By Sabina Mollot
On Tuesday afternoon, the rent regulations, over a week after their expiration, were discussed in what was called “the framework of an agreement” that was immediately blasted by tenant advocates for not repealing vacancy decontrol or reforming preferential rents. The plan was announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in an Albany press conference.
The plan, which, as of Town & Village’s press time, was still being discussed by both legislative houses in conference, calls for a four-year extension of the rent laws, reforming major capital improvements (MCIs) so that tenants’ payments are lower though they will still have to be paid in perpetuity. Other changes include increasing penalties on landlords who harass tenants and raising the threshold at which an apartment can be subject to vacancy deregulation. Additionally, according to a press release put out by Cuomo, the state housing agency’s Tenants Protection Unit will be put into statute and vacancy bonuses and will be limited for tenants paying preferential rent, although how much or in what way it would be limited wasn’t explained. Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for clarification by Town & Village’s deadline.
The rough draft of the plan also includes an extension of the 421-a tax credit for developers for six months, though that could be increased to four years if developers and labor can come to an agreement on wages, funding for nonpublic schools to compensate them for mandated services and extending property tax caps along with a one-year extension of mayoral control of schools.
Cuomo, with Flanagan and Heastie at his side, said it was a “great deal” that had been accomplished despite all the “tumult” in Albany. This was in reference to the two former house leaders stepping down amidst scandal.
Cuomo said that they wouldn’t be getting into details until both houses were able to discuss the deal in conference. On the rent regulations, Cuomo called it “an unprecedented package that protects tenants.” He then noted that property taxes are the top reason people leave New York State.
On Flanagan and Heastie, Cuomo said, “These new leaders were brought it in at the seventh inning and handed the ball and told to pitch.” He added, “Both leaders stepped up and performed.”
Flanagan and Heastie then spoke on the topic of compromise, with Heastie saying, “We stake out our position early on and you try to work from there. We did the best we could in trying to get that done. It gives homeowners some relief, it gives renters some relief.”
Shortly after the announcement, Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC, blasted the plan. “This is a disastrous deal,” he said, adding that he immediately emailed Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh to ask him to oppose it in conference.
“It really preserves the status quo for four years, which is exactly what we were hoping to avoid,” McKee added. “We’re going to lose 80,000 to 100,000 apartments over the next four years through various forms of deregulation.”
With Kavanagh and local State Senator Brad Hoyman both in conference as of Town & Village’s Wednesday afternoon press time, neither could be reached for comment.
McKee continued, “They raised the threshold of which an apartment can be deregulated from $2,500 to $2,700, which means nothing. There’s been some tinkering around with MCIs, but they’re going to leave MCIs as permanent increases compounded with the base rent. They’re going to make the increases somewhat less but it leaves the rent laws in tact with all of their weakness. It’s just unacceptable. It only renews mayoral control of schools for one year, so they city’s getting screwed and renters are getting screwed.”
The deal that was announced was different from a second Assembly bill that was introduced on Friday. The original bill had called for stronger tenant protections including repeal of vacancy decontrol, reform of preferential rents and MCIs so that MCIs would become temporary surcharges and for the reduction of vacancy bonuses from 20 percent to 7.5 percent.
But on Friday, the Assembly made a rather surprising move, pushing an amended version of the rent law bill that simply called for a straight extender for two years.
According to McKee, this was done with the purpose of throwing the governor and the Senate off guard — and it succeeded, at least for a while.
This revised, albeit unpassed Assembly bill, McKee explained, didn’t call for a continuation of 421-a. Meanwhile, he stressed that he has never been in favor of a straight extender, but didn’t expect that the bill would be passed without the continuation of 421-a.
This was after the Senate pushed its own rent regulations bill which would have called for the creation of a database in which tenants would have to verify their incomes. Tenant friendly measures were the codification of the Tenant Protection Unit and stiffer penalties against landlords who harass tenants.
“I thought the Assembly bill on Friday was a brilliant tactical move, but now they’ve caved,” McKee said.
McKee, who’s quite possibly the most critical tenant activist when it comes to Cuomo, even got a call from the governor after the bill was introduced, with the governor insisting he was doing everything he could to strengthen the rent regulations.
In the phone call, which was first reported in Capital New York, Cuomo spoke to McKee “like we were old friends reconnecting,” McKee said.
The call, which he added, seemed “surreal,” opened with a cheery Cuomo asking him how he’d been. “I said, I’m fine and how about you?” It was the men’s first conversation with one another in four years when the rent laws last expired.
But, McKee, reflected, “He did not persuade me and I told him no one in the tenant movement believes he’s working on our behalf. If he wants stronger rent laws, he can introduce a bill. Who does he think he’s fooling? You couldn’t convince me that he couldn’t do this if he set his mind to it.”
Until the rent laws are settled formally, though, following conference, McKee advised tenants to continue to call the governor’s office. “Tell him, ‘If you don’t deliver on rent laws, I’ll never vote for you again.’”
Following strong statements recently made by Heastie about how he wouldn’t compromise on getting stronger rent laws, McKee added, “I can’t believe Heastie agreed to this. I don’t have any delusions about what’s going to happen (in both houses.) Most of them are sheep.”
The Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association was also left fuming about the deal, which they alerted neighbors to in an email.
Last week, Susan Steinberg, chair of the Tenants Association, attended numerous rent law rallies along with neighbors. At one, outside a fundraiser for Cuomo at the Plaza, tenants had shared a chuckle about the fact that while the legislature was incapable of passing the rent laws, other bills, like one naming the wood frog as the state’s official amphibian, got through.
“We were all talking about the important bill that passed about the state amphibian,” said Steinberg. “Clearly frogs have it over tenants.”
On Tuesday, though, she wasn’t laughing.
“This is no victory,” said Steinberg. “It’s very discouraging that with all the hard work we put in, that this is how it ends up. He’s not as interested in the people who vote for him as he is in his real estate development friends.”
In particular she was unimpressed by the MCI revisions. “We’re still going to have to pay for it the rest of our lives,” she said.
City Council Housing Committee Chair Jumaane Williams also issued a statement about the deal, expressing his concern about tenants paying preferential rent.
“Due to unresolved loopholes with preferential rent, estimates show that up to 250,000 tenants could see their rent go up by thousands of dollars, regardless of what the Rent Guidelines Board says and without advance notice,” he said.