Questions answered at housing forum

Assemblymember Deborah Glick, Councilmember Keith Powers, Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, Cooper Square Committee director of organizing and policy Brandon Kielbasa, State Senator Liz Krueger and Legal Aid housing attorney Ellen Davidson at the forum last week. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Assemblymember Harvey Epstein’s office sponsored a forum on Thursday at the NYU Dental School on East 24th Street regarding the rent laws that passed in June to answer questions that tenants have about rent regulation and affordable housing protections.

State Senators Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger, as well as Assemblymember Deborah Glick, Councilmembers Keith Powers, Carlina Rivera and Ben Kallos, were also in attendance, and Legal Aid housing attorney Ellen Davidson was available to answer questions about the complex aspects of the new laws.

“The MCI section [of the rent laws] is just like MCIs: very complicated,” Davidson said of one of the parts of the law most difficult to understand. “[The Division of Housing and Community Renewal] will have to set a schedule of reasonable costs of what can be recovered but they have to do it quickly because they can’t do any work until it’s approved.”

One of the victories that state legislators claimed in the passage of the rent laws was an annual cap on MCIs, or major capital improvements, at 2%. The previous cap was 6%. The new law also caps the amount that a landlord can pass on to tenants after a vacant apartment is renovated at $89, while also eliminating the previous 20% vacancy bonus that landlords could add after tenants moved out.

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Tenants will see increases of 1.5, 2.5%

Tenants asked for, but did not receive a rent freeze, at the final vote of the Rent Guidelines Board on Tuesday night. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The Rent Guidelines Board voted to increase rents on rent-stabilized apartments by 1.5 percent on one-year leases and 2.5 percent on two-year leases at the final vote in Cooper Union’s Great Hall on Tuesday night. Chair David Reiss put forth the proposal that ultimately passed, citing a slight increase in real estate taxes and possible impacts from the rent regulations that just passed in Albany.

Reiss noted that while the 2019 price index for operating costs and taxes went up for all owners, the ratio of expenses to revenue is “healthy” enough for owners to maintain buildings, making a larger increase unwarranted.

Tenant representative Sheila Garcia expressed the usual disappointment at the lack of a rent freeze, noting that she and fellow tenant member Leah Goodridge felt that the research from the RGB supports a rent freeze.

“I think there would be a chance (for a rent freeze) if people weren’t afraid to do what the data actually states,” she said. “The landlords cry wolf and people fell for it again. They saw the winds around the rent laws as a wind that tenants would be okay and that’s not true. They’re still going to have MCIs and there are still going to be other increases that landlords use as loopholes.”

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Could a lawsuit really undo the rent regs?

Blaine Schwadel

By Sabina Mollot

Ever since the new rent regulations — all 74 pages of them — were signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Friday, real estate attorneys have been scrambling to determine what this means for the city’s property owners.

There has been at least one published report in the Commercial Observer suggesting there could be an industry-backed lawsuit, and Blaine Schwadel of Rosenberg & Estis, a law firm representing owners and lenders, said he’s pretty sure there will be some kind of legal action taken.

This reporter was unable to determine what group, if any, was behind the rumor of a planned suit, but Schwadel said there’s at least been talk.

“I have heard that various real estate groups, RSA (Rent Stabilization Association), REBNY (Real Estate Board of New York) and CHIP (Community Housing Improvement Program) are having discussions about how to challenge it,” said Schwadel.

But, he warned, “There have been very few successful challenges to rent regulations in the past.”

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Albany passes strongest rent regulations ever

Tenants in Albany on Friday (Photos courtesy of Housing Justice for All)

By Sabina Mollot

On Friday, the governor signed the most tenant-friendly package of rent regulations the state has ever seen, including the repeal of vacancy and high-income deregulation, the end of vacancy bonuses and much stricter limitations on major capital improvement (MCI) and individual apartment improvement (IAI) rent increases.

As for what this means for tenants, most notably there will be adjustments to stabilized tenants’ rent, said Assembly Member Harvey Epstein. MCIs, which previously could be no higher than six percent of a tenant’s rent, will now be no higher than two percent. They will also be eliminated after 30 years instead of being paid in perpetuity. If tenants have signed a lease with a preferential rent, that amount, when the lease is renewed, will now only be allowed to climb as high as the rent increase voted on by the Rent Guidelines Board. Previously it could have gone as high as the maximum legal rent (often a difference of hundreds of dollars).

