If you're a fellow adult trying to make their way in the world, then you've probably noticed that everything seems to be getting more and more expensive these days. With inflation in the US reaching 9.1% (the highest it's been in 40 years), people are doing whatever they can to cut costs, and it's starting to feel impossible just to live right now.
Grace James, an actor, writer, and comedian living in New York City — specifically South Williamsburg, also known as Los Sures — experienced this firsthand when she received an email from her landlord letting her know that upon renewing her lease, they'd be increasing her rent by a whopping $700 a month. Yes, you read that right: SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS. Their reasoning? "It's what the apartment's worth."
Grace, who moved into her apartment in August 2021 and was originally paying $2500 per month, took her experience to TikTok, where she shared some photos of her apartment building, repeating her landlord's message, "It's what the apartment's worth" over and over.
Clearly, no significant "updates" were made to justify raising the monthly rent by such a huge amount.
In fact, Grace's landlord may be just taking advantage of the rental situation in New York City right now (which, btw, does NOT make it right). New York has always been one of the most expensive cities in the US, and despite thousands of people leaving the city during the height of the pandemic in 2020, rental prices continue to surge now more than ever. In fact, the median rent in Manhattan reached $4,000 in May 2022, while median rent in Brooklyn reached $3,250, which is 18% more than last year.
BuzzFeed reached out to Grace, who said that she felt "devastated and powerless" when she received the email from her landlord. "Several of my neighbors are long-term residents, which led me to think and hope that our property managers cared about retaining good tenants. I’d been naïve to the reality of how faceless we are to those who own our buildings. I told my friends, 'I wish our landlords could see us scrambling to figure out what we’re going to do. I wish they could see how a single piece of mail turned our lives upside down.'"
"Personally speaking, I believe the business of housing has gone too far. We’re seeing towns get taken over by short-term rentals such as Airbnb and Vrbo. We’re seeing developers with no personal ties to a neighborhood put up buildings with no thought for the community. And they can do this because they have the money."
"The result has been the depersonalization of an incredibly intimate experience: home."
Grace decided to share her story on TikTok because she'd heard about the same kind of increases happening across the city and knew others would be able to relate. In the comments, plenty of people pointed out the sheer callousness (and ridiculousness) of the situation.
To get some help with her rent situation, Grace said she contacted Southside United HDFC - Los Sures, a community organizing group that advocates for tenants' rights in the South Williamsburg area. After ordering the rental history for her unit, they discovered that Grace's apartment was actually rent-stabilized, and her landlord couldn't legally raise the rent $700 per month like they claimed. Grace then filed a DHCR overcharge complaint against the rent increase.
Lulu Kirtchuk, a representative for Southside United HFDC - Los Sures, spoke to BuzzFeed and explained that Grace's story is just one of many in their neighborhood, mostly due to the gentrification that's been happening in the area. "South Williamsburg, more communally known as Los Sures, is originally an immigrant, Hispanic-based neighborhood. As we know, Williamsburg has become one of the most rapidly gentrified neighborhoods in New York City, essentially ground zero other than maybe the Lower East Side (also originally Puerto Rican). North Williamsburg, as we can see now, is almost completely developed, equipped with Whole Foods, CorePower Yoga, and buildings that cover the skyline. South Williamsburg is slowly but surely on its way to becoming its neighbor."
"What we’re seeing in Los Sures is an uprise of 'transplants' moving into rent-stabilized units without knowing what rent-stabilized units are," Lulu told BuzzFeed. "Therefore, the landlord kicks out low-income tenants who are able to pay the rent-stabilized rent, and they move in tenants (usually white) who will pay a rent double than what it’s supposed to be without checking. It’s all kinds of discrimination, whether racial or economic. This then leads to rent-stabilized units, which are only supposed to go up by very small increments (1%-5%), becoming the equivalent to market rate apartments, which have absolutely no regulations and can be raised by any amount."
"These apartments are not de-stabilized, but rather the issue tends to be that transplants do not actually need these apartments, so they move out after a couple of years rather than staying and advocating for fair rent for themselves and the next tenant. And so the cycle continues, the rent goes up an exorbitant amount, and low-income tenants and transplants move out alike."
Grace's story fits into this cycle, according to Lulu, but the difference is that she reached out to learn more about her and her neighbors' rights. In New York, "No one can file anything against [the landlord] or report it other than the tenant in the unit that is being taken advantage of. So, unfortunately — what a lot of advocates and activists have tried to change — the onus has yet to be lifted off the tenants, and put on the government, or anybody other than individuals who are renting, for them to prosecute their landlords."
Although this situation is beyond frustrating, it's not isolated to New York City. Across the US, rental prices continue to rise, and millions of Americans are feeling the strain. According to a report from Redfin, the median monthly asking rent surpassed $2,000 for the first time ever in May 2022. Grace told BuzzFeed that she received comments on her TikTok from people in rural areas experiencing the exact same thing she was dealing with. "It makes you wonder — who is the housing market for? Who is this system working for?"
Despite the help she received from Southside United, Grace ultimately decided to leave her apartment and move back to Texas to be closer to family. "I’ve wrestled with my disappointment in not being able to stay and fight, but I take comfort knowing how many more people are aware of their rights just by way of having seen my video. I also plan to talk to everyone in my building about my increase so they’re prepared and have the resources they need to unionize."
When asked what she thinks needs to change in order to prevent something like this from happening in the future, Grace responded, "While I don’t have the perfect regulatory plan drawn up just yet, I do believe housing is a human right and I’d like to see more protections for the individual — the individual renter and the individual mortgage holder, because I recognize mortgage inflation is a huge part of the problem."
"Your biggest asset — in times of challenge and regarding the overall quality of your life — is the strength of your community," she concluded. "Form a tenant’s union with the neighbors in your building so your landlords and property management companies know you are a united front. Get to know your neighbors and support each other in the good and the bad. And if you’re moved by this story, consider donating to or volunteering with your local community organizers. We have more power than we think."