Spitzer Dribbles Out Rent Help

Steven Wishnia May 21, 2007

By Steven Wishnia

Governor Eliot Spitzer has proposed raising the level at which vacant apartments are deregulated from the current $2,000 a month to $2,800. As modest as this move is, it would be the first pro-tenant change in the rent-stabilization laws to come out of Albany in more than 15 years.

The proposal would revise regulations enacted in 1993 and expanded in 1997 — despite loud protests from tenant groups — that let landlords deregulate vacant apartments where the rent is $2,000 a month or more. It would also apply to occupied rent-stabilized apartments above $2,000, which can be deregulated if the household income is more than $175,000 a year, or if the tenant fails to send the landlord the proper income-declaration forms.

Deregulation means more than just eliminating limits on the rent. It also removes the tenant protections provided by rent stabilization, which say that landlords have to renew your lease unless they have a legal cause not to.

Although tenant advocates have praised Spitzer’s proposal as the first positive thing to come out of Albany on the issue in years, it would only slow the erosion of rent controls, as inflation and the state’s nearly nonexistent enforcement of the law against illegal overcharges inexorably bring more and more apartments over the limit. The exact number of the city’s 1 million rent-stabilized apartments lost to deregulation is unknown, but between 1994 and 2005, 54,000 were reported to the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal. That number is a minimum, as it does not include apartments deregulated illegally or without being reported. In 2003, a study by Tenants and Neighbors estimated that 99,000 rent-stabilized apartments had been lost to high-rent deregulation, including 15,000 in 2002 alone.

The bill is also unlikely to make it through the Republican- controlled state Senate unless the current political alignments in Albany change dramatically or Spitzer can come up with a significant bargaining chip. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Rensselaer) was the prime mover when the Legislature weakened rent regulations in 1997 and 2003. And despite pressure from tenant groups, Spitzer has opposed returning home rule over rent laws to the city; He has refused to endorse repealing the Urstadt Law, the 1971 state law that bans local governments from enacting stronger rent restrictions or tenant protections.