Accusations of racism fly at rent regs hearing

Assembly members at a hearing on rent regulations (Photos by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

A hearing on Thursday about the rent regulations that are sunsetting this June in Albany at times got heated with a speaker representing the real estate industry being accused of racism by the crowd and even a couple of Assembly members.

After a few New York City tenant leaders and advocates spoke favorably about a package of tenant-friendly bills aimed at, among other things, ending vacancy decontrol and major capital improvement rent increases, Joseph Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association, told the Assembly housing committee members not to “NYCHA-tize the private sector.”

The Rent Stabilization Association represents roughly 25,000 New York City landlords.

In response to his comment, a couple of audience members shouted out “Racist!”

Strasburg disagreed, but one black Assembly member, Latrice Walker, responded that as someone who had grown up in a NYCHA development, only to later lose that apartment and become homeless, she didn’t appreciate his comment.

This was echoed by another black Assembly member, Walter Mosley, who said, “I think the term used with regards to NYCHA, it’s not up to the person who doesn’t know what racism is to determine what racism is. To say it is disrespectful to the members here who are of color as well as those who live in NYCHA, who are a number of my constituents.”

Strasburg also got an earful after he told the panel he believed the economic impacts of the proposed package, if passed, wouldn’t necessarily be felt right away but would become apparent in two to three years. He specifically mentioned the bills aimed at eliminating major capital improvements (MCIs) and individual apartment improvement increases (IAIs) and ending vacancy bonuses when an apartment is turned over.

If they’re signed into law, he stated, “The people who do work on MCIs and IAIs, the contractors who hire about 36,000 people, most of whom are people of color who live in the City of New York, those are who are going to be impacted after June.”

In response, another black Assembly member, Charles Barron, seemed skeptical of this argument.

“You would have us believe poor industry, MCIs,” Barron said. “You are so concerned about people of color losing their jobs if we wipe out MCIs. I wonder how much you’ve made in the last five years out of these MCIs.”

He added, “When we were fighting apartheid in South Africa, we said sanctions. They said sanctions will hurt black people. We said sanctions hurt, but apartheid kills. We don’t believe this is about jobs. This is about profits.”

Strasburg then shot back, “You don’t have to believe it. In three years, we will see who is telling the truth.”

Strasburg didn’t respond directly to the accusation of racism, instead repeating an argument he also made at a few other points throughout the hearing, which is that he didn’t understand why the package of nine Assembly bills currently being considered doesn’t include one for a subsidy program for tenants earning under $50,000 who are rent burdened. A tenant is officially considered rent burdened if they’re paying more than one third of his or her household income in rent and is considered severely rent burdened if they’re paying more than half.

Strasburg said his organization had been working behind the scenes a few years earlier on a bill to create this program, which RSA has openly supported, and would be similar to existing rent freeze programs for rent-burdened seniors and people with disabilities (SCRIE and DRIE). The bill, he said, never even got a hearing in the Assembly.

“It’s mind boggling that there’s so much silence on this issue!” He argued, getting some applause in response.

The Assembly members at the hearing, which was held at the legislative building at 250 Broadway, didn’t seem to be familiar with this piece of legislation. However, Walker indicated to Strasburg she was interested in learning more about it. Another Assembly member, Andrew Raia, who represents an upstate district, asked a few questions about it, saying he represents an area where over 50 percent of his constituents are rent burdened. “It’s not just an issue that affects New York City,” he said.

Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association (pictured at right)

While it was still his turn at the podium, Strasburg also said that if the legislature passes the bills, owners should be given some kind of abatement for property taxes.

He then shifted his ire to the Rent Guidelines Board, which votes each June on how large of a rent increase to issue to rent-stabilized tenants, as being controlled by politics.

“Regardless of who the mayor is, (the decision) should be based on something that everyone can agree on,” Strasburg said. “Today, it’s Bill de Blasio so (the increase) is zero percent, but there’s going to be a change where it shifts the other way. If you want to have objectivity, you should take the politics out of it.”

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