It wasn’t a dramatic rent increase. “Just $35.01,” said Sam Ida, who received a letter informing him of the change.
The notice went to everyone in his building in Queens because the increase was spurred by what’s known as a major capital improvement, or M.C.I. If a landlord makes an improvement to a building that benefits all tenants, some of those costs can be passed on to the tenants through a rent increase, which can remain in effect for up to 30 years. In the case of Mr. Ida’s building, the elevator had been renovated.
He didn’t fear paying the extra $35.01 each month — he and his wife, Aimee Nazario Ida, both work and could cover the increase. What he found unnerving was the hunch that this might not be his last M.C.I. notification.
The first had come just months before the pandemic, the second arrived after the rental market recovered. This time it was an increase of $39.12 to cover work on the building’s facade.
Mr. Ida’s family had moved into the rent-stabilized apartment 11 years earlier. His daughter, Laila, was only 2 and his son, Voltron, wasn’t yet born. But he and Ms. Ida, whom he met when they were students at the Pratt Institute, were already thinking long-term. They liked that there was an elementary school across the street, parks nearby and tree-lined sidewalks all around. “It’s a nice area for families,” Mr. Ida recalled thinking.
The neighborhood felt perfect, even if the 55-unit, brick building didn’t. “It’s old, prewar,” he said, “and not that great of a building.”
There was the time water came pouring through the ceiling. When Mr. Ida ran upstairs to knock on the door of the apartment above his, he discovered that his neighbor also had water coming through the ceiling. Together they ran up to the next floor and helped yet another neighbor locate a bathtub leak. “But we never considered these kinds of things a big deal,” he said. “We just took everything in stride.”
While Mr. Ida said the building’s super would address major issues like water cascading through multiple units, smaller things festered — cockroaches and mice, missing window guards and peeling paint. Mr. Ida, who grew up the son of a carpenter, said, “To be honest, when something’s fairly minor, I just fix it myself.”
Mr. Ida learned to looked past the challenges of the building because of the neighborhood — and the spaciousness of his family’s two-bedroom. “In New York,” he said, “it’s the biggest place I’ve ever lived.”
The apartment has provided plenty of room for his two children to grow over the years. They’re 9 and 13 now and the apartment is, with all its imperfections, the family’s home — affordable and suited to their priorities.
$2,198.84 | Sunnyside, Queens
Sam Ida, 45
Occupation: Children’s book illustrator, teacher and sign maker
On making books: Mr. Ida has designed over 35 children’s books, specializing in pop-up books. “It’s a really small world,” he said. “There were only 30 or so of us when I started.” Today, he says, more artists are learning pop-up techniques. “They make single issues or very small runs of pop-up artist books, rather than publishing for the mass market.”
On hearing from readers: “Occasionally, I still get heartfelt letters or messages from people who bought my books a long time ago or found them at a thrift store,” Mr. Ida said. “There is a lot I love about making pop-up books. As an art form, it holds a great deal of untapped potential. The books can connect on a deep level with some people.”
When the multiple M.C.I. increases came along, it rattled Mr. Ida. If the increases continued, he thought, they could accumulate beyond his family’s budget, forcing a move — not just from the apartment but from their routines, schools, and beloved Sunnyside.
After the second notification arrived, he heard others start to grumble. “Every time I walked out the door,” he said, “I’d walk into a conversation about this. I think if it was just me, I wouldn’t have done anything about it, but because everyone was mobilized, we had to do something to disincentivize them from doing this perpetually.”
In March, Mr. Ida saw a flier at his local library: Catholic Migration Services, which provides legal services to immigrants, was holding a workshop focused on how to form a tenants’ association. “I told the guys who are always complaining in front of the building that we should go to the class and try to start an association,” he said. “At that workshop we really got organized and decided on a course of action, believing that we had a pretty good chance to — if not get the second increase canceled — at least get it reduced.”
Mr. Ida distributed fliers throughout the building for a first meeting. At the workshop he learned that getting a third of all tenants to attend would be a success. “For that first meeting,” he recalled, “half the building showed up.”
The association was advised by its legal counsel to request a copy of the application that had been submitted by the building’s owner. When Mr. Ida and other members of the association reviewed the materials, they noticed that certain figures provided in the paperwork did not match figures in copies of receipts that were included. “The application seemed a little thrown together,” he said. “It seemed like they weren’t really expecting anyone to take a closer look at it.”
At the same time, Mr. Ida and his neighbors decided to stop living with all the needed repairs they had learned to ignore or fix themselves: broken light fixtures, warped floors, walls crumbling from previous water leaks. “We made a list of all the violations in the building and flooded 311 with complaints related to them,” he said. According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the building has had 113 violations, 27 of which remain open.
With the first M.C.I. increase already implemented, the association petitioned for the second to be delayed and the request was granted. “We put the brakes on the increase and let them know we were appealing it,” Mr. Ida said. “In that process if you respond as an association, you have a much better chance of getting a better result than as an individual.”
While the association awaits an outcome regarding the second increase, Mr. Ida said the organizing has already had an effect. “Since we formed the association,” he said, “the management has been better about getting things fixed.” What’s more, the association has changed the culture of the building. “People I had only known in passing,” he said, “I finally got to know their names.”
Representatives at MCP Property Management, which manages the building, did not respond to multiple requests for a comment.
Despite the fact that so many people have lived in the building for so long, retiring there and living on a fixed income, it wasn’t until the association was formed that they started to get to know one another.
The tenants maintain an active chat group, they are aware of one another’s issues and they help their neighbors out — people store packages for each other so they aren’t stolen anymore, they keep spare keys for each other and help out with dog walks. A collection of people who shared a building have become, in the truest sense, neighbors.
“Overall, it’s made us more connected to each other. We’re working to improve the building and have a voice in that process. I feel like even if we lose on the second M.C.I., we have to push back or the people who own the building will just keep wanting more and more.”
Mr. Ida’s penchant for organizing has spilled into other areas of his life. He’s been teaching at New York University since 2014 but only recently got involved in the labor union. “After we formed the tenant association,” he said, “it inspired me to get more involved and I went to a union meeting for the first time. I’m not normally someone who would really get involved in these things, but it’s good to know you’re not alone in whatever your struggles are.”