DITMARS — A group of Astoria homeowners whose side and backyards are located under the Hell Gate Bridge says Amtrak has dramatically raised their rents for the outdoor spaces, with one resident saying he’s seeing his jump from $25 to $25,560 a year and another reporting a hike of $50 to $45,000.
The homes are adjacent to the bridge's large concrete arch supports, and residents say their families have leased the land underneath the structures for decades for a nominal fee. In exchange, they were required to clean and maintain the spaces, they said.
But earlier this month, at least six of these property owners received letters from Amtrak notifying them of the enormous rent hikes and saying they have 30 days to accept the new leases or they'll have to give up the land that's served as their backyards for years.
"I was born in the house I live in 73 years ago — this was my grandparents' home," said Loretta Csikortos, who lives on 23rd Street between Ditmars Boulevard and 23rd Avenue, where her family has leased their side yard from Amtrak since 1946.
She was told earlier this month that the rent for the space — where she keeps a large wooden deck and an aboveground swimming pool — is increasing from $50 to $45,000 a year.
"I thought it was a typing error, to be honest," she said.
Anthony Paratore, whose family home is on the same block but on the other side of the train trusses, saw the cost of his lease jump from $25 to $25,560 a year, he said.
"When we got this letter from Amtrak it blew me away, it was like, is this a scam or is this for real?" he said, later showing a reporter the backyard where he has a garden with rose bushes, a shed and a work table.
"We've got a grape vine and fig trees that are growing in this yard that have been here since when my grandfather moved here," he said. "We'd like to keep it, it's pretty sentimental."
In a statement to DNAinfo, Amtrak confirmed the rent hikes, saying the change came after a review of its asset portfolio found some lease holders hadn't seen an increase in more than 70 years.
"To ensure reasonable leases at fair market value, these lease holders, who currently pay approximately $25 a year, can expect to be charged a fraction (less than 1 percent) of the fair market rental rates," the company said in a statement.
"Those lease holders who are using the property for commercial purposes, will be notified that Amtrak is requesting rates equivalent to the commercial fair market value."
Residents say Amtrak did not give them a reason for the dramatic increase, though some suspect it's because some neighbors are renting the spaces out as parking spots.
"There may be individuals who are taking advantage of this for commercial gain, for financial gain, and that's a separate issue," said Rep. Joseph Crowley, who is working with homeowners to fight the rent hikes.
"For the most part we are talking about citizens, average individuals who have used the property for good purpose, private use for their families," he said.
Amtrak will be working with each person individually to determine the exact terms of their lease, the company said.
But elected officials called the rent hike "a money grab," saying homeowners are the ones who have taken care of the spaces for years, weeding, cleaning up trash and shoveling snow in the winter, they said.
Residents have also dealt for years with rocks, crumbling paint and other debris falling from the rail line above onto their homes, they said.
"These families who've been affected have been stewards of this land," said Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas. "It's unfair. It's uncalled for."
"They not only maintain these properties for themselves," Crowley said, "they maintain them for the entire community."