By Sabina Mollot
On Saturday, over 400 residents of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village gathered for a meeting held by the Tenants Association that focused on the upcoming expiration of rent laws and the uphill battle tenants would have in trying to get them strengthened.
Speakers briefed the audience on the current power dynamic in Albany, while also telling those in attendance that without tenants writing to Albany lawmakers, especially the governor, the effort is a lot less likely to succeed.
“If I go to Albany and say (to Governor Cuomo) two and half million people are going to be very upset with you, if that’s not clear in the streets and not in the mail in his email inbox, it’s very hard to believe,” said Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh.
Kavanagh was one of the speakers of the event, which was held at Simon Baruch Middle School, along with State Senator Brad Hoylman and TenantsPAC treasurer Mike McKee.
McKee told the crowd if the laws are renewed in their current state, “It would be a terrible defeat for tenants.” Referring to a recent Daily News article that quoted Cuomo as saying the laws and the controversial 421-a tax abatement for developers could possibly just be renewed and not changed, due to the federal investigations being conducted in Albany, McKee added, “I’m sorry, but that is crap.” McKee has said that 421-a is expected to be used as leverage during the rent law negotiations.
Both Hoylman and Kavanagh spoke about Albany’s power system and how with the Senate in the hands of Republicans whose campaigns are financed largely by real estate, the only hope for tenants is in swaying the Assembly, led by Carl Heastie, and the governor.
Meanwhile, Kavanagh has said he wants to close the “LLC loophole” that makes New York one of the few states where each LLC created counts as a separate campaign contributor, but, he admitted, “I’m not sure we’re going to do that this year.”
However, he added that recent media attention on the issue may prove helpful anyway.
“There may an opportunity to shame people into backing off,” he said.
McKee said that while in the past, major decisions in Albany have been made behind closed doors by the “three men in a room” (the governor, the Assembly speaker and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos) this year there might be four — if Jeff Klein is allowed to participate. Klein is the head of the State Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group that caucuses with Republicans. McKee, who’s often blasted Klein as being a tool of the real estate industry, commented that his participation would only be to tenants’ disadvantage.
As for Skelos, McKee added, “Dean Skelos will not do anything voluntarily to help tenants or to hurt landlords. The Assembly has to do what’s called taking hostages. There are dozens of things everybody wants at the last minute. Some of it is minor stuff, nothing to do with housing even.”
One advantage of tenants, he added, is that with Heastie being new as speaker, “he has to prove himself. He has to be accountable not only to us but the members that elected him speaker.” Heastie has said he considers strengthening the rent laws a priority. That said, McKee warned, there’s still always the possibility a tough talking pol will “wimp out” at the eleventh hour. “There is always a wimp factor in Albany,” he sighed.
As for what tenants could do, he urged people to write to the aforementioned three men (letters rather than postcards), and get three neighbors to do the same as well as turn out, if possible for any upcoming rallies. One rally, organized by the Real Rent Reform campaign and the union 1199SEIU, which is aimed at strengthening the rent laws, is scheduled for Thursday, May 14 at 5 p.m. at Foley Square (corner of Centre and Worth Streets). The group will then march over the Brooklyn Bridge.
“We need a very big turnout,” said McKee.
Another rally is on Wednesday, May 6 in front of Cuomo’s Manhattan office at 633 Third Avenue (between 40th and 41st Streets) from 10 a.m.-noon.
He then claimed to have a plan aimed at shaming Cuomo into helping tenants. McKee declined to discuss this further. “That’s all I’m prepared to say,” he said later.
When taking his turn at the podium, Tenants Association President John Marsh echoed the sentiment of the other speakers, calling on neighbors to get involved. “If everyone takes a small step, we can have a very loud voice,” said Marsh.
He also mentioned a door-knocking campaign that he and Council Member Dan Garodnick led through ST/PCV the following day, with Garodnick’s two young sons in tow. Garodnick later said the building walk-throughs resulted in many tenants being appreciative of the reminder of the looming rent negotiations in June.
Kavanagh, when addressing the audience, said that while he realizes many new residents at ST/PCV probably feel the rent laws have no teeth when they look at the numbers on their rent bills, being rent regulated still offers New Yorkers protections they wouldn’t have otherwise.
