Renters in the Hands of a Corrupt Senate

Steven Wishnia Dec 17, 2012

If you rent an apartment in the state of New York, the political machinations going on in the state Senate will likely ensure that your rent stays too damn high. The agreement by six Democrats to share power with the Republican minority is directly related to the real estate lobby’s desire to prevent any strengthening of the state’s rent laws.

Democrats won a narrow majority of the Senate in November — either 32–31 or 33–30, depending on recounts — but the deal will deny them control over who chairs committees and what bills actually get to the floor. State Sen. Jeffrey Klein, the leader of the renegade faction, the “Independent Democratic Caucus,” and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has tacitly supported the scheme, say it’s an attempt to avoid the dysfunctions of the 2009–10 session, when two Democrats pulled a similar switch and gridlocked the Senate for months.

The political dynamics are similar, however. In 2009, after Democrats won a majority of the Senate for the first time since the ’60s, expanding tenant protections was a top priority. But Bronx Democrat Pedro Espada, now headed to prison for corruption, switched parties the day before his committee was scheduled to vote on a bill that would have put vacant apartments that rent for more than $2,000 back into rent stabilization, repealing a loophole that has enabled massive and often illegal rent increases.

This time around, Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) is the Senate Democrat closest to the real estate lobby. He worked to keep the repeal of the vacancy-deregulation law from ever coming to the Senate floor. In the 2012 election cycle, he took more than $165,000 from real estate interests, including the two main landlord-lobby groups [the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) and the Rent Stabilization Association] and Laurence Gluck/Stellar Management, an owner notorious for buying buildings in the Mitchell-Lama middle-income housing program and trying to raise rents to market rate.

“Democratic control of the Legislature has always been the nightmare of real estate interests,” a blogger for Crain’s New York Business wrote on Dec. 5. “REBNY in particular has carefully cultivated the independent Democrats through campaign contributions. The Senate will remain aligned with the major real estate groups.”

The deal also works for Governor Cuomo. A Republican majority will be more likely to support his priorities, to cut state workers’ pensions and wages while refusing to raise taxes on the rich — in a state that has more billionaires than Germany, the United Kingdom, or Japan — or impose a stock-transfer tax on Wall Street.

Cuomo’s politics might be described as “Bloomberg Democrat” — moderately progressive on social issues, hardline on serving and protecting the state’s economic power elite, but willing to make minor concessions if they’re good publicity. His list of ten “litmus tests” that will determine his support for the Senate deal reflects that mix: raising the minimum wage, intensifying evaluation of teachers, and preserving property-tax limits. The deal may also bode well for legalizing medical marijuana, as Sen. Diane Savino, its main proponent in the Senate, is one of the Klein group.

Cuomo’s list did not mention housing issues. Real estate has been the biggest contributor to his political campaigns, including more than $3 million for his 2010 gubernatorial race, and he has refused to support more than minor measures to strengthen or enforce the state’s rent controls and tenant protections.

The deal also means virtually all-white control of the state Senate. There are no black, Latino, or Asian Republican Senators, and the only nonwhite member of the Klein faction is Malcolm Smith of Queens. “Ask Governor Cuomo: Where does he stand on back-room deals putting us in the back of the bus?” state Sen. Bill Perkins of Harlem said at a rally there Dec. 8.

On the other hand, three of the “Four Amigos” who threatened to join the Republicans in 2009 were Latino. They complained that the Democratic leadership was excluding Latinos, but their real motives were more base: Three of them have since been convicted of felony corruption charges, and the fourth was trying to block same-sex marriage.

Once again, this mess illustrates the lack of democracy in New York State. The Republicans would not be close to a majority in the Senate without gross gerrymandering: Every Senate district upstate has as few people as legally permitted, and every district in New York City has as many as possible. On housing, the most democratic solution would be for the city to set its own policies — but a 1971 law prohibits it from passing rent controls stronger than the state’s. That keeps power over housing costs here in the hands of politicians who take millions of dollars from the real estate lobby, and city renters can’t vote against most of them.

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