Op-Ed: It’s time to reframe the narrative on tenants’ rights

NY State Senator Brad Hoylman

NY State Senator Brad Hoylman

By New York State Senator Brad Hoylman

As T&V recently reported, I had the honor of giving the keynote address at the Eighth Annual West Side Tenants’ Conference. The event may have had “West Side” in its name, but my remarks were just as applicable to tenants from the East Side, or anywhere else in the city for that matter.

I spoke broadly about the challenges tenants and their advocates face in Albany, where Republican State Senators from far flung parts of the state, with weak housing markets and no need for emergency tenant protections, have control over housing legislation. I noted that most members of the Senate Majority Coalition do not have any rent-regulated tenants in their districts, and yet their campaign committees cash big checks from the real estate industry. That’s why the only way to put tenants on a level playing field and get our priority bills – from vacancy control to MCI reform to restoring home rule over our city’s housing laws – through the Senate is to make Campaign Finance Reform the first bill on the tenants’ agenda.

Taking the money out of politics is absolutely critical, but so is changing the prevailing narrative around rent regulations. We need to fight back against landlords’ domination of the conversation and go on the offensive with the facts.

There are many misperceptions out there about rent regulations – many of which have been purposely fostered by the real estate industry. If you read the New York Post, you can be forgiven for thinking that rent regulated tenants are all wealthy individuals freeloading while putting their landlords in the poor house and stifling new development, but that’s simply not true. The statistics show that the median income of rent-controlled households was only $29,000 in 2010, and the median income of households in rent-stabilized units as a whole was only $37,000. Moreover, one third of renter households in the City (33.6 percent) pay 50 percent or more of their household income for rent. Meanwhile, as our economy recovers from the great recession, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of development in our city. Unfortunately, it is unprecedented levels of luxury housing that is being developed.

Recently even the New York Times has gotten in on the act, running a Sunday Magazine essay claiming that rent regulations force landlords to raise prices for unregulated units to make up for lost income. But if we look at the facts, from 2010-2011 the most recent year data is available, landlords’ income after all operating and maintenance expenses are paid – known as the Net Operating Income (NOI) or “profit” – increased by 5.6 percent. That’s the seventh consecutive year they saw increased profit. So not only are landlords making money, they are making more money year after year.

It is these kinds of distortions – as well as deep pockets when it comes to campaign contributions – that help landlords when they go to Albany. The landlord and real estate lobby have sold many legislators on the notion that the free market can solve our housing shortage. Just suspend rent regulations, the free market argument goes, and the market forces will fix everything. The housing stock will increase. Rents will decline. Well, this was already tried once. And it failed. Miserably. In 1994, rent regulation was ended in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Within a just a few years of deregulation, rents were way up.  Middle and lower income residents were forced out of the city centers and into the suburbs. Neighborhoods around Boston and Cambridge quickly gentrified. Yes, landlord investment increased in about 20 percent of the buildings, but at what social cost?

As we make our voices heard, we need to remember the Massachusetts example, and also remember the reasoning behind our rent laws. All too often I hear people speak about rent regulations as if they were a subsidy, gift, or charity taken from the hands of landlords and given to a select lucky few. And I also hear the argument that rent regulation should not be tied to individual apartments and should instead only be granted to means-tested tenants. If you know the history of rent regulations, you know these arguments are misguided.

Just to give you some context, the first rent regulations were established during World War II by the Federal government to prevent price gouging during the war. The price controls at that time covered everything from milk to coffee to nylon for stockings. The problem was – and is – not simply high rents, but the profiteering that comes with a shortage of a critical good. We should no more condone price gouging on rents in the midst of our city’s extreme housing shortage than we should condone price gouging on groceries or gasoline in the wake of a hurricane.

In this squeezed real estate market, where everyone is desperately competing for every inch of space, tenants in unregulated units are forced to pay significantly more than that apartment would otherwise be worth. Left unchecked, as high-income families are forced to take homes that would otherwise have gone to middle income families, who take homes that would otherwise have gone to low-income families, we all end up accepting less than we should. This is the race to the bottom that rent regulations stand against, and why rent regulations cover not just price, but housing quality.