“It prevents landlords from arbitrarily evicting tenants and that doesn’t exist for most tenants in the city,” he said.
Because of the outcome of the “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer” lawsuit, all units in ST/PCV will be regulated until the property’s J-51 tax abatement expires in 2020.
Kavanagh reiterated the goals for strengthening the rent laws, which include repealing vacancy deregulation and other policies that give incentive to owners to vacate units such as vacancy bonuses and reforming the way individual apartment improvement (IAI) rent increases are issued. Reform of major capital increases (MCIs) is another goal.
Kavanagh also got a round of applause after saying he wanted to close the preferential rent loophole. Due to preferential rents, which are given to most new residents in renovated apartments in ST/PCV, rent increases can be far higher than those issued by the Rent Guidelines Board, if the tenants’ legal rents are higher than what they’ve been paying (the preferential rent).
“In our community it’s a particular problem due to the way ‘Roberts’ played out,” said Kavanagh. “(Tenants) are facing enormous increases.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who’d been sitting in the audience at the meeting, along with Garodnick, at one point, popped up to comment about preferential rents, which she said was happening all around the city.
“We go case by case and try to fight it but there is no great answer,” she admitted.
The meeting then concluded with a Q&A period, with most of the questions from the audience—which were limited to the topic of rent—being on the theme of MCIs. Tenants mainly asked why they were being forced to pay them. Hoylman and Kavanagh suggested that tenants’ use their frustration and personal experiences as inspiration to write to the governor.
When a woman asked where the mayor was in this fight, saying, “He seems to have had a low profile lately,” Kavanagh responded to say he thought the mayor would be more visible soon. “This is the time we roll out this fight and I think you’ll see the mayor rolling out this fight,” he said. Hoylman added that a lot is done “behind the scenes,” going on to note that this is part of Albany’s dysfunction.
When a man asked if strengthening of the rent laws would help a conversion effort, Kavanagh said he thought it would in that it would help thwart predatory bidders.
Another tenant then asked if it could work to tenants’ advantage if Skelos, who’s being investigated by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, were to be indicted. The answer, however, was that it wasn’t likely to have any impact during rent negotiations.
“If he’s indicted and forced to step down, it’s unlikely that he’d go to trial before June and you don’t have to leave office until you’re convicted,” said Hoylman. “It would have a greater impact next year than this year.”
Town & Village later contacted the office of the governor to ask his position on strengthening the rent laws. In response, a spokesperson emailed prepared statements made by Cuomo at the Association for a Better New York breakfast on rent laws and 421-a.
Included in the written statement was a comment that “At a maximum maybe we can make some fine modifications in both of them.”
“The 421-a, first I believe has to be extended and I believe that’s essential,” the statement read. On changes to it, which he said he believed were needed, he said, “If it was a different time in Albany, frankly, and Albany was a little bit more of a stable situation I would normally take those negotiations to Albany and try to work it out among the parties. Albany has a lot going on right now let’s say, so I’m hoping and I’m asking the parties to work out the disagreements among themselves or their desires for modifications. If they can great, in any event 421-a has to be extended.”
He went on to say, “Rent has to be extended. It is a New York City issue. If we don’t extend rent you would have chaos in the real estate market, these are rent regulations, rent stabilization etc. You would have chaos in the real estate market unlike anything we have seen because it regulates the private industry not another government. It lapses one day you will see real estate entities and landlords start rising rents and evicting tenants. I mean it would be immediate mass mayhem.
“So at a minimum we have to extend those protections but in truth, because everyone has been watching the situation, to have these final negotiations on these delicate points is going to be problematic this year. So, at a minimum rents extended 421-a, is extended. At a maximum maybe we can make some fine modifications in both of them. The democratic assembly is going to be more aggressive on extending rent than the senate Republicans. 421-a, both houses want.”
A spokesperson, Frank Sobrino, when asked if the governor could clarify what was meant by “fine modifications,” said this was a general statement in response to suggested changes. He also denied that the statements were an attempt to remain neutral.
“He said that ‘at a minimum,’ both rent regulations and 421-a must be extended,” said Sobrino. “That’s not neutral.”