Aging in your rent-controlled home

This article was written specifically with our aging New York City residents in mind.

By Leah Felderman BA MA  

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Grandma was a life-long resident of the Bronx before, during, and after gentrification. She paid a few hundred dollars a month for her beautiful and spacious home, complete with building elevator. Considered an unbelievable bargain by most, this was a king’s ransom for an elderly widow on a fixed income. For those outside of an urban environment the term rent control may be as foreign as malasadas and musubi.

What is rent control?

Rent-controlled tenants and their homes reside in buildings built before 1947. Tenants, or an eligible family member, have lived there continuously since 1971. Typically rent control tenants are seniors on fixed incomes and are the original beneficiaries of the city’s first rent control laws. Rent control laws were established after World War II to protect returning soldiers (and their families) from becoming victims of more gluttonous landlords.

Rent control has actually been around for (at least) a few centuries. Most commonly it is traced back to the 1500s and social turmoil in Italy (i.e. “Merchant of Venice”). Yet, for our more modern reincarnation of rent control in the US we look to the post war 1940s and the most recent incarnation from 1970s. Present day revivals of “rent control” is a misnomer and is actually rent stabilization: the more capitalistic, less thrifty, but still highly sought-after cousin of the original. Of the original rent control recipients, there exists only approximately 25,000 who are still grandfathered in from the rent control of previous decades and generations.

Aside from the typical geriatric rent control tenant, there are a large number of younger tenants savvy enough to take advantage of rent control rules. Under tenancy succession rules, cohabitants and/or family members can take up residence in a rent-controlled home for at least two consecutive years before the lease holder passes away, there by passing the rent control status to yet another generation. Since even the thriftiest and/or more motivated domiciled entrepreneurs tend to decline to live with their aging family members, rent control usually passes away once its aging occupant meets the same fate.

Yes, there are those legendary examples of rent control where the tenant still pays less than the cost of an overpriced coffee a day for a desirable city residence. Yet, by and large, rent control is within reason considering the occupant’s income (and age). The most recent Housing and Vacancy Survey reveals that the median rent for a rent-controlled unit in the city is just over one thousand dollars a month, for a population whose median household income is under thirty thousand dollars.

From a high of more than 2 million rent-controlled apartments in the 1950s, rent-controlled units are steadily decreasing with rent-stabilized tenants accounting for almost 50% of the market. While still an amazing financial opportunity, rent-stabilized homes and tenants have to renew leases (and can be denied renewal), and are subject to slight increases each renewal period. Rent-controlled tenants are considered “statutory” and, for all intents and purposes, come with the property. In fact, even when confined to a nursing home, elderly tenants retain the rights to their apartments as long as they continue paying rent. The rationale behind this is that nursing homes are presumed to be temporary. Certainly, rent controlled tenants can be evicted for failure to pay rent and not complying with codes and regulations in domicile issues such as cleanliness and pets. Yet, by and large, evicting an elderly rent-controlled tenant is difficult especially given the abundance of social and legal resources and watchdog groups to prevent this.

4 great financial resources for the aging tenant in New York City

SCRIE: Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption program which provides qualified elderly tenants in rent-regulated apartments with exemptions from rent increases. Head of the household must be at least 62 years old with a total household income not exceeding $16,500 a year, and at least one-third of the total income dedicated to rent. SCRIE helps the elderly tenant gain exemption from any rent increase -- including hardship, fuel and capital improvement increases. The landlord receives property tax abatements (which reduce the landlord's property taxes) in return for this lack of monetary compensation from said tenant(s).

Senior Citizen Property Tax Exemption Program: For homeowners 65 and older, the Senior Citizen Property Tax Exemption Program provides abatements of up to 50 percent on New York real property taxes. Property for residential purposes only with no more than three units. Owner's annual income no greater than $24,999 and must have held property title for at least two years.

Department of Aging: Offers a variety of resources including home repair assistance. Low- and moderate-income homeowners 60 years old and older are able to obtain free labor for household repairs through various organizations working in cooperation with the Department of Aging.

SCHAP: Senior Citizen Homeowner Assistance Program provides qualified homeowners with a variety of home-repair loans. Those that are 60 or older that meet certain income requirements and are owners of one- to four-family dwellings may be eligible for this program through a non-profit program.

Leah Felderman BA MA
 

About the Author

Leah Felderman is a proud alumnus of University of Central Florida (BA) and San Diego State University (MA). She has worn many occupational hats including teaching, hospitality management, government contractor and non-profit organizer. She is an intrepid international traveler having visited over 60 countries before happily settling down into her new life chapter of domesticity as a mom and Coast Guard wife.



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