HomeAsian AmericansTenants, activists charge landlord abuses NYC laws to hike rents

Tenants, activists charge landlord abuses NYC laws to hike rents

By Shree Baphna, AsAmNews Contributor

Amid New York City’s ever-tightening housing market, a group of tenants in immigrant-heavy Queens is protesting what it says are illegal rent increases in buildings under the jurisdiction of Zara Realty.

The city allows landlords to increase rents if the landlord has undertaken significant infrastructure improvements such as fitting a new boiler, electrical rewiring or plumbing, known as Major Capital Improvements or MCIs

Tenants and housing activists accuse Zara Realty of using the MCI process as a way to milk residents for more rent without any real improvements. They charge that the city has approved multiple MCI applications despite Zara Realty’s history of harassing tenants, exacerbating rent hardships and decreased services. Moreover, Zara is being sued by the New York State Attorney General’s office for its practices.

On Feb. 22, Zara Tenant Coalition in partnership with Chhaya Community Development Corporation and Catholic Migration Services organized a housing protest in Jamaica, Queens, regarding rent increases in Zara Realty’s rent-controlled residential buildings in Jamaica. 

The protest took place front of the city’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) office, which approves MCI applications.

“These improvements are totally unnecessary and actually harmful for residents,” said Moreom Perven, a tenant in one of Zara Realty’s buildings and a member of the large diasporic Asian American community living in Jamaica. 

“They started to do some aggressive patchwork outside on the face and changing some things, because they wanted to raise our rent with MCIs,” Perven said. Meanwhile, “we have mold, roaches, rats, no heat. Every single Zara building is going through the same pattern. When we as the tenants are recognizing Zara’s system of abuse, how come the DHCR are failing to recognize this?”

William Thomas, a spokesperson for Zara Realty, said the improvements were undertaken to comply with New York City’s climate regulations — he cited Local Law 97 — and that rent increases were in compliance with the law. “The landlord cannot raise rents without city or state approval. The process allows for the public to participate in the decision-making process before the Rent Guidelines Board votes on rent rates. Both sides are listened to and then a decision is made,” he said.

Rima Begum, associate director of programs for housing stability at Chhaya, provided an insight into what fighting for housing justice within the Asian American community has been like. 

“Chhaya had been organizing with residents for six years now. We have become more active especially because many of the residents in Jamaica were from the South Asian community. It started off with tenants coming into the Chhaya office knowing that we provided in-language support. This helped spearhead the organizing with Zara Tenant Coalition, because nearly every building under Zara Realty had a South Asian population.” Begum explained that although the size of the South Asian community was small, there were enough that garnered a need to provide a platform for tenants to educate themselves and stand up for their rights in their preferred language. 

“The MCIs are nothing new. They have been a big headache for a very long time. It is something that housing justice organizers call the ‘silent evictor’,” Begum said. “In fact, MCI applications remained steadfast in numbers before, during, and after COVID. I mean, Zara Realty themselves have been applying for between 200-250 MCI’s per month. All these put together kick the rent up, driving tenants out.”

“My hope is that ultimately, we as organizers can successfully lobby for the elimination of MCIs as a legal eviction method,” Begum said.

Doug Ostling, a member of Zara Tenant Coalition with a background in building management and construction, said he was surprised by Zara Realty’s reasoning. “This is the first time I’m hearing about compliance with climate regulations,” he said.

“They did install solar panels on one of the roofs of the building, so it is possible that re-doing the roof was to prep for the solar panels. However, there is no regulation that mandates that residential buildings need to have solar panels — this does not benefit residents at all. In fact there are tax breaks for those who are willing to switch to green energy or they can get subsidised for doing so. This would not merit a rent increase,” he said. 

When asked for comment, DHCR responded: “The Office of Rent Administration, within New York State Homes and Community Renewal, continues to ensure the laws governing rent regulation are properly administered and enforced; that includes proactive audits, investigations, and other enforcement activities to protect more than one million tenants and New York’s rent regulated housing stock. HCR will not comment on pending matters.”

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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