Advocates say tenants need more eviction protection

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Even if evictions in the city appear to be down — on paper — some Kingsbridge Heights residents like Juan Nuñez say they’re still suffering plights of what he describes as a full-fledged housing crisis.

The number of evictions citywide this year dropped nearly 10 percent as of March 11 compared to the same time last year, according to a study from housing data site RentHop, which says it helps people hunt for “quality” apartments. But numbers alone don’t fully explain how that’s played out in the lives of some people struggling to scrape by in Kingsbridge, Riverdale and other Bronx neighborhoods.

Though evictions may have fallen in some places, some pro-tenant advocates still argue certain “corporate” landlords exploit purported upgrades like major capital improvements to raise rents and drive out tenants. They’re calling on elected leaders to put an end to such practices, and time is ripe given the state’s renter protection framework — commonly known as rent stabilization — is set to expire in June.

That has them urging state lawmakers tackle a robust universal rent control platform that includes bills eliminating MCI rent hikes, and making lower, preferential rents permanent.

Borough’s evictions dropping

RentHop’s study draws on publicly available city data for evictions last year and this year between Jan. 1 and March 11, comparing the number of evictions from both years. The study’s full data includes all addresses and the units that were served eviction notices and even the name of the marshal who was tasked to evict them on behalf of a landlord.

“That’s not necessarily to say that every single address that’s listed here had someone evicted, but rather that they had been served an eviction notice,” said Adrian McHale, the data scientist behind the study. “We were then able to plot those on a map to get an understanding for where exactly those evictions were most prominent.”

RentHop argues that with around 21,000 total evictions in the city in 2018, it would be “unfair” to characterize them as affecting a large portion of the population. This year, according to the study, evictions fell in every borough, with an overall drop of nearly 10 percent.

The Bronx had the biggest fall so far with 1,225, compared to 1,558 over the same period last year — down more than 21 percent. For the most part, evictions tend to be concentrated in the same neighborhoods year over year, with the Claremont-Bathgate neighborhood having the highest number this year with 176, down from 237 last year.

Moreover, there appears to be little or no correlation between one-bedroom median rents and the number of evictions in a given neighborhood, RentHop said, which they believe shows even if a neighborhood is more affordable doesn’t necessarily mean more people are evicted there. Median rent data was taken from what RentHop described as its “proprietary databases” gathered from major landlords and brokerages in the city.

“That was actually very comforting to us,” McHale said. “The incentive structure doesn’t necessarily seem to suggest that the marshals are looking for particularly high-rent versus low-rent places when it comes to serving evictions. But rather it’s sort of all across the board.”

Significantly, the number of evictions is down in North Riverdale from nine to four between last year and this year so far.

But they’re up in Spuyten Duyvil and Kingsbridge, from 44 to 51.

“It’s not necessarily a large increase, but it is an increase, which I guess sort of bucks the trend of everything else,” McHale said, adding that in a borough of nearly 1.5 million people, the number of evictions overall is “fairly small.”

Not all good news

But regardless of what RentHop’s numbers seem to suggest, Nuñez tells a very different story. He leads his Kingsbridge Terrace building’s tenants association, fighting to protect housing rights at a time when “rents are just astronomically high,” he said.

“Most of people’s checks are going into rent,” Nuñez said. “They cannot afford more rent increases.”

When owners make improvements or installations to a building subjected to rent stabilization or rent control laws, they may be permitted to increase rent based on the actual, verified cost of the improvements, according to the city’s Rent Guidelines Board. This is called a major capital improvement — better known as MCIs — and is one of the issues Nuñez says most afflicts some of his Kingsbridge Terrace neighbors.

Particularly in his building, where he claims some of the work has been shoddy.

“These are so-called renovations that we didn’t ask for that weren’t done well,” Nuñez said. “It’s like a double-hit, and it’s just extremely frustrating.”

Making matters worse, Nuñez believes battling MCIs stacks the odds against the tenants, some of whom are further disadvantaged because they don’t speak English.

“I haven’t seen a case where a tenants association won,” he said. It’s more pernicious in poorer neighborhoods where landlords target struggling residents “knowing that (they’re) not going to be able to afford this.”

Better conditions

But Nuñez’s landlord, Steven Finkelstein, sees it differently.

“You have to understand that these buildings are old, and the bathrooms and kitchens were in very poor condition,” Finkelstein said. “We make it so that the people are now living in much better conditions. Yes, they’re paying more for it, but the truth is, we have fewer people move out. Our vacancy rates go down after we do this work because the people do appreciate living better.”

While Nuñez may argue to the contrary, he maintains he and his neighbors, along with tenants’ advocates, want landlords to understand “that people want to pay their rent, and want to live in a safe home.” Yet, at the moment, the entire system protecting tenants is deeply flawed, and it’s past time to revamp it.

“Housing is a human right,” Nuñez said. “This is an ongoing issue that tenants are facing right now — literally, a crisis. We’re hoping that this June, we’re not only able to renew the rent laws, but make them stronger so that” people actually can “afford to live in their homes.

“Anyone working 40 hours a week (should be) entitled to live in a nice apartment.”

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