(NYTIMES) Kim Barker, Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Grace Ashford, Sarah Cohen, November 12, 2018 — When Neri Carranza went to see the apartment on West 109th Street in Manhattan, she folded money into the pocket of her blue jacket, just in case she liked the place. This would be the first apartment she had ever looked at, the first time she could make a home of her own, paid for with the earnings from her first job, at a glass factory. And the apartment was exactly as her friend from church had described it: small but comfortable.
So on a freezing Sunday in 1956, Ms. Carranza, then 32, with a crown of black hair and a fierce desire for independence, moved into the narrow two-bedroom apartment. She made it her own, cleaning and decorating every Sunday, planting yellow roses and hot-pink geraniums in window boxes, painting the walls white when they needed a new coat. As landlords came and went, Ms. Carranza stayed, becoming a fixture in the largely Latino neighborhood.
Ángel Franco for The New York Times
“I had everything I ever wanted,” Ms. Carranza said.
But one day in 2010, when she was 87, Ms. Carranza learned that her new landlord wanted to evict her for what seemed like the most nonsensical reason: She supposedly didn’t live in her own beloved home.
She was hardly the only tenant facing eviction by the owners, the Orbach Group, a New Jersey-based company that had recently paid about $76 million for her building and 21 others nearby, a Monopoly move that effectively snapped up most of the residential real estate along a block of West 109th Street. Orbach had filed eviction suits in housing court against scores of her neighbors in rent-regulated apartments.
What happened to Ms. Carranza and the others shows how New York City’s housing court system, created in part to shelter tenants from dangerous conditions, has instead become a tool for landlords to push them out and wrest a most precious civic commodity — affordable housing — out of regulation and into the free market.
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Rent-regulated apartments, often the only homes in New York that people of modest means can afford, are vanishing as gentrification surges inexorably through the city’s neighborhoods. Mayor Bill de Blasio, now in his second term, has staked much of his legacy on alleviating this crisis of disappearing affordable housing and rising homelessness.
Yet the city’s efforts to create new affordable housing are locked in a duel with a countervailing force: powerful incentives for landlords to do everything possible to take existing affordable apartments away.
It’s not just that the city’s booming population and economy have spawned a wildly lucrative free market. The entire structure of tenant protections — while probably still the nation’s strongest, at least on paper — has been steadily eroded by landlord-friendly laws adopted in Albany and haphazard regulation.