NEW YORK—In a rental complex right by the East River in Harlem—full of no-fee rentals, as the big sign outside boasts—tenants are organizing for improvements to their buildings.
It’s a common story for buildings losing rent-regulated units where the tenants have a litany of complicated rights. But in this case, these are not tenants of rent-regulated units, and they have absolutely no protections or tenant rights.
“I’m not afraid to speak out against management,” said Scott Hall, who moved into the Riverton complex in 2007 with his fiancée. “It just hasn’t done me any good.”
As a “market-rate” or “fair market” renter—basically any renter of an unregulated unit—the landlord is not obligated to renew your lease, and can charge whatever rent he or she deems appropriate. Not all landlords take every opportunity to double a tenant’s rent year to year; they tend to be reasonable, and in many neighborhoods residents have stayed for years despite not owning their homes or renting a regulated apartment.
But as hot as the rental market is, tenants in neighborhoods that have never faced this problem before are finding themselves priced out, and talk of organizing fair-market renters is growing.
The seven years Hall has spent in Riverton is the longest he’s stayed in any apartment in New York, but he is very conscious of the fact that when—if—management offers him a new lease, there will likely be a rent increase of a couple hundred dollars attached. He has already started reaching out to friends and acquaintances as far away as the Rockaways or Yonkers to look for an affordable alternative.
The list of complaints Hall has is lengthy and, unfortunately, valid.
Just last week, Hall and his neighbors confirmed a tenant on the first floor had passed away weeks prior to her body being removed. According to the tenants, she had been unresponsive and inside her apartment for two to four weeks, as a bouquet of roses withered outside her door. Many calls were made to management, but no action was taken, Hall said.
Prior to that, he has had three infestations of bedbugs.
According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), tenants have a right to an apartment without bedbugs, and landlords have a deadline of 30 days to remedy the problem.
The first time it happened, Hall and his fiancée boxed up their things, and it took 12 months for the bedbugs to be taken care of. But Hall’s apartment is located right above the carriage room in the basement, which was also infested by bedbugs. So when management gassed the carriage room soon after, he suspects the bugs just went right back up to his apartment, and that was why he had to deal with a second infestation.
When it happened a third time, Hall took care of the problem himself, and didn’t bother waiting for management.
“I spoke out constantly,” Hall said. “They keep telling me I’m getting a discount and I should be grateful that I’ve been here as long as I have.”
Beyond the hazardous living conditions, Hall said he has to constantly go back to the management office when they overcharge and mischarge him for erroneous items like interest on an unpaid deposit he said he’s paid. It’s nit-picky and persistent.
But he does not want to move if he can manage to stay, Hall said, as he and his fiancée have become close friends with so many neighbors who all look out for each other.
Rather than harassment, it is more like gross negligence, Hall said, adding that management says yes to a lot of requests, but seldom follow through.
The current management company Compass Rock did hire a new accountant after months of nonpayment court cases with several tenants, both fair market and rent controlled.
Tenants’ lawyers say landlords’ claim nonpayment by not cashing rent checks is a common tactic to evict the rent-stabilized tenants, of which the complex has many. But the management company cited administrative errors resulting in their not receiving rent and said the new hires would remedy that. Compass Rock did not respond to a request for comment.
“Scott was one of the first white tenants to move into the building,” said Riverton tenant Leon Fields with a laugh.
Planned in 1944, the Riverton is a gated community similar to Stuyvesant Town, and at the time largely served an African-American community.
Fields, like Hall, is not a rent-regulated tenant. He is one of many in the building who have banded together to work with the broader Riverton Tenants Association to push for better management.
Compass Rock took over the buildings in 2010 after Stellar Management defaulted on them six years ago. From the residents’ perspective, the new company does not seem to know what to do. The tenants association recently filed a $10 million lawsuit against Compass Rock for overcharging for major capital improvement projects originally proposed by Stellar, and the two parties are now trying to negotiate a settlement.
