By Sabina Mollot
Last week’s deal on the rent laws and other major issues, promptly dubbed the “Big Ugly,” was blasted by tenants even before it was finalized last Thursday, for including only minor changes in the rent laws, like raising the vacancy deregulation rent threshold from $2,500 to $2,700.
And while the newly slightly strengthened rent laws will remain in place until 2019, tenant activists are now more interested in 2016. The reason is that because it’s a presidential election year, on Election Day, that will mean more bodies at the polls than the amount that would normally show up for local races. At that time the goal will be to turn the Republican-controlled Senate into a Democratic one.
Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC, believes if this happens, tenant-friendly legislation could start getting passed as early as January, 2017.
“The legislators can amend the law at any time,” he said. “Even with a Republican governor like Andrew Cuomo, we can revisit this issue and repeal vacancy decontrol and other issues.”
There are 63 State Senate seats, and McKee said at this point, TenantsPAC is not sure which districts to focus its efforts on for supporting candidates. However, this will be a goal over the coming months.
“We have 18 months, which is a short period in politics,” said McKee. “The bottom line is during a presidential election year, democrats show up and vote.”
He added that Governor Andrew Cuomo last year got a million fewer votes than he did in 2011. “Cuomo did everything he could to drive down voter turnout (last year),” said McKee, “by refusing to debate Zephyr Teachout, by refusing the debate against (Rob) Astorino, by refusing to share a significant amount of his war chest on Senate Democrats.”
He’s more confident new Democratic senators would be sympathetic to tenants though, since most in recent years that weren’t have either been defeated or indicted. “Most of the bad Democrats are gone,” he said.
Another tenant activist, Katie Goldstein, director of Tenants & Neighbors, said on Tuesday that her group is also focused on the elections. However, this also apparently includes some Cuomo shaming. On Tuesday, tenants rallied in Cuomo’s town of Mt. Kisco. “We want everyone to know he’s the one to blame for not strengthening the law in a way it needs to be,” she said.
“Governor Cuomo came out with this op-ed endorsing our entire legislative platform, but when it came to the negotiating table, he was working against tenants,” added Goldstein. “I think what happened in Albany was the Assembly stayed as strong as they could but it was two against one in the negotiating room. A lot of that is coming out now.”
Last week, the plan was cheered by Cuomo as offering tenants a wealth of protections, when there are some who would like to see the rent laws disappear completely. But tenant leaders ripped the changes as inadequate and predicted up to 100,000 apartments would be deregulated over the next four years as a result.
Other changes to the law included decreasing vacancy bonuses, which are currently 20 percent, where tenants are paying preferential rent, by capping them at between 5 and 15 percent when a tenant leaves in less than four years. Stiffer penalties will be faced by landlords who harass tenants and tenants’ MCI (major capital improvements) payments will be lowered by 28 percent. However the rent increases will remain permanent.
Wanting a much stronger package of protections, including repeal of vacancy decontrol, reform of preferential rents and MCIs and IAIs (individual apartment improvements) becoming temporary surcharges, Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh and State Senator Brad Hoylman voted against the deal. Other Manhattan East Side senators, Liz Krueger and Daniel Squadron, also voted against it.
Not surprisingly, Hoylman agreed with McKee in promising that with a Democratic majority, tenant legislation wouldn’t be left until the last minute of the session.
“I’m hopeful we can win back the Senate and address this issue in 100 days,” he said.
But he stopped short at pinning the blame for last week’s outcome solely on Cuomo’s shoulders, instead saying it was Albany’s “three-men-in-a-room” negotiation style and his Republican colleagues.
“A lot of the negotiation is behind closed doors,” said Hoylman. “We in the Democratic conference of the Senate didn’t even know details until less than an hour before the vote was taken. Even as we were discussing it in conference, there were revisions being made to it. There was no public hearing. There was no deliberation on the floor. The Republican Senate seems hell bent on ripping protections from tenants.”
Hoylman was also disappointed by the legislature’s failure to act on raising the minimum wage and stronger protections for transgendered people. “It seems Senate Republicans are always resisting protections for middle class and low income New Yorkers on a whole lot of issues,” he said.
Kavanagh, meanwhile, insisted the Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie pushed the tenants’ agenda “very hard,” but as of Thursday morning, “It became clear that this is what we would be able to do.”
He also said that while the 421-a tax break for developers had been used as leverage during negotiations, ultimately, the threat of its end would not have been felt as immediately as a lapse in the rent laws. “Tenants would have lost all their rights in August,” said Kavanagh. “For leases coming up in September, landlords would not have been obligated to offer them leases. At some point, people would have been losing their rights, their basic rights.”
Additionally, from what he’s seen, in times of duress and scandal, Albany politicians typically respond by maintaining the status quo. Since rent laws had been weakened at every renewal from 1997 until 2011, when they were also slightly strengthened, Kavanagh said he believes the tenant activism had some impact.
Tenants, he said, should “continue to organize. Political pressure is what strengthens the rent laws rather than weakens the laws.”
That said, the final legislation (which the Assembly member discusses in depth in an op-ed on Page 4) still left him “profoundly” disappointed.
Another politician however raised eyebrows with his own statements on the legislative package, in which he accused the governor of not being a partner to the city. That was Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has until recently refrained from criticizing Cuomo, even after the governor’s can’t-miss-it slights like bashing the mayor’s proposed revisions to 421-a.
In a press conference on Tuesday, de Blasio discussed last week’s deal, which, along with the rent laws, extended mayoral control of the schools for only one year.
“The structural reality – the Assembly consistently acted,” de Blasio told reporters. “The Assembly consistently took on serious issues and voted on serious proposals… The Senate – we were unable to have the kind of productive relationships and conversations we wanted to have. But it’s quite clear to me and I think it’s clear to many of you that a lot of that was determined by the governor, who clearly has extraordinary influence over Majority Leader (John) Flanagan, and played out on each of these issues.”
The mayor also said the governor has a habit of responding to criticism of his policies with vendettas. “I think there will be some impulse from him and his team to – again – take a critique and turn it into a cause for revenge and we won’t stand for that,” de Blasio said.