NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 2: Tenants and housing rights activists disrupt a meeting of the New York City rent board to demand a zero percent increase in rent for city rent stabilized apartments, May 2, 2023 at Cooper Union in New York City, New York. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

It was a tense day: conversations with our landlord over our lease renewal broke down, a bidding war began on another apartment we applied for, and we won the housing lottery—but that apartment’s rent was higher than our current rent.

My husband and I signed a two-year lease for our current apartment that included a steep “discount” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But once the lease expired, our landlord asked us to either pay up to $900 more in monthly rent or leave the apartment. After our landlord rejected our modest counteroffer, the dread sank in. With seemingly no apartments within our price range, we were effectively priced out of the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, our home of almost a decade, and possibly New York City altogether. 

But such is life for renters in New York City. “The Rent is Too Damn High” and continues to increase. In March, the median rent for a one-bedroom in Manhattan climbed to $4,175 a month. This growing crisis leaves half New York City households unable to cover their basic needs. As much as it broke my heart, I was forced to consider a future where we no longer live in New York. 

Our story would not even be remarkable if it didn’t have a surprise ending. In a last-ditch effort, I reached out to the tenant advocacy organization Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED) to see if they could help us negotiate with our landlord. A BED volunteer said we should first check to see if our apartment was rent-stabilized and showed me how to look up our building’s status. We learned that my husband and I had unknowingly been rent-stabilized tenants for two years.

It turns out that our landlord receives a J-51 tax abatement, administered by the NYC

Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the NYC Department of

Finance. In the simplest of terms, the program places buildings under rent regulation when the owner accepts tax benefits  for rehabilitating the building. These kinds of tax abatements are supposed to incentivize landlords to offer affordable housing. But with little oversight or enforcement, landlords illegally charge market-rate rents for rent-stabilized apartments.

My conversation with BED took place six months ago. Since then, I have spent most of my time trying to learn everything I can about my situation and how I can help others. BED explained that a good first step is to order my rent history to see our apartment’s previous rents and whether our landlord was possibly overcharging us. This is how I learned we were entitled to preferential rent after reviewing The Housing Stability & Tenant Protection Act (HSTPA) of 2019, which made changes to how rents can be raised and changed, among other things. I also filed a complaint with New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR), the state’s affordable housing agency that enforces rent regulation laws and tenant rights. 

My husband and I were adamant about sharing this news with our neighbors. We connected with people in every unit in the building, Only two other people knew the building was rent-stabilized. However, neither knew the full extent of their rights as tenants. 

I often joke that all of the tenants in our building got scammed into winning the jackpot: a highly coveted, rent-regulated apartment in a city notorious for unaffordability. But the more I learn about my rights (and which ones my landlord infringed upon), the more infuriated I become. How can I consider us being preyed upon as luck?  Before I wrote full-time, I was a policy analyst for New York City. I spent six years helping to shape policy and ensuring the breadth of resources New York has to offer its most vulnerable communities made a meaningful impact. Yet I still fell victim to flagrant housing injustice. 

And I am certainly not the only victim. Property developers, landlords, and corporations are devouring New York City with unmitigated greed. Rent-stabilized apartments are rapidly disappearing because landlords aren’t reporting them to HCR or they are “warehousing” units, the practice of intentionally keeping them vacant to eventually combine them and raise the price of rent. Most rent-stabilized tenants already spend about a third or more of their incomes on housing and still, the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) is considering rent hikes. It is unconscionable that in a city of renters, leadership rewards the property-owning class with tax abatements that take advantage of renters. 

“While working families are struggling to afford skyrocketing cost-of-living expenses, Eric Adams’ hand-picked Rent Guidelines Board is mulling over a 7% rent hike for working-class tenants. The disconnect from reality that the RGB is showing with this disastrous proposal is shameful,” said Council Member Shahana Hanif, who represents District 39, which includes parts of Kensington, Borough Park, Windsor Terrace, Park Slope, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, and the Columbia Waterfront in Brooklyn.

Hanif and other council members protested at the preliminary RGB vote on May 2, where the board approved a maximum rent increase of between 2% and 5% on one-year leases and 4% and 7% on two-year leases. 

“We must deliver economic relief to working tenants, not squeeze them for all their worth,” Hanif said in an interview with Prism. “I was proud to stand with tenants and allies in the council at the Brooklyn hearing to demand a rent rollback, and I will continue to stand in solidarity with every rent-stabilized tenant at every hearing until the RGB hears our demand.”

The Rent Guidelines Board will vote on proposed rent hikes June 21, and I will see my landlord in housing court later this year to hopefully settle our dispute over our lease renewal. I have spent much time educating my neighbors and myself about what it means to be a rent-stabilized tenant. Even as a former civil servant, navigating this bureaucracy has been challenging but I feel it is necessary work I must share with others. I refuse to accept any of this as a normal or acceptable way for New York renters to live. 

In some ways, I did hit the jackpot. I built relationships with neighbors I used to just silently pass in the hallway. Rent-stabilized tenants are entitled to lease renewals, and now my husband and I can plan for our future without the anxiety of having to move every two years. And since we hope a resolution to our case means we will no longer be rent-burdened, we can talk about taking trips, saving to buy our own place, and possibly having children. I can now look forward to the future because I will be able to afford it. 

But my protected rights as a renter in New York City should not be a mystery to me, nor should my ability to remain in my home without being rent-burdened feel fortuitous. Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I had not contacted BED for help. I think of where we might be if we did not have the ability, time, or resources to navigate this bureaucracy. We could have been forced to pay well more than we were able or move away from our community and the support system we built over almost a decade of living on the same street. I find myself thinking of Jordan Neely, a man murdered for daring to express the pain he felt for being unhoused and hungry, and other victims of greed and real estate speculation. 

I hope to use a victory in housing court to galvanize my neighbors into action. We all have a stake in this fight, and it’s time to roll up our sleeves and do the work of making New York affordable for all.

Jenika McCrayer began her freelance journalism career in 2014 with Everyday Feminism and has since covered issues related to gender, mental health, and social justice. Follow her on Twitter @JenikaMc.