Additionally, while this doesn’t impact current tenants, tenants moving into an apartment won’t have nearly as much to pay in IAIs, which will now be limited to $15,000 each, and only three units will be eligible over a 15-year period. The increase would also last 30 years instead of remaining permanent. Tenant blacklists will also disappear and there will also be more protections available for tenants fighting an eviction. Additionally, any conversions to co-ops or condos must be non-eviction plans. Tenants who want to file overcharge complaints will now have longer to do so, six years instead of four.

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Albany poised to pass much stronger rent regulations

Tenants rally outside the governor’s midtown office in support of the proposed rent laws on Wednesday. (Photo by Anne Greenberg)

By Sabina Mollot

Although nothing is yet a done deal, on Tuesday night the State Assembly and Senate announced that the package of bills aimed at repealing vacancy decontrol, among other tenant protections, is being pushed forward by both chambers. A vote is expected to take place on Friday, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he would sign such a bill if it passes in both chambers.

The package’s protections for tenants, if signed into law, would:

  • Make the rent regulations permanent, instead of sunsetting every four years
  • Repeal vacancy deregulation and high-income deregulation, which has applied to residents whose household incomes were at least $200,000 for two years
  • Repeal the vacancy bonus, which allows owners to raise the rents by 20 percent every time an apartment turns over
  • Repeal the longevity bonus, which allows owners to raise rents on an apartment for new tenants based on the length of the previous tenancy
  • Prohibit Rent Guidelines Boards from setting additional increases based on the current rental cost of a unit or the amount of time since the owner was authorized to take additional rent increases, such as a vacancy bonus

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City Council passes 17 tenant bills

The City Council Housing and Buildings Committee holds a vote on anti-displacement bills the day before they were passed by the full Council on Wednesday, May 8. (Photo courtesy of City Council)

By Sabina Mollot

Last fall, the City Council introduced a package of 18 bills aimed at preventing tenants from being displaced due to aggressive tactics from landlords like exploitative buyout agreements or nuisance construction. On Wednesday, May 8, all but one passed. They still require the mayor’s signature, but he has indicated his support for them.

A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Jane Meyer said, “From free access to legal services in housing court to the new Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants, this administration has been fighting for tenants from day one. These bills will help bolster our efforts to protect all New Yorkers.”

Here is a rundown of what each of the City Council bills will do:

Property owners will be required to share certain information about the terms of a buyout agreement a tenant is entering into with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) within 90 days. The bill’s sponsor is Mark Levine.

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RGB proposes increases of 0.5-2.75%, 1.5-3.75%

Tenants wave signs while calling for a rent freeze or rollback. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The Rent Guidelines Board shot down the possibility of a rent freeze or rollback during the preliminary vote in a lively meeting at Cooper Union’s Great Hall on Tuesday, approving a range of 0.5 to 2.75 percent for one-year leases and 1.5 to 3.75 percent for two-year leases.

Tenant representatives Sheila Garcia and Leah Goodridge had proposed a possible rent rollback for tenants signing one-year leases, with a range of -0.5 to 0 percent, and the possibility of a freeze for residents signing two-year leases, suggesting a range of 0 to 1 percent, but the motion didn’t pass.

Tenant reps for the RGB have proposed rollbacks and freezes in previous years, although last year Garcia said that the data didn’t necessarily merit a rollback, so she and Goodridge had proposed a freeze during the preliminary vote. But this year, she said that a rollback made more sense.

“We saw the impact of the rent freeze (in the data we looked at this year),” Garcia said following the vote, referring to the freeze on one-year leases that the board had approved in 2016, noting that the board bases their analysis on data that is at least one year old and in some cases, even older. “There was an increase in Net Operating Income (in that year for landlords), most tenants are signing two-year leases and there are all these other sources of income.”

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New DOB unit wants you to be able to spot an illegally converted apartment

At 216 Third Avenue, the FDNY found signs of illegal conversion from a two-family building to a four-family one. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Renting an apartment in New York can be a nightmare, but the Department of Buildings wants to help prospective tenants identify shady situations before making a commitment to a new home.

