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by on May 21, 2018
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Affordable housing is vanishing as landlords exploit a broken system, pushing out rent-regulated tenants and catapulting apartments into the free market.

Residents of 25 Grove Street in the West Village say they were harassed after the building changed hands in 2015. “It’s been a nightmare,” one longtime tenant said.

The assault began shortly after a new owner bought the building at 25 Grove Street in June 2015. Surveillance cameras arrived first, pointed at the doors to rent-regulated apartments. Then came the construction workers, who gutted empty units and sent a dust cocktail of lead-based paint, brick and who knows what else throughout the building.

Worried, a pregnant woman and her husband left, dooming their apartment to the demolition derby. Violations were issued; violations were dismissed. And on a Friday morning in early August 2016, Temma Tainow, who had lived in the West Village building for 34 years, was jarred awake by what sounded like an explosion. She stumbled into her kitchen and screamed. A leg dangled from a hole punched through her ceiling.

“I think it is imprinted on my brain forever: looking up and seeing five men staring down through the hole,” recalled Ms. Tainow, 70, a tiny therapist with a halo of reddish-brown hair who speaks deliberately and walks with a slow limp. “It’s been awful. It’s been a nightmare. It’s exactly what the owner wants.”

Across much of New York City, construction scenes like these play out regularly at buildings with rent-regulated apartments — the city’s largest stock of affordable housing, where rents are set at a prescribed level and are supposed to increase only a small amount each year.

Tenants in the Grove Street building complained of the construction dust. “I was wearing a mask all the time, even when I was sleeping,” said Humberto Torres, a resident who has asthma. 

These apartments — seen as the scourge of landlords and the salvation of struggling New Yorkers — are at the center of a housing crisis that has swelled the ranks of the homeless and threatens to squeeze all but the affluent from ever-wider swaths of the city. But even as Mayor Bill de Blasio has made adding more affordable housing a signature pledge of his administration, the system that protects the city’s roughly one million regulated apartments is profoundly broken, a New York Times investigation has found.

In neighborhoods already gentrified or in the throes of gentrifying, a relatively new class of mega-landlords has driven up rents by exploiting enforcement gaps in a web of city and state agencies. By churning through enough tenants and claiming enough renovations, landlords can raise the rent enough — beyond $2,733.75 a month — to wrest an apartment from regulation’s grip and into the free market.

New York is among the global boomtowns, like London, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where skyrocketing rents — and the struggle to shelter those who can’t afford them — have struck a deep political chord. But New York grapples with its own peculiar contradictions.

It has the nation’s largest rent-regulation system. On paper at least, it still has some of the most robust tenant protections, bolstered by new city laws designed to fight tenant harassment and give poor tenants free legal representation in housing court.

Yet without more fundamental change — especially in the basic laws governing rent increases — regulated apartments in New York are in danger of vanishing, one by one.

It is happening already: Since city and state lawmakers started gutting the rent laws in 1993, the city has lost over 152,000 regulated apartments because landlords have pushed the rent too high. At least 130,000 more have disappeared because of co-op and condo conversions, expiring tax breaks and other factors. And while government officials say the losses have slowed, even regulated apartments are becoming increasingly unaffordable.

In some ways, this is an age-old story: New York has been in some form of housing crisis for a century. Landlords and tenants have battled for at least that long. But over the last 25 years, the balance of power has been reordered by a confluence of factors: that progressive weakening of the rent laws, an immensely profitable free market driven by a surging local economy, and the evolution of the rental real estate business, with mom-and-pop operations increasingly subsumed by Landlord Inc.

In the face of these changes, the regulators are simply overmatched.

The regulatory apparatus is fractionalized, divided among three city and state agencies. It is also essentially passive, The Times found. So state regulators, relying on outdated technology, do not systematically check whether a landlord found to have overcharged one tenant regularly does the same to others. City regulators do not investigate whether an owner who has illegally gutted apartments in one building might be doing the same elsewhere. And if building inspectors fail twice to get inside to investigate complaints of illegal construction, they don’t return a third time; the complaint is tossed out.

By Kim Barker

Posted in: Women
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