and it’s not as a favor to tenants but it’s to level the playing field.”
Garcia and the other tenant rep, Harvey Epstein, called for a roll back of negative six to zero percent for one-year leases and negative two to zero percent for two-year leases but this was shot down by a vote of six to three.
The subsequent proposal from the owner members, unlike that of the tenants, was welcomed with jeering from the crowd, causing the chair to call for order multiple times because the noise was drowning out Williams Willard as she outlined their suggestions.
Willard said that their proposal was based on data which has found that between 1990 and 2012, the price index for building expenses has gone up 5.1 percent and Real Property Income and Expenses (RPIE) have increased 4.3 percent annually while RGB increases have averaged 4.3 percent annually.
“Operating expenses have also gone up this year,” Willard added.
Based on this analysis, she said, the ranges the owner members thought were appropriate were a 3.6 to 5.5 percent increase for one-year leases and 4.3 to 9.5 for two-year leases with a 10 percent sublet allowance.
Epstein and Garcia both shook their heads in disbelief at the suggestions.
“I appreciate what you claim to be facts but I think we have different definitions of what facts are,” Epstein said in response to the proposal. “We look at data when coming up with our figures as well. What we’ve found is that owners are doing well and tenants are getting evicted. When you say that owners are ‘only getting a three percent profit,’ you have to remember that our job is to look at the balance.”
The only votes in favor of the owners’ proposal were the owner representatives themselves, after which Godsil presented her range of increases. The proposal passed, with the only member voting against it being Cruz. Epstein seemed reluctant to vote in favor of it but noted that he was only doing so because of the possibility of the “historic rent freeze.”
Although the RGB has held votes in the Custom House in previous years, the security to let the public into the federal building moved very slowly this time and the meeting, which was supposed to start at 6 p.m., didn’t get under way until after 6:45.
Before beginning the proceedings, Godsil noted that she preferred not to begin until all of the people who came to hear the meeting were allowed in but at that point, just before 7 p.m., there were still about 50 people who needed to go through security. In fairness to the attendees already in the auditorium, she said that she would have to begin the meeting even though members of the public were unable to get in.
Epstein expressed frustration at the system.
“The fact that 40 to 50 people weren’t able to get in for the start of the meeting is unacceptable,” he said. “This is something that we need to consider for future meetings and look for the most open and accessible spaces available.”
The final vote will take place on June 23 at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, where Godsil said she hoped security would move more quickly than at the Custom House. In the upcoming month before the final vote, there will be five more meetings, including four with the opportunity for public testimony.
Following news that residents who are affected by “Roberts” won’t be getting their damages as soon as expected, the general response has been one of frustration.
This week, the Tenants Association, in an official statement, called on CWCapital ― and the Berdon Claims Administration, which is handling the paperwork ― to get cracking.
“The Tenants Association deplores the delay on the part of CW in distributing settlement funds to tenants who have been waiting for months,” the TA said. “The $173 million has been sitting in escrow for years and the court approved the settlement back in April. Tenants have been waiting long enough. We urge CW to take whatever steps it needs to expedite the payments.”
Young resident Karry Kane stands outside the leasing office on Saturday. Photo by Sabina Mollot
After Tishman Speyer’s disastrous four-year reign as landlord of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, the commonly held belief was that no one could possibly be worse for the community than that company, with its now infamous business model based around goals that were both greedy and delusional.
However, now it seems that the property’s occupying force, CWCapital, is more than willing to be known as the company that’s worse for tenants than the one that lost its investors billions and scared countless tenants out of their homes. By raising the rents at over a thousand units, in most cases by hundreds of dollars and in others more than a thousand or even two, the suits at CW make it clear that they have learned nothing from the historic mistakes of the past.
Never mind that the move is just plain cruel ― as noted by Council Member Dan Garodnick last week ― “a mid-lease rent increase of $900 is nothing less than an eviction notice” ― it is also, quite simply, bad business. By issuing these steep increases on such short notice (the extension of one additional month for tenants to decide whether to stay or go is still short notice), CW has essentially said it doesn’t care whether their tenants stay or go.
