By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On June 1, Tony and Liz Colacino will celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary. While etiquette calls for gifts of gold or emeralds, the Colacinos' landlords regaled the octogenarians with a present more suited to newlyweds, who traditionally mark their first married year with paper. They sent a letter ordering the tenants to triple their rent payments or clear out.
"It is our intention to bring the monthly rent for your apartment immediately to fair market value," wrote Eugene and Michelle Kaleniak, who last month bought the three-story Carroll Gardens building where the Colacinos have lived since 1974. The Kaleniaks proclaimed that on June 1, the Colacinos' $400 rent would become $1200. "If you cannot afford this rent," they continued, "please contact us to make arrangements to vacate the apartment."
"That's a good anniversary present I got from him," Tony Colacino, an 80-year-old retired city highway worker, said wryly last week. His 83-year-old wife was still stunned by the letter, although she got it nearly a month ago. "Just like that, 'Get out,' " says Liz Colacino. "We've lived here 25 years, we've taken care of this house, and now he just wants to make money from us. It's too bad about him."
Late last week, Eugene Kaleniak seemed to have a change of heart, telling the Voice he would "settle for lower rent. I'm not interested in putting anyone out." Kaleniak, 35, owns six other Brooklyn properties and is vice president of the Park Slope Brewing Company. "The fact is, I have a mortgage to pay. But we're going to work something out." But hours later, Kaleniak served the Colacinos with eviction papers. Neither he nor his wife returned calls to explain why.
Kaleniak may be putting the squeeze on the Colacinos to help him out of a bad business deal. In court papers filed in December, Kaleniak swore he was "facing financial ruin" because his partners in a Fort Greene bar, Brooklyn Mod, have shut him out and run up bills in his name. The case is pending. Kaleniak would not explain how he could be in financial peril in December but able to buy a building four months later.
At press time, the Colacinos' fate was unclear, but it is unlikely they will escape an ordeal that regularly threatens seniors citywide: being priced out of their apartments when boom markets inflate values in sleepy neighborhoods. The problem is acute in buildings with six or fewer units because unless tenants have lived there at least 28 years they have no protection from rent laws. Instead, landlords are free to charge whatever they want, owing tenants only a 30-day notice.
"There really isn't much that they can do," says Donna Dougherty of Queens Legal Services for the Elderly. "I can't tell you how many times I hear, 'But I'm a senior citizen, and no judge will put me out.' I have to tell them, the judge may be sympathetic, but there's no legal basis to let you stay." The most tenants can hope for is a six-month extension in court useless in the face of multiyear waiting lists for senior housing and dried-up federal rent subsidies. The city's Department of Aging can only offer a list of possibly available apartments. "These people just have to pick up their entire lives," says Dougherty. "What is already a tight market for you and me is impossible for them."
In Brooklyn, the market has turned the dilemma into "an epidemic," says Emma Mercado, an aide to state Assembly Member Joan Millman. "Where are these people going to go?" she asks. Benjamin Dulchin of the Park Slope nonprofit Fifth Avenue Committee says his office has handled at least 20 cases since November. "We've sort of been rocked back on our heels by this," he says. "People are just screwed."
Problems can arise even before a building is sold. "I have two Cuban sisters in their seventies who have lived in a building for 25 years, and the landlord is asking them every day, 'Did you find someplace to move yet?' " says Mercado. "He wants them out so he can sell the building and deliver it vacant. These women can't climb stairs and want a first-floor apartment for $700. They're not going to find it."
Some seniors are in a spot because for years landlords were happy to collect low rents. Brooklyn City Council member Stephen DiBrienza notes that such landlords and tenants are often peers and longtime neighbors in buildings where mortgages were paid off and bloated rent rolls unnecessary. When landlords die or sell, says DiBrienza, properties bring "astronomical" prices a building like the Colacinos', at 291 Court Street, typically sells for $500,000 and steep rents are required.
Trouble can also start when a landlord's children take over. "I had a 78-year-old blind lady evicted by her landlord's son simply because he could," says Dulchin. "She was paying $500 a month and he wanted $1200. All we could negotiate was more time for her to get out."
Dulchin's office is working with churches and synagogues to form a "closed-loop system" to match congregants who have apartments to rent with those facing eviction. DiBrienza suggests the city build its own senior housing, and contemplate mirroring a subsidy program that is available for seniors in rent-regulated buildings.