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Pro-Tenant Bills Languish in State Senate

Steven Wishnia Aug 3, 2010

Thirteen housing activists were arrested July 12 in a sit-in protesting New York State Senate Democrats’ failure to pass pro-tenant legislation.

As about 200 demonstrators chanted, “Housing is a right! Fight, fight, fight!,” the 13 activists blocked the entrance to 250 Broadway, where both the Senate and Assembly leadership have offices. They were charged with disorderly conduct and released with desk appearance tickets a few hours later.

“We are not here to ask. We are here to demand,” Leandra Reaquena of Make the Road New York told the rally before she sat down. Other speakers urged pro-tenant Democrats to hold up the state budget until the Senate repeals the law letting landlords deregulate vacant apartments if they can charge more than $2,000 a month.

The Assembly has passed bills that would repeal vacancy decontrol, extend rent-stabilization protections to tenants whose landlords leave or have already left the Mitchell-Lama or project-based Section 8 subsidy programs, reduce the rent increases allowed for vacant or renovated apartments, and protect against abuses such as mass owner-occupancy evictions. In the State Senate, though, those bills have been tied up by the Republican minority and a few pro-landlord Democrats, and the Democratic leadership has been reluctant to push them.

For years, New York Democrats blamed the weakening of rent controls and tenant protections on the Senate’s Republican majority. They promised that when they gained control of the Legislature’s upper house, they would change things. Tenant and housing groups sent hundreds of volunteers out to campaign for Democrats in 2008. When the Democrats won a 32-30 majority that November, the activists had a dozen bills ready.

Last year, however, Senator Pedro Espada (D-Bronx) blocked the repeal of vacancy decontrol by briefly switching to the Republicans. Espada, along with Craig Johnson (D-Nassau) and Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn), is “widely known to be beholden to landlord lobbyists,” says Mario Mazzoni of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, one of the 13 arrested. These three, along with Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester), have worked behind the scenes to prevent pro-tenant legislation from reaching the Senate floor.

“The question is, why is the Democratic leadership letting a small handful of its corrupt members call the shots?” Michael McKee of Housing Here and Now, who was also arrested, told Tenant/Inquilino, Met Council’s monthly newspaper. Espada and Kruger are both under investigation for alleged corruption.

According to Mazzoni, the Senate leadership wants to hold the pro-tenant bills until next year, hoping the November elections will give them a bigger majority. The tenant movement rejects that idea, he says. “Who put Democrats in the majority — us or the landlords? How much patience are tenants supposed to have?”

Another possibility is that the leadership doesn’t want to alienate real estate, which is, along with Wall Street, the largest source of campaign money in New York. According to a New York Public Interest Research Group study commissioned by The New York Times in 2008, major real-estate interests gave State Senate Democrats more than $750,000 for that year’s election, hoping to head off pro-tenant legislation.

Much of that money went through Jeffrey Klein, who heads the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. He received more than $240,000 in real estate contributions for his 2008 campaign, almost a third of his take in the second half of the year, the Daily News reported in 2009.