Tenant groups, pols rally for stronger rent laws

Mayor’s office pledges support but is short on details at Council hearing

Council Member Dan Garodnick and other city politicians called on Albany to repeal vacancy decontrol and further strengthen the laws governing rent stabilization. (Photo by William Alatriste)

Council Member Dan Garodnick and other city politicians called on Albany to repeal vacancy decontrol and further strengthen the laws governing rent stabilization. (Photo by William Alatriste)

By Sabina Mollot

With the Rent Stabilization Laws up for renewal in June, several city politicians and dozens of tenants gathered at City Hall on Monday to call on state lawmakers to strengthen the laws, most importantly by repealing vacancy decontrol.

Most of the comments were directed at Governor Cuomo, with speakers like Comptroller Scott Stringer putting the blame on Albany for “rewarding greedy speculators.”

He added that the city’s plan to build more affordable housing meant nothing if it kept hemorrhaging units at the same pace. “We’re losing affordable housing bastions like Stuyvesant Town,” he said.

The comptroller, who recently released a report saying that 400,000 apartments renting for $1,000 have disappeared from the radar, said at the podium that vacancy decontrol alone has cost the city 153,000 units of affordable housing. Currently, around 2.3 million New Yorkers live in 1.1 million rent stabilized units.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer voiced a suggestion that rent laws include a provision that every new development must include affordable housing, and, she added, “We need to get rid of MCIs (major capital improvements) that go on for 100 years.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Housing Chair Jumaane Williams (right) outside City Hall with tenants (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Housing Chair Jumaane Williams (right) outside City Hall with tenants (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Council Member Dan Garodnick said the law as it exists has too many loopholes that give landlords incentive to try and get apartments out of the regulation system.

“If you’re looking for a poster child, you have one in Stuyvesant Town,” he said.

Leaders from a few tenant groups from neighborhoods around the city, including Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association Chair Susan Steinberg, spoke about how weak laws have led to transient, unstable communities.

Stuy Town, Steinberg told the crowd, “is bigger than some upstate towns.” But, she added, it’s steadily seen its middle class population disappear.

“Thanks to a landmark legal decision, it’s regulated but only until 2020,” said Steinberg. “We’ve lost our teachers, we’ve lost our firefighters, we’ve lost our nurses because they can’t afford it. But if you want to pay $5,000 for a one-bedroom in a 70-year-old building, come on down.”

She added, “I don’t want to live in Boise, Idaho. I’m sure it’s nice, but I want to live in New York City. Albany has to get the message.”

Following the press conference on the steps, the City Council held a hearing on the rent laws, led by Housing Chair Jumaane Williams.

Williams, who has a background in tenant advocacy, said if the laws aren’t strengthened, but just renewed, it’s a loss.

“Will this become a city for part-time residents from around the globe?” he asked. “We’re running the risk of creating large economic disparities.”

He and other Council members then began firing off questions about the rent laws and the city’s position on them, directed at a representative of the mayor’s office, Emma Wolfe, who was at the hearing, along with a representative of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), Elyzabeth Gaumer. However, the Council members didn’t get many definitive answers from either.

Wolfe, director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the mayor’s office, reiterated a commitment by Mayor de Blasio to strengthen the laws as well as his opposition to vacancy decontrol. However, frequently, when pressed for details by Williams on issues like MCIs, IAIs (individual apartment improvements) and preferential rents, Wolfe would only say that more information would be shared “in the coming weeks.”

Specifically, she said the administration is waiting to consider “state legislative items,” including rent regulation, after the state budget is adopted.

Council Member Rosie Mendez questioned information that had been given in Gaumer’s testimony, which included some stats from the HPD’s 2014 Housing and Vacancy Survey (HVS).

According to the HVS’s estimations, the number of rental units that were rent stabilized in 2014 (1,029,918 or 47.2 percent of all rental units) was “statistically equivalent” to the number of units that were stabilized in 2011.

“I find that hard to believe,” said Mendez, whose district includes the East Village, Gramercy and Alphabet City. “In my district we are bleeding rent stabilized units and moving in luxury units.”

Emma Wolfe, director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the mayor’s office, with Elyzabeth Gaumer, the acting assistant commissioner of research and evaluation at HPD (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Emma Wolfe, director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the mayor’s office, with Elyzabeth Gaumer, the acting assistant commissioner of research and evaluation at HPD (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Gaumer, the acting assistant commissioner of research and evaluation at HPD, responded that the survey also accounted for the addition of new affordable housing.

Mendez then asked for information on how units were considered lost and added, like additions of state programs or co-op conversions, but Gaumer said that kind of information wasn’t being tracked.

The survey also noted that last year, 56 percent of rental households were “rent burdened,” which means its residents were paying more than 30 percent of their incomes in housing costs. A little more than a third, 33.5 percent were “severely rent burdened” or paying more than half their incomes towards housing.

Mendez asked if there was any information to track “severely severely rent burdened” tenants, to which Gaumer answered, “We are open to novel measures, but we do not a severely severely” level.

Another topic was harassment of tenants, with Council Member Antonio Reynoso saying in Bushwick and Williamsburg, things have gotten so bad that he felt city agencies should share in some of the blame for their lack of an organized response.

“They’re destroying apartments while tenants are living in them,” said Reynoso. “Making 8 by 10 foot holes in the living room when the tenant is in the kitchen, and city agencies are complicit in allowing landlords to do this. The rent laws are incapable of taking care of the tenants because of how ridiculous the real estate market is there.”

In response to this, Wolfe said the mayor was in support of legal services for tenants in “places that were rezoning areas.”

Mendez then quipped that “In my district, it’s harassment by renovation. They give you an MCI and up your lease and you’re deregulated. We have to look at how we can control that.”

In response, Wolfe said that MCIs and IAIs “are being looked at.”

At one point, Williams also asked about the controversial 421-a property tax break, calling it a “game changer,” and Wolfe responded, “We’ll be coming out with a proposal in the coming weeks.”

When Williams countered, “That could be two weeks or five weeks,” Gaumer admitted, “It’s a flexible phrase.”

Later in the hearing, a handful of advocates for tenants and groups aiding low-income New Yorkers gave testimony about longtime residents being priced out, increased levels of harassment by landlords and a growing number of homeless people, now around 60,000, living in city shelters.

“We cannot build or subsidize our way out of this crisis,” said Ilana Meir of the Met Council on Housing. “We must do better by strengthening the rent laws.”

Another speaker was Tim Collins, an attorney for tenants (including the ST-PCV Tenants Association) and the former executive director of the city’s Rent Guidelines Board.

He blasted the real estate industry’s arguments against rent regulation as “myths.” Those myths, he said, are “that there’s something unholy about rent regulation. That the market will solve all our problems.” Specifically he referred to arguments such as rent stabilization leading to deterioration of housing and the local economy, abandonment of properties and the stopping of construction.

“Every one of those assumptions is weak at best, and many of them are false,” he added. “Rent regulation does not lead to a housing shortage. It doesn’t stop construction. In New York, (construction is) based on the rate of new immigrants. Abandonment occurred in cities with and without rent regulation in the 60s and 70s.”

On the economy, he said without regulation in place, “tenants will have less to spend on the economy.”

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