DITMARS — A group of homeowners facing massive rent increases for the use of their own backyards under the Hell Gate Bridge — some seeing a more than $20,000-a-year increase — got a reprieve after Amtrak decided to drop the hikes, officials and residents said.
About six homeowners adjacent to the bridge's concrete arch supports, who for decades have paid a nominal fee to lease the Amtrak-controlled properties that serve as their backyards, were told in August that their annual costs were going up thousands of dollars.
But after elected officials protested the "exorbitant" raises, Amtrak backed off the plan, sending a letter to homeowners last week saying their old leases would remain in effect for the time being.
"I'm very happy," said Anthony Paratore, whose home on 23rd Street near 23rd Avenue has its backyard under the train trusses. His family had used the space for decades to host birthday parties and grow grapes and fig trees.
He said he felt "elation" at the news that he would be able to afford to keep his backyard after Amtrak agreed to keep his rent at $25 a year, as opposed to the $25,560 the agency proposed in August.
"The fact that Amtrak was trying to charge these obscene rents really made no sense," said Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, one of several local politicians who reached out to Amtrak on behalf of the homeowners to halt the increases.
"We wanted to stick up for the little guy, and we were able to do so," she said.
In a statement, Amtrak said it decided to temporarily halt the new leases after discussions with elected officials, and that residents' rents will remain the same as they were previously for the time being.
The agency did not have a timeline for how long this arrangement will last, but said it would work with the lawmakers on future negotiations to come up with a "mutually agreeable course of action going forward."
Amtrak originally said the rent hikes were due to some leaseholders who were using their space under the elevated tracks for commercial purposes, and residents pointed to some neighbors who they believe were renting out the yards as parking spaces.
But elected officials countered that a majority of those who live adjacent to the bridge use the space for private purposes, and also maintain the properties at their own expense — putting up fences, removing weeds, graffiti and snow in the winter.
"They get to pay Amtrak to maintain the property that they have to clean up," Rep. Joseph Crowley said, adding that residents also have to deal with the sound of passing trains "every day of their lives."
"This is a big win for the Astoria community," he said.