Home Rule Saves Homes

Bennett Baumer Jun 13, 2006

Tenant advocates want to restore home rule (self-government) over rent and eviction laws to New York City so it can address the affordable housing crisis.

The city government has not been able to strengthen rent controls or tenant protections since 1971, when the state Urstadt law was enacted. Part of then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s disastrous and short-lived elimination of rent controls on vacant apartments, the law barred local governments from imposing rent or eviction regulations stronger than the state’s. And since 1971, the state government has steadily weakened its rent laws.

It has raised vacancy rent increases to 20 percent and dramatically diminished both tenants’ rights to challenge illegally high rents and state enforcement against such overcharges.

Tenant-rights groups believe that the city council would be more accountable to renters’ votes than upstate and suburban lawmakers. Albany’s control of rent laws enables the real estate industry to circumvent New York City’s large bloc of tenant voters. The majority of state legislators do not have a single rent-regulated tenant in their districts. Landlords and their lobbying groups send hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund upstate Republicans and pro-landlord Democrats’ electoral campaigns.

These politicians are beholden to landlord contributions and completely unaccountable to tenants: New York City residents can’t vote them out.

There are more than two million people living in the one million rent regulated (stabilized and controlled) apartments in New York City. Landlords can gain immense amounts of money by evicting regulated tenants, doing minor touch ups or major renovations, and jacking the rents up. And once a regulated apartment passes $2,000 a month, the landlord can decontrol the unit, taking it out of rent regulation, and charge sky-high rents.

Rent stabilization was created to secure housing for the working and middle classes and has been slowly gutted. The result is that the affordability crisis in New York is now extreme. More than half of rent-regulated tenants – whose median income is $32,000 a year – pay at least 30 percent of their income for rent, and an astonishing 29 percent pay half or more.

Tenant incomes have remained stagnant or have fallen in recent years, while rents keep going up. Home rule in New York City is not the cure to the housing crisis, but it’s a start. With home rule, the city government could end the decontrol of vacant apartments, cut or abolish vacancy increases, enforce the laws against illegal overcharges and expand rent regulation to all apartments.

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