Like many longtime tenants, he cherishes the affordability of his apartment, which has allowed his family to stay in the community for decades.
But lately, his rent has been slowly increasing. Last year, management installed security cameras throughout the complex, billing the tenants an additional $45 per room every month to cover the cost.
A few months later, they renovated the gates, another $25 per room, including bedrooms, the living room and the kitchen. Recently, Calderon said they installed new gas pipelines, which cost $100 per room.
Due to a 1970s state program called Major Capital Improvements (MCIs), the landlord was allowed to, if approved, tack on all of these charges to tenants’ permanent rent.
Though initially created to incentivize landlords to make improvements to their buildings, many tenants see the program as a way for landlords to hike up the rent and eventually force out rent-stabilized residents.
Calderon was one of nearly 100 tenants who protested outside the Department of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) office in Jamaica last Tuesday. DHCR processes landlord applications for MCIs, and conducts audits of all contracts, invoices and change orders.
Organized by housing advocacy groups Woodside on the Move, Chhaya CDC and Catholic Migration Services, tenants filled Union Hall Street and chanted “No More MCI” in front of the agency building.
They shared stories about how the MCI-related rent hikes have impacted their families and neighbors.
Calderon, one of the tenant leaders at Cosmopolitan Houses, said his family is already burdened with paying for his son’s college tuition. While the rent goes up, his paycheck remains the same.
“I would like to retire at the proper age, but I don’t think I’m going to do it,” he said. “Because anytime Cosmopolitan increases the rate with the MCIs, I have to pull more money from my pocket.”
Worse yet, Calderon said he believes many of the improvements or installments are either unnecessary or not functional. He said the camera often doesn’t work at night, and even the gate doesn’t always open or close properly.
He also takes issue with the gas pipes, which he sees as an exposed hazard for both kids and seniors.
When he tried complaining to Cosmopolitan, Calderon said there was “no argument.” He was just told to pay it.
“Everybody’s upset because the people feel abused,” he said. “Nobody is happy.”
Calderon’s fellow tenant at Cosmopolitan, Rafael Ramos, has lived in the affordable development for 45 years. He’s retired, and only receives $1,000 a month on social security.
Ramos expressed fear that with the continuing MCI increases, he’ll have nowhere else to go.
“If they raise my rent, I cannot pay,” he said.
At the tenant rally last Tuesday, residents from across the borough expressed similar concerns. Tenants from Jackson Heights, Corona and Jamaica said they face MCI increases that they cannot handle.
Robin Budnetz has lived in a Jamaica building for nearly 50 years. A new landlord bought the building in 2014, and “things changed” immediately.
“This MCI is the cream of the crop,” she said.
While some improvements made under the program were necessary, Budnetz said many were unnecessary. Just a few weeks ago, she said DHCR approved a building-wide project to replace the roof, including brick and concrete work.
Families living in a three-room apartment, including the living room and kitchen, would have an additional $349 per month tacked on. For four rooms, it would be $465 per month, and $560 per month for five rooms.
“All of the neighbors feel hysterical, devastated,” she said. “They don't know what to do. They can’t manage these rent increases.”
Charni Sochet, a spokeswoman for DHCR, said the agency conducts a full audit of every application and reviews all contracts and relevant documents. They also send inspectors to verify that the work is done in a satisfactory manner.
Additionally, DHCR notifies tenants of the work performed and if there are complaints about the project. However, because the agency is the administrator of rent laws, Sochet could not comment on pending applications that are being processed.
Addressing Ramos’s concerns, Sochet said seniors can apply for a rent exemption that would cover the cost of MCIs.
“DHCR is committed to protecting the rights of rent-regulated tenants and ensuring compliance with the rent laws, which are established by the State Legislature,” she said in a statement.
Sochet said if a tenant believes an MCI order is “based on an error” in law, they can file a petition for administrative review within 35 days of the order.
Tenant organizers expressed that as long as MCI is allowed, tenants will suffer higher rents. They called for the program to be eliminated altogether.
“I want MCIs to disappear,” Calderon said.
To eliminate or amend the law, tenant leaders will have to go through Albany. State Senator Michael Gianaris, who attended the rally in Jamaica, called the MCI program “a scam.” He said too often it’s used by greedy landlords to squeeze people from their homes.
“The law is not working the way it’s supposed to,” he said.
The senator said he is co-sponsoring a bill that will mandate the MCI surcharges to cease after the cost of the project is recovered. He warned that the legislation may be stuck in committee because of the “fake Republican majority” slowing its progress.
“Right now, as long as Republicans are in power to decide what we vote on or don’t vote on, they will never allow us to vote on the reforms on an issue like this,” Gianaris said.