Will Dems in the NY Senate Make 2019 the Year of The Tenant?

Issue 242

Or will big money have its way again?

Steven Wishnia Dec 14, 2018

The movement to strengthen New York State’s rent controls and tenant protections is going into 2019 with two advantages it didn’t have before: A solid Democratic majority in the state Senate, and growing tenant organizing in several upstate cities.

After six of the eight renegade Democratic senators who’d allied with Republicans to sustain GOP control lost to more leftist primary challengers in September, Democrats won a 39-24 majority in the November elections. That gives them clear control of the Senate for the first time since 1966.

That means bills such as repealing the law taking vacant apartments out of rent stabilization if they rent for more than about $2,733 a month, which regularly passed the Assembly over the past several years and never got out of committee in the Senate, now have a strong chance of success.

“Never say Albany can’t screw something up,” says Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), who sponsored several of those bills, “but I’m far more optimistic than I’ve been in my adult life.”

“It doesn’t mean this is automatically going to happen,” says Tenants PAC treasurer Michael McKee. “We’re going to have to work to make it happen. But I think we can.”

Meanwhile, housing activists in New York City and its inner suburbs have begun working with tenant groups in upstate cities including Albany, Rochester, Binghamton and Kingston. “In every place in upstate New York, rents are rising faster than incomes,” says Ryan Acuff of the Citywide Tenants Union in Rochester. Tenants there also lack “basic, basic protections,” he adds. It is legal, for example, for a new owner to buy a building in a gentrifying area and give everyone 30 days to get out.

‘If we don’t do this in the next six and a half months, we may never have a shot.’

The state’s rent-stabilization laws, which protect about 1 million households in New York City and Westchester, Nassau and Rockland counties, expire in June. Renewing them is a perennial struggle: In 1997 and 2003, with Republicans holding the governorship and the state Senate, the laws were dramatically weakened. In 2011 and 2015, with center-right Democrat Andrew Cuomo as governor, token improvements were enacted.

“Since 1994, we have lost nearly 300,000 units of affordable, rent-stabilized housing,” says the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance coalition. “Five million renters in New York State have no protections whatsoever.”

The coalition’s legislative agenda includes longtime tenant demands such as repealing high-rent vacancy decontrol and the 20-percent bonus increase allowed on vacant apartments, ending permanent rent increases for apartment renovations and requiring “preferential rent” discounts to last for the duration of the tenancy, so renters don’t get whacked with massive increases when their leases expire. It also wants to ban rent increases for building-wide major capital improvements, on the grounds that such work is often a necessary part of building maintenance and the costs passed on to tenants are often fraudulently inflated.

It’s also demanding statewide tenant protections: removing the geographic restrictions in the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA) of 1974, so local governments outside New York City and its inner suburbs could enact rent-regulation laws, and barring evictions without a “good cause” such as not paying rent or creating a nuisance. It also wants to give tenants statewide the right to take their landlords to court to demand repairs or heat and hot water, now largely limited to New York City.

“We want one fair-housing law for the whole state,” says Acuff.

Most residents of upstate cities such as Buffalo and Utica are renters, he says. In Rochester, they suffer from both gentrification and neglect. Some neighborhoods have problems with landlords abandoning or not maintaining their buildings, while others, particularly the downtown area inside the “inner loop” of Interstate 490, are facing rapid rent increases and “buyout-clearout” mass evictions.

One out of every 15 of the city’s renters got evicted last year, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported last May. In June, a luxury-housing developer ousted 70 people from the single-room-occupancy Cadillac Hotel, including some who had lived there for more than 20 years.

“It moves so quickly. They just start buying up whole neighborhoods,” Acuff says. But residents of a 16-unit building in the gentrifying Meigs-Monroe area, he notes, staved off eviction by forming a tenant union: They won the right to either stay or return after renovations were finished.

State Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany) has agreed to sponsor a bill to expand the ETPA, says McKee.

McKee believes Gov. Cuomo is the biggest obstacle to significantly strengthening rent regulations. The governor told the Metropolitan Council on Housing in writing in August that he would “advance a comprehensive plan — eliminating vacancy decontrol, limiting or eliminating vacancy bonuses, combating artificial rent inflation, making preferential rent the rent for the life of the tenancy.” “It would be very hard for the governor not to sign these bills,” Krueger says.

Therefore, McKee suspects, Cuomo will “say all the right things in public,” but will placate his real-estate donors by working behind the scenes to weaken pro-tenant legislation, such as by pushing to raise the threshold for vacancy decontrol instead of repealing it outright — and then claim that as a great improvement, as he did in 2015. That would still leave the system open to fraudulent deregulation, McKee says.

With fraud and vacancy decontrol eroding the number of rent-regulated apartments, McKee says, tenants have to treat strengthening the laws like a political emergency. “If we don’t do this in the next six and a half months, we may never have a shot,” he says. “Tenants have to get involved. They have to get on buses, they have to write letters, they have to visit their legislators and persuade them to makes this a priority.”

Photo: State Senator-elect Julia Salazar (D-North Brooklyn) speaks at a City Hall rally in support of sweeping reforms to NY State’s rent protection laws. Credit: Steven Wishnia.

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