Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Testimony: Nicole Zinardi

The following testimony was submitted by Nicole Zinardi, Tenant Organizer at Tenants & Neighbors, who has been working in rent stabilized buildings across Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx:
My name is Nicole and I am a tenant organizer at Tenants & Neighbors. I work almost exclusively in Rent Stabilized buildings. I work with tenants in buildings in Inwood, Manhattan, various areas in the Bronx including Parkchester, Pelham Bay, Norwood, and Fordham Heights, as well as in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Jamaica, Queens. The buildings I work in vary greatly in terms of size and tenant demographics. Some are small, while the largest building I work with has 169 apartments. Most tenants at 2425 Nostrand Avenue in Flatbush are from Trinidad or Jamaica. The majority of tenants in my buildings in Harlem and Fordham Heights are African American, while 9016 171st in Jamaica is home to a mix of Hispanic, Indian, and African American residents. In Manhattan, most tenants I work with are from Eastern Europe, Puerto Rico, and states across the U.S. I work with tenants who are community organizers, musicians, researchers, receptionists, and dentists. I work with tenants who are unemployed, retired, and in school. Most are low to moderate income adults who work long hours to make enough money to support their family in New York City.

Despite differences in location, size, and tenant demographics, all these buildings share distinct troubling characteristics that render any major rent increase unwarranted, especially the increases proposed by the Rent Guidelines Board last month. The poor management, bad conditions, and rent overcharges currently festering in hundreds of buildings in the city contribute to the decline of the well-being of people and the buildings they live in as well as community vitality and cohesion. I have seen the situation expanded and prolonged by these shortcomings: tenants are forced to live with degrading physical conditions as well as the tormenting mental condition brought on by landlord harassment and illegal overcharges. Failures of landlords cannot be justified to continue through an inflated award of profit to landlord corporations.

 Tenants across the city suffer from poor building management. Buildings are managed with blatant incompetence and neglect of tenants‘ rights and needs. Conditions continually deteriorate because of under-qualified staff, and there is a lack of comprehensive communication systems between tenants and the landlord. At 3224 Grand Concourse in the Bronx, there is one superintendent for all 8 buildings. He is not qualified or certified to make the electrical and plumbing repairs he is responsible for, and there is no system for inspection or repair appointments. Tenants have had ongoing plumbing and electrical issues that have been ignored and, if fixed, not fixed sufficiently. Tenants are forced to use their own money to find other means of repair. In addition, tenants have no straightforward means of contacting their management or relaying their concerns and requests. There is no on-site management besides the super, and the management is unresponsive to phone calls.

Another aspect of poor management is lack of organization in regards to leases and rent. At 3224 Grand Concourse, tenants do not receive rent slips, and many tenants have their rent rejected for no given reason. In addition, a lot of tenants wait months to get a new lease after their last one expires. Clearly, this opens the door for confusion and rent overcharges. Management systems like this create uncertainty and frustration for tenants. It is not acceptable that tenants are upholding their end of their lease while landlords ignore their responsibility to provide management that correctly and effectively provides required services and operates a transparent system of communication and rent payment.

The conditions at 9016 171st in Jamaica, Queens highlight the horrible conditions I have seen in buildings across New York. Landlords try to save money and time by ignoring services, repairs, and maintenance. At 9016 171st Street, there are 271 HPD violations registered on this 23 unit building, 217 of which are classified as hazardous. The building has not had gas since April 3rd, which means tenants are not able to cook in their apartments; they are forced to spend money to buy meals for their families. In addition, tenants suffer from leaks and the nuisance of mice and rodents. Tenants also claim that the electricity is turned off at random times, and, like almost every single one of my other rent stabilized buildings, the heat and hot water are grossly inconsistent during the winter months, as the landlord tries to save money by keeping the temperature at well below the legal levels, especially at night and in the early morning. In addition, the landlord owes the Department of Buildings $2,500 for failure to comply with the mandated boiler conditions. The boiler is too small to provide adequate heat to all units in the building, and half of the building consistently has no hot water. Any landlord that is letting conditions deteriorate to this extent in a building does not deserve the proposed rent increase. Landlords must be held accountable and demonstrate that they are using tenants’ rent to keep the building in a legal and acceptable condition for families to live. If they are not using rent to provide required services and maintenance, it is not acceptable that those rents are raised. In addition, because of these horrible conditions, tenants are forced to use their own money for things such as space heaters, take-out meals, and the hiring of exterminators and plumbers, and they cannot afford to pay higher rents while simultaneously funding repairs and supplemental purchases made necessary by the landlord.

As you know, the system of rent stabilization creates huge incentives for landlords to raise rent in an apartment above $2500. Illegally overcharging tenants in rent works two-fold for landlords: in addition to bringing the rent closer to the $2500 mark, they force many lower income tenants out of their apartment who cannot afford the higher rent, thus gaining a further increase through the vacancy bonus, in turn bringing the rent on the unit even closer to the market rate threshold. I have seen evidence of rent overcharge in a number of the buildings I work with. Tenants are charged illegally inflated appliance surcharge fees and construction costs are exaggerated so the landlord can tack on huge IAIs to the rent. Tenants at 2425 Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn are charged over $20 each month for an appliance surcharge, which in their case refers to the A/C unit in their apartment, the fee for which should legally be around $5. And, one tenant at 854 West 180th Street moved into an apartment with a rent of $2150. In addition to the apartment being illegally listed as market rate on the lease, the rent was a huge increase from the previous tenant’s rent of $1477.17, and there was no explanation for the increase. While there was construction done on the unit in between tenants, the landlord would have had to spend at least $41,000 on construction in order to legally raise the rent by the amount it was raised. Now, the tenant must go through the lengthy and burdensome process of applying for a rent overcharge through HCR, which may or may not deliver any results. It is unacceptable to grant landlords the proposed rent increases while they are currently collecting illegal amounts of rent. Rent increase decisions should be based on a determination of how completely legal rents are allowing landlords to fulfill their obligations to rent stabilized tenants, this determination is distorted when landlords charge illegal rents, and allowing an increase is not justified if landlords are already collecting more money than they are legally allowed.

Rent Stabilization exists in New York City for a reason-to keep acceptable and comfortable living affordable for the city’s people. Clearly, the system has a number of negative side-effects that inhibit the system’s intended goal, most prominently: poor management, bad conditions, and rent overcharges. Any one of these issues taken independently is enough justification to demand a more moderate rent increase than the one proposed. When all three of these issues clash and build upon one another, the proposed rent increase should be unthinkable.

And I can say this from first-hand experience. I have seen these buildings, I have been inside these apartments, and I have formed relationships with these rent stabilized tenants. I have experienced the worry, frustration, and exhaustion tenants struggle with on a daily basis.  Approving the rent increase will further break down the intended purpose of the rent stabilization system by allowing and strengthening these effects. To hand landlords an increase in profits under these circumstances is absurd. They first must be held accountable and prove they are capable of using their funds intended application: to foster affordability and livability for tenants in New York City.

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