“Some people are worried because if they speak out they’ll have problems,” Fields said. It’s a valid concern for these tenants, who may pay not much over $1,000 for their apartments and would be unable to find similar prices in Manhattan with the convenience of a bus stop on every corner of the complex.
Unlike Hall, Fields used to live in a unit that was rent stabilized. He and several other tenants he knows of were told by Stellar their units had been converted to fair-market units years ago. At the time the tenants had no idea how it happened, or if it was done legally—only that their monthly rents almost doubled. Compass Rock had taken over by the time Fields realized Stellar illegally told tenants they were no longer rent-stabilized while continuing to register those units as rent-stabilized. By then Compass Rock was not registering the units as rent-stabilized anymore.
“I grew up in the Lincoln Houses across the street,” Fields said. “When I moved here, it was a very prestigious neighborhood.”
It was the mid-’90s then, Fields said, and it’s still a good middle-class complex now, but he is worried about the quality of life. As soon as he moved, he joined the tenants association and the affordable housing movement, collaborating with groups like the Metropolitan Council on Housing. He has a daughter now, and a sister who lives in the building, and Fields wants to see the community managed well.
“You see a lot of cosmetic changes on the outside—the flowers, the bricks—but on the inside we have problems. We have plumbing problems, we have infestation problems, we have water problems,” Fields said.
Lack of Protections
Sometimes fair-market tenants join or help the tenants associations in their buildings, which are largely composed of rent-regulated tenants, but try to keep quiet about it.
“There are people who help me, and people who pay the [association] dues,” said Sharon Canns, president of her building’s tenants association on the Upper West Side. “But I don’t tell anybody who they are and I don’t tell management.”
Canns reaches out to everyone in the building to try to get the tenants involved, regardless of whether they are regulated. Together they’ve gotten the building to make improvements like adding a library to the lobby and replacing old and crusty carpet, she said, and these are things everyone is interested in. But she makes a point to keep the market-rate tenants anonymous to management regardless of if those tenants are worried or not.
“If anything happens, I can’t help them. Market rate tenants have no protections,” Canns said.
The vast majority of fair-market tenants are not so vocal about organizing or making demands from management. Even if building conditions are poor, or the tenants realize their fair market apartments were once regulated and legally could still fall under rent-stabilization, the lack of protections make speaking out a risky endeavor.
“Some of these new renters feel like they’re getting a really sweet deal and don’t want to rock the boat,” said Marcela Mitaynes, tenant organizing and advocacy program coordinator for the group Neighbors for Neighbors in Sunset Park.
In Sunset Park, where a little under half of housing stock is regulated and about the same amount is unregulated fair market units, there are many longtime residents who rent month to month, often without leases.
Now, Mitaynes said, residents are coming into her office, baffled that they are being pushed out of homes they have lived in for 20, 30 years. The reaction to the fact that landlords are suddenly doubling their rents, completely within the landlord’s rights, is sheer disbelief.
Much of the unregulated housing stock belong to owners of 2-3 family homes whose properties have tripled in value in the last decade, according to a 2013 Furman Center report.
When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his affordable housing plan in May, he mentioned the possibility of preserving the affordability of unregulated units in some neighborhoods where prices are rising and residents may start to see displacement.
Until now, the regulating of units this way only happened when building owners sought out subsidies or tax exemptions.
“Using new outreach strategies and preservation tools, we will proactively identify and invest in these properties in order to preserve their affordability before rents in the neighborhood increase dramatically,” the housing plan states.
It’s a fix far from materializing, according to organizers like Mitaynes, but crucial if the administration really wants to stop the oncoming wave of displacement in neighborhoods like Sunset Park.
Still, it is a difficult argument to make. Unlike most cities in the country, most New York City residents do not own their homes, and rentals are a large part of the city’s vital and vibrant real estate market. Pushing for stricter regulations of private property is controversial.
“It’s a really, really big challenge,” Mitaynes said. “As far as coming to fruition it is far too early to see, but for us to get out of this housing crisis something of that measure needs to be done.”