Nonpayment eviction letters, rent overcharges and disregard for interior repairs are some of the ways tenants are being intimidated by landlords. This creates complications for these tenants. While some may view this as harassment, legally speaking, it’s not.
A Hard and Unsanitary Way to Live
Maria Florencia Smith
Diva Alvarez and Mayra Ramirez are not living in the safe and sanitary conditions they should be. They blame what they call abusive behavior from their landlord.
Out of Retirement to Make Ends Meet
Jose Mejia had just come back from a long day at work as a school bus driver. Still wearing his dark blue uniform he sits down on his couch and warns that he won’t be able to talk for too long before he will lose his breath and cough. Truth is, at 74, Mejia should be retired. In fact, he was retired for three years. But, two years ago when money became tight because of increases in his rent, Mejia was forced to go back to work and now his retirement doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon.
“Well, if I don’t have the $2000 [rent] that we have to pay, we have to see how we can make ends meet,” said Mejia, coughing.
Seniors facing a threat to losing their housing is increasingly becoming more common. According to “Senior Housing in New York City,” a 2013 study conducted by the New York Comptroller’s office, 53 percent of households headed by those aged between 60 and 69 pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent, a level considered to be unaffordable by federal standards. Additionally, 66 percent of households with senior citizens over 70 also pay unaffordable rents.
“I think there is a trend of displacement and loss of homes or un-affordability with senior citizens,” said Carlos Ortiz, a tenant rights activist and organizer at the Catholic Migration Services in Sunnyside, Queens. “For us, [senior citizens] make up a significant portion of a landlord’s building we are currently fighting against.”
That landlord, Zara Realty, which owns dozens of buildings across Queens, bought Mejia’s building in 2015. Like Mejia, many tenants in his building are facing financial harassment from Zara.
Zara denied tenant charges of harassment in their buildings and declined to respond to specific questions about it.
Mejia, originally from El Salvador, was a musician in his homeland. He moved to the United States in 1970 and lived in Astoria before moving to his current apartment in Jamaica, Queens in 1980. Mejia claims to never have had a problem with his landlords before Zara.
Soon after Zara bought the building Major Capital Improvements, or MCIs, were made to the building. Mejia’s rent went up because of it. MCIs are renovations that affects the entire building such as roofing, repainting or replacing a major system within the building. It is a law that allows landlords to create an annual increase of 2-6% in rent. Landlords also permanently pass on the cost of communal improvements to tenants.
Mejia’s building had a $2.5 million loan approved for MCIs. Most of the MCI work included roof work such as adding mushroom vents that totaled $450,000, according to a document by the Department of Housing and Community Renewal granting Zara Realty the loan.
In 2016, soon after Mejia’s rent was raised, he applied to the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) program, also known as the NYC Rent Freeze program. SCRIE, overseen by the Department of Finance, helps senior citizens 62 and older with a maximum annual income of $50,000 by freezing their rent at a lower price. SCRIE pays a portion of their rent directly to the tenant’s landlord, leaving the tenant to pay the rest.
I think there is a trend of displacement and loss of homes or un-affordability with senior citizens
– Carlos Ortiz
However, the SCRIE application, typically a painless process, became a nightmare for Mejia.
“One day, I received a letter from the department that freezes rents asking for a copy of my lease,” said Mejia. “I went to Zara asking for it and that’s when my issues with them began. They told me they wanted to charge me $250 for my lease.”
Mejia made a written complaint to the Department of Finance about being charged $250 but never received a response. Months went by since Mejia first applied to the SCRIE program without hearing back from the Department of Finance or his landlord. Typically, when an applicant is approved to receive SCRIE, the city sends letters notifying the tenant and landlord of the approval of the application.
Mejia alleges he never received a letter notifying him his SCRIE had been approved, and he never knew about it. However, the city had been sending Zara a portion of Mejia’s rent for roughly ten months and Zara did not tell him. Additionally, Zara continued to charge Meijia the normal rent instead of the reduced frozen amount.
I went to Zara asking for it and that’s when my issues with them began. They told me they wanted to charge me $250 for my lease.
– Jose Mejia
Mejia is now working with tenant rights organizers to try and get his rent back to what he can afford. “If there is a balance that ZARA owes him and we’re going to try to get the remaining balance to Jose,” said Constantino Tejada, lead organizer of the tenant rights organization Woodside on the Move, which is working with others to organize Mejia’s building. “It’s a reality to have this kind of landlord. If we don’t take some action against landlords that wants to drastically kick out tenants, our community will be displaced.”
The current struggles that seniors, like Mejia, face when it comes to affording housing is a citywide crisis. “A lack of response to this looming problem could be very costly to the City in the long term, whereas a preemptive approach would be significantly more cost effective,” according to the New York Comptroller’s study.
Meanwhile, Mejia has been kicked out of the SCRIE program. The school bus driving gig he came out of retirement for to keep his home, means he now makes too much money to qualify for the city’s housing protection program.
