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Columbia Spectator Staff

In the latest skirmish of the battle between residents of rent-controlled housing and their landlords, city officials and locals voiced concerns over the recent spate of potentially phony demolitions designed to oust low-income residents.

In the cutthroat New York real estate market, some landlords have long been eager to remove residents with stabilized rent so they can increase profits. While some have converted apartments into illegal hotels, others have found ways to exploit a loophole in the state's Rent Stabilization Code and the Emergency Tenant Protection Regulations, evicting tenants so they can pursue phony demolition projects.

The loophole, which exists because neither set of regulations explicitly defines what "demolition" includes, allows landlords who submit demolition applications to evict tenants without enduring city monitoring of the remodeling. And while many affordable housing advocates are calling on officials to define the term exclusively as the "full razing of a building," the Division of Housing and Community Renewal favors define the term more loosely— a move which many fear would increase questionable evictions.

"It is no secret that the current real estate market provides landlords with strong incentives to find ways to remove rent-regulated tenants and convert their apartments to market-rate units," New York Assemblyman Micah Kellner testified at an August 12 public hearing. "For this reason," he said, "it is all the more vital that DHCR, the watchdog for affordable housing in New York, uphold the central principle of the Rent Stabilization Law, which is that landlords may not evict tenants simply because they wish to charge higher rents for their apartments."

Still, the DHCR has generally rebuked community members' proposed definition of demolition because, as it explained in a statement, "requiring an owner to knock down the entire exterior shell of a building, in areas as densely populated as New York City and its neighboring counties, could create extremely unsafe conditions to pedestrians and the occupants of neighboring buildings, and could even cause significant structural damage to neighboring or attached edifices."

Yet Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, testifying at the same hearing, said that the recent increase in demolition applications indicates landlords are using them primarily for the purpose of gutting and making internal improvements to affordable housing. The DHCR's solution, he claimed, is only "giving landlords the green light to demolish more of the affordable housing that is left in New York City."

In areas like the Upper West Side, where steeply increasing rents are forcing many not in rent stabilized housing to relocate, phony demolitions are considered one of the most serious threats to middle-class neighborhoods. Once ill-intentioned owners convert the insides of once-stabilized apartments, those who lived there before can't afford to return and the makeup of the community is left drastically altered.

"The central proposition of rent regulation is that preserving affordable housing is a distinctly important public purpose," Gottfried said. "We should also keep in mind that when we allow a landlord to evict a tenant, we are allowing a family to be deprived of their home. Landlords must not be permitted to evict tenants simply because they wish to decontrol the units or turn them to some more lucrative use."