Tenants to legislators: Fix rent regulations

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It was a chilly evening last week for some 200 protesters in front of a Mount Eden community center on a somewhat somber strip of Jerome Avenue reiterating a collective cry: Rent is “too damn high,” and “it ain’t right.”

But they also called on state lawmakers to do something about it.

Two activist groups — the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and Community Action for Safe Apartments — hosted a rally and tenant town hall at the New Settlement Community Center on Jerome Avenue Feb. 7, joined by members of the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance that’s fighting this year for what they describe as universal rent control in Albany.

Renters set the tone from the get-go, flooding the concrete in front of the center for a bare-knuckle press conference. There they uttered into a loudspeaker, in harrowing detail, what it’s like living under the wrath of ruthlessly exploitative landlords. And all with woefully inadequate safeguards against what could arguably be described as piggish capitalistic tactics subjecting them to starkly inhumane conditions.

Some carried brightly colored signs — orange, red, yellow — with slogans like “Huge MCI” rent hikes — referring to major capital improvements, allegedly the darling of some landlords boosting rent to cover the cost of what these tenants describe as shoddy repairs.

“Where do we go?” others asked. “Where can we live? Stop the MCI scam.”

Various group leaders detailed a robust legislative platform — which includes strengthening rent stabilization, expanding access to the 1974 Emergency Tenant Protection Act, and passing what’s known as good cause eviction legislation — to protect tenants in smaller buildings with less than six units against spurious expulsion from their homes.

The evening served as a sort of catalyst for what the housing alliance calls its Housing Justice for All campaign. The alliance describes itself as a diverse coalition of tenants, homeless people, manufactured housing residents and advocates from every corner of the state — including not just the five boroughs, but also Long Island, Westchester County, the mid-Hudson Valley, the Capital Region, the Southern Tier, the Mohawk Valley and Western New York.

“We believe that housing is a human right, that all people should live without the fear of eviction,” according to a statement alliance leaders distributed at the rally. “And that strengthening renters’ rights is critical to strong neighborhoods, educational and health outcomes, and economic stability for all.”

That’s where the alliance’s Housing Justice for All campaign comes in. Its leaders are battling for a legislative agenda they predict will “stabilize neighborhoods” and eliminate control “corporate landlords” wield over hapless renters.

Scrappy in approach, epic in scope, it’s the kind of measure clergy coalition member Inalda Aguilar deems highly worthy of backing.

“I come here tonight as a renter,” the Fordham Heights resident told The Riverdale Press, in Spanish, ahead of the rally.

The state’s rent stabilization law expires in June, Aguilar added, and with that comes an opportunity for legislators to revamp it.

But along with those dreaded major capital improvements, what’s referred to as preferential rent also has become the downfall of a significant number of struggling tenants. Preferential rent is a discount a landlord may offer when he can’t find enough tenants to pay market value. But when it’s time to renew a lease, these same landlords may revoke that discounted rent and charge the substantially higher — and indeed legal — amount.

That’s something Alexis Francisco knows all too well. He arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic as a toddler, recalling a richly supportive community growing up in Washington Heights. If a neighbor didn’t have enough to pay for milk and eggs at the bodega, they’d “work it out” with the owner. Neighbors took care of each others’ kids. And everyone seemed to watch over and actually care about one another.

“We needed each other to survive,” Francisco said. “The community was the backbone that made that all possible.”

But now, that’s all gone — thanks to gentrification, as Francisco sees it. He’s since moved on however, living and working not too far from the Jerome Park Reservoir. And, as he puts it, Francisco doesn’t want to see “the Bronx that I love” fall victim to the same fate.

Which is why he called on his elected officials to close those pernicious rent stabilization loopholes, including preferential rent.

“We demand that preferential rents become legal rents,” Francisco said. In other words, make them permanent, and do away with so-called bait-and-switch tactics the alliance claims could put some 266,000 families in the city “one lease away from eviction.”

Although invitations were extended to many lawmakers, just three heeded the call — state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, Assemblyman Victor Pichardo and Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez.

They responded to a series of questions on whether and why they’d support various universal rent control measures, typically responding with a series of emphatic yesses, hashing out their legislative priorities as tenants pushed to fight for the tenant law revamp in its entirety.

For Francisco, the stakes are all too real, all too pressing. His lease is up soon, and as a preferential renter, he’s really not sure what’s going to happen next.

“These preferential rents are talked about as if they’re a favor,” Francisco said. But rather than grateful, he’s afraid.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” once it’s time to renew his lease. “I’m four blocks up from Webster Avenue. Businesses are boarded up all over the place. The Bronx is in the crosshairs.”

And perhaps it’s out of desperation he’s unrelentingly committed to finding a way out of the so-called crosshairs.

“Fight, fight, fight,” Francisco said. “Housing is a right.”

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