Landlords trying to drive out rent-regulated tenants generally use the same harassment methods against the elderly as they do against younger residents. But people over 62 present both more profitable and more vulnerable targets. They are more likely to have been living in the same apartment for decades and thus have lower rent, and they are often poorer, sicker, physically weaker, and may not speak English well.
“We’ve seen them taken to court more frequently in some cases too,” says Brandon Kielbasa, an organizer with the Cooper Square Committee on the Lower East Side. The elderly “are also more fearful, in my experience,” says Jenny Laurie, assistant director of Housing Court Answers.
Harassment is built into a common real-estate business model: Buy a rent-regulated building, especially in a gentrifying neighborhood; get the tenants out; renovate the units; and then rent them for much more than the previous tenants were paying. As rent-regulated tenants have the right to renew their leases automatically, getting them out requires pressure.
More than 200,000 of the city’s rent-regulated apartments are occupied by people 65 or older, according to a 2011 study by New York University’s Furman Center. This includes slightly more than one-sixth of the almost 1 million rent-stabilized apartments and almost all of the 38,000 still covered by rent control. In “core Manhattan,” the area below East 96th and West 110th streets, where more than one-third of rent-stabilized tenants have lived in their apartments for more than 20 years, 22.4 percent of rent-stabilized tenants are elderly.
One tactic specifically used against older people, says Kielbasa, is “playing games with issuing their leases on time” to delay them getting into the city’s Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption program, which covers rent increases charged to low-income people 62 or older.
Some common harassment tactics are:
—Giving everyone in the building notices that their leases won’t be renewed. Though landlords can’t legally do that to rent-regulated tenants, this can scare people who don’t know their rights.
—Offering to pay them to move, sometimes hiring “tenant relocation specialists” to couple buyout offers with threats of eviction.
—In buildings that are still predominantly occupied by rent-stabilized tenants, failing to make repairs or provide heat and hot water. In buildings with vacant apartments, not bothering to limit the noise, mess, and damage to other apartments caused by renovation work.
—Trying to evict tenants on bogus charges, such as not paying rent even if they have paid, or claiming that their apartment is not their primary residence.
These tactics are used on all tenants, but can affect the elderly more. It’s harder to go to court to defend yourself against a bogus lawsuit if you use a walker. At 143 Ludlow St. on the Lower East Side, the lack of heat in the building over the winter of 2012-13 caused older residents to repeatedly go to their doctors for more arthritis medication, says Kielbasa. Mahfar, the landlord, hired the recently investigated “tenant relocator” Michele Pimienta to displace tenants from this building, he adds.
At 309 East 8th St.—owned by Steven Croman, one of the city’s most aggressive landlords—earlier this year, an elderly tenant there had work done in her apartment which required her furniture to be moved. But after doing the work, Kielbasa says, “the crew failed to move it back and left the tenant with her bed blocking access to her bathroom for hours until a neighbor came home and helped her move it.”
In August, the state Tenant Protection Unit launched a probe into “abusive behavior” by Marolda Properties in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The firm refused to renew the lease of a woman in her mid-80s on the grounds that she didn’t really live in her apartment, even though she’d dwelled there for more than 40 years.
The positive side, says Kielbasa, is that elderly tenants are frequently involved in organizing tenant associations in their buildings, and are often the best-informed and most inspiring members. “In many cases, they have fought off displacement for decades,” he adds, “and have gained invaluable knowledge by doing so.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Indypendent.