Facing Sudden Hikes, Tenants Call for Preferential Rent Reform

Bonifacio de la Rosa, part of a group of Brooklyn tenants at 371 South 5th St. protesting preferential rent laws. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Bonifacio de la Rosa has lived in an apartment at 371 South Fifth Ave. in Brooklyn for eight years. He always felt reassured that his small Social Security pension and the financial support he gets from his children would be enough to cover the rent after his retirement, but when he received a new lease contract last November he almost got a heart attack.

After having paid a monthly rent of $1,250, his landlady informed him that if he wanted to stay he would have to cough up $2,900 – the estimated legal market value of the unit.

For the 70-year-old Dominican, who suffers from high blood pressure and needs dialysis treatment, the hike felt like a “low blow” and he initially thought it was also illegal. However, he learned that his apartment is one out of 266,000 in the five boroughs that are covered by preferential rent laws, and his landlady is perfectly entitled to raise the rent to the legal maximum.

Since 2003, New York rent laws authorize owners whose buildings are registered under preferential rent to charge a higher price than what was originally negotiated with the tenant.

“I did not know that [was the case], but this is abuse. She is slapping me with a $1,000+ hike and she won’t even listen to me. She just wants me to pay her what she wants and I just can’t do that. Where am I going to get all that money from?” said de la Rosa, who four months ago joined a majority of residents of the building’s 30 apartments, mainly Hispanic, to start a rent strike.

“What they are doing is, they are not sending their checks to the owner anymore,” said Lucas Renique, tenant coordinator of the Brooklyn community organization Los Sures. “Instead, they deposit them in a special fund with all the tenants’ rent, which will only be sent to the landlady when conditions improve.”

Renique explained that, since all of the building’s apartments are preferential rent, the landlady started making high increases to kick out the most vulnerable tenants, and not only charge the higher rent, but also increase it further thanks to the vacancy bonus, which allows an additional 20 percent hike when a unit is unoccupied.

(…) “We probably won’t make her suspend the hikes but we want her to go to court and be able to fight the case there, but she has not done that yet,” said Renique, explaining that the current median rent in that part of Brooklyn is $3,500.

“Also, she has not fulfilled her obligations when it comes to building maintenance; there are rats, and a pipe odor problem, among other things. We are also looking at the apartments’ rent history to determine if she is inflating the numbers,” added the activist.

(…) Beyond the rent strike, the 371 South Fifth Ave. tenants have started an intense campaign to make their stories known to Albany legislators, asking them to promote immediate changes in the current rent laws.

Cipriana Arias has lived in the same building for more than 15 years, and her monthly rent has jumped from $1,100 to $1,829 in her new contract.

Tenant Cipriana Arias (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“This must change, we are desperate. We don’t make that much money and that’s why we are asking lawmakers to protect us because this is clear discrimination against hard-working people,” said the Dominican, and caretaker for the elderly. “If the laws don’t change we’ll have to live on the streets because where are we going to go? We might as well die if we can’t find a way to pay.”

The renters have joined other groups and coalitions fighting for reforming the rent laws, which expire next June, and have traveled to Albany to meet with state senators and Assembly members.

(…) A spokesman of the Henry Chan Elizabeth Street Corporation, owner of the building, declined to comment.

State Sen. Julia Salazar, a leading proponent of state rent law reform, said that it is “absolutely imperative” to change the rules in the current legislative session (…).

“We must empower tenants and protect them from such predatory policies as the preferential rent loophole, which is currently threatening New York families with eviction,” said the Brooklyn leader. (…) “I’m looking forward to focusing on the battle for stronger rent laws immediately after we finish our budget process in April.”

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