Tenants of the Woodmansten Apartments in Morris Park are angry, and a recent long-awaited tenant forum has just begun to scratch the surface. Members of the Williamsbridge Tenants Association say that management of their building has been raising rent at random for the past few years, leading renters to flee the building completely, and contributing to the collapse of what was once a thriving complex.
“I just found out that if he wants, our landlord could raise rent 200, 300, even $400 at any time,” said Michael Kelman, a tenant on the fouth floor. Luckily, his rent did not increase for the new year, but he says that it did for many others. “Some of the people I know here have had $60 increases from last year to this year. That hurts, it doesn’t seem fair,” he says. Kelman added that some of his friends are paying for the new elevators out of their rent, though they never got a letter saying they’d be charged for the elevators.
All of this has been coming to a head for some time, said Paulette Sorg, president of the tenants association. Finally, May 1, Senator Jeff Klein held a tenant forum so that residents could voice their concerns to him and representatives from the NY State Department of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), as well as someone from Legal Services.
“It is critical that tenants know their rights and understand they have recourse if landlords violate those rights,” said Klein following the forum.
Sorg says that while the tenants were grateful for the opportunity, they did not feel fully satisfied that their voice was heard, as a group.
“We were happy the senator came, but the meeting didn’t really go as we expected or hoped,” she said. “Some tenants who attended, instead of feeling empowered, felt intimidated. There was too much talk about what landlords can do, what they’re allowed to do to us without warning.”
Still, even with getting a better handle of the guidelines, Sorg and the tenants say that the hikes are beyond what is legally permitted for management of a housing complex. According to some residents, the owner has been renovating apartments, then raising the legal rent higher and higher. He allows people to pay a preferential rent, which is lower than the actual legal rent, but then he is able to apply unexpected charges to the rent with little explanation. Sorg says that the only way for tenants to dispute fees is legal action, but the court process is so daunting and lengthy that most tenants are too impatient or afraid, and move out. This phenomenon has caused Woodmansten to lose 65% of its tenant population, which translates to between 80 and 90 residents. “We cannot maintain a stable building when we only have the facility at 13 to 15% full,” said Sorg.
In cases where the tenants have persevered and gone to court, they have repeatedly won back a refund of the overcharge as well as money for “troubled damages” if they can show that management was aware they overcharged.
Following the forum with Klein and the DHCR, Sorg called her own meeting which was held Saturday, May 15. “Look, 6 or 7 months ago, people were growing marijuana here,” says Kelman. “And one apartment was just raided for cocaine and heroin. Between that, and the handicapped ramp being removed from outside, and the increased rates, people aren’t happy.”
Senator Klein has plans to meet with DHCR again soon, in private, to deliver a full report of the tenant concerns, and to brainstorm solutions. Sorg says that the forum with Klein was a major step in the right direction, but she hopes – prays, for the sake of the building she has come to love – that similar efforts can be made, and soon.
Reach Daniel Roberts at (718) 742-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org