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Op-Ed: More Control, Less Rent

Tenants deserve far more control of their housing. In the face of attacks on the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, our demands go beyond the protection of rent stabilization.

TOMATO SEASON Jan 3

The Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP) is an organization of 4,000 landlords who control more than 400,000 rent-stabilized units in New York City. Alongside other landlord lobbying groups, they are challenging New York’s rent-stabilization laws in federal court as unconstitutional government taking of private property. Rent-stabilization is the bare minimum tenant protection, and the rent is still too high. This is in part because these very same landlords have warehoused nearly 90,000 rent stabilized units to artificially inflate the rent on everything else they control.

Outside of the courts, they are waging a war on rent stabilization by warehousing apartments — essentially, keeping units vacant. By doing so, they create the very housing crisis that they allege is caused by rent stabilization. What’s more, they use vacant apartments as ransom with elected officials, offering to release the apartments to the market if only the laws are changed to allow extreme rent increases. Tenants, their very lives, are pawns in their game of corporate greed.

CHIP’s lawsuit challenges the very modest terms of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act (HSTPA) of 2019, which restricted rent hikes — previously allowable up to a 20% on a new lease — and granted family members of tenants inheritance of their lease when they passed away.

Rent stabilization is the bare minimum, and rent is still too high. Half of rent-stabilized tenants pay over 30% of their income to a landlord. As of 2018, least 23% of tenants are severely rent-burdened, meaning they pay over 50% of their household income to keep a roof over their heads. This summer, the Rent Guidelines Board approved the largest rent increase for rent-stabilized units in nearly a decade: 3.25% on one-year leases and 5% on two-year leases. Their historic cruelty comes on the heels of a pandemic-spurred eviction crisis.

Rather than house our neighbors who have been displaced, the city treats them like criminals.

While tenants pay more and more money to landlords, we live in poor conditions. From working directly with tenants, we’ve learned that a startling number of New Yorkers face a winter without heat, gas or electricity and with the company of pests and toxic mold. Rather than putting our rent checks back into our housing, it feels like landlords pocket the money and neglect our apartments.

According to public records, Matthew Schmelzer, the treasurer of CHIP, owns 32 buildings which total over 1,700 units in the Bronx and Harlem. According to public data, he has filed 2,648 evictions and executed sixty-seven evictions in the past five years. These violent removals occurred in buildings which have accrued 2,602 violations and 3,594 complaints, of which 197 major violations such as mold or lack of hot water— an average of six per building — remain open to this day.

Schmelzer is not an exceptional character in this story. Barry Rudofsky, Vice Chairman of CHIP, owns 120 buildings with 2,877 open violations, 2,912 eviction filings and 132 evictions executed in the past five years (even with the two-year eviction moratorium). Rudofsky eliminated 408 rent-stabilized units from his buildings between 2007 and 2020. A voting member of CHIP, John Ilibassi owns 101 buildings that currently have 2,075 open violations. He removed 589 units from rent stabilization status between 2007 and 2020.

CHIP claims that their lawsuit advocates for small landlords who “know their tenants by their first name,” but their members are not these landlords. In fact, the average landlord in New York City is not a small landlord, but rather owns twenty-one buildings and 893 units. Spend a few minutes researching a random sampling of landlords in this city, and you will find an abundance of similarly disturbing information about their greed and negligence.

A series of posters displayed on the side of a building near housing court in downtown Brooklyn in December.

When HPD fails to investigate open violations and our entire government fails to hold landlords accountable, landlords’ criminality goes so unchecked that they can even claim a limitation on rent increases is an unconstitutional government taking of private property. Loopholes within HSTPA as well as systemic racism in our government encourage landlords to engage in deed theft, physical intimidation and the weaponizing of the police force to evict our neighbors. Older, especially Black and brown tenants are disproportionately targeted by unscrupulous speculators who own hundreds of buildings, hidden in dozens of LLCs.

All of this — evictions, harassment, exorbitant rent hikes, unsafe conditions, government inaction — creates houselessness, which in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression. Each night, 55,036 people, including 17,680 children, sleep in New York City’s main municipal shelter system. These numbers do not include people who cannot gain access to a shelter or choose not to sleep in one due to concerns about safety, mistreatment, COVID spread and more. Meanwhile, there are more vacant units in New York City than houseless people, by about three times.

Meanwhile, there are more vacant units in New York City than houseless people, by about three times.

Rather than house our neighbors who have been displaced, the city treats them like criminals. When housing precarity can quickly become a death sentence, renters accept rent that they can’t afford for apartments in bad condition. Landlords and city officials together create houselessness as a threat to us all: Empty your pockets to your landlord, or else.

We agree with CHIP on one point — the 2019 HSTPA bill must be replaced. Without any enforcement and without any allocation of material resources to actually improve our housing, laws don’t protect most tenants. 

We demand a rent rollback. We demand free legal representation in court for all tenants. Instead of carte blanche tax breaks to landlords, we demand that the city fund collective, tenant-led improvement and management of neglected buildings. We demand that all vacant apartments become homes for our neighbors. We demand a city where no one can use another person’s home to turn a profit nor expel a person from their home under any circumstances. Ultimately, We demand a city without landlords, without capitalism controlling every resident’s access to a home. Under a system where housing is privatized, this access will never be secure. Nothing short of tenant-controlled housing will ensure a safe, liveable city for all New Yorkers.

Landlords may find their allies in the court, but we find ours right next door. Tenants are the majority of New Yorkers. Together, we will not be intimidated, robbed, divided or thrown out of our homes. Regardless of what happens in the Supreme Court, we will join our neighbors in tenant unions, eviction defenses, rent strikes and public rallies. Tenants lay the blocks to build this city, and we must harness that power.

TOMATO SEASON refers to faceless, ever-changing groupings of working-class tenants that coalesce to use research and art for political education toward a future without capitalist exploitation. Materials created by tomato season belong to the people, and the people are encouraged to reprint, distribute and deliberate them widely.  Contact:  tomatoseason@proton.me | tomatoseason.org | ig: @tomatoseasonsasons

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