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Spitzer’s Real Deal

Bennett Baumer Aug 30, 2006

After months of promises, Democratic frontrunner for governor Eliot Spitzer elaborated on his thin housing platform in a roundtable discussion with tenant organizers on Aug. 16. Spitzer has been coasting on high poll numbers as a gaggle of Democrats try to curry favor with his campaign. Dems from the conservative Ed Koch to progressive pro-choice groups have endorsed Spitzer. The only problem is that Spitzer is reluctant to take strong positions that protect tenants and which offend the real-estate industry.

Spitzer’s non-commitment on core issues to tenants, like “home rule” over rent and eviction laws and strengthening rent regulation and affordable housing programs, have irked tenant groups, long shutout from Gov. Pataki’s Albany.

Spitzer said he wants to lift the $2,000 vacancy de-control threshold on rent stabilized apartments and tie it to the cost of living. Currently, a landlord can de-control an apartment when the rent surpasses $2,000 and there is a vacancy. The problem with Spitzer’s proposal is that a landlord can jack up the rent by 20 percent each time someone moves out of a stabilized apartment. Once an apartment hits $2,000 it’s not affordable to many tenants. Once de-controlled, the sky is the limit for the rent and there are fewer tenant protections.

Spitzer has committed to cracking down on slumlords by allowing more autonomy on a local level to set up administrative tribunals. Ostensibly, the tribunals would rein in slumlords who refuse to make repairs by making them pay fines through methods similar to paying for parking tickets.

The measure would be “a good step,” according to Jeanie Dubnau of Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association, even though “[tribunals] don’t impact much on affordability.”

However, if Spitzer really wanted to protect the city’s rent stabilized stock, he would END de-control of regulated apartments and expand rent regulation to all rental apartments. It’s ironic that Spitzer favors more local autonomy on cracking down on slumlords, but doesn’t trust local governments to have control over rent and eviction laws. Tenant groups made this message clear when they shut down the Rent Guidelines Board hearing in June. New York City Council members are more accountable to the city’s voters than upstate rural and suburban lawmakers. At the roundtable, Loretta Burns from Coalition for the Homeless pressed Spitzer on home rule, but he did not offer to support it.

Equally troubling are statements from his campaign manager, Ryan Toohey said in The Real Deal, a real estate publication. “Eliot has always had a particular understanding and affinity for the real estate industry because it’s in his blood… [I]f he wasn’t doing what he is doing now, he’d be in real estate.” Spitzer’s father is a millionaire real estate developer.

Spitzer did score points with tenants when he pledged to enforce rent laws and criticized the state housing agency – one reason tenant advocates are strident about home rule. He also gave lip service to Mitchell-Lama residents, whose landlords are scheming to take them out of the affordable housing program. His shining moment was pledging state money (currently it kicks in nothing) for operating subsidies for public housing, though there are no plans to build more public housing.

Bennett Baumer is a tenant organizer with the Metropolitan Council on Housing. To contact visit MetCouncil.net or Bennett@MetCouncil.net