By Sabina Mollot
It wasn’t quite the climactic end to another four years tenants were hoping for when at midnight on June 15, the laws regulating rents in New York expired without being renewed or strengthened.
The following morning, the talks continued in Albany, though there was no sign that that they’d be concluded any time soon.
Part of the reason was that Governor Andrew Cuomo has been hoping to include the passage of an education tax credit in the negotiations, while Senate Republicans also last week passed a set of rent regulation legislation that’s wildly different from the package the Assembly passed in May. The much hyped 421-a tax abatement for developers who include some affordable housing in their projects has also been a factor, but hasn’t been given as much attention as it was expected to get, according to State Senator Brad Hoylman.
Hoylman described the tax program, which also expired on Monday, as being “radioactive” to many of his colleagues because of its being “at the heart of the investigations” into corruption in Albany by U.S. attorney Preet Bharara.
“It’s understandable that it wouldn’t be a front burner issue,” said Hoylman, adding he wouldn’t be mourning the program’s loss if it isn’t ultimately renewed and that he thinks it ought to be negotiated separately.
At around 10 p.m. on Monday, Hoylman had made an impassioned plea for the Senate to act on the rent regulations, asking his colleagues “on the other side of the aisle” how they’d feel if their communities were being turned upside down. Noting that Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village alone has 25,000 rent regulated tenants, he added, “That’s larger than many towns in New York State.
“I have constituents who are seniors, vets, single moms with kids who are wondering what their status is going to be in their rent regulated unit tomorrow morning.”
Assembly Democrats had passed legislation in May that would repeal vacancy decontrol and end the practice that allows landlords to raise preferential rents upon lease renewal. It would also make MCIs (major capital improvements) and IAIs (individual apartment improvements) temporary surcharges and not part of the base rent and reduce vacancy bonuses from 20 percent of the rent to 7.5 percent. It would also extend rent regulations for four years.
Last week, the Republican controlled Senate came up with its own set of rent reforms, which would extend rent regulation for eight years. It would also include some provisions that are favorable to landlords such as having tenants report their incomes in order to be eligible and place qualifications on apartments associated with subletting. Tenant-friendly measures would be to codify the state housing agency’s Tenant Protection Unit and impose stiffer penalties for landlords who harass tenants.
Hoylman dismissed his own chamber’s legislation as being a one-house bill and said tenants are being “used as political pawns” for unrelated issues, such as the education tax credit, 421-a and mayoral control.
“The Senate Republicans seem intent on using them as bargaining chips for other asks that they have,” he added. “I just find it deplorable. We’re talking about people’s homes.” That the negotiations took place at the last minute of the legislation session is yet another example of Albany’s dysfunction, Hoylman said.
However, he said that just because the session is ending, that doesn’t mean legislators should get to leave the Capitol until the work is done.
“The summer vacation should be put on hold,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve earned our vacation to say the least.”
One positive thing for tenants, Hoylman noted, has been all the activism, which has drawn a lot of attention to the issue of rent regulation.
Regardless of the outcome, he said, “No one can say the tenants’ groups didn’t work hard enough.”
Meanwhile, as tenants awaited their fates, some took the opportunity to protest by Cuomo’s midtown Manhattan office on Monday. On Sunday, a candlelight vigil for the rent laws was also held there. It was attended by 100 people, about a dozen who came from Stuyvesant Town, according to Susan Steinberg, chair of the ST-PCV Tenants Association.
ST/PCV residents also heard from CWCapital via a letter on the issue of rent regulations.
The letter, which was signed by “PCVST management” on Monday, notified residents that with no deal having yet been reached, all units were still subject to Rent Stabilization.
“We appreciate that the potential expiration of the RSL may be stressful for some residents and can raise questions about what will happen without the protections of the law,” the letter said. “We want to assure our residents that you have nothing to worry about at PCVST. All leases that are currently in place will remain in full force and effect even if the law expires tonight… We will act in accordance with the new law as soon as it is passed.”
A day earlier, Cuomo had penned a letter of his own to warn landlords not to mess with tenants’ leases.
“The terms of those agreements will continue to exist irrespective of any expiration or modification to the rent stabilization laws,” he told owners. He added, “The administration will use every tool as its disposal to prevent any improper attempts by landlords to break rent-stabilized leases.”
Along with Cuomo, the mayor’s administration also sent out an email to New Yorkers, this one signed by Vicki Been, commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Been instructed tenants whose landlords are harassing them or exploiting lapses in the law’s renewal to call an emergency hotline the city established. It’s reachable through 311.
On Tuesday, Steinberg said the Tenants Association’s message center had been ringing off the hook with tenants wondering “what’s going to happen to them.”
She said in response, the TA may put out a robo-call, as it did a couple of days earlier to urge neighbors to contact Cuomo’s office. This robo-call, she said, would serve the same purpose.
“People have to jam his telephone wires to let him know he’s responsible in many ways for this nonsense,” said Steinberg. “I think he’s not playing fair with his constituency. He’s put people in a state of limbo and not leading like a governor should be leading. It’s very disappointing.”
While Cuomo’s letter to landlords was pretty straightforward, his views on the rent laws themselves have changed more than once. At first Cuomo seemed to favor a straight extender of the laws and 421-a with possibly some minor tweaks. Then he suggested raising the rent threshold at which an apartment can be deregulated from $2,500 to $2,700. Then he said an op-ed in the Daily News earlier this month that he favored much more in the way of protections for tenants. They included repeal of vacancy decontrol or at least “significantly” raising the thresholds at which units could be deregulated, limiting vacancy bonuses and making MCIs and IAIs temporary.
Cuomo later said there wasn’t time to come up with a new plan for 421-a, leading some tenants to wonder if he was also saying there wasn’t time to reform rent laws. The Real Rent Reform (R3) Campaign, a coalition of tenant groups, has since called on Cuomo to not use time as an excuse.
“If the governor chooses to show the leadership that we know he is capable of, there is enough time for him to do his job,” R3 said in a written statement last Thursday. It went on to say that Cuomo’s statements were “the equivalent of waving the white flag of surrender to corruption and dysfunction.”