Take Down the Landlords: Will This Be the Year Tenants Win Sweeping Rent Law Reforms?

Issue 246

Steven Wishnia May 6, 2019

For more than 20 years, the Republican majority in the New York State Senate was the main obstacle to strengthening the state’s rent laws and tenant protections. The Senate’s 63 districts were gerrymandered for a narrow GOP majority, and that majority, almost all from upstate and New York City’s outer suburbs, collected millions of dollars from the city’s landlords without any risk of being voted out by city renters.

That changed dramatically last November when Democrats won a 39-24 majority in the Senate. Six of the eight Democrats whose alliance with Republicans had preserved GOP control of Albany’s upper house were unseated by primary challengers running on a strong pro-tenant platform.

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The result is that this year, the Legislature is considering a package of nine bills that would both repeal the loopholes in the state’s rent-stabilization laws — most notably the 1997 vacancy-decontrol law — and expand tenant protections far beyond the about 1 million apartments currently regulated by rent stabilization and rent control. But while some of the bills are almost certain to pass, the real-estate lobby — the economic sector that is the largest single source of campaign contributions in New York — is working to water them down and kill the most expansive proposals.

“This is a unique opportunity,” Delsenia Glover of Tenants and Neighbors told the more than 1,000 people at a raucous rally on Apr. 11 in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. But she added, “it’s do or die.”

The nine-bill package was developed by the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance, a coalition of tenant-advocate groups from around the state, as part of a platform called “universal rent control.”

‘It’s do or die.’

Four of the measures would close loopholes the state punched in the rent-stabilization laws in 1997 and 2003. They would repeal vacancy decontrol, which enables landlords to take vacant apartments out of rent stabilization if their rent is high enough; make “preferential rent” discounts last as long as the tenant stays in the apartment, instead of expiring at the end of the lease; repeal the 20 percent increase allowed on vacant apartments; and lengthen the four-year statute of limitations on illegal rent increases. A fifth would lower the rent increases allowed for the about 22,000 rent-controlled apartments left.

Two others would prohibit rent increases for renovations, for both building-wide major capital improvements (MCIs), which are often used to raise rents on occupied apartments, and individual apartment improvements, most commonly used to raise rents on vacant apartments.

The other two would expand tenant protections statewide. One would allow local governments outside New York City and Nassau, Westchester and Rockland counties to enact rent-stabilization laws. The other would prohibit eviction without “good cause” in all but the smallest owner-occupied buildings. It would cover the newer and smaller buildings now exempt from rent stabilization, and require landlords trying to evict tenants for nonpayment to prove that rent increases were not “unconscionable.”

Campaigning for more than simply strengthening rent stabilization represents a change in strategy for the tenant movement. It faces a situation similar to that of labor unions, who have to protect their members’ pay, job security and health and pension benefits, but with membership shrinking, need to organize new members and speak out for unorganized workers to avoid becoming a weak minority.

“Five million New Yorkers have no renter protections whatsoever — simply because of where or what kind of housing they live in,” the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance says. Since 1994, it adds, “we have lost nearly 300,000 units of affordable, rent-stabilized housing” and the rent-regulation system “has been weakened with loopholes that encourage tenant harassment and allow sudden and permanent rent hikes.”

“What’s different this year is you have tenants all over the state organizing. It’s a reflection of how much worse the situation has become,” says TenantsPAC treasurer Michael McKee, a longtime tenant activist and political fundraiser.

But legislatively, he adds, it will be “less of a lift to close the loopholes” in the current system than to expand tenant protections statewide.

The battle in Albany will pit longtime pro-tenant legislators and the new crop elected last year against the influence of the real-estate lobby, which gains power the more legislation is determined behind the scenes — as when a “pied-a-terre tax” on absentee owners of luxury apartments got deleted from the state budget in last-minute negotiations earlier this year.

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) has not yet announced the upper house’s rent-law agenda. The Assembly’s agenda, announced in early April, endorsed eight of the nine bills, but omitted good-cause eviction, although Speaker Carl Heastie says he’s open to it. Assemblymember Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan) says one possible change could be targeting the bill more toward owners of multiple properties.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office says he’s committed to strengthening the rent laws — but he has not endorsed MCI repeal, letting upstate communities enact rent stabilization or the good-cause eviction bill.

“Is there anyone here who believes and trusts Governor Cuomo?” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams asked the Harlem rally. “No!” the crowd shouted back.

Carmen Guzman of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance in Manhattan told the rally that all nine points of the universal rent control platform were essential “because they work together as a unit.”

“Displacement is going on citywide,” Carmen Vega-Rivera of CASA in the southwest Bronx elaborated, saying that a studio apartment in her building that was $800 a month when the previous tenant moved out last year went up to more than $2,000 after the landlord renovated it.

“It stops now,” Delsenia Glover said.

But with the rent laws set to expire June 15, will tenant-movement power be able to overcome the real-estate lobby’s influence in Albany, and enable the huddled masses of New Yorkers to breathe free of the economic chokehold of exorbitant rents?

Illustration by Rob LaQuinta.

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