As New York City's rent protection laws expired Monday night, public officials urged tenants to resist any illegal pressure from landlords to vacate their homes. Yet for residents of the dwindling stock of roughly one million rent-regulated apartments, that kind of illegal pressure is nothing new. Here's what it sounds like when your landlord is trying to force you out of your below-market rate East Village apartment.
In May, we reported on Ralph Toledano, the owner of 444 East 13th Street, who sent wine and edible arrangements to his rent-regulated tenants in lieu of heat and hot water after they'd gone two months without. The majority of the units in the building are rent stabilized or rent regulated—roughly $800 to $1,400/month for one and two-bedrooms (a Lower East Side studio with a shower in the kitchen rents for $1,750/month on the open market).
In housing court last week, the tenants' lawyer presented an audio recording from March, in which "relocation specialist" Newton Hinds tries to convince tenants Cesar and Vicente Bello to take a buyout of roughly $18,000 (They turned him down. The News reported that some of the tenants had been offered as much as $50,000).
Stephanie Rudolph, a staff attorney at the Urban Justice Center who is representing the tenants, gave us permission to publish particularly colorful portions of the 45 minute conversation. Both she and Cesar Bello confirmed that Hinds did not know that he was being recorded. "The way he came to us acting like a good guy, I had the instinct to start recording," Cesar said.
You can listen to the audio here:
And here are some choice quotes:
On taking advantage of Major Capital Improvement (MCI) rent increases, which tenant advocates would like to see abolished: "We don't want to kick you out. We want to see you out. But at the end of the day, what allows you to be here is the stabilized rent price, which... is going away. There are a couple of ways this works...the owners will do what we call capital improvements... like the security system [we installed in the building]. We're [now] legally entitled to increase the rents in increments."
On taking advantage of vacancy decontrol, under which a rent stabilized apartment is no longer protected once the rent reaches $2,500: "The East Village is [already] so close to the threshold of market rate for rent stabilization... because you can walk to Union Square. So that will get chipped away at, and... your rent will [increase] until we legally can say everyone has to go out."
On lockouts: “You’ll find that we can be tremendous allies if you’re cooperative. But unfortunately this is not going to be available to everybody in the building. And in about a week or two we’re changing the doors. There’s going to be an electronic key system. Everybody’s not going to get a key.”
“What I’ve been able to do, is created the opportunity, if you’re amenable to it, where we will help you to relocate, pay all of your real-estate fees, pay for all of your moving expenses, and have someone to help you move and everything, and give you a considerable amount of cash to not be affected by it, because you don’t deserve that.”
"I can assure you that your rent will be so high... that it won't be worth it for you.... Long story short, it's a long, gut-renching, horrible process. The better thing, I think, is for us to relocate you somewhere."
"Your move will be seamless. You’ll go to bed on Thursday, and on Saturday you’re in a totally different place. And we’re doing all of the heavy lifting of course."
"I know it's stressful, but what's going to be more stressful is when the building next door starts to come down. That’s going to be a nightmare. Nobody's going to want to live here. That building’s going to be shaking, vermin start running, so it's like, we’d rather help you relocate to someplace nice, someplace decent.”
"What will begin to happen is water will be shut off for extended periods of time, heat will be off at times, and it’s going to be very uncomfortable.... The owners could care less. But for the good people, it’s not fair.”
And some bonus horrors: "I'm here, really, to help you. Because if it were up to the owners, they would just drop dynamite on the whole building and everyone would figure it out."
As a result of last week's court proceedings, Toledano signed an interim order that he will restore utilities at 444 East 13th Street within 45 days, and supply each tenant with a working set of keys. The tenants will be back in court on June 19th, to acquire a more formal court order.