By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The City Council Housing and Buildings committee held a hearing on legislation aimed at maintaining rent stabilization in the city this past Monday, with city elected officials also expressing strong support for the repeal of various policies at the state level that allow landlords to increase rents and move apartments out of the program, such as vacancy decontrol, preferential rent and vacancy bonuses.
Although the state controls rent regulation, the legislation heard in the Council this week proposed the extension of rent stabilization in the city and includes a resolution determining that a public emergency requiring rent control continues to exist and will continue to exist on and after April 1.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson pressed representatives from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development at the hearing about whether or not the de Blasio administration supports the repeal of vacancy decontrol.
Much to Johnson’s frustration, assistant commissioner for governmental relations Francesc Marti originally gave a non-committal answer, saying that the administration was still “formulating the agenda” and agreeing that it was an unfair policy without indicating a clear position, but he later clarified that the administration does support repealing vacancy decontrol.
The representatives from HPD also offered testimony at the hearing to support the Council’s legislation, citing data about the large net loss of apartments between 2014 and 2017, as well as a corresponding increase of higher-cost apartments, to argue that a housing emergency is ongoing.
“There is a clear and continued need for rent regulation,” said Elyzabeth Gaumer, assistant commissioner for research and evaluation at HPD. “There continues to be an affordability crisis. Half of all households are rent burdened and median rents are not affordable.”
Councilmember Keith Powers, although not officially on the Housing and Buildings committee, was at the hearing and was looking for input from HPD about how the city can have a role in rent regulation, since the system is controlled by Albany.
“The Human Resources Administration offers free legal services and since that program started, evictions are down 27 percent,” said Matt Murphy, deputy commissioner of policy and strategy for HPD. “In addition to other tools, we work with community boards and tenant groups and are creating a predatory equity watchlist.”
Not long before the hearing, news broke that real estate developer and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner had allegedly been flouting the law by illegally pushing rent-stabilized tenants out of buildings his company owned. The Washington Post reported this past Sunday Kushner’s company routinely filed false paperwork stating that there were no rent-regulated tenants in the buildings, allowing him to push tenants out, raise rents and later sell the buildings for a substantial profit.
“This is a time when tenants are under attack,” said Council Member Carlina Rivera of the Kushner news. “It’s not a disappointment, it’s criminal. Time is up for a lot of these guys.”
Johnson also referenced the news and asked the representatives from HPD how the agency is coordinating with the Department of Buildings to prevent similar missteps in the future.
“We’re laser-focused on private tenant harassment,” Murphy responded. “We’re coordinating with DOB on an anti-harassment task force. We have worked with City Council to create proactive tools and are working with (Bronx) Council member (Ritchie) Torres to create a speculation watchlist and would catch transactions like Kushner’s to keep it on HPD’s radar if tenants are being offered buyouts.”
In addition to testimony from HPD, tenant organizers also testified about hardships related to rent increases and pressure from landlords, with multiple tenants voicing support for the repeal of vacancy decontrol, as well as getting rid of vacancy bonuses and criticizing preferential rent. ST-PCV Tenants Association president Susan Steinberg testified that starting rents in Stuyvesant Town are now almost $3,000, while her own rent when she first moved in during the 1980s was $250.
“Vacancy bonuses, preferential rent and MCIs (major capital improvements) are bleeding us,” she said. “Two thousand units turn over every year. And there are MCIs that we pay until death. Rent regulations must be passed and the rent laws need to be strengthened. Affordable housing is a right, not a luxury.”