In 2017, the tenants at 3425 Gates Place were hit with a 6 percent rent increase resulting from a slate of renovations they never asked for. Set up on a hill in the northwest Bronx along the Number 4 subway line, the beige six-story apartment building is located in an enclave of mostly working-class Mexican and Dominican immigrants.
The hike came as a result of a "major capital improvement," also known as an MCI. The provision allows landlords to pass along a portion of the cost of building-wide upgrades to tenants, and has frequently been cited by housing activists as an eviction and gentrification tool. An owner must request state approval for an MCI, upon which rent-regulated tenants are sent a notice of the application and given a limited period of time to contest the charges. But landlords typically have the upper hand in the process, especially against low-income immigrant tenants who are not fluent English. Most do not know that they can request an extension of time and mount a legal effort.
Such was the case at Gates Place.
Work on the renovation, which included upgraded bathrooms and kitchens, wreaked havoc in the tenants' lives, akin to what tenant activists call construction harassment. At one point, the water and gas were turned off except for only one apartment in the whole building, whose bathroom tenants were forced to share.
"Some of us had to go to the park," recalled Silvia Estudillo, one of the tenants, in Spanish, through a translator.
The rent hike infuriated Estudillo, a mother of four who makes and sells homemade tamales. She and her husband, who works in a restaurant, have lived in the building for a decade. They pay $1,307 for a one-bedroom.
Last December, she and a group of other tenants in the building decided to meet with representatives from Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a tenant organizing group that dates back to the mid-1970s. By then the political campaign to overturn the rent laws, including the MCI provision, was gaining steam. For the first time in nearly two decades, Democrats had taken control of the state Senate, leaving activists hopeful that they could finally shift the balance of power between tenants and landlords.
Estudillo and other tenants in the building became full-fledged tenant activists, traveling to Albany and taking part in rallies and testifying at hearings. They also began a rent strike.
"I was the first one who said we should fight," said Estudillo, who made the trip to Albany twice.
Roughly six months in, the state's historic passage of rent laws have produced tangible benefits for rent-regulated tenants. Last month, a Wall Street Journal analysis found that new eviction cases against city tenants for nonpayment of rent fell by more than 35,000 since the signing of the law, compared with the same period in 2018—a drop of 46 percent.
In a new analysis of publicly available data from the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, JustFix.nyc, a nonprofit technology start-up that works on tenant issues, found that both emergency and non-emergency 311 calls involving tenant issues had fallen between July and November compared to the same period last year. In total, there have been 220,217 such complaints compared to 276,469 last year, a drop of 20 percent.
These two data points taken together suggest that life for many New York City tenants has improved under the new laws. At the same time, interviews with activists and tenants show that the war between landlords and tenants is far from over. Although the reform enshrined new protections for rent-regulated tenants and limited rent increases, it failed to pass one of the key demands of the tenant movement: the complete elimination of MCIs. Instead, the rules rein in renovation spending, most critically by saying that rent increases from MCIs must be capped 2 percent.
But for many, that was not enough. To date, 23 out of 63 families at Gates Place are on rent strike. On Monday, they held a protest outside their building. In a show of support, city and state elected officials have written a letter to their landlord, The Morgan Group, asking for the MCI charges to be waived.
Across the city, rent-regulated New Yorkers are waging similar protests. In October, tenants and organizers packed themselves into a room in downtown Manhattan for a so-called landlord tribunal, a mock trial which combined theater and cathartic release. According to activists, there had not been a tribunal in New York City in decades.
"In general, tenants everywhere have been energized and made much more militant by this victory," said Michael McKee, a longtime tenant activist. "We know the real estate lobby is going to try to convince the legislature to take some of things back. And we are determined to defeat them."
Juan Nuñez, an activist with the Northwest Bronx coalition, said that he has seen more people in the Bronx ask about forming tenant associations, the first step to organizing against a landlord. "People are starting to feel more confident," he said, adding, "The movement is growing. I think what happened in June lit a little bit of a spark."
By most accounts, tenants seem more willing to challenge landlords and ask questions about the law. Andrea Shapiro, a program manager at the Metropolitan Council on Housing, one of the oldest and largest tenant organizing groups in the city, said that in the wake of the new laws, their tenant complaint hotline experienced a spike in calls inquiring whether various landlord actions were legal.
Early on, there was a flurry of reports of tenants who had received preferential rent, which is lower than the legal limits on their apartments, saying that they were now being slapped with a sharp increase during their latest lease renewal. The practice is illegal -- while unencumbered hikes were allowed under the old laws, the new regulations made preferential rents the base rent for each tenant's entire occupancy, and limited any rent increases to those set by the city's Rent Guidelines Board.
"The most dramatic change is our ability to give good news to people," Shapiro said. Whereas in the past, she had to tell renters there was nothing they could do, now she has been able to say, "You have a lot of rights."
For activists, the work has now turned to ensuring that tenant rights will be recognized. As an example, Nuñez is part of a group called the Coalition for No More MCIs that has been meeting with the state Department of Housing and Community Renewal [DHCR], the agency charged with carrying out rent regulation rules, to discuss changes to the administrative process for MCIs.
"We were the ones that pushed the bill," he said. "We want to be involved in how these regulations are implemented."
Cea Weaver, a tenants campaign coordinator who represents the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance, complained that many landlords appear to simply be ignoring the new laws. "It’s incumbent on the state legislature to make sure the laws are enforced in a tenant-specific way," she said. "Right now, the state just doesn’t have the resources."
Under the new rent laws, DHCR must issue a "schedule of reasonable costs" that would lay out the guidelines of permissible renovation spending for landlords. The agency has long been accused of failing to catch exorbitant and unverified MCI spending. In a show of mounting legal pressure, Manhattan Legal Services recently filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining to prevent DHCR from issuing a decision on pending MCIs by Barberry Rose Management Company, a landlord which owns buildings across the city, until after it issues the new guidelines.
The real estate industry has fought back, with a federal lawsuit that most experts say doesn't stand a chance but which may nevertheless still serve a purpose. "They are suing to scare people and keep the tenant movement off balance," McKee argued. From the beginning, landlords have drawn an apocalyptic vision of New York City under the new rent laws, consisting of thousands of buildings falling into neglect and disrepair. According to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis, "landlords started 535 fewer renovation projects from July through November in rent-regulated buildings over the same period in 2018, a decline of 44%." Total renovation spending dropped by $71 million. But with deregulation all but illegal except in a few cases, many said they expected those numbers to go down.
Meanwhile, landlords like The Morgan Group, which owns a swath of buildings in the Bronx, have dismissed the ongoing rent strikes as freeloading tenants who don't want to pay rent and want to get off scot-free.
Luise Barrack, an attorney at the firm of Rosenberg and Estis who represents The Morgan Group, compared the situation to going to a restaurant and ordering lobster only to realize you wanted tuna fish.
"But you ate the lobster," she said.
The tenants, she said, "have to abide by their obligations."
Nova Lucero, a housing activist with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, has been working with the tenants at Gates Place on their campaign. Following the June 14th vote on rent reform, she met with them and explained that state legislators did not remove MCIs, but that nevertheless they had brought down the amount landlords could charge for them. "This is the new law. We didn't get what we wanted. Do you still want to fight?" she asked them.
The tenants said yes.
The decision has not been without ramifications. Estudillo, who speaks little English, is among those who have been sued for nonpayment of rent by the landlord. On a recent frigid night, she stood in her lobby, showing the letter from DHCR outlining the MCI expenses, along with the scrawled response written by her daughter.
Asked why she chose to continue the fight, she answered without hesitation, "Because I know I'm going to win."