Tenants’ Voice

Bennett Baumer Aug 13, 2009


Tenant groups pressuring the New York State Senate for vital rent reforms are finding strange bedfellows.The tenant advocacy coalition is relying on cooperation from former Senate coup leader Hiram Monserrate (D-Queens) and Democratic conference leader John Sampson (D-Brooklyn), a former real-estate attorney, to get their top priority — repeal of vacancy decontrol — passed in a special session this fall.Monserrate is widely expected to take over the Senate housing committee in place of Pedro Espada Jr. (D-Bronx), who was the ringleader in the June Senate brouhaha.

In a deal to end the Senate stalemate after Monserrate returned to the Democratic fold, Espada is now the majority leader, although his actual power is yet to be seen.Here’s the kicker — a judge has slated Monserrate’s trial for felony assault for Sept. 14, and if convicted, Monserrate would be expelled from the Senate. The Senate will convene sometime in late September or early October to deal with further budget cuts to state services and programs. Monserrate vowed his support of affordable-housing reforms — but his expulsion would mean one less vote for passing progressive rent-reform legislation.

Sampson could be a boon or bust for rent reform. Tenants and their Senate allies are pushing him and Gov. David Paterson to get behind rent reform as a tradeoff for working New Yorkers facing a brutalizing $2 billion of budget cuts in the fall session.Vacancy decontrol is the process by which a landlord can deregulate an apartment when the rent reaches $2,000 a month and there is a vacancy. Tenants and Neighbors, a tenant advocacy organization, estimates that more than 100,000 affordable rent-regulated apartments have been deregulated in New York City since decontrol was enacted in the 1990s. Once an apartment is deregulated, the landlord can raise the rent as high as he wants, and tenants lose important protections, such as the right to a lease renewal. There currently remain approximately one million rent-stabilized units in the city.

“We believe we can pass repeal of vacancy decontrol. We’ve done a good job of keeping in the face of our friends,” said Michael McKee of Tenants Political Action Committee. “Though there are Senate Democrats that are concerned about real-estate money.”

Tenant groups mobilized daily vans to Albany from May through July to catch senators in the hallways in order to buttonhole them on rent reform.But the political power of real-estate campaign contributions is daunting. According to the New York Times, the real-estate lobby gave Senate Democrats $750,000 in 2008, 15 times as much as in 2006. Real estate contributions are believed to be a driving force behind Espada’s defection to the Republican Party this summer. Espada has not filed accurate campaign finance reports, so it is difficult to decipher the true influence of landlord contributions on his flip-flop.

Even tenants’ staunchest allies can succumb. For example, Sen. Eric Adams (D-Brooklyn) made troubling comments about pay-to-play politics at the recent Brooklyn Real Estate Roundtable luncheon, according to the New York weekly business publication, Crain’s. Adams told the crowd he was creating a caucus of business-friendly Democrats.

“Because you failed to nurture the relationships, you found yourself out of the conversation. How many of you made investments in the Democrats when we were two seats away? You failed to diversify,” Adams reportedly said.

But signs of progress are clear with Sampson and others. After much protest, tenant advocates got tepid commitments to vote for vacancy-decontrol repeal from Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) and his close ally Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island/South Brooklyn), who announced her support at a tenant rally at the State Capitol in late spring.

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