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Columbia Spectator Staff

For Julia Valentina Rojo, a recent court decision was the difference between staying in her apartment of 40 years and leaving the area completely. "The rent here is so expensive—three, four, five thousand dollars," Rojo said, referring to the Upper West Side. "I can't pay that." For 40 years, Rojo has lived in Columbus House on 95th Street, a building that can't raise its rents after a Dec. 28 court decision that could affect thousands of city apartments. Columbus House, which had been a part of the Mitchell-Lama program that provides housing subsidies for low-income New York City residents, was acquired by real estate company Witkoff Group in 2006. After buying the building, Witkoff applied to raise rents on 248 units in Columbus House, located between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. But on Dec. 28, the New York Supreme Court, appellate division, upheld a previous ruling, which assured residents that they won't see a rent increase under new ownership. "Tenants are elated," said Leslie Burns, president of the Columbus House Tenants Association. "People are able to stay in their homes." Columbus House sits one block away from the Columbus Square development, which includes five new residential towers and retail space. Many Columbus House tenants cannot afford to pay for market-rate housing in the area, Burns said. "Most older tenants would have to move—I would have to move," Burns said, adding that she worried that rent increases would have changed the tenant population from retirees and families to a more transient population of young professionals. "There is no way that my Social Security and other monies I have coming in would cover my rent." Landlords can raise rents to market rate if units were previously rented under "unique or peculiar circumstances," and Witkoff had argued that the Mitchell-Lama program constituted a unique circumstance. The court, however, disagreed. "The tenants argued rightfully and successfully that this provision was never intended to apply to Mitchell-Lama buildings," said David Hershey-Webb, the lawyer who represented Columbus House tenants during the appeals process. In the past, "unique and peculiar" has applied to renting to a family member or when an apartment was in disrepair, he added. Witkoff's argument was atypical because it involved apartments that are currently occupied, said Flora Davidson, professor of political science and urban studies at Barnard. "The issue in this case is retroactively trying to raise the rents on existing tenants," she said. "They're coming up with a new argument, a new spin." Witkoff Group did not respond to requests for comment. Though the Columbus House tenants filed the suit, Burns said the court's decision applies to affordable housing throughout the city. Hershey-Webb estimated that this ruling would affect up to 17,000 current and formal Mitchell-Lama apartments. He added that he doesn't think others will try to frame Mitchell-Lama as "unique and peculiar" in the future, but said Witkoff may appeal a second time. Davidson said she doesn't think Witkoff has much of a chance on a second appeal. "I will be very surprised if the landlords succeed," she said. katie.bentivoglio@columbiaspectator.com

upper west side Mitchell-Lama City Housing
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