Calls for a moratorium on rent have reached a fever pitch in New York, as the COVID-19 crisis has left as many as 40 percent of all tenants unable to make April’s payments. But while Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to sidestep the question of relief for renters, some landlords seem to be setting their sights on a different goal: deregulating rent-protected apartments.

According to a group of Bushwick residents, their landlord, Alfred Shtainer, is attempting to hike rent on at least five of the building’s regulated units. They say his goal is to pressure already struggling tenants into signing away their protections under the loft law so that he can eventually convert their homes into market-rate apartments.

“He is absolutely trying to force us out,” said Jen Chantrtanapichate, who’s lived in the building for more than a decade. “He’s literally exacerbating people’s suffering during a pandemic to take advantage of the fact that a lot of us are now in vulnerable situations.”

Chantrtanapichate, 31, works as a program director at a Lower East Side community center. Like many of her neighbors, she has lost her income due to the public health crisis. She’s also presumed positive for COVID-19.

On March 30th, as she was self-isolating at home, a slip of paper appeared under her door indicating her rent would be $52 higher on April 1st. “I was just like: ‘Are you fucking kidding me?'” she recalled. “It was appalling.”

She soon spoke with four other rent-regulated tenants in the building, all of whom had seen unannounced increases on their April rent invoices, Chantrtanapichate said.

Reached by phone, Shtainer initially denied the tenants’ allegations, then said, “If they have a problem, they can call my attorney.” He declined to discuss the matter further.

Landlords of loft law tenants must abide by tight restrictions on when to raise rent, but unlike other regulated units, at least 90 days notice is not required. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s call for the Rent Guidelines Board to freeze rent for stabilized apartments would also not impact loft tenants, lawyers said.

Residents of Shtainer’s building say the abrupt rent hike is just the latest maneuver aimed at forcing them relinquish their regulated apartments, noting that many of the building’s 27 units have already lost their loft law protections.

Chantrtanapichate said the landlord had previously tried to trick her into unknowingly signing a sale of rights that would remove the protections, and later brought an eviction case over her dog, which was ultimately dismissed.

Another resident of the building, who declined to give their name for fear of retaliation from the landlord, told Gothamist that Shtainer was “targeting the loft-protected tenants [because] he’s hoping this is an opportunity to finally push us out at the end of this.” The person worried that most of the building’s residents would be unable to afford their current rents, let alone the legal representation to fend off a potential eviction case.

David Frazier, a housing attorney who specializes in the loft law, said the alleged scheme was unlikely to work, given the array of protections offered to loft tenants.

But he added it was definitely possible landlords were “hunting for low hanging fruit by raising rent to scare people out of the building.” That incentive is particularly high for landlords of loft-protected tenants, he added, because such units did not receive the same safeguards against deregulation that other rent stabilized tenants did under last year’s reform package.

Still, Frazier urged tenants to open a line of communication with their landlords if they’re unable to make rent due to the crisis.

On Thursday, the building’s residents sent a letter to Shtainer asking him “to work with us to find a common solution that helps us all get through this.” The landlord had not responded as of Friday afternoon.

This story in part of an ongoing series tracking landlord behavior during the COVID-19 crisis. If you have a tip you’d like to share, send us an email or reach out on Twitter.

Source: gothamist.com/feed