Pressures on Renters
By all accounts, renting an apartment in New York City is expensive. But for some of the city’s most vulnerable tenants the costs include ongoing stress related to landlords. That is what 70-year-old George Guerra is struggling with, trying to hold on to the three-bedroom apartment in Jamaica, Queens where he’s lived for 40 years.
The Fight in Housing Court
Being taken to court can be a terrifying experience, especially when the stakes are as high as John and Maria Fuentes’. In late December, the Fuentes’ will go to Queens Housing Court to defend their right to stay in their Jamaica apartment. Their landlord, Zara Realty, filed an eviction case against them on the grounds that they unreasonably denied access into their apartment in order to perform repairs.
The only problem is: the Fuentes’ never denied the landlord’s staff access into their home.
“On the same day that Zara was writing up the court papers to send to the tenant, the workers were actually in Mr. Fuentes’ apartment doing the repairs that they claim were not done,” said Fuentes’ attorney Michael Leonard.
As frustrating as it may be for the tenant, Leonard tells them that in cases like this, the tenants are likely to come out on top. For the Fuentes,’ that offers little comfort now.
“At the end of the day we still have to miss a day of work or two. We still have to be present in court. We still have to have the anxiety of not knowing if we’re going to have this place to live in or not and find out what we’re going to do after,” Maria Fuentes said. “Why do we have to live this way?”
While the Fuentes’ have legal representation as of now, not all tenants are entitled to have an attorney; however, Leonard highly recommends it.
“We’re going to be prepping for a trial. We’re going to be crafting a narrative and spending time gathering documents to support our case. Those are things lawyers have time, training and expertise in,” Leonard said. “Eighty percent of the people who have lawyers representing them in Housing Court resolve their cases in their favor.”
In the near future, more tenants will have an attorney fighting for them. New York City passed the Right to Counsel Act in 2017. It entitles tenants whose family income is less than $50,000 to an attorney or legal counsel in eviction cases. The rollout is slow with a five-year integration period before all of those tenants are required to be provided counsel. This means many tenants facing evictions now are left to find their own attorney or face court alone.
Still, the effects are starting to be seen. “As more tenants in New York City are getting lawyers, we’re seeing that evictions are going down,” Leonard said.
Leonard fears as this new law becomes integrated and more tenants learn they are entitled to this, landlords will bring even more intense methods of intimidation outside of court to tenants they feel they could not use court to evict.
“It’s a lot cheaper to call up a tenant and say, ‘I’m going to call ICE on you’ or send a scary [termination] notice,” Leonard said. “It’s a lot cheaper to do that than it is to litigate a case for eight months where they have to hire a lawyer and pay a lawyer and all these things. My prediction is that as we see more procedures put in place to protect tenants in court, landlords are going to be resorting to out-of-court tactics, in order to displace poor and vulnerable people who reside in otherwise very lucrative, expensive apartments.”
According to tenant organizers from Catholic Migration Services in Queens, Zara resorts to these tactics frequently.
“I heard a lot about Zara’s practices in Queens. They have a certain reputation in Queens for treating tenants in a certain way,” said CMS attorney Thomas Power. “In my opinion, their practices are based very heavily in intimidation. Zara likes to maintain a sense of control over their tenants and oftentimes, tenants are sued for minor things.”
A Zara spokesperson declined to comment specifically on the subject of intimidation. “In cases where tenants occupy regulated units, we stringently adhere to all laws and regulations,” said spokesperson Jason Fink. Although, Fink went on to claim that Zara properties have a lower turnover rate in rent regulated apartments than the citywide average, supporting data could not be verified.
Though tenants like the Fuentes’ feel that they are being harassed by the appearance of a termination notice, in reality it would take multiple court-ordered threats without reason to the same tenant in order for it to legally constitute as harassment. This type of intimidation is not illegal.
“The legal definition [of harassment] often doesn’t line up with how people feel,” Leonard said. “There’s always a gap between reality and the law, and that is a gap I think people are feeling in this situation.”
To qualify for harassment under the law takes a lot more. “Assuming we are able to beat this eviction, if the owner then comes back with two or three or four or five more lawsuits that are exactly the same and are devoid of any legal basis, then that is harassment,” Leonard said.
Power thinks that if Zara successfully evicts rent-stabilized tenants, then they can turn a profit by renovating the apartment and occupying it with higher rent paying tenant.
“They try to get these tenants out so they can revamp these apartments and sell them to different people who would pay more. I think that’s kind of the end game,” Power said. “If you can get past that [rent stabilized] threshold, then you’ve succeeded as a landlord.”
Leonard and Power agree the best way to fight back against landlords is outside of the courtroom. By mobilizing in groups, tenants can learn from one another’s experiences as well as bring awareness of the issues to lawmakers.
“I look at [John Fuentes’] case as something that if we can make this go away or if we can fight this case, John and people like John will be better situated to be leaders in their communities, in their buildings, [and] in fighting injustices that they see,” Leonard said. “So that’s what I hope to do is give some tenants a little bit more breathing room to do what they do best.”