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A Real Deal: How New Yorkers Banded Together and Cracked the Landlord Lobby

Steven Wishnia Jun 30

Issue 248

In June, New York State enacted the most significant strengthening of tenant protections in 45 years. It came about after almost two years of intensive groundwork and legwork by housing activists, electing pro-tenant legislators to replace real-estate collaborators and building an unprecedented statewide coalition.

The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo June 14, repealed most of the loopholes in the state’s rent regulations enacted in 1997. It ended the deregulation of vacant rent-stabilized apartments with high enough rent and the 20 percent surcharge on vacant apartments. It sets tight limits on how much landlords can raise rents for renovations and gives tenants more time to challenge illegal rent increases. It will make the “preferential rent” discounts given to some 300,000 tenants last until they move out. It also lets local governments upstate and on eastern Long Island enact rent stabilization and includes protections for mobile-home residents.

Tenants did not get everything they wanted. The law enacted does not ban eviction without a specific “good cause” — which would have protected more than 1.6 million households — abolish rent increases for renovations or reregulate the estimated 300,000 apartments decontrolled since 1997. But they cracked the hold the real-estate lobby has had on state government for decades.

“Instead of fighting for what we already have and trying to protect it, we decided to go on the offensive,” says Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator of the Housing Justice for All coalition. “Landlords are not going to be dictating public policy in New York State anymore.”

Tenant groups, who began organizing in earnest in the fall of 2017, waged a classic inside-outside campaign. First, primary challenges that unseated six of the eight state senators from the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), whose alliance with Republicans had ensured that no pro-tenant legislation would ever come to the floor in the Senate.

“The key for us was organizing massive turnout to elect folks who are clearly progressive,” says Jonathan Furlong, director of organizing at Housing Conservation Coordinators in Clinton. For example, Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), lead Senate sponsor of the good-cause eviction bill, defeated a more centrist incumbent.

“They ran because of renters and they didn’t back off,” says Michael McKee of TenantsPAC. “In fact, they helped us twist other arms. This was a core issue for them.”

Second, building a genuinely statewide coalition. Housing Justice for All encompassed more than 65 organizations, from longtime New York City tenant and neighborhood groups such as the Metropolitan Council on Housing and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition to a trailer-park tenant association in a small town east of Buffalo and the 300,000-member health-care workers’ union 1199SEIU.

This took “very intense” grassroots organizing, says Andrea Shapiro of Met Council, from canvassing in IDC members’ districts to organizing building tenant associations. 

People worked “night and day,” says Ivan Contreras, lead tenant organizer at Woodside on the Move, knocking on doors, talking to every person in a building and holding meetings. Many in the heavily Latino and South Asian immigrant population of northwest Queens “didn’t know they had rights,” he says, but they understood “it was a fight for the right to stay in their communities.” Some took days off work three or four times to go lobby and protest in Albany.

Building a statewide coalition required both logistics and creating a common agenda. The logistics part began in the fall of 2017, with a meeting in Rochester that brought groups from various places upstate together with the older New York City tenant movement. By this spring, they were in frequent contact with each other, says Garrard, state housing organizer for Citizen Action in Albany.

Rent regulations had long been seen as a New York City issue, as rent stabilization covers only the city and Westchester, Nassau and Rockland counties. But in places like Rochester, a city of 210,000 that’s more than 60 percent renters, most of them poor, “those folks are facing the same gentrification pressure as in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens,” says Weaver. The bills to allow rent stabilization statewide and to ban eviction without good cause gave upstate residents something to fight for and there were also local issues like private-equity firms buying up trailer parks and jacking up rents.

How did this translate into legislative influence? Although Democrats won a 39-24 majority in the Senate, the first time they’d had solid control since the 1960s, demographics didn’t determine destiny. Ironically, the Assembly, whose nearly 2-1 Democratic majority had regularly passed bills to repeal the 1997 loopholes over the past decade, proved a bigger roadblock. Speaker Carl Heastie did not include good-cause eviction in his rent-law proposals and was also reluctant to abolish increases for building-wide major capital improvements and individual apartment renovations.

Heastie as late as June was claiming that the issue didn’t affect people in his northeast Bronx district, says Shapiro. After a town-hall meeting there June 6, he posted on Twitter that none of his constituents had attended. “On Monday the 10th, we delivered our petition,” she adds. It had more than 1,100 signatures from rent-stabilized tenants in the district.

Tenant groups also shut down the Capitol with sit-ins twice, including a June 4 action where 61 people were arrested. All this pressure, Weaver says, made it “politically toxic” to be on the side of real estate. It also pushed wavering legislators to support more than token improvements.

A turning point, organizers say, was when Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins persuaded Heastie to draw up a bill without including Gov. Cuomo. “She outfoxed the governor,” says McKee. “He would have watered everything down.” An angry Cuomo threatened to veto any bill that didn’t have his input, but with rent stabilization expiring June 15, that would have made him the person responsible for killing it.

Activists are calling the legislation a “historic victory,” winning the repeal of vacancy decontrol after a 22-year struggle. Still, “we have a lot to fight for next time,” says Furlong. The legislation passed “failed to get any meaningful protection for market-rate tenants,” notes McKee.

Allowing rent stabilization anywhere in the state might regulate about 39,000 apartments, a report released by the Community Service Society (CSS) in May estimated, including about 7,200 in Buffalo, 3,700 in Albany and 2,600 in Troy. The bill also includes procedural protections that will mean upstate renters won’t be “getting evicted by the end of the month,” says Shapiro.

Still, that is far less than the more than 1.6 million rental units CSS estimates would have been covered by the good-cause eviction bill. It would have protected not just tenants upstate and on Long Island, but those in almost 600,000 city apartments that are in buildings too small (less than six apartments) or too new (built since 1974) to be covered by rent stabilization. In Rochester, which would not be able to enact rent stabilization because its vacancy rate of 5.5 percent is over the limit for a “housing emergency,” CSS said it might cover 48,600 rental units.

“The fight for good cause in 2020 has definitely begun,” says Garrard. “We think it’s attainable.”

“We’re already having meetings,” says Contreras.