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Tenants’ Voice

Bennett Baumer May 15, 2009

Tenants and housing rights groups are racing to get the New York State Senate to pass their rent-law reform agenda before the session ends June 22. They are intensifying pressure on senators who are standing in the way, and lobbying for a complete 10-bill package instead of concentrating on repealing the state’s vacancy decontrol laws. Growing increasingly impatient, tenants are ratcheting up their tactics — and it is paying off.

“You are asking for the right to occupy your apartments, a place where dreams are born and lived,” said State Senator Eric Adams (DBrooklyn). “You must reach the level of anger to say enough is enough. We are going to repeal vacancy decontrol.”

Tenant organizations are backing legislation that would give the city home rule over rent and eviction laws, protect tenants against mass evictions for “owners’ use,” and try to combat fraudulent rent increases. Their top priority, however, is repealing the law that lets landlords deregulate vacant apartments if there’s a vacancy and rent surpasses $2,000 a month. Once this happens, there are no limits on rent increases and tenants do not have the right to renew their leases automatically, so vacancy decontrol gives owners a strong incentive to harass rent-regulated tenants.

The top target for protests has been Pedro Espada Jr. (D-Bronx), the Senate housing committee chair.

Espada, hit hard by tenant protests and critical news reports, shocked the 250 tenants assembled for a May 12 lobby day by appearing at a press conference in support of repeal of vacancy decontrol. Though he did not specifically say he would support repeal of vacancy decontrol, his presence was a clear victory for the tenant movement.

“I want to assure every one of you to go home knowing that Pedro Espada Jr. is your housing champion,” Espada said.

“Espada came because of the pressure we’ve applied. It didn’t come from the heart; he’s in survival mode,” said Joseph Ferdinand, a Bronx tenant.

Also atop tenants’ list of targets are Senators Craig Johnson (D-Nassau County), Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) and Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/ Westchester), the Senate deputy majority leader. Activists are sending the senators letters and phone calls and canvassing in their districts.

Espada may be the least of the housing movement’s concerns. Crain’s New York Business reports that the bill to repeal vacancy decontrol may go to the finance committee headed by Kruger. According to the Village Voice reporter Tom Robbins, Kruger has a campaign war chest of $1.6 million, “much of it from city real-estate moguls who appreciate his support.” Kruger has not taken a position on repeal of vacancy decontrol.

“Essentially, Espada and Kruger are conspiring to bottle up the bill in the finance committee,” said Michael McKee, of Tenants Political Action Committee (TPAC).

Johnson, closely aligned with the centrist Klein, relied heavily on both union and New York City tenant support to win office, taking a Republican-held seat in a special election in 2007. At the time, Johnson needed tenant manpower to help his campaign. “If elected,” he promised in a letter sent to the TPAC, “I will be a visible and vocal advocate for repeal of vacancy decontrol and other pro-tenant measures in Albany.” But Johnson has failed to endorse repealing vacancy decontrol bill.

Bennett Baumer is an organizer on the West Side of Manhattan.