The Quality of Life unit in the Department of Buildings focuses primarily on the illegal conversion of apartments, which often happens when building owners make changes to an apartment and list the place on AirBnB, and the shoddy workmanship can end up being hazardous to tenants. The main concern with illegal conversions and the reason for the DOB’s crackdown is safety, spokesperson Abigail Kunitz said.

“We want to make sure that people have a safe place to live,” she said. “With illegal gas and electrical work, we want to prevent a situation that causes tragedies like the East Village gas explosion. Especially when housing is scarce, we want to make sure that it’s safe.”

Although the Quality of Life unit doesn’t deal with issues related to illegal gas and electrical work, owners may often overlook fire exits when renovating an apartment and failing to maintain two means of egress, which is considered a serious safety issue and one that the QOL unit would address.

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Assembly taking aim at MCIs, IAIs, vacancy de-control

Photo by Sidney Goldberg

Assembly Member Harvey Epstein during a recent tenant lobbying day in Albany (Photo by Sidney Goldberg)

By Sabina Mollot

With the rent regulations set to expire on June 15, the New York State Assembly has set public hearings on May 2 and 9 to discuss a package of proposals aimed at strengthening the current laws.

Among the legislation includes a bill that would end major capital improvement (MCI) rent increases and also require the state housing agency to create a program ensuring property owners maintain a certain level of repair. MCIs are charges tacked on to a tenant’s rent to pay for improvements to the property.

“The major capital improvement rent increase program is a flawed system which has been overly complex for property owners to navigate,” said the bill’s sponsor, Assembly Member Brian Barnwell, “and has been a great disservice in our efforts to preserve the affordable housing stock.”

Another bill would end individual apartment improvements (IAI). Under the current law, landlords are allowed to raise rent after making IAIs, which can range from cosmetic repairs to redoing various rooms.

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Rent Guidelines Board vote and rent regulation debate are both on the horizon

Mike McKee of TenantsPAC (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Spring has sprung and every four years in New York means one thing: that government decisions made at the city and state levels will be directly impacting the affordability of over a million stabilized apartments.

The city’s Rent Guidelines Board is beginning the process of debating what this year’s increase will be for renters with its first meeting of the year set for this Thursday. The final vote will be made in late June.

The rent regulations that affect the city, made in the state’s capital, are also set to expire on June 15. Though they’re expected to be renewed, lobbying from both the real estate industry and tenants has already begun to hammer out the details.

Both parties will of course have their hands full in terms of advocacy. What this means for tenants, who don’t necessarily have the time to be in two places at once, is that they should prioritize Albany. So states Michael McKee, treasurer and spokesperson of Tenants Political Action Committee (PAC).

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Apartment evictions are down, study says

There have been three evictions so far this year in Gramercy. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Residential evictions are down in New York City from last year, according to a study conducted by apartment listings website RentHop.

Overall there was a 9.6 percent drop throughout the city with evictions tapering off in each borough based on eviction information from January 1 to March 11 in 2018 and January 1 to March 11 in 2019.

The study also found that: both Brooklyn and The Bronx have a much higher eviction rate than Manhattan, but both also had sharp drops from 2018 to 2019. The Bronx went from 1,558 to 1,225 (a 21.4 percent decrease). Brooklyn went from 1,170 to 994 (a 15 percent decrease). Manhattan’s numbers, meanwhile, only decreased slightly from 518 to 486 (6.2 percent). Queens has a higher eviction rate than Manhattan, but it too only decreased slightly from 733 to 716 (2.3 percent). Staten Island easily has the fewest evictions, having gone from 127 to 97. Percentage-wise, this was the sharpest decrease at 23.6 percent.

Adrian McHale, who worked on the study, used numbers from the city’s open data portal, which includes information such as addresses but not the reason given for the eviction.

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Tenants push for stronger rent regulations

Tenants board a bus to Albany for a day of lobbying ahead of the rent laws expiring in June. (Photos by Sidney Goldberg)

By Sabina Mollot

Last Wednesday, over 30 tenants from different organizations, including 11 from the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association, headed to Albany to lobby for stronger rent laws. The rent regulations that keep over a million apartments in New York City stabilized will expire this June. While they are expected to be renewed, tenants always hope to get them strengthened, which seems more likely to happen this year with Democrats having a majority in the State Senate.

