By Maria Rocha-Buschel
More than 200 tenants attended a housing forum hosted by State Senator Liz Krueger’s office on September 10 to learn more about the impacts of the rent laws that were passed in June, addressing the repeal of vacancy decontrol, preferential rents and new rules for major capital improvements.
The forum, held at CUNY’s Graduate Center on Fifth Avenue, was also attended by State Senator Brad Hoylman, State Senator Brian Kavanagh, the former Assemblymember for District 74 and currently the Chairman of Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development for the Senate, housing advocate Delsenia Glover of Tenants and Neighbors, NYS Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas and Legal Aid attorney Ellen Davidson.
The local elected officials, experts and advocates at the forum discussed some of the major takeaways from the new rent laws that were passed, specifically regarding how they would affect rent-regulated tenants, and answered questions about housing-related issues.
Visnauskas said that the strengthened rent laws are helping to preserve affordable housing throughout the state by removing loopholes that landlords could exploit to increase rents and push apartments out of rent stabilization.
“We are reducing the speed at which rent-regulated rents are rising and we are removing incentives that reward tenant turnover, which often results in harassment, and we are ensuring that owners will still be able to maintain the quality of their properties,” she said.
Visnauskas noted that in addition to eliminating the decontrol threshold, meaning that landlords can no longer permanently deregulate apartments once they reach a certain rent, there are also no longer longevity increases, which were implemented when tenants occupied an apartment for an extended period.
“Landlords can only increase legal rights by increases as determined by the Rent Guidelines Board,” she said. “The longevity increase has been eliminated.”
Preferential rents, another complicated issue for rent-regulated tenants, has also been addressed in the new rent laws.
An apartment’s legal rent is the maximum legal rent for the unit based on its unique rent history and preferential rent is any rent charged that is lower than the legal rent. Previously, landlords could legally increase the rent on stabilized apartments by hundreds of dollars if bumping it from the preferential rent to the legal limit, but that changed under the new rent laws.
“Preferential rents operate as the legal rent for the life of the tenancy, and it cannot jump to the legal rent at lease renewal,” Visnauskas explained.
Davidson also noted that changes in the rules for preferential rent could also impact residents who qualify for the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and the Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE), because those who qualify for either program should have their rent frozen at the preferential rent amount and not the legal rent.
“For so many people who applied for SCRIE and DRIE at their preferential rent, they got no benefit from the SCRIE or DRIE because the amount they paid kept going up while the legal rent was frozen, which gave them nothing,” she said, encouraging people to apply with the Department of Finance to receive these benefits and get a rent freeze.
Another major impact for residents is a change in how MCIs can be charged. Visnauskas noted that the previous cap for MCIs was 6% per year but under the new rent laws, the cap has gone down.
“Increases in rent due to MCIs are permitted to be no more than 2% of a tenant’s rent that’s in place and that applies to any renewal lease that begins on or after June 14,” she said. “So if you have an MCI that’s built into your current lease, and you had a 6% increase last year, at your next renewal after June 14, that increase will be 2%.”
Visnauskas also noted that the burden of determining what qualifies as an MCI has changed and the cost will be based on a reasonable schedule that DHCR has not created yet.
Davidson also said that there is still some uncertainty about how the laws will actually be interpreted and there may be subsequent changes in addition to challenges in court. One such area is regarding rent increases after an apartment becomes vacant. Davidson specified that even though the vacancy bonus was repealed, DHCR’s current policy seems to be allowing landlords to take either a one or two-year Rent Guidelines Board increase, based on what kind of lease the new tenant signs.
“As I read the law, on vacancy a landlord gets no increase,” she said. “But right now, apartments where tenants are coming in and getting vacancy leases in rent-stabilized apartments, the rents are going to be raised either by the one year or two year RGB increase because that’s what HCR has told landlords to do. So it’s really important for us to keep an eye on what the agency does and how it interprets the law. In some cases, the courts will listen to them.”
State Senator Brian Benjamin, who represents most of Upper Manhattan, also noted at the forum that the new rent laws have protections for rent-controlled tenants, a population that is vulnerable to rent increases and many of whom are on a fixed income. Benjamin explained that prior to the new rent laws, rents in those apartments were determined by a maximum based rent system, a complicated process that ultimately worked out to a 7.5% increase in rents annually.
“Anyone who is a scholar and housing understands how a maximum based rent system works, I would love to get their resume because it’s the most complicated thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.
Under the new laws, however, Benjamin noted that the increases will grow out of the average of the last five years of Rent Guidelines Board increases, which are usually closer to 1 or 2%.
Krueger noted that even though advocates were encouraged by the rent laws that passed, others expressed disappointment about aspects that got overlooked, and she emphasized that there are still goals on the Senate Democrats’ list.
“We’re really proud of the first six months we had in the majority and what we accomplished, but we’re not leaving,” she said. “If there’s more we could have and should have done, you’ll advocate for them and will work with you to get them done.”