By Sabina Mollot
Since the flipping of the State Senate last month, local Democrat elected officials have been crowing that 2019 will be the year of the tenant.
That point was hammered home on Monday when about 70 tenant activists and about a dozen members of the State Senate and Assembly held a rally in front of City Hall on the laws that regulate rents for about 2.5 million New Yorkers. On June 15, the rent regulations will expire in Albany, but with many new members-elect of the State Senate having campaigned on the issue of affordable housing, there is a better chance than ever before that they’ll make good on those promises.
State Senator Liz Krueger, who got to witness an embarrassing coup in her chamber a previous time the Democrats won the majority, said this time it will be different.
“This is a statewide cry that’s been building louder and louder,” she said about the demands for more affordable housing. “It was this issue that every single senator downstate ran on and now it’s a statewide issue. Now housing is unaffordable in many areas in the state, not just the city.”
All the speakers brought up how in recent years, the rent laws were eroded to the point where they not only allowed for mass displacement but encouraged it.
“We had a system that in many ways became increasingly broken,” said State Senator Brian Kavanagh. “It didn’t protect tenants from harassment. In many instances it incentivized landlords to harass people, because apartments were more valuable if they were vacant than if they were occupied.”
Assembly Member Harvey Epstein added, “I’ve seen the destruction in the last 20 years in my community and communities all over the city. This year we have the opportunity to rectify that.”
At times the mood at the rally was highly charged, mostly with cheers at all the pols’ vows to fight major capital improvements and vacancy bonuses. However, the sign-carrying activists booed loudly when Mayor Bill de Blasio attempted to dart up the steps to City Hall behind them.
“Join us out here!,” one man yelled at the mayor.
The rally was led by Delsenia Glover, director of Tenants and Neighbors, who also pointed out that the effort to get stronger rent laws has grown legs in upstate communities.
“Rents are rising while wages are remaining stagnant,” she said. “Landlords have gotten richer while tenants are living on the brink of eviction.”
One resident of Jamaica, Queens, Robin Budnetz, said her community was being “decimated by MCIs.”
She added, “When the rent increases $500 a month, $600 a month, it’s not sustainable. Who believes the myth that landlords can’t maintain their buildings if they don’t shift the costs to tenants? It’s a lie.”
There was also some mention of homelessness, and that the city should be investing in affordable housing as opposed to shelters.
“What you pay for a shelter is triple what you would pay to house a person,” said Veronica Glasgow, a retired social services director living in Harlem.
One Assembly member, Diana Richardson, talked about how she was once homeless herself and had intended to change things for tenants in Albany after getting elected to office. However, prior to the recent changing of the guard, which included six new senators replacing former breakaway Democrats who’d aligned with Republicans, Richardson’s legislative efforts never went anywhere.
“I saw legislators siding with landlords and developers and we got minimal changes in the rent laws in 2015,” she said. “These people were saying one thing in their district and doing another in Albany. Meanwhile, we have people coming into our offices crying because they can’t pay their rent, because they have no heat, no hot water. I thank God it’s a new day in the New York Senate.”
While the elected officials seemed confident about the laws being strengthened, Michael McKee, the treasurer and spokesperson of TenantsPAC, was a little more guarded in his enthusiasm, saying he was bracing for behind-the-scenes battles in Albany.
“We take nothing for granted,” said McKee. “Our enemies have a lot of power and their power comes from money and that money comes from the rent we pay them.” He added, “I’m very suspicious of what (Governor) Cuomo is going to do. I think he’s going to say all the right things in public, but work against us. I hope I’m wrong about Andrew Cuomo, but I’ve known him over 30 years and I don’t think I’m wrong.”