We all know unregulated tenants who have had to find a new home after they asked their landlord to repair a ceiling leak, to remove mold or fix a failing boiler – all of which violate the warranty of habitability, which guarantees tenants’ right to a safe and decent home. Unfortunately, it’s a risky proposition to complain about the lack of services or repairs in your building if you don’t have a legal right to a renewal lease or statutory tenancy, which are afforded by rent stabilization and rent control respectively unless the landlord can show cause for eviction.

Next time you hear someone – a neighbor, an elected official, anyone – repeating the lie that rent regulations go to the undeserving, or that those in regulated apartments are raising rents for everybody else, confront them with the facts. Along with campaign finance reform, changing the narrative on rent regulation is key to advancing the tenant agenda.

 

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Stuyvesant Town resident producing hip-hop musical film

Jason Stefaniak

Jason Stefaniak

By Sabina Mollot

When the typical New Yorker spends the majority of his or her time just trying to earn enough to make the rent, how is it even possible to do what people actually come to this city for, like pursue a life in the arts and maybe even fall in love?

This is the question that dominates the story in a musical film being produced by a Stuyvesant Town resident and recent NYU graduate called “But Not for Me.” The resident, Jason Stefaniak, like the writer and director of the film, Ryan Carmichael, is an alum of New York University’s graduate film program and the two 27-year-olds are currently trying to shop the project for production in the spring of 2014. Described as a “philosophical hip hop musical love story” with a hard-to-miss message about the lack of local affordable housing, the story focuses on Will, a disillusioned millennial copywriter and his love for a neighbor, Hope.

“Twenty-somethings come here to pursue anything, especially creative endeavors, and then they’re struggling to eat and do basic things like pay the rent,” said Stefaniak.

For Stefaniak, who’s lived in Stuyvesant Town for two years, the story resonates on a personal level, since he’s not sure how much longer he can afford to live in the complex.

“I love Stuyvesant Town, but I don’t know if it’s going to be sustainable, anymore,” he said, following a recent rent hike.

Back in June, though not affected personally, Stefaniak attempted to protest the round of mid-lease increases issued to 1,100 of his neighbors by starting an online petition. Eventually, he got 450 signatures, and each time a new person signed, an alert would be sent to around 20 management email addresses.

Stefaniak said he “tried to make some racket about the situation as best I could.” However, he never got a response from CWCapital.

“I thought I’d at least get a terse email by someone asking me to remove their address, but I got nothing,” said Stefaniak.

For Carmichael, who lives in Astoria, the situation also hits pretty close to home, since he was recently

Ryan Carmichael

Ryan Carmichael

priced out of Manhattan.

“When you get there, it’s a constant struggle, and you wonder when you can start enjoying what the city has to offer,” said Carmichael. Still, he noted the movie is still an overall positive one with a focus on the musical score. “I don’t want people to think that I’m trying to do a soapbox stand on any issues.”

To make the feature-length film a reality, he and Stefaniak are currently pouring all their energy into a Kickstarter campaign that as of Monday, raised over $20,000 for its production. The goal however is much more ambitious at $100,000, with the partners hoping to raise an additional $25,000 through other means.

“After many years of making student films, we’re trying to do this is a more professional way,” said Stefaniak.

The pro budget is a gamble though considering that the way Kickstarter works, if the full goal isn’t met by a deadline of November 2, the partners don’t end up getting a dime of the pledged money.

If they’re successful, the money would go towards hiring crew, renting studio space for the recording of the music (also written by Carmichael), buying equipment and renting space to shoot at. As the “But Not for Me” team has already learned, such foresight is necessary, as they’ve already once experienced losing a place to shoot due to a property owner changing his mind at the last minute. Rather than waste the day though, since the crew and actors were already there, Stefaniak suggested filming the scene in front of his Stuy Town building instead. Not surprisingly, he and the crew were eventually told to scram by public safety officers, but, he noted, “They were really nice about it.”

Fortunately for the film, the scene was mostly shot anyway at that point, and the remaining bits were filmed by the East River.

Additionally, at this time, most of the casting is complete, and Stefaniak and Carmichael consider the inclusion of concert violinist Elena Urioste to be one of the highlights of the film. She’ll be making her acting debut as Hope in “But Not for Me.”

To learn more about the film, visit Stefaniak’s blog at jasonstefaniak.com. To contribute to the Kickstarter campaign, visit http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1157078283/but-not-for-me?ref=live.