By Sabina Mollot
For tenants, who’d been facing an uphill battle in Albany with the June expiration of the rent laws, the second arrest of a major Albany power player this year — Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos — and strong statements made by Mayor Bill de Blasio this week in favor of strengthening the rent laws, may prove to be helpful when negotiations begin. While exactly how much it may help is still anyone’s guess, Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC, expressed optimism at both turns of events.
On Monday, after Skelos and his son Adam were arrested on federal charges of bribery and extortion, McKee said, “I think Skelos’ arrest helps us somewhat. It’s not a game changer. It helps that the Senate leadership is in a state of disarray.”
Skelos has insisted he is innocent and plans to fight the charges. But, said McKee, it also helps to have the support of the mayor.
On Tuesday, de Blasio announced in detailed statements that he wanted to end vacancy decontrol, end vacancy bonuses and make major capital improvement (MCI) and individual apartment improvement (IAI) rent increases temporary.
Specifically, he suggested that costs related to increased services or improvements to individual apartments be spread over 10 years, while building-wide or system improvements could be spread over seven years. Long-term rent would be unaffected, and would reset after the improvements have been paid.
The mayor’s administration is also launching a task force aimed at combating harassment of tenants by landlords in an attempt to get them out of their apartments.
“Our working families and our neighborhoods are depending on stronger rent laws,” de Blasio said. “Rent is the number one expense for New Yorkers. Unless we change the status quo, tens of thousands of hardworking families will be pushed out of their homes.”
In response to the mayor’s announcement, McKee said, “I’m optimistic. The whole political landscape in Albany is lining up in our favor and if the Assembly stands strong and plays hardball, we can move the governor in our direction.”
Late last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo indicated that the laws could just be renewed without changes or changed with just some “fine modifications.” He also said the controversial 421-a tax benefit for developers, which is expected to be used as leverage for strengthened rent laws, could also remain as is or tweaked with fine modifications.
“He knows as well as anyone that’s what the real estate lobby wants,” said McKee. McKee then reiterated statements he’s made previously that the only way the rent laws will be strengthened is if the Assembly “takes hostages” during negotiations. “If the Assembly will say we’re not doing xyz unless we get stronger rent laws,” he explained.
While McKee thinks Carl Heastie, the new Assembly speaker, has been more responsive to his fellow members than his predecessor, Sheldon Silver, he added, “We don’t know if Heastie will play hardball.”
Heastie, has, however cheered the mayor’s position on strengthening the rent laws.
“I am pleased to work with him in our effort to make New York’s rent laws as strong as possible,” Heastie said in response to Tuesday’s announcement.
Meanwhile, in the New York Senate, where Republicans have a majority and typically shoot down tenant-friendly legislation, news reports suggested that other senators had been vying for Skelos’ position.
However, on Monday, the New York Post reported that that the majority ultimately decided to keep Skelos in his position as majority leader. This would be in contrast to when former Assembly Speaker Silver was arrested in a bribery and corruption scandal, and was quickly made to resign his speaker position, though he kept his Assembly seat.
McKee called the support of Skelos by his colleagues “predictable,” but added that he doesn’t think it makes much of a difference.
State Senator Brad Hoylman agreed, saying, when names were popping up as potential replacements, that he also didn’t think other Republicans would be more tenant-friendly. He still believed the majority leader should have been made to give up his position, though. Hoylman was also one of the first elected officials to say he thought Silver should step down when the investigation into his alleged bribery and kickback scheme began.
While Skelos is “entitled to the presumption of innocence,” said Hoylman, “he is not entitled to be majority leader until proven innocent. I don’t think the Senate leader has the credibility to lead the chamber through the session.”
The arrest has naturally been an enormous distraction in the capital, he added.
“It is cataclysmic to have the leaders of each house be arrested on public corruption charges, within months of each other no less,” said Hoylman. “I’m concerned the majority leader is standing in the way of important business in Albany, including strengthening the rent laws.”
Still, the Democrat Senate member said he is hoping, as he always does, that the latest scandal surrounding an elected official will result in some reforms. “It’s said that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” he said.
In a complaint that was over 40 pages, the elder Skelos is accused of pushing a developer, reportedly Glenwood Management, to make payments to his son, in return for political favors.
The complaint at one point says, “Dean Skelos voted for various real estate legislation sought by and favorable to Developer-1, including legislation concerning rent regulation and property tax abatements, and he rebuffed legislative initiatives put forth by interests adverse to Developer-1.”
Tishman Speyer has been revealed to be a second real developer named in the complaint. According to the document, Adam, who worked for a title insurance company, mentioned in 2011 to a supervisor that he had a meeting with “Developer-2.” A month later he was asked to produce a title report for the Chrysler building, which the developer owns.
The company has since said it is cooperating with the authorities.
“We have been contacted by the US Attorney’s office with regard to its investigation and are happy to continue to answer any questions they may have,” a spokesperson for Tishman Speyer said.
Other accusations the complaint, by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, makes include strong-arming the environmental technology company where Adam worked into doubling payments that had been made to him, by threatening to a block a contract with Nassau County, and disguising payments from a real estate developer as well as disguising conversations by using “burner” phones.
Town & Village was unable to get a statement from the elder Skelos’ office by deadline. However, in published reports, he has denied everything.
“I am innocent of the charges leveled against me,” Skelos said in a City & State article. “I am not saying I am just not guilty, I am saying that I am innocent. I fully expect to be exonerated by a public jury trial.”