At the Wednesday event, Anne Greenberg, vice president of the ST-PCV Tenants Association, led one of the groups of tenants who came from Manhattan. Another group had come from Brooklyn. The Cooper Square Committee was also participating. Greenberg’s group met up with an aide of State Senator Kevin Thomas and there was also another meeting with freshman Assembly Member Simcha Eichenstein. Tenants also eventually ran into local Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, which Greenberg noted, happened by chance because the capitol was so crowded with people.

Greenberg in particular said she thought it was important for tenants to tell personal stories like about how rents can go up drastically upon lease renewal because of preferential rents. Tenant activists are also hoping for vacancy decontrol and reform on rent increases for major capital improvements, individual apartment improvements and vacancy bonuses.

“Part of the mission is to put a story and a put a face to the issue of why we need rent reform,” Greenberg said. “The legislators aren’t always up to speed on all the issues. Now there’s a foundation where we could follow up.”

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Residents of Kips Bay NYCHA building worried about privatization

Tenants at 344 East 28th Street say there’s been no communication from NYCHA about the agency’s plans. (Photo via Google Maps)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Residents of the New York City Housing Authority development at 344 East 28th Street are demanding transparency after the city agency announced that a new program would be implemented for tenants in the building to privatize ownership.

NYCHA hosted a meeting at Bellevue Hospital last week to give tenants information about the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) Unfunded Units program but tenants said prior to the meeting that they weren’t given any information about the program previously or been allowed to give any input about whether or not they want to join.

The program is part of a push by NYCHA to increase revenue for repairs in developments throughout the city that have long been neglected. The plan involves shifting management of NYCHA complexes to private developers through PACT as well as the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).

A flyer distributed to residents claims that the program will provide funding for necessary repairs, upgrades and renovations, ensure affordability and protect tenant rights.

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Council approves Waterside affordability deal

jan31watersidefromstuyvesantcove

Waterside Plaza as seen from Stuyvesant Cove Park (Pictured last August) Photos by Sabina Mollot

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The City Council voted last Thursday to approve an agreement that will protect longtime Waterside Plaza tenants against substantial rent increases as part of a lease extension between the property and Housing Preservation and Development.

The agreement will allow tenants who have been living at the property since before Waterside left the Mitchell-Lama program and will be retiring soon to receive rent protections. City Council Member Keith Powers, who has been working with Assembly Member Harvey Epstein and the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development on negotiations for the deal for over a year, was able to negotiate an additional year with HPD so that tenants have until 2020 to retire and qualify for the rent protections, compared to 2019 when the plan was first announced.

“It’s not huge but it at least gives people who might be affected a better idea of how they should plan,” Powers said after the Council vote of the additional year.

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Stringer releases affordable housing plan

Comptroller Scott Stringer, pictured at a town hall earlier this month (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

City Comptroller Scott Stringer unveiled an affordable housing plan at the end of last month targeting middle-income New Yorkers who don’t qualify for affordable housing under the city’s current plan, proposing to fund it by eliminating advantages for all-cash home buyers.

The new tax model proposed in Stringer’s plan would eliminate the Mortgage Recording Tax (MRT). When buyers purchase a home in New York City or elsewhere in the state, the Real Property Transfer Tax (RPTT) is imposed and is based on the price paid, but only those who borrow to purchase their home or who refinance to pay for the home pay the MRT, which often means they end up paying twice as much in taxes as all-cash buyers.

Stringer’s plan would eliminate the MRT entirely and would treat all transactions equally, regardless of how a home is purchased. A report from Stringer’s office that the plan is based on predicts that the tax proposed in the plan would save middle-class New Yorkers more than $5,700 on a purchase or refinancing, and would raise up to $400 million annually.

“Paying all cash means that you pay less,” Stringer said. “There’s a penalty you pay for being middle class, but under our plan, all home purchases would be taxed the same. If we keep the rate low, we can make ownership more affordable for the middle class. This is good policy and would raise enough to fully fund our plan.”

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