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The De-stabilization of New York City

Bennett Baumer Apr 11

After a pair of legislative victories in the New York City Council penalizing landlord harassment and protecting Section 8 tenants, the housing movement hopes to continue its luck in the political muck that is state government. The Real Rent Reform Campaign seeks to stem the slow and steady erosion of the rent stabilized housing stock through vacancy decontrol.

With real estate heir and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer gone, tenants are seizing upon new Gov. David Paterson’s more tenant friendly reputation.

The Real Rent Reform Campaign is a coalition of housing groups working with state legislators to end vacancy decontrol as well as restore home rule to the city, protecting the affordability of Mitchell-Lama developments and reforming the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB). Landlords can decontrol or deregulate rent stabilized and controlled apartments when there is a vacancy of the leaseholder and the rent surpasses $2,000 per month.

Upper West Side Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal and Brooklyn Assembly Member James Brennan are co-sponsoring a bill to repeal vacancy decontrol, which is coupled with a State Senate bill to restore home rule over rent and eviction laws to New York City.

“Landlords know if they can get the lower and moderate income tenants out, they can replace them with higher paying renters,” said Jenny Laurie, Executive Director of the Met Council on Housing, an organizational member of the Real Rent Reform Campaign. “If the city had control over rent and eviction laws [home rule], it could change the statutes.”

Often landlords will accelerate the vacancy decontrol process by renovating an apartment and adding one-fortieth of the costs of the work to the rent, thereby inching the rent closer to the $2,000 mark. Whenever there is a vacancy the landlord is also entitled to a 20 percent rent hike — without even slapping a new coat of paint on the walls or hammering an extra nail into the floorboards.

Currently, there are more than one million rent regulated apartments in the city, dwarfing the 181,000 units of public housing and all other affordable housing programs combined. However, the RGB (the group that raises your rent every year) estimates that in 2006, 9,272 apartments were stripped of rent stabilization status due to vacancy decontrol.

Furthermore, the city has lost approximately 99,000 affordable rent regulated apartments due to vacancy decontrol since 1993, according to Tenants and Neighbors. Another 69,000 rent regulated apartments were deregulated due to condo and coop conversions, resulting in a staggering total loss of 168,000 units, or about 16 percent of the regulated stock. These numbers are conservative estimates because the state housing agency did little under Gov. Pataki to punish landlords who did not register their stabilized apartments. Nor did that administration aggressively investigate fraudulent deregulation.

With average rents in Manhattan above $3,000 per month, the incentive for landlords to push past the $2,000 mark will increase the rate of deregulation of more and more apartments.

Recent Victories

Tenants groups are celebrating the City Council’s override of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto, thus enacting Intro 61, a bill that protects federally subsidized Section 8 tenants from landlord discrimination. The bill makes it illegal to discriminate against prospective tenants based on origin of income, after many Section 8 tenants protested that landlords did not want to rent to them because of the subsidy.

Nonetheless, Section 8 tenants are still embattled. Over 300 tenants rallied with New York City’s Congressional representatives Jerrold Nadler, Nydia Velásquez and Yvette Clark to restore $2.4 billion in Section 8 federal funding. The Bush administration has underfunded the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and, as a result, there is still a budget shortfall.

In another victory for tenants, Bloomberg signed Intro 627A, a tenant anti-harassment bill, into law in March after it passed the council in February.