The 33-story high rise at 515 West 59th Street — where two Mount Sinai St. Luke’s physicians died by jumping off its roof in less than two years — is rat and roach infested. It has units with warped floors due to water leaks, brown debris coming out of faucets, with maintenance requests often going unanswered for weeks.
And now, Mount Sinai, which owns the building and has been criticized for doing little to address the wellness and quality of life concerns of its doctors since Dr. Deelshad Joomun leapt to her death in January, is finally taking action — by raising the rent 40% on their residents' housing.
“Sinai says they are focused on resident wellness given recent events but this kind of flies in the face of that,” Myles*, a second-year resident told Refinery29.
The increase, physicians told Refinery29, completely misses the point and may even make things worse. Not only will it make incoming first-year residents rent-burdened (anytime an individual's rent is more than 30% of their gross annual income), it will essentially destroy the sense of community and support network so many Mount Sinai residents rely on, as many will simply not be able to afford to live among peers anymore.
Though 515 has been the scene of much heartache for many Mount Sinai physicians, it also has been a refuge. The building is a place where residents know that they only need to take a short elevator ride to access the comfort of a colleague who knows exactly what a grueling 16-hour shift entails. The close proximity of the building to the hospital also saves overtired residents the stress of an unpredictable New York City commute.
Presently, studio apartments in the building range from $1,402 to 1,607 a month. The most expensive two-bedroom units go for $3,800.
Under the new rent hike, incoming residents will pay $1,947 to $2,224 for a studio and up to $4,500 for a two-bedroom apartment, documents obtained by Refinery29 confirm.
The rent will undoubtedly be a suffocating financial burden to many first-year Mount Sinai interns, who will be making roughly $62,000 a year before taxes. While there's no data for this year, the average medical student in 2016 graduated with $190,000 in debt. It's likely to be more for students graduating this year.
One current resident found out about the rent hike while giving a tour of the hospital to prospective residents. “I looked in their packets and I saw the rent they were quoted and it was $500 more than I’m paying now. I thought there was a mistake. Nobody told us about this,” she said, adding that the subsidized housing is a major draw for those applying to the residency program.
In a statement to Refinery29, a Mount Sinai spokeswoman refuted the idea that the rent hike is unfair: “Mount Sinai housing options are significantly below market rates and we also provide rent subsidies to our students who utilize hospital housing. Our housing for new tenants has increased 3-5% which is standard in New York. Increases above that can be attributed to the fact that a previous tenant occupied the unit for a long period of time and the new rate reflects that of other tenants.”
Sinai’s statement is incredibly misleading because resident physicians who are members of the Committee of Interns and Residents union and currently live in 515 contractually cannot have their rent raised more than 5% of what they are paying now. Under this loophole, once new residents move into the building and are members of CIR, their rent will not be raised more than 5% of the new, inflated price, without a comparable increase in salary.
Refinery29 asked hospital administration if the rent increase would go towards renovations or safety upgrades in the building. A spokeswoman did not address the question.
While the median rent for a studio apartment in the Lincoln Square neighborhood where the hospital and apartment building are located is $2,595 a month according to Street Easy, many residents argue that 515 is not up to market value. The building has little to no amenities compared to the surrounding luxury high rises and there are units with vermin and other pests. Many units are missing functioning smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
“We're highly specialized people with a huge amount of debt that we have to work, like almost indentured servitude salaries just so that we can complete our training and be full-fledged independent physicians,” Myles said.
Beyond financial worries, current residents of 515 raised their concerns on the impact the rent increase will have on the wellbeing of physicians — and also on the quality of care patients will receive — at meetings with Mount Sinai administrators and their union representatives.
“I brought up multiple times at a labor relations meetings that this is an issue for patient safety,” Myles told Refinery29, noting the fact that many residents have to take home-call shifts, where they have to be near the hospital in case they need to be called in. “After you work a 14 to 16 hour day and then you have an hour commute back and forth, that just leaves less time for sleep, leaves less time for basic self care. If you’re completely exhausted and completely burnt out, you’re more likely to make a mistake and you’re more likely to harm a patient.”
Another resident echoed those concerns. “I think it contradicts [Mount Sinai's] statement that they’re concerned for resident wellness, especially given the recent loss of one of our colleagues," she told Refinery29.
Other residents who Refinery29 talked with lamented how living within close proximity to their colleagues has been essential to their wellbeing and that the prospect of having that taken away from them is disheartening.
Residents even created a petition calling out Mount Sinai CEO Ken Davis directly, imploring him to reverse the decision to increase the rent.
“We cannot understand how at such a vulnerable and critical time Mt. Sinai can justify increasing the cost of resident housing by 30-40% and increasing our salaries by only 2%,” the petition reads. “Every day we see the effects on our patient's who are making tough choices between paying the rent and other bills, and forcing residents into the same predicament is shameful."
Davis — who reportedly makes over $4 million a year — did not respond to Refinery29’s request for comment.
Residents' appeals fell on deaf ears. “[Hospital administration] was very defensive and just really not open to hearing how we’re living in these buildings,” one resident who attended one of the labor relations meetings told Refinery29. “I don’t really think we were meeting with the people who could effect that sort of change,” another added. “They said they would kind of run it up the totem pole. At that point, it’s kind of a done deal.”
*Name has been changed to protect the resident's identity.
This story was originally published on March 7, 2018 at 12:05 p.m. It has since been updated.