But recently, her landlord and the management company that runs the building have started two improvement projects: one for new gas pipes and another to fix the water system.
According to Ruiz, the landlord plans to pay for the projects through the Major Capital Improvement (MCI) program, a state initiative from the 1970s that allows building owners to apply for rent hikes to pay for capital improvements.
As a result of the MCI projects, Ruiz said her monthly rent will increase by $300, which she will have to pay for the next 30 years.
“There was nothing wrong with our gas or water,” she said. “They claimed that because it was very old, they had to do it.”
Ruiz argued that it’s the responsibility of the landlord to maintain the building. If her landlord never took care of the building for decades, she wondered, why did he suddenly want to do it now?
“This is a lot of injustice for us,” she said.
The Sunnyside renter went to see Ivan Contreras, the lead community organizer with Woodside on the Move, which has been leading a campaign to end the MCI program for three years.
Last Tuesday, several dozen tenants, including Ruiz, joined Contreras and local lawmakers on a march in Jackson Heights calling for the abolishment of the state program. The march began at IS 230 and went three blocks up on 34th Avenue, ending at Travers Park.
Contreras said although the rally and march were about the MCI program, the demonstration was also about evictions and longtime residents’ right to stay in their communities.
“We’re asking the governor and Albany to get rid of this law right now,” he said. “I know we haven’t been able to do it, but next year is going to be the year. I know it’s going to happen.
“We elected some really progressive people,” Contreras added. “That’s why I’m super confident that this year, we’re going to be able to pass this law.”
Last year, along with a slate of other rent reforms, state lawmakers passed legislation to amend the MCI program by capping annual MCI rent increases at 2 percent, down from 6 percent.
The reforms also removed MCI increases after 30 years instead of allowing them to remain in effect in perpetuity, tightened the rules governing their approval, strengthened enforcement for inspections, and lengthened the MCI formula’s amortization period.
Although tenant organizers won those historic reforms, Contreras and the tenants he supports still hope to abolish the program altogether. The community organizer said renters are seeing even more MCI projects now, despite the changes in the law.
“I’m receiving people every single week with an MCI application,” he said. “It’s interesting how landlords are using that more than ever.”
State Senator Michael Gianaris, who is sponsoring the bill to scrap the MCI program, said despite the progress achieved last year, landlords are still taking advantage of the initiative.
“The problem is when you leave a hole, landlords are going to run through the hole,” he said. “The landlords are not trying to help the tenants, they’re trying to hurt the tenants because all they care about is more and more money.”
Gianaris said he also hopes to pass the bill abolishing MCIs during 2021 legislative session.
“We have to fight harder next year,” he said. “We hope we’re going to have even more of a majority in the Senate and the Assembly, so that those who oppose us will be defeated.”
Assemblyman Brian Barnwell, who co-sponsored the bill, said nine out of 10 complaints his office receives are from tenants, many of whom are upset about rent hikes related to MCIs.
“The problem with MCIs is not just that they want to make improvements that the landlord should already be fixing to begin with,” he said. “We’re giving MCIs to people who have billions of dollars and hundreds of properties across the city.
“The whole system is beyond repair,” Barnwell added. “It needs to be abolished.”
State Senator Jessica Ramos, a renter herself, said landlords are taking advantage of the program to “so they can milk tenants dry.” She said lawmakers will need the same type of push as last year to get this done.
“We saw last year all the work we did just to achieve a few reforms,” she said. “That’s exactly what it’s going to take this time, too.”