There Goes the Neighborhood: Time for Students to Ally with Longtime Tenants

Tait Mandler May 22, 2015

The seemingly endless construction of luxury apartments is one of the most visually conspicuous signs of New York City’s declining affordability, but there are more insidious threats to city residents of modest means. Since the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of rent stabilized apartments have been deregulated and converted to market rate. With NYC rent laws set to expire on June 15, the remaining nearly 1 million rent stabilized units in the city are at risk of befalling the same fate

Rent stabilization is the only reason that many people of color, queer people, single mothers, artists, students, working- and even middle-class families can afford to stay in New York City. These regulations keep neighborhoods diverse, and protect tenants by requiring landlords to offer lease renewals and ensuring that rent increases are modest. Importantly, because they are guaranteed a lease renewal, tenants of rent stabilized apartments can be more assertive in demanding necessary repairs and services from their landlords than tenants of unregulated apartments who might fear retribution or eviction. 

The decision this June is in the hands of state senators in Albany. As a result of the 1971 Urstadt Law, which ensured the city could not pass stronger rent regulations than the state, politicians with little or no connection to the city have control over its housing policy. The potential loss of already existing affordable units — especially considering that Mayor Bill De Blasio’s affordable housing plan falls vastly short of the units needed to house the city’s low- and middle-income residents — would be a huge blow for many New Yorkers. 

The Student Dilemma

Many New York residents view increasing numbers of university students in their neighborhoods with suspicion: Their arrival often goes hand-in-hand with gentrification, and portends the displacement of longtime residents and small businesses. Meanwhile, university students, who account for 20 percent of New York City’s population, are often taken advantage of to serve the interests of New York’s real estate market. Because students tend not to occupy apartments for more than two to four years, they are viewed by landlords as a market that can be overcharged, underserved and leveraged to deregulate more apartments. 

“Everyone needs a place to live and in New York City I think students often have a particularly rough time,” says Darcy Bender, a graduate student at Parsons. “We have limited budgets, for some it’s their first time living on their own and many are moving here from outside of the city. A lot of students end up renting apartments that are way overpriced and feel that because they may only be here for a few years they can't do anything about it.” 

When students move into neighborhoods and pay exaggerated rents, they become complicit in gentrification. Simultaneously, when the students accept the narrative that they must pay higher rents and run themselves into debt through both tuition and rent bills, they also become future victims of displacement. 

“This is detrimental both for the student, who pays an outrageously high rent and lives in poor conditions without knowing their rights as a renter, and for the neighborhood that faces the risk of displacement due to the acceptance by students of their abusive landlords” says Masoom Moitra, another graduate student at Parsons.

Vacancy Decontrol

One of the most troubling problems with the current laws is vacancy decontrol. This means that a landlord can deregulate/destabilize a rent stabilized unit if the rent is above $2,500 and the unit becomes vacant. Rent can increase as much as the landlord decides, relative to market prices, so a destabilized apartment’s rent could spike overnight from $2,500 to $4,000 or higher. Another vehicle for landlords to increase rents — more than the annual legal mandate — in rent stabilized apartments is to do repairs and construction in between tenants. In this case, the rent can increase by 20 percent of the construction costs. This deregulation is responsible for the loss of tens of thousands of units from the rent stabilization program each year. 

Vacancy decontrol gives landlords the incentive to have quick student turnover in regulated apartments so that between each tenant the rent can be increased towards the $2,500 mark. Ironically, once the unit has been deregulated, a higher-income tenant can be moved in, contributing to the unaffordability of the neighborhood for all low- and middle-income people, including students. And certain neighborhoods are disproportionately at risk: for example, in the Lower East Side, 40 percent of apartments are still rent stabilized, while there is a large transient student population from the nearby universities. Apartment turnover there has been increasing rapidly in the last several years.

Stand Up, Fight Back

On May 23, students and housing justice organizers will be coming together at the St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, for a Renters’ Assembly. A large coalition is needed to exert pressure and raise awareness for the needs of New Yorkers in advance of the June rent laws vote, and the assembly’s purpose is to forge connections and build activist momentum leading up to it. The assembly will be a gathering of students, renters and housing justice organizers interested in fighting gentrification, displacement and supporting the local movement to save and strengthen the rent laws that protect NYC residents. Moitra thinks students need “to discuss these issues, raise awareness, exchange knowledge and work with housing organizers around the city in order to understand how they can get involved, express solidarity and become allies with those struggling for housing justice.” 

The assembly will also be a space to learn about topics like the intersection of race relations and housing policy, the role of the police state in displacement, the university as gentrifier and the policy agenda of housing advocates to increase affordability in NYC. “The renters’ assembly is so important,” says Bender, “because we desperately need a space to discuss not only our unique housing woes, but also how we fit in systems that perpetuate displacement, racism and gentrification. We need to connect with our neighbors and realize that so many of us have horror stories and the only way to change this system is to take action together.”

Rent stabilization laws make up the de facto largest affordable housing program in the city, and tenants, housing justice activists and students across the city are working to ensure that the laws are renewed and strengthened in an effort to curb the rampant speculation and gentrification that characterizes the current NYC real estate market.

If they are strengthened it will help fight the rising tide of gentrification and be a victory for tenants rights. Weakened regulations, meanwhile, would mean more money for landlords and the real estate market, increasing tenant harassment and displacement. If you are a student or housing justice activist in New York City, we hope you’ll join us on May 23 for a Saturday of learning, action and movement building.

To see what local tenant groups are fighting for, see the policy platform of the Real Rent Reform Coalition and the Alliance for Tenant Power. To check out and join the Renters’ Assembly, see us here.

Tait Mandler is an organizer of the Renters’ Assembly and a graduate student in the Design and Urban Ecologies program at Parsons, the New School.

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