Tenant-friendly bills idle in Albany

Pending legislation aims to reform the Rent Guidelines Board. Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel

Pending legislation aims to reform the Rent Guidelines Board.
Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel

By Sabina Mollot
For years, tenant-friendly politicians (Assembly Democrats) have been pushing in Albany for legislation aimed at keeping housing affordable and protecting renters’ rights while the real estate-friendly pols (Senate Republicans) have successfully pushed back.
While local legislators Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh and State Senator Brad Hoylman have admitted they don’t know if this year will be any different once the legislative session starts up again after the summer, they are of course going to continue to try to get the bills, which have passed the Assembly, get through the Senate in one piece this time.Tenant-related laws were last strengthened somewhat in 2011 after years of being weakened due to landlord pressure. They included changing the rent increase owners can charge for renovating apartments from 1/40th to 1/60th of the rent and killing a bill that would have legislatively undone the effects of the “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer” lawsuit. Additionally, high-income decontrol levels, which previously deregulated apartments where tenants paid $2,000 in rent and earned $175,000 a year in household income were raised to $2,500 and $200,000, respectively.
However, there was no effect on major capital improvement (MCI) fees or vacancy bonuses, nor was there a change to vacancy decontrol. Home rule was also not returned from the state to the city.
Currently, these are the major tenant-related bills that have so far passed the Assembly, but have been rejected by state senators:

1. Reform of the Rent Guidelines Board—This bill would give the City Council more oversight in the selection of the nine people who sit on the board. Currently, they are chosen by Mayor Bloomberg, and tenant advocates have criticized the board’s five “public members” as being owner-biased.
The bill would mean those who want to serve as public, tenant or owner members would have to explain why they want the unpaid job, which involves getting heckled at every public appearance, and what experience they have that qualifies them to decide the fates of over a million rent-stabilized New Yorkers.

2. Limiting of MCI fee payment period—Major capital improvements are fees landlords can charge to recoup their costs for necessary improvements they make on their properties, on top of tenants’ regular rent. However, even after the projects are paid off, the fees still remain on tenants’ rent bills. This means MCIs can end up being big business for owners, and in 2009, after meeting with the state housing agency, ST-PCV Tenants Association leaders learned that 20 percent of the MCI requests in the city came from ST/PCV alone.
If this bill is passed, the charge for an MCI would be paid off in a period of seven years and then taken off a tenant’s rent bill.
“So it doesn’t become permanent,” said Kavanagh, “which gives landlords incentive to do things that are not necessarily in the best interest of the building or tenants.”

3. Repeal of vacancy decontrol—While at this time, residents in Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village are rent-stabilized because of the outcome of “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer,” Kavanagh pointed out that vacancy decontrol will be allowed once again to turn vacated apartments in ST/PCV to market rate once the property’s J-51 tax benefits expire in 2020. Repealing vacancy decontrol would obviously remove incentive for landlords to churn out apartments in the hopes of getting a new tenant to pay market rate.

4. Lowering of vacancy bonuses—Currently, every time a rent-stabilized apartment is vacated, an owner can raise the next tenant’s rent by 20 percent. This bill would lower that amount to seven percent. This, bill, too, is aimed at reducing a landlord’s incentive to encourage apartment turnover.

5. Elimination of “preferential rents”—Currently, in many cases in the city, owners charge what’s referred to as “preferential” rents to tenants, while also explaining that legally, the charge could be higher. This has led to confusion among tenants, in particularly those who are new to rent-regulated housing.
Kavanagh, however, said he considers the policy a bait-and-switch scheme. Because, he said, when the lease is next up for renewal, a tenant’s rent can be increased drastically up to the legal rent. If the bill is passed, once a tenant’s rent is set, there couldn’t be any hike at the next renewal other than what has been issued by the Rent Guidelines Board.
“In many parts of the city, they use preferential rents to get you into apartments,” said Kavanagh.

Additionally, although not exactly housing related, one bill that Hoylman said he believes will ultimately help tenants is campaign finance reform. Through this act, he believes, more Senate members will support tenants rather than the real estate industry.
He added that he thought the act does have some legs, in part due to a commission started by Governor Cuomo this summer that will investigate legislators and possibly uncover misconduct, including over issues that are campaign finance related. It’s unlikely, however that anything will happen this year, since the commission won’t be reporting on its findings until December.

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