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How the Rent Battle Was Lost

A.K Gupta Sep 9, 2003

The housing-rights group Tenants and Neighbors called it a”sneak attack,” referring to the bill renewing rent regulation that was passed by the New York State Legislature on June 20.

In 1997 rent laws were renewed for six years for 2 million rent-regulated apartments throughout the state. That bill extended”vacancy decontrol,” whereby apartments that rent for more than $2,000 are deregulated, thus enabling landlords to charge whatever they wish. Since then, tenants and landlords have been organizing in preparation for when the laws would expire this past June 19.

The goal of tenants-rights activists was to end vacancy decontrol. Instead, with a public distracted by war and the state budget battle, activists struggled to publicize their message. During the past four years, meanwhile, wealthy landlords dumped $2.7 million on politicians in Albany to gut regulation.

The new bill jumps rent for thousands of tenants, strengthens the Urstadt Law, which prevents the city from enacting pro-tenant legislation, and most damaging, continues vacancy decontrol. The result, explains Tenants and Neighbors, will be”the deregulation of hundreds of thousands of apartments and the drastic shrinking of the tenant political base.” The group explains if nothing changes before the rent laws expire in 2011, it’s likely”everyone will be deregulated.”

The question on the minds of millions of New Yorkers who depend on rent regulation for affordable housing is: how did such a flawed bill pass into law when it was known for six years that there would be a showdown in the legislature?

To get answers, I talked to a long-time observer of the tenants-rights movement. David, not his real name, says”First, it’s important to understand that rent stabilization is not just about money. It means the right to renew your lease automatically and that you can only be evicted for cause.”

I asked him what happened in the legislature. He explained that the Democratic-controlled Assembly passed a bill that would have eliminated the $2,000 decontrol and lowered vacancy increases passed in 1997 from 20 percent to 10 percent. But this bill was never voted on in the Republican-majority Senate. They blocked efforts to bring it to the floor. At 3 a.m. on literally the last night of the session Senate Majority leader Joe Bruno pushed through the pro-landlord legislation.”

He says,”New York State has one of the most dysfunctional lawmaking processes in the country. Nothing gets done until the last minute when Bruno, Gov. Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver sit in a back room to work things out.” Consequently, David continues,”whether or not people in the city can afford to have homes is in the hands of upstate Republicans whose only connection to the city is the money they take from landlords.”

Once the Senate passed the bill and adjourned for the summer,”The Assembly could have rejected the Senate’s bill, but that would have meant the laws would have expired. Letting the laws expire would have crystallized the issue but many people would have gotten hurt.”

Tenants and Neighbors contends”the Assembly could have called the Senate’s bluff and worked with tenants to bring the Senate back into negotiations, and no tenant could have been harmed for several weeks.”

But David says”It’s ironic that Tenants and Neighbors is saying the Assembly should have rejected the bill because they have gotten a lot of criticism for compromising.” He explained that the group tends to favor pressuring lawmakers over movement building.

Many people put their trust in Sheldon Silver, but the only way to strengthen rent laws”was to use the budget as leverage and Silver didn’t do that.” He suggests,”The Assembly should have said that Bruno’s district wouldn’t get a penny for anything, schools, firemen or cops, until rent laws were passed.”

The media, too, shares blame.”The mainstream media is largely ignoring that there is a housing crisis in the city and dismisses rent regulation as an outdated socialist relic.”

David adds that unions abandoned their members.”How many teachers live in rent-stabilized apartments? The teachers’ union has no business endorsing Pataki, which they did in 2002. Or 1199, one of the most progressive unions in the state, they also endorsed Pataki. The unions should stick up for their members’ rights to housing rather than selling out to right-wing politicians for token raises.”

He says that”Another tenants-rights group, Metropolitan Council on Housing, is going to campaign for repealing Urstadt because if the city had control over rent regulation it would be much stronger.” However,”To overturn Urstadt would require the approval of the Republican Senate. It’s not impossible, but the amount of real-estate money that comes into the Republican Party and the control Bruno has over the Senate means that’s unlikely to happen.” (Since 1999, Bruno and his committees have received at least $836,000 from landlords.)

What’s needed is”strong grassroots organizing. But the tenant rights movement does not have 5,000 people to go door-to-door getting people involved. And in 1997, you had this demonstration five days before the laws expire, it was at five o’clock in midtown so people coming out of work could come, and you only had 1,200 people.”

He criticizes the focus on electing pro-tenant legislators, who he estimates at 20 percent of the legislature, because the “system is rigged” so Republicans control the Senate. David opines tenants may have to start doing extra-legal and militant tactics, like large-scale rent strikes simply for cheaper rent. Obviously that’s very risky because you don’t want all your possessions thrown into a dumpster.”

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