City halts evictions due to coronavirus

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

City officials have indefinitely suspended eviction proceedings in response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a memo from the state’s chief administrative judge on Sunday. 

The memo from the Unified Court System last weekend said that effective at 5 p.m. on Monday, March 16, the courts would be postponing all non-essential functions until further notice, including pending trials, due to the ongoing public health emergency in New York State. 

Prior to the city’s decision to halt evictions, a group of 29 New York rental building owners and managers, including Blackstone, instituted a voluntary 90-day moratorium on evictions, which was announced shortly after