Sunset Park

For Sunset Park tenants, improvements may mean displacement

June 6, 2019 Jeffery Harrell
Landlords can raise rents on stabilized units through a loophole called the Major Capital Improvement program. Eagle photo by Jeffery Harrell
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When Carlos Villon’s parents — Carlos Sr. and Raquel — received a letter from the State of New York in 2016, they called him over to translate it. The letter informed them that their rent-stabilized apartment in Sunset Park was about to get more expensive.

Their landlord took advantage of the Major Capital Improvement program, which currently allows landlords to use rent hikes to cover reported expenses from building-wide renovations.

The program is designed to make renovating dilapidated rent-stabilized buildings more attractive to landlords. But critics of the program say it’s abused to raise rents and push out low-income tenants, and state legislators are in the midst of negotiations that could potentially scrap the program altogether.

In the Villon’s building, Sharp Management Corporation reported nearly $1 million in repairs were completed after they acquired the building in 2014. Under state law, Sharp was able to foist all of these costs onto tenants.

“MCI is a new tactic that’s here to make this neighborhood the next Park Slope, the next Bushwick, the next DUMBO,” said Villon. “Most of the people who live here have been here for 50, 60 years. Eventually they’ll all have to leave.”

The rent increases were set at $40 per room. Villon said most of the older tenants have apartments with four rooms or more. This was on top of the normal increases set each year by the Rent Guidelines Board for 800,000 rent-stabilized apartments citywide. That means some rents went up by as much as $175.

“They’re retired people, they’re on a fixed income, even a hundred bucks more is a lot of money,” said Villon.

To make matters worse, though Sharp did complete the repairs it reported, the bulk of the money was spent renovating market-rate apartments. Rent-stabilized units got what Villon calls “a patch job.”

Soon after the renovations, the tenants noticed big problems. When it rained, mold grew in the apartments and leaks formed. The cheap linoleum floors began to crack and peel, and in the Villon’s apartment, the floor was uneven.

While landlords spend big money on upgrading market-rate units, the rent-stabilized units receive only "patch jobs." Photo courtesy of Carlos Villon
While landlords spend big money on upgrading market-rate units, the rent-stabilized units receive only “patch jobs.” Photo courtesy of Carlos Villon

“If you set a ball on the floor it would roll across the apartment,” Villon said. “And when you look into the expensive apartments they had new windows and brand new marble islands in the kitchen.”

Mike Davidowitz, senior manager of Sharp Management, confirmed that more attention was paid to the market-rate apartments in the renovations.

“It’s standard practice,” Davidowitz said. “Financially it only makes sense to put work into a unit if we get a return on our investment.”

He said he understood that it is frustrating to see your rent go up, but doubted that the increases would have much of an impact.

“I don’t think the increases were substantial for any specific tenants,” said Davidowitz. “I think it’s unlikely that any tenants will be forced to leave their homes as a result of the rent increases.”

Aura Mejia, a tenant organizer at nonprofit Neighbors Helping Neighbors who has been working with the 46th Street tenants, disagrees.

“There’s no question they will have to move out eventually,” she said. “They can’t afford the increases.”

According to Zillow, a three bedroom apartment at 545 46th St. would rent for $2,495 at market rate. Mejia estimates that most older tenants were paying around $800 a month, but said it’s difficult to estimate.

“Most of the tenants were paying their rent in cash,” Mejia explained. “They didn’t have a lease or anything. They knew the landlord and they had an agreement.”

Mejia worked with tenants at 46th Street to fight back. She and Villon went door to door in their building collecting money to hire a lawyer. They held a block party to fundraise and created a Go Fund Me page.

Though they were successful, they lost the case, since Sharp Management did follow the rules set by the MCI program.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors also sent some tenants to Albany where they pressured State Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, who represents the area, to sign a pledge ensuring he will vote to end the MCI program. Ortiz’s office told the Brooklyn Eagle that he plans on keeping that promise on June 9, when the vote will take place.

“My father knows Sunset Park; he could walk around blind,” said Villon. “We’re going to keep fighting so he can stay here where he feels comfortable.”

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