By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Hundreds of tenants gathered in Albany on Tuesday to call on the state legislature about renewing and strengthening the housing laws that are set to expire next Monday. The ST-PCV Tenants Association sent three buses full of tenants (around 150 in total) to the rally. The Stuy Town and Peter Cooper Village residents also made sure that they were seen, standing out from the crowd with their neon yellow-green TA shirts. Dozens of other tenant groups made the trip to the state’s capital this week, all easy to tell apart in the rainbow of signature colored shirts.
“It was great, the way the shirts worked out,” TA treasurer Margaret Salacan said. “It’s like all the groups coordinated to wear different colors but it wasn’t even planned.”
Other groups to make the trip included the Cooper Square Committee and the Met Council on Housing, along with Rent Guidelines Board tenant representative Harvey Epstein, on a fourth bus that also left from First Avenue and East 19th Street on Tuesday morning.
Former TA President and Stuyvesant Town resident Al Doyle said that the last Albany trip that the TA took was in 2011 but that the last time tenants came out in such high numbers for the trip to Albany was in 1997.
Councilmember Dan Garodnick was also in attendance, after hopping from bus to bus throughout the trip to give residents updates on the situation with the rent laws and answer any other concerns they had in what he called his “rolling town hall.”
“The reason that we need to renew the laws is obvious,” he said. “Rents could go through the stratosphere. The rent for a one bedroom in Stuy Town is already $3,500 and it’s $6,000 for a two-bedroom in Peter Cooper. It’s why you see so many students crammed into single apartments. How else do you afford five to six thousand a month without cramming in as many people as possible?”
Garodnick also said that he is cautiously optimistic after reading an op-ed from Governor Andrew Cuomo that was published in the Daily News last weekend. Garodnick had previously sent Governor Cuomo a letter (which ran in this newspaper last week) urging him to end vacancy decontrol and reform MCIs and preferential rents.
“The tenor from the governor appears to have changed,” he said. “Initially I was reading they were talking about a straight extender. To my great pleasure, it was like he took my letter and emphasized those three things. All these questions are now on the table.”
On the first bus at the start of the trip, TA chair Susan Steinberg outlined the plans for the day, which included a rally at the ornate steps at the Capitol known as the Million Dollar Staircase, which actually cost $1.5 million to build when it was constructed in 1894. She added that ST-PCV tenants would then be heading to the gallery at the Assembly to participate in a non-disruptive protest.
“Members of the Assembly will look up and be greeted by a sea of neon,” she said.
A tenant on the bus inquired about why the TA would be participating in a rally in the Assembly, where there is already support for tenants through the Democratic majority, rather than in the State Senate, where there is a Republican majority.
Steinberg clarified that the demonstrations were a coordinated effort among the tenant organizations.
“Everyone can’t all be everywhere at once,” she said. “Other groups will be demonstrating in the Senate and tenants are known to be quite aggressive. The goal is to make sure that our voices are heard but also to make sure that none of us get arrested.”
TA president John Marsh explained after the rally that a movement from the Real Rent Reform Campaign had a more disruptive display planned for the Senate.
“The plan was to print out ‘Glenbucks’ with Governor Cuomo’s face on them and throw them from the gallery onto the Senate floor,” Marsh said, referring to the governor’s relationship with real estate company Glenwood Management. Glenwood is one of the firms cited in the criminal complaint against State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who has been accused of monetizing his office. T&V could not confirm if the organization followed through with this demonstration but there were rowdy protests from tenants in the Senate throughout the afternoon.
The Stuyvesant Town residents at the rally were a mix of die-hards who had been to Albany in previous years for similar rallies and others who were coming for the first time. Milton Maxfield, who’s lived in Stuy Town for 20 years, said that he made the decision to head to Albany this year because “enough is enough.”
“It just keeps on going up,” he said. “The system needs to be reformed. This experience was very enlightening and it’s inspiring me to keep doing what we’ve been doing and stay the course.”
Another resident, Jim Bell, said that he hoped lawmakers would consider the impact rent laws have on places like Stuy Town because it could have a similar effect throughout the other boroughs.
“It’s like what they used to say about General Motors: what’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” he said. “What’s good for Stuyvesant Town really is good for the rest of the city.”
Tenant organizers lead chants throughout the Capitol building during the rally, using the old standby, “The rent is too damn high!” and modifying a commonly used rent freeze call-and-response chant to, “What do we want? Stronger rent laws! When do we want them? Now!”
An employee at the Capitol building riding in one of the Assembly elevators also commented on the tenant groups’ efforts as their chanting echoed around him.
“Oh, you guys want it done now,” he responded to no one in particular. “Well, I think you’re in the wrong building.”