Helping Renters Become Lease Literate

Graduate Center Ph.D. student Kasey Zapatka Graduate Center Ph.D. student Kasey Zapatka

Like 30 percent of his fellow New Yorkers, Graduate Center Ph.D. student Kasey Zapatka (Sociology) lives in a rent-stabilized apartment. He shares the rent for the two-bedroom in Washington Heights with a roommate, and so far they have been able to afford their accommodations.

But there’s a hitch. A few years after signing the lease, Zapatka realized that the rent he is being charged is only half of the amount that the landlord can legally charge. He discovered this by doing something that tenants rarely do: He looked up the unit’s rent history.

At an event earlier this month hosted by The Graduate Center’s Center for the Humanities, Zapatka explained why rent histories matter to tenants in rent-stabilized units. One reason: Landlords can raise preferential rents to legally allowable levels when leases are renewed. In other words, Zapatka and others in his same situation are vulnerable to being priced out of their homes. The practice has been used to gentrify certain neighborhoods, notably in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Zapatka has long been interested in urban inequality and gentrification, and two years ago, as a digital fellow with the Center for the Humanities’ Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research, he proposed creating a website that “centralizes all of the resources around this complex topic” of rent-stabilization laws and agreements.  

Zapatka created the website, which launched this month, in partnership with the design firm Partner & Partners and with Tenants and Neighbors, a nonprofit engaged in tenant advocacy and organizing throughout New York state. Among other things, the site provides annotated versions of the standard contracts — a lease, a renewal lease, and a lease rider — for rent-stabilized units.

“I think as long as we have rent regulation, which I foresee happening for a long time, this is going to be a useful tool,” he says.

Its launch is especially timely. This June, lawmakers in Albany will vote on a series of bills aimed at reforming rent-stabilization laws. Among them is a bill to make preferential rents permanent rents.

Zapatka is all for housing reform.

“I think that we’re in a national housing crisis in the sense that rents [and] housing costs for homeowners … [have] gone up since the 1970s, and wages have not kept pace,” he says.

Zapatka’s web project “puts knowledge and power in the hands of tenants and tenants’ rights organizations in order to preserve rent-stabilized apartments across the city,” says Kendra Sullivan, director of the Center for the Humanities’ Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research.

She observes that he and his partners “built an accessible and legible resource that will help residents of New York City to know, navigate, and defend their rights when it comes to rent-stabilized housing, thereby ensuring that local populations made vulnerable by gentrification and displacement are able to stay put longer and strengthen community control over their neighborhoods.”

Submitted on: MAY 22, 2019

Category: Center for the Humanities | General GC News | Sociology | Student News