Morningside Heights Tenant Resists MCIs, Intimidation

In 1979, an idealistic 29-year-old named Rachelle moved from Germany to New York City to fulfill her dream of studying museum education. She received a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and has since worked in museums across the city. In 1981, she was able to afford to move into a rent-stabilized apartment in Morningside Heights, and has lived there ever since. With the neighborhood’s international and intellectual community, it seemed like an amazing place to grow her roots and raise her family. 

“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 34 years, through good years and bad, even when crime rates were high and we didn’t have fancy coffee shops,” she says. “I stayed and made it a home.” 

In the 1980s, with her building faced serious problems, the residents decided to form a tenant association. But back then, the building management attended tenants’ association meetings and worked with them to develop effective solutions. As the neighborhood changed and real estate became more profitable, however, the building was bought and sold several times. Conditions deteriorated as rents rose. One landlord failed to maintain basic safety measures, and tenants were frequently mugged. “I thought the landlord would at least care about the basic safety of the tenants,” recalls  Rachelle, who asked that her last name not be published. 

The current owners are trying to force out the remaining rent-stabilized tenants by raising the rents, mainly by Major Capital Improvement increases (MCIs) and fraudulent accounting. “We are constantly fighting to stay in our homes.” Rachelle says, “It’s outrageous. And tenants who try to address the financial inaccuracies are met with hostility and threatened with eviction. I know that their threats are illegal won’t hold up in court, but most tenants don’t, and they are afraid to push back. No one wants to risk losing their home.” 

The tenants have submitted a well-documented challenge to the MCI. However, under New York’s landlord-friendly laws, they must pay the increase while they fight it, leading many to question whether they can afford to stay. “I have friends in the building—professionals, nurses, hard workers—and after decades of being good tenants and good friends, they can’t afford the rent any more,” Rachelle says.

This is part of how rising rents are “destroying the community” both in her neighborhood and around the city, she adds. When she first moved in, she knew her neighbors, they shared in each other’s lives, and they formed a support system. “Now,” she says, “most of the long-term tenants have left, and the new people only stay a year or two. It’s like living in a hotel. 

Rachelle and her neighbors frequently struggle with the fact that their children can’t afford to live in New York City. ”My daughter and her husband, both working professionals, would love to start their own family in this neighborhood, but they can’t afford the current rents,” she says. “Instead, they moved out of state, and our family life has been reduced to phone calls. It’s not just me—the destruction of our family life is a consequence of loopholes in the rent laws that landlords use to increase rents.”