By Maria Rocha-Buschel
With Democrats having taken the State Senate last month, local elected officials and tenant advocates held a town hall last week, essentially to rally the troops for what will still be a battle to pass tenant-friendly legislation next year.
More than 200 people attended the event hosted by State Senator Brad Hoylman last Thursday in the New York Public Library Schwarzman Building.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Aaron Carr of the Housing Rights Initiative (HRI), Delsenia Glover of Tenants and Neighbors and Sheila Garcia of Communities for Safe Apartments (CASA) joined Hoylman for the discussion on vacancy decontrol, the LLC loophole and the possibility of strengthening the rent laws now that the State Senate has gone blue.
Hoylman said that in addition to vacancy decontrol, another policy that the State Senate should focus on is the LLC loophole.
“The LLC loophole treats LLCs as people, allowing landlords to give unlimited amounts of money to candidates,” he said. “I’m hoping that we can take that on and that 2019 will be known as the year of the tenant.”
Garcia, who is also a tenant member on the RGB, pushed rent-stabilized tenants to research their own apartment history and confirm if their apartment is rent-stabilized, in addition to getting involved with other tenants.
“Organizing a tenant group is one of the best things you can do,” she said. “It’s easier to get it addressed if it’s 30 people instead of just one and it builds power in Albany for fighting to get these issues heard.”
One issue that the panelists didn’t discuss was the Urstadt Law, which was enacted in 1971 as part of Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s vacancy decontrol legislation that prohibits New York City from adopting rent limitations more strict that those already in effect, and which tenant advocates argue leaves the local legislature powerless to address the affordable housing crisis in the city. Stuy Town resident Arlynne Miller asked about the law, which Democrats have long-advocated for repealing, and Hoylman was receptive to the idea.
“I’m for home rule. We’re not looking at necessarily compromising on issues as fundamental as housing now,” he said, referring to the State Senate’s new ability to pass Democratic legislation. “We’re going to be walking and chewing gum at the same time.”
Carr, whose organization helps tenants in fights against predatory landlords, also offered a presentation about the abuses of J-51 by slumlords, a lack of oversight and increases through capital improvements that burden tenants.
Carr pulled his overarching message from a quote attributed to President Abraham Lincoln: “Law without enforcement is just good advice.”
He noted that landlords have frequently taken advantage of the J-51 program but haven’t been held accountable in many cases. J-51 is a property tax exemption that allows owners to receive tax breaks in some cases when making renovations.
“The state is lacking the political will to take these cases on,” he said. “There are 40 J-51 class action lawsuits and (Albany) could clearly be pursuing this but we need to be pushing the enforcement agencies to identify fraud.”
Another instance in which enforcement becomes an issue is individual apartment improvements, Carr said.
“Landlords don’t have to submit their receipts for individual apartment improvements to the government so it’s all based on the honor system,” he noted. “What could go wrong? A lot. They get away with (inflating the costs) almost every time.”
Carr added that a bright spot amidst the “legalization of fraud” in which landlords take advantage of loopholes for their own benefit is the new Democratic control of the State Senate.
“This is our chance to create a progressive city that elevates the human condition,” he said.
Stringer also noted that there are legislative fixes that could benefit rent stabilized tenants, including the repeal of vacancy decontrol.
“That changed the game,” Stringer said of the policy.
He also advocated for closing the preferential rent loophole, which allows landlords of rent-stabilized apartments to arbitrarily increase rents even when the Rent Guidelines Board has voted for a rent freeze.