But at these newly inflated prices, who can afford to replace these people (who are already paying for the privilege of living in renovated apartments) other than those who are crammed into subdivided apartments or the very rich? And why would the very rich opt to move into a building without a doorman with an owner who feels entitled to raise the rents at any time?
In other words, CWCapital is prepared to deal with a very high vacancy rate, generating no income for a while until the place becomes, officially or unofficially, a hub for students and other transients. Who hopefully for the leasing office agents, don’t read the news.
In the past, the owner has offered $500 gift cards as incentives to residents who refer people to sign leases. Interestingly, last week, an offer made by Stuyvesant Town via its official Twitter page for new referrals was for $500-$2,500. So apparently, getting tenants to recommend the place to their friends and loved ones isn’t as easy as it used to be.
CW has pointed out, correctly, that it is perfectly legal to be doing this. But so what? Back when Tishman Speyer took over ST/PCV, market rate residents almost immediately began seeing double digit increases. Stabilized renters got primary residence challenges. Tishman did this believing a) that it was legal and b) that the sky was the limit and so what if tenants left, because there was more where that came from. But as we all know now, Tishman was dead wrong. It turned out that as desperate as New Yorkers are for housing, most people simply didn’t have the salaries that would allow them to agree to pay through the nose, nor did they want to live under a landlord who was well-known for giving high rent hikes.
Our recommendation: Instead of offering money to tenants to get their friends and families into these renovated units, CWCapital should tell the bondholders to hold their horses. They’ll be paid in full, even if it takes a while longer by charging tenants the rents they actually agreed to pay. It isn’t tenants’ fault that the bondholders signed on to become part of the biggest residential real estate flop in history and therefore, tenants are not who should be made to suffer here.
Not that they’re suffering in silence. Last weekend, the Tenants Association began organizing protests
Tenants Association Chair Susan Steinberg talks to a neighbor outside the leasing office on Saturday. Photo by Sabina Mollot
outside the leasing office, in which they shared with passersby and prospective renters, what problems they’ve faced after signing on the dotted line (noisy neighbors, broken elevators, etc.).
Tenants are also confronting management directly. On the Stuy Town Facebook page, a recent post cheered the reopening of the Oval lawn. The response? One comment seemed to sum things up.
One Facebook user wrote: “You want people to look through floored glasses we the tenants are being treated like dirt no services no laundry room elevators and intercoms that work half of the time and a 30% rent increase that you have fifteen days to comply with or get out shame on you.”
In a post promoting a carnival for kids on the Oval, Facebook user Carla Webb O’Connor had this to say.
“How about the kids that are being kicked out of their homes because their parents can’t afford the ridiculous rent increases?? Not doing anything for them, are you?”
(Those comments have since been deleted.)
The Tenants Association, local elected officials and now Town & Village are calling on CWCapital to reverse course on the rent hikes. CW should, at the very least, give tenants some warning that after ― and only after ― their leases expire, their rents will go up.
Then, CW should charge a rent that isn’t far higher than what’s currently being charged so tenants can actually consider staying.
Raising rents by thousands of dollars a year (some increases were as high as 35 percent) is beyond cruel. Hundreds of tenants will be unable to pay and unable to stay. Where’s our mayor?
This kind of price gouging is what happened in New York City in the early 70s. In one fell swoop, CW has turned the clock back to a dark era, when tenants faced greedy landlords and a housing crisis so bad, it ended only with the passage of the NYS Emergency Tenant Protection Act in 1974. Where’s our mayor?
CW Capital is destroying a community that has stood as an icon of middle class stability since its inception in 1947. Hundreds of tenants will be scrambling this summer to find suitable housing in a city with a very low vacancy rate, dislocating their children from their schools and friends. Where’s our mayor?
This heartless act on the part of CW is without precedence – but that is a distinction no company with any sense of decency would wish. Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village is a community, not a commodity. Its residents deserve to be treated with respect, not as garbage to be thrown out.
Is there a mayor out there? Where was he when our other elected representatives stood with us? Is he only the mayor of developers and the one percent, not everyday citizens? The silence is deafening.
Susan Steinberg, ST
The author is the chair of the ST-PCV Tenants Association.