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Rent-Controlled Tenants Not Covered by City's Historic Rent Freeze

By Amy Zimmer | July 14, 2015 7:31pm
 Upper West Sider Sam Weiskopf, 78, is a rent-controlled tenant. The retired salesman is living off of savings.
Upper West Sider Sam Weiskopf, 78, is a rent-controlled tenant. The retired salesman is living off of savings.
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DNAInfo/Amy Zimmer

UPPER WEST SIDE — It was not a desirable neighborhood when Sam Weiskopf moved into his two-bedroom unit in the West 80s more than 40 years ago, paying just under $250 a month. But he stayed put as the area transformed around him.

Now he pays "just north of $1,000" a month, far below market rate for the neighborhood. But while his counterparts in the city's rent-stabilized units just saw their housing rates frozen in a recent historic vote by the Rent Guidelines Board, tenants in rent-controlled units like his aren't included in the decision, officials said.

As a result, Weiskopf's rent can continue to rise — by as much as 7.5 percent a year, which is the maximum landlords can increase rent each year.

"We're just trying to make it through off our savings," said Weiskopf, 78, a retired salesman.

Weiskopf's home is one of more than 33,000 rent-controlled units in New York City, according to filings with the Office of Rent Administration. Rent-controlled apartments, unlike rent-stabilized units, are not overseen by the Rent Guidelines Board. So, the board's recent historic vote, freezing rents on one-year lease renewals for the city's nearly 1 million rent-stabilized apartments, does not apply to rent control tenants, many of whom are seniors on fixed income struggling to cover their costs.

Rent control applies to buildings constructed before 1947 and units occupied by a tenant (and in some cases, their relatives, spouses or life partners) who has lived there continuously since before July 1, 1971.

The median rent for rent-controlled tenants is $1,021 a month, the median household income was $28,800 a year, and the median tenant age is 72, according to the 2014 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey. By comparison, the median rent for rent-stabilized units is about $1,300 a month. The median household income for rent-stabilized units is $40,600 and the median age is 45.

In the days following the Rent Guidelines Board vote — which rent-stabilized tenants cheered especially since they won few protections of affordability in Albany — complaints from rent-controlled tenants grew louder, advocates said. The Metropolitan Council on Housing, for instance, noticed an uptick in calls from these tenants to their hotline.

"They're asking, 'What about us? We've been here 40 years,'" Maier said.

Rent-controlled tenants have more protections in terms of staying in their apartments than rent-stabilized tenants. But they are also sometimes victims of even greater harassment, Maier said.

"The harassment of rent-controlled tenants is so intense," she noted.

Judith Calamandrei, who moved into her West 70's apartment in the 1960s, has been feeling the pressure in her building.

About half of the units in her building are rentals — a mix of rent-controlled and rent-stabilized tenants — and half are condos. A one-bedroom in the building recently sold for $1.11 million and a three-bedroom went for $2.44 million, according to StreetEasy.

She recently got a letter from her management company with an article from Crain's New York entitled, "Ready to retire? Don't stay here. Of 172 cities, New York ranks last."

"It's either shocking or amateurish," said Calamandrei, who originally paid about $250 for her apartment and now pays just below $3,000 a month, including a monthly fuel surcharge of $119. "They are obviously hungry to get these apartments."

To raise rent on rent-controlled tenants, landlords must apply to the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR).

Applications can be challenged if the landlord fails to adequately maintain the property or essential services like heat and hot water, but challenges from tenants are difficult, said Lucy Levy, 62, a rent-controlled tenant who lives in Greenwich Village and is board member of the advocacy group Tenants and Neighbors.

Even though rent increases are capped at 7.5 percent a year (unless there are "Major Capital Improvements"), the DHCR votes every two years on increases for rent-controlled tenants that can exceed that amount, allowing landlords essentially to bank the difference of the increase that's over 7.5 percent and charge the tenant that increase in a subsequent years as long as the total hike is still below 7.5 percent. DHCR-approved increases have ranged from 22 percent to 3 percent, each spread out over two years.

Landlords in 2014 filed applications for increases for 6,347 buildings, of which 5,728 were granted, according to DHCR.

If a rent-controlled tenant and rent-stabilized tenant, for instance, both had rents of roughly $208 in 1973 and then had the maximum increases each was subject to each year thereafter, the rent-controlled tenant would be paying $2,107 today while the rent-stabilized tenant would be paying $1,194, Levy said.

"My friends are staggering under these rents," Levy said of rent-controlled tenants. "There's no one we can speak to because no one understands rent control anymore. People think you never get an increase and you have a gigantic apartment. None of that is true. Probably some [rent-controlled tenants] are eating cat or dog food and their incomes are less than their rent.

"This year we're getting the short end of the stick. We deserve a break," added Levy, who pays more than $2,000 a month in rent. "I'm afraid we're going to get slammed at the next [DHCR] hearing because with [the freeze for rent-stabilized tenants], landlords are going to claim they need income."

State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, whose district includes the Upper West Side, introduced legislation requiring landlords either stick to the 7.5 percent cap or average the previous five years' rent increases — whichever is lower. City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal (no relation), who also represents the Upper West Side, introduced a resolution in support of that legislation, which passed the Council in March.

Landlords, however, are feeling burdened, too, they say.

"Regardless of whether tenants are rent-stabilized or rent-controlled there has to be a recognition that the cost imposed by the city in terms of real estate taxes and water and sewer charges are real costs that owners have to pay," said Mitch Posilkin, of the Rent Stabilization Association group that represents landlords. "There is a fantasy out there that tenants should somehow be insulated and can be insulted from the increased costs that owners are genuinely incurring."

At the end of the day, if owners can't get rent increases, he said, "The buildings will suffer."

Rent-controlled tenants who believe they have been illegally overcharged should contact the Office of Rent Administration at 718-739-6400.