Push For Universal Rent Control Takes Root in Harlem

Emma Gaffney Apr 14, 2019

With just over two months left until rent laws that cover two million New York City apartment dwellers are due for renewal, activists are pushing to strengthen the state’s rent regulations, and they are pushing hard.

Hundreds of tenants, activists and public officials came together Thursday evening at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church for a “Moral March for Housing Justice.” Before the first speaker even took to the podium the energy within the historic building was palpable. This night, however, the hymns were replaced with a fervent chorus of “fight, fight, fight, housing is a right!”

‘We are on a warpath for housing and for the first time I feel good about it.’

Tenant activists and faith leaders from across the city took turns firing up the crowd. They were joined at the podium by elected officials, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, State Senator Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan).

“The power in crucial historic moments comes from the people,” said Speaker Johnson. “There is a monumental decision on a fundamental question that is before us: Are we going to be a city where only the richest can live? […] Or are we going to be the city where working people can survive?”

Current rent laws, which the real-estate lobby is determined to maintain, are rife with loopholes that allow landlords to drive up rents. Landlord abuse of a law that allows them to recoup the cost of major capital improvements (MCI’s) to their buildings came under heavy fire.  

“MCIs are eviction notices,” said Henry Alvarracin, a member of the Woodside on the Move organization. He described how his landlord is using MCIs for unnecessary upgrades to gradually push out low-income, rent-stabilized households.

“It is time for us to repeal vacancy decontrol. It is time for us to eliminate MCIs. It is time that we get rid of the eviction bonus,” said Johnson. “It is time to give good cause when it comes to eviction.” 

Williams, who was a tenant organizer before winning a Brooklyn City Council seat in 2009, echoed this with enthusiasm. “We are on a warpath for housing and for the first time I feel good about it,” he said.

Nine bills being put forward by state legislators would expand protections for tenants of already rent-regulated apartments, vastly expand the number of regulated apartments, allow local governments across New York State to enact rent stabilization and prohibit evictions without good cause. Rent stabilization laws are currently only permitted in New York City, as well as in its immediate suburbs — Nassau, Westchester and Rockland Counties.

After the rally, the crowd poured out of the church doors and onto Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, chanting and marching to the sound of a brass band that accompanied them. Police steered marchers onto the sidewalk as they headed to the Harlem State Office Building at 125th Street.

There, a vigil was held for tenants who have been evicted under the current rent laws, many of whom now occupy homeless shelters around the city. Nathylin Flowers Adesegun who made headlines last October when she confronted Mayor de Blasio at the gym spoke during at the rally, saying that her monthly preferential rent of $475 was increased to $1319, ultimately rendering her homeless. She now resides in a women’s homeless shelter in the city.

“You need to help the people who need it the most, instead of the people who need it the least,” Adesegun said.

The Indy spoke with Keith Shepherd, a member of Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA). “We came here because we are fighting for universal rent control,” he said. “Landlords have too many ways to have us displaced, and the tenants don’t have the resources or the ability to fight them off. They’re killing us with MCIs, they’re killing us with IAIs [individual apartment improvement] and we are being displaced because of it. The rents are going up so high that the average person just can’t afford it. We want to see our legislators vote for the nine bills because that’s the only way we can get out from under the thumbs of the landlords.”

Now all eyes turn to the state capital, where officials and activists will return to ensure Democratic leaders keep their word and vote to pass the nine rent reform bills. As Corey Johnson put it: “It’s Albany. That is the battleground.”

CORRECTION: An earlier draft of this article misattributed a quote from Council Speaker to tenant organizer Henry Alvarracin.

Photo: Housing activist rally in Harlem, Thursday, April 11. Credit: Emma Gaffney.

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