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Tenants, Arrested in Albany, Target Cuomo’s Ties to Real Estate

Alex Ellefson Jun 4, 2015

Tenant advocates denounced Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ties to real-estate interests while participating in a sit-in outside his office on Wednesday. Scores of protestors were arrested alongside almost a dozen lawmakers demanding a repeal of deregulation laws that have devastated New York City’s affordable housing.

“The governor has given no indication that he is inclined to support strengthening the rent laws. Throughout this campaign, we have yet to be able to sit down and talk with him,” said Delsenia Glover, campaign manager for the Alliance for Tenant Power. “The tenants in New York City, the downstate tenants, are the folks who got him elected twice. And he continues to ignore the needs of the tenant community.”

Almost 75 demonstrators crowded into the hall outside the governor’s office. They chanted “we will remember!” and carried signs that read “Governor Glenwood,” a reference to Cuomo’s ties to the real estate company, Glenwood Management, that is named in the federal investigations of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who were arrested on corruption charges earlier this year.

In April, Cuomo argued that it would cause “chaos in the real estate market” if the legislature did not to renew rent-regulation laws, which expire on June 15. But he also said that the corruption charges against Skelos and Silver made Albany too unstable to push through major reforms.

Cuomo has had to walk back those comments after they caused outrage among tenant advocates, who want state lawmakers to close loopholes that encourage property owners to raise rents and move apartments out of regulation rolls.

Over the last 20 years, hundreds of thousands of rent-stabilized apartments have been lost due to the vacancy decontrol law, which allows property owners to deregulate apartments if they can raise the monthly rent above $2,500. Cuomo has proposed raising the threshold for vacancy decontrol to $2,700.

“Those lowdown, low-life landlords will get to $2,700 in no time. It’s a band-aid on a cut-off limb,” said Jean Folkes, a member of the Flatbush Tenant Coalition. “We need laws that push deregulation out the door.”

Tenant rights groups want to repeal vacancy decontrol as well as other laws that allow landlords to hike rents by making renovations or getting tenants to vacate their apartments. 

City Councilman Corey Johnson told The Indypendent shortly before his arrest that Cuomo has the power to push through major reforms in rent-regulation laws.

“When the governor wants to get something done, he’s been able to do it. Look at the SAFE Act, look at marriage equality, look at the property tax cap,” he said. “Millions of New Yorkers are counting on the governor exercising some leadership and strengthening the rent laws.”

Demonstrators called on Cuomo to return the $1.2 million in campaign contributions he received from Glenwood Management. Since 2005, Glenwood has given more than $12 million in campaign contributions to New York politicians. And the company has reaped enormous benefits through the 421a tax abatement provided to real estate developers, which has cost the New York City more than $3 billion since 2012. 

Tenants want to end the tax abatement, which they say encourages reckless speculation by developers and robs city coffers of money that could be going to preserve affordable housing.

Several protestors arrested Wednesday said that the act of civil disobedience was necessary in order to heard of the torrent of real estate money pouring into Albany.

“We’ve tried everything else,” said Esteban Girón, a member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, who was one of those arrested. “It’s just not working. We keep hitting a wall. And in my opinion, it’s a wall of money.”

Girón explained that reforming the rent laws was essential to protecting his community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where real estate prices in some of his neighbors’ buildings have doubled in the last two years.

“There are people in my building that will lose their homes before the next time the rent laws are up for renewal, if they don’t get strengthened now,” he said. “That’s why this is so urgent.”