For around 70 years, Anthony Paratore’s family has leased the yard beside his simple brick row house under the Hell Gate Bridge from the federal government.
The yard, which sits beneath the bridge’s towering, ivied trusses, is unusually rural for this suburb east of Astoria Park: It’s 3,300 square feet of lush bushes and wild grass, complete with a work shed and a picnic table. Since the 1940s, the government has leased this parcel and others to residents for nominal fees in return for the land’s maintenance. Over decades, lessees have converted the spaces to driveways and yards with gardens, pools and swing sets.
But, in early August, Amtrak, the government-owned passenger rail company that now owns the land, sent Paratore a letter declaring that the rent on his yard would rise by over 100,000 percent, from $25 a year to $26,550. The letter also said that if he didn’t accept the increased rate within 30 days, his lease would be terminated.
At least five leaseholders received near-identical letters from Amtrak stating the rent on their properties would rise from between $20 and $50 per year to rates between $25,000 and $45,000.
Now, however, a spokesperson from New York State Assembly Member Aravella Simotas’ office has said that Amtrak has suspended the 30-day deadline following media attention and involvement in the rent negotiations by national, state and local representatives.
Additionally, at least three leaseholders have received counteroffers amounting to less than nine percent of their original offers, according to lessees and their immediate family members.
At a press conference on August 25th, Simotas, Congressman Joseph Crowley and City Councilman Costa Constantinides decried the initial rent increases by Amtrak as an unethical attempt to extract money from residents.
Those representatives, along with State Senator Michael Gianaris, sent a joint letter to Amtrak the next day calling for them to rescind the 30-day deadline and amend the residents’ offers to reflect the “time, hard-earned money, and love that they have poured into maintaining the area.”
“We do everything. That sidewalk has got to be scraped every winter,” said Paratore. “We got to pay for the fence that’s around it. We got to upkeep it and keep it nice and clean and everything. They should be paying us.”
The counteroffers, while considerably lower, are still many times what the leaseholders have paid for decades. Paratore’s family received a counteroffer of $1,660.
“Sixteen hundred dollars is still a lot of money for us. We’re getting on in age… Most of us [lessees] are retired now,” said Mary Brown, Paratore’s cousin and housemate. “Sixteen hundred dollars—that might sound real cheap these days, but—you know what?—it’s not when you’re working on a fixed income.”
Brown also says that, if they lose their yard, they might have to move depending on how Amtrak uses the land.
“If Amtrak takes that property over and decides to build whatever—a junkyard or a storage area for train cars—what’s going to happen to the value of our house?” Brown said. “I don’t want to have to move. This house has been in our family for years and passed down from generation to generation.”
A spokesperson from Crowley’s office said Amtrak has a record of maintaining its properties poorly and that negligence had brought Crowley and other representatives to work with a nonprofit to cover graffiti underneath the Hell Gate Bridge.
When asked to comment on negotiations, an Amtrak spokesperson said, “Amtrak continues to work directly with leaseholders to bring this to a satisfactory and equitable conclusion.”
Following the August 25th press conference, Amtrak explained in statements to reporters that its real estate department had recently reviewed its asset portfolio and found several lessees who had not seen rent increases in more than 7o years. For that reason, Amtrak said, it was changing rates to reflect “fair market value.”
Yet, officials and residents have speculated that Amtrak raised rents partly because some leaseholders have breached their contracts by using their land commercially to rent parking spaces. These suspicions are driven by the fact that, though a limited number of leaseholders received letters, Amtrak owns approximately 30 parcels west of 29th Street in Queens.
Across the street from Brown is a house that stands beside what appears to be a parking lot under the Hell Gate Bridge. The owner of the house is a limited liability company, which is in turn owned by Bill Kartsonis.
Kartsonis admits he has used his company’s lease from Amtrak to rent parking spaces. However, he denied in an interview that he’s violating the terms of his lease.
Google Street View images from February 2013 show a sign advertising parking spaces for rent posted to the front of the house.
The sign can still be seen in images taken at the press conference on August 25th. However, it has since been removed.