Why Does Albany Decide Your Rent?

Ann Schneider Sep 9, 2003

In recent hearings for the extension of the rent control and rent stabilization laws, tenants demanded the repeal of a notoriously anti-democratic 1971 state statute, known as the Urstadt Law, which removed rent laws from home rule and required any change in rent statutes to be voted upon in Albany. Ironically, in the final hours of this summer’s legislative session, the Urstadt Law was actually strengthened to the detriment of New York City tenants.

Named after Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s housing commissioner Charles J. Urstadt, the Urstadt Law prohibits the New York City Council from enacting”more stringent or restrictive provisions of regulation and control than those presently in effect” without state approval. Given the relative scarcity of tenants in upstate counties, lawmakers in Albany hear far fewer tenant demands than council members do in the city. Passage of the Urstadt Law has thus put city tenants at a permanent disadvantage in the fight to maintain affordable housing.

The effect of strengthening the Urstadt Law is that none of the pro-tenant legislation being considered by the New York City Council can now become law.

Recently, two significant pieces of local legislation were pending. The first, with 24 co-sponsors, would have reformed the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) to make appointment of its members subject to the approval of the City Council. They are presently appointed solely by the Mayor. The RGB is the body that hears testimony and deliberates each year how much to raise (or theoretically lower) rents charged to rent-stabilized tenants.

The second piece of local legislation would have changed the rent increase formula for rent-controlled tenants in an effort to give them relief from the 7.5 percent increases and fuel pass-alongs each year.

As redrafted, Urstadt now restricts any municipality from changing the way rent laws are administered by the state, apparently in response to a December 2001 decision by the state’s highest court that a local law passed by the New York City Council did not violate Urstadt. The landlord’s bar was seeking a 32.4 percent increase for rent-controlled apartments.

In that case, the landlord’s bar argued to the Court of Appeals that the 1997 local law changing one element of the complex formula for setting rents in rent-controlled apartments violated Urstadt.

Chief Justice Judith Kaye wrote for the majority,”We cannot accept the landlord’s argument that the Urstadt Law was intended to give them a vested interest in overvaluation… nor that the State Legislature intended to prohibit the City Council from later adopting another, more accurate, equalization scheme. …Local Law 73 preserves the regulatory scheme while restoring congruence between the statutory measure of capital value and the actual value of rent controlled buildings that the State Legislature took for granted when it passed the Urstadt Law.”

Rather than take their chances with an independent judiciary, the landlord’s lobby again sought to preempt the courts, tenant advocates and their local elected representatives by stealthy, late-night dealings behind closed doors in Albany.

The National Lawyers Guild, NYC chapter, may be reached at 212.679.6018. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the position of the organization as a whole.

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