By Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh
With the rent laws that protect more than 2 million tenants set to expire on June 15 this year, and the inadequacies and loopholes in the current laws all too apparent, the Assembly’s Democratic Majority, led by Speaker Heastie, fought resolutely to renew and strengthen these vital protections, in negotiations with Senate Republicans and Governor Cuomo.
In taking up this cause, we were joined by a diverse coalition, including thousands of my constituents and other New Yorkers who took the time to call and write their elected officials, attend rallies, and travel to Albany to make sure their voices were heard; advocacy organizations like the Alliance for Tenant Power, the Real Rent Reform Campaign, Tenants and Neighbors, the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association, Good Old Lower East Side, and the Cooper Square Committee; and many elected officials, including Senators Squadron, Hoylman, and Krueger whose districts overlap with my Assembly district.
While it was critical that the laws be extended, and there are minor improvements in the extension passed last night, I am profoundly disappointed that notwithstanding all of our efforts, the bill fails to provide anything close to the protections we need to maintain stable, affordable communities. I voted against it.
Last month, I joined my colleagues in the Assembly in support of a bill that that would have dramatically strengthened the rent laws. Among many pro-tenant improvements, this bill, which was never brought to a vote in the Senate, would:
• Repeal provisions that allow apartments to be deregulated when they become vacant and limit deregulation of occupied apartments based on the income of the tenant or for the personal use of the landlord;
• Reduce rent increase “vacancy bonuses” landlords receive when an apartment is vacated, from 20% to 7.5%;
• Establish that charges for major capital improvements (MCIs) and individual apartment improvements (IAIs) would be temporary, ending when the landlord recovers the actual cost of the work; and
• Prohibit landlords from increasing rents excessively above an agreed-upon “preferential rent” during a tenant’s occupancy.
Collectively, these changes would better balance the legitimate interests of landlords and tenants. Landlords would still make substantial profits, while New Yorkers would be able to sign a lease for a home they can afford over time and settle in communities that are stable and economically diverse. Incentives in the current law that reward landlords when tenants are forced out of their homes would be greatly reduced and affordable housing would be preserved for millions of present and future New Yorkers, helping to ensure vitality and equity in New York City and the surrounding areas.
Throughout the legislative session and right down to the June 15th expiration of the rent laws – and beyond – Speaker Heastie, the Assembly Majority, and our many allies held strong on our commitment to these principles. Conversely, the landlords and real estate speculators – many of whom are extraordinarily wealthy and influential people – and their allies in government showed their commitment to maintaining and even exacerbating the loopholes and inadequacies in the laws through which they have profited enormously since the laws were weakened beginning in 1997.
When the rent laws last expired in 2011, we had to defeat landlords’ attempts to amend the laws to undo the results of the Roberts v. Tishman Speyer decision, which prevents landlords who receive certain (J-51) tax breaks from deregulating apartments. Similarly, this year we rejected multiple proposals put forth by the Senate Majority that conditioned extension of the laws on amendments that would have weakened them. We were able to do so even as the laws expired briefly, without harming tenants’ rights.
However, there would come a time when a longer-term expiration of the laws would have risked disastrous results for hundreds of thousands of tenants in rent-regulated apartments who might lose any protections from huge rent increases and arbitrary displacement from their homes.
In this context, the Assembly, the Senate, and the Governor agreed to a bill that extends the laws for four years, with no anti-tenant amendments and some hard-fought but ultimately very modest improvements, including:
• Raising the rent threshold for deregulation from $2,500 a month to $2,700 a month, and raising this threshold again each year by the same percentage as rent increases approved by the Rent Guidelines Board;
• Reducing charges for new MCIs by 28% for buildings with more than 35 apartments and by 14% for smaller buildings (with the reduction in landlord income offset by a new tax abatement);
• Reducing the ability of landlords to use vacancy bonuses and preferential rents in combination to ratchet up regulated rents rapidly, by capping the bonuses between 5% and 15% when a tenant with a preferential rent leaves in less than 4 years; and
• Increasing civil penalties landlords face when they harass tenants to push them out of their apartments and violate orders of the State housing agency.
Despite these improvements, the bill was a far from the tenant-friendly result we sought and won’t do nearly enough to alleviate the strain of ever-increasing rents on individual tenants and whole communities, or the loss of affordable housing through deregulation. New Yorkers will continue to spend an increasing percentage of their income on rent, with many already heavily burdened in this way, and by some estimates, perhaps as many as 100,000 apartments will be deregulated over the next four years.
However, we cannot let last week’s defeat – or grim statistics – keep us from pressing on and doing everything we can to protect our communities and help New Yorkers stay in their homes. While the rent laws are not scheduled for renewal again for four years, we can strengthen them sooner if we can muster the political pressure necessary to do so.
And in the meantime, we can ensure that tenants know their rights and that existing protections are properly enforced. We can advocate for the Rent Guidelines Board to end a long period of seeming bias in favor of landlords when it decides whether to increase rents in the coming years. We can refuse to tolerate harassment of tenants by landlords.
We can work with the State’s Tenant Protection Unit and other agencies to keep apartments from being illegally deregulated and return those previously improperly deregulated to the system. We can continue to enroll people for relief through the SCRIE and DRIE rent freeze programs we expanded last year – including thousands of residents of our communities who may not know they’re eligible.
None of these steps is a substitute for enacting the strong package of rent laws we sought this year. But we will continue to organize and we’ll keep up the fight until we make New York the livable, equitable place we know it can be, built around stable, diverse, and affordable communities.