Mitch Smith, a longtime resident at 84-09 35th Avenue, said many apartments inside the 84-unit building, including the unit above his, were facing deteriorating walls that leaked water when it rains. He described the walls as “spongy” and “saturated.”
The building's landlord, Arnold Marshel from the Brooklyn-based Westleigh Company, “implemented a drastic rebuilding project,” according to Smith. The landlord then billed the project as a Major Capital Improvement (MCI), a program from the 1970s that incentivized landlords to invest in their buildings.
MCI charges are not intended for work that is considered routine maintenance, but actual improvements. The cost of the improvements can then be pushed onto tenants through monthly rent increases.
The state Department of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) approved the project, which Smith said will increase their rent by 12 percent over the next two years, on top of the expected 1.25 percent rent hike for one-year leases approved by the Real Estate Board.
“This is an economic assault,” Smith said. “This will be completely paid for by us.”
Now, tenants are looking to challenge the rent hike, claiming that the work isn’t an improvement and should have been done to maintain the building from the beginning.
“It’s an increase they don’t deserve,” said Brandon Ramos, a tenant whose family has lived in the building for more than 10 years. “The building’s been crumbling for years.”
Last Wednesday, Smith and nine other tenants from the Jackson Heights building met with State Senator Jose Peralta for an hour. They discussed their situation and possible actions to challenge the increase.
Peralta recommended an organization that could provide legal help during the appeals process.
Smith said he’s also planning to set up a meeting with Assemblyman Francisco Moya in the coming weeks.
Peralta is co-sponsoring legislation in the State Senate to limits the rent increases for MCIs based on the actual amount, rather than in perpetuity.
The bill would also require landlords to submit a statement confirming that no owners have been found to have harassed or illegally evict tenants in the last five years.
The legislation also clarifies that MCIs will only be approved if the work performed is “an enhancement, upgrade or addition, while repairs or replacements intended to maintain existing services are ineligible.”
Smith agreed that the real problem is the law. He admitted that unless there’s serious outside intervention, the current tenants at 84-09 35th Avenue are faced with “close to zero” chance of successfully challenging the rent hike.
“This is a setback for many and a disaster for others,” Smith said. “Some will have to move out.”
He accused landlords of turning MCIs into “supplemental income.” He said another issue, vacancy decontrol, tempts landlords to force people out of their homes by creating “lousy conditions in their buildings.”
“We get stuck with the bill and continue to pay the surcharge, they pay nothing,” Smith said. “People continue to move out as the rent increases. As people move out, they can raise the rent more. It’s outrageous.”
A DHCR spokeswoman said if a rent-regulated tenant believes they are being overcharged, they should contact the office of Rent Administration. To challenge the MCI, tenants have to file a petition for administrative review within 35 days of the issuance of the order.