Seventeen previously rent-stabilized apartments in Cristina Ramirez’s Harlem building haven’t been registered with the state since 2018. Her legal team says her case is illustrative of the need for greater enforcement of New York’s rent laws.

Dashiell Allen

Cristina Ramirez in her Harlem apartment, next to photos of her late husband Jacobo Villano Pardo, a delivery worker who died in a February bike crash.

Since Cristina Ramirez moved to New York City 15 years ago from Guerrero, Mexico, she has lived in the same Harlem apartment.

It’s a small two-bedroom unit where she would gather with friends and family for Christmas, New Year’s, and birthday parties. It’s where she cooks massive quantities of tamales and spicy Mexican chicken soup. It’s also where she lived when two of her three children were born, including her now 1-year-old daughter.

To her, the apartment is not just four walls—it’s a home where she and her late husband, Jacobo Villano Pardo, built most of their U.S.-based adult life. Pardo, a food delivery worker, was killed in February in a cycling crash. “We have many memories here,” Ramirez told City Limits in Spanish. “Nothing fancy—just cutting the cake [on special occasions], and eating together as a family.”

But in the middle of 2022, Ramirez received a petition of nonpayment from her landlord, Royal Management LLC, stating that she owed over $12,000 in back rent and demanding her removal if she did not pay it within 30 days. This came as a surprise, according to Ramirez and her legal team, who said she’s always paid her rent on time and has the receipts to prove it.

“I have suffered too much for this apartment and I’m still suffering now,” Ramirez said. 

When Legal Services NYC took on her case, they said they discovered that not only did Ramirez not owe the thousands her landlord wanted to collect—she was actually facing a massive overcharge. That’s because a rent reduction order for her stabilized apartment has been in place since 2003, due to alleged lack of maintenance.

Legal experts who spoke with City Limits see the nonpayment notice Ramirez received as a form of harassment. Her story is also an example, they said, of how some landlords are still skirting rent stabilization laws despite 2019 state reforms intended to better protect tenants, and the need for stronger enforcement at a time when the city is in desperate need of affordable housing.

Unregistered units

This isn’t the first time Royal Management has accused Ramirez of owing rent she claims she already paid. Back in 2021, the company attempted to evict her, demanding she pay over $28,000 in back rent she said she didn’t owe, court documents show. That case was later discontinued.

Ramirez’s lawyer, Erica Braudy, alleges these two cases are examples of tenant harassment—starting a “baseless court proceeding” with the hope Ramirez would vacate the unit, according to court documents.

Jonathan Rubin, a representative for Royal Management, declined to discuss the situation when reached by phone. “We don’t comment on cases that are ongoing, but we are actively working towards a resolution with the tenant’s attorney,” Rubin told City Limits.

Ramirez’s apartment is supposed to be rent stabilized, according to her rent history, meaning the owners can’t raise rents beyond rates set each year by the Rent Guidelines Board. New York City property owners are also required each April to register their stabilized units and rent prices with the New York Division of Housing and Community Renewal (HCR), the agency that oversees rent stabilization—records that are used to ensure landlords aren’t overcharging tenants.

But Royal Management hasn’t registered any unit in Ramirez’s building with HCR since 2018. Department of Finance tax records indicate that 17 apartments in her building were registered with HCR that year, but none have been listed in the years since.

The rent history for Rameriz’s individual apartment reveals what her attorney calls an “unreasonable and unlawful jump in the rent” on two occasions without justifying the increase, including a whopping 131 percent rent hike between 2005 and 2006, when her two brothers lived in the unit, according to court documents.

But Ramirez isn’t just being overcharged under rent-stabilization laws—Legal Services NYC alleges she’s only supposed to be paying $455.18 a month due to a rent reduction order, reviewed by City Limits, that’s been in place on her apartment since 2003. Her current rent is $1,735 a month, 381 percent more than that.*

Legal Services NYC filed a motion on April 6 on Ramirez’s behalf seeking “a monetary judgment on overcharge claims in the amount of $279,340.26,” court filings show.

The rent reduction order was due to a gaping hole in the bathroom ceiling that went unfixed for more than a decade. Her family had to time their showers to avoid water and debris pouring down from the apartment above, Ramirez recalled. The hole wasn’t fixed until this past January, after she had obtained pro-bono legal representation.

Dashiell Allen

A cell phone photo displaying a hole in Cristina Ramirez’s bathroom, the reason behind a rent reduction order at her unit since 2003, her legal team said.

The city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) currently lists 19 open class C “immediately hazardous” violations in Ramirez’s building, including evidence of roaches, a water leak and a lack of painting in Ramirez’s apartment.

Braudy said stories like Ramirez’s aren’t uncommon. 

Between 2019 and 2021, the number of rent-stabilized units recorded in New York City declined steeply—the result, advocates say, of landlords like Ramirez’s failing to register tens of thousands of apartments with HCR following the passage of rent regulation reforms (one landlord group, however, told news site The City that the drop was merely a result of owners who were late in filing their paperwork).

