By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
It has often be said that elections have consequences. That statement was never truer than last week in Albany.
You may recall that Brian Kavanagh, after serving for ten years in the State Assembly, in a district that I represented for almost three decades, ran for an open State Senate seat in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn two years ago. He was elected. But of even greater significance, the State Senate became a Democratic Party majority this year after the 2018 November elections. Senator Kavanagh became chairman of the Senate Housing Committee. That was important because all the New York City tenant protections laws would lapse this year and would need to be debated once again.
For over half a century the State Senate majority was in the hands of the Republican Party almost without interruption and mostly represented by upstate and suburban legislators. For all those years the Senate was commonly referred to as the place where progressive tenant protection and rent regulation reforms went to die. I can personally attest to that.
During my years in the State Assembly, I introduced dozens of affordable housing bills designed to protect tenants from unfair and excessive rent increases and other protections as well. They routinely passed in the Assembly but rarely if ever were even allowed to be voted upon in the State Senate. Did that fact have anything to do with the other fact, which was that Republican senators received millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the real estate industry? Well, nobody can say for certain, but neither do I believe in coincidences like that. My counterpart in the State Senate, Roy Goodman, was frequently rebuffed by his own leadership in trying to advance these bills. In those days, Roy was only one of a couple of other Republican senators who represented large communities of tenants in New York State. So try as he did, he was stymied at every turn.
With the start of the 2019 legislative session in Albany and the newly-minted chairman of the Senate Housing Committee, people wondered whether this year would be different. Senator Kavanagh did not disappoint. His committee held hearings across the state to solicit public input on critical housing issues. Legislation was introduced. The results have been historic.
Last week both the Assembly and the Senate passed long sought after reforms which will stem the tide of vacancy decontrol, keep rents from rising faster than is reasonable, and importantly reform the Major Capital Improvement (MCI) law where tenants have continued to pay landlords for needed renovation work long after the project was paid for through MCI-related rent increases. That will now end. The new laws will also be permanent which is very significant. Since 1974 the tenant protection laws would expire about every six years. That allowed an unfriendly State Senate and their allies in the real estate industry to extract ever more tenant weakening concessions as the price for them to agree to renew the most basic protections like guaranteed lease renewals etc. In other circumstances that might be called blackmail.
But that all changed last week. Big real estate groups and developers, accustomed to the Senate being their backstop, screamed bloody murder. But the tables had turned in the Senate. Elections have consequences and Senator Brian Kavanagh, along with his majority party colleagues in the State Senate, was the difference maker.