Failure to register units with HCR means many tenants might not know that they’re living in an apartment that’s supposed to be rent-stabilized or that has a massive rent-reduction order in place, said Cecilia MacArthur, a law graduate at Legal Services NYC who has worked extensively on Ramirez’s case.

Tenants have to individually request their own rental history, and even when they do, “a lot of people don’t know how to read them [or] don’t know how to check whether or not they’re being overcharged,” MacArthur said.

“So I think there is probably some incentive … to get a rent stabilized tenant out, increase the rent illegally, have someone new move in, and then just hope that they don’t check that they’re being charged for the legal rent,” she added. Even if a tenant does realize they’re being overcharged, “it’s quite a scary prospect to sue your landlord and to withhold your rent and risk being taken to court.”

A lack of oversight around rent stabilization laws, Braudy said, means property owners who break the rules often face little to no consequences. “Unfortunately there still is an incentive to get rent stabilized tenants out, even though under the law there really shouldn’t be an incentive,” Braudy said

To make it easier to tell if a building owner is complying with rent regulations, Braudy thinks rent history records for all units “should be available and accessible online,” and that government agencies should do more to enforce the rules so the onus isn’t on tenants alone.

“It is on tenants and organizers, and attorneys to hold landlords accountable when they don’t register their units,” said Lucy Block, a senior research and data associate at the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development. “I have never heard that there is any active enforcement by HCR.”

When asked for comment, HCR referred to its 2022 report in which Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas vowed “to do everything within our power to ensure the laws governing rent regulation are strictly enforced.” HCR’s tenant protection unit has recaptured and registered 95,000 improperly deregulated apartments, the agency said. 

“No tool in our toolbox will go unused—proactive audits, investigations, and other enforcement activities will be coupled with the continued improvement of our service platforms so we can best serve New Yorkers,” Visnauskas said.

Dashiell Allen

Jacobo Villano Pardo died in a February bike crash in Riverside Park.

A tragic loss

At the same time she’s fighting to stay in her apartment, Ramirez is also mourning the death of her husband, Jacobo Villano Pardo, a delivery worker who also worked in a restaurant’s kitchen.

The sole breadwinner in the family, he died in a crash in February while riding his bike in Riverside Park. 

“We didn’t have a lot of money but we were a happy, united family,” Ramirez said. She recalls fondly how glad and willing her husband was to help her out with everyday tasks, like taking out the laundry or going to the grocery store.

“He’d always say let’s go out, let’s go out for a walk,” she said. “He loved to make barbecues, and to play with [our friends and family’s] children.” 

The couple planned to one day retire together back in Mexico, where they were both born in neighboring towns just a half-hour drive apart. He’s from the town of Tlapa de Comonfort. In their living room, stacks of chairs and a little cart in the corner are evidence of the get-togethers they used to host along the Hudson River. 

“We have always supported each other. I picked up his children, he picked up my children,” said Josephina Ramirez, a family friend who lives just two blocks away. She recalled that Pardo brought her food during the pandemic when she was afraid to go outside because her daughter was undergoing intensive cancer treatment. 

Ramirez doesn’t want to leave her apartment because this neighborhood—Harlem in the west 140s—is where she’s found a community that’s stepped up to support her. In the days after her husband died, her brother Victor Ramirez and other family friends came together to raise enough money to repatriate his body back to Guerrero, where it’s now buried.

“They all put in their tiny grain of sand and I’m grateful for that,” Ramirez said. 

She’s also raised over $20,000 through a GoFundMe started by her cousin, Itzel Empbarrios, which will go towards paying the rent while her case is still ongoing in housing court, as well as other living expenses. 

Ramirez used to sell artisanal goods and tamales on the street, but stopped after she was harassed by the police for not having a permit in early 2020. A stack of boxes in her living room contain items ranging from shoes to clothing, all shipped from Mexico, that she still plans to sell sometime in the future. 

Her housing court case is adjourned by a judge until May 28. MacArthur, the law graduate from Legal Services NYC working on her case, says they’re hoping she can get a payment for all the years she’s allegedly been overcharged on rent. 

Ramirez may never have been aware of those charges if she hadn’t lucked out in getting legal representation. Despite a city law intended to guarantee access to housing attorneys for low-income tenants at risk of eviction, many New Yorkers continue to head to housing court alone.

In fact, the day Ramirez came into MacArthur’s office “we were on intake pause, meaning that we were taking absolutely no cases. But her case was egregious enough that we decided to take it on,” she said. 

Ramirez wants to stay in her apartment because of the life she’s built in it, but even more so for her children, especially her 11-year-old son Eduardo. 

“He has so many memories here,” she said. “Sometimes I say we should move and he says, ‘No, no don’t worry, when I grow up I’m going to work to help you pay the rent.’ And I tell him, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to pay the rent. You just worry about going to school.'”

*This story was updated after initial publication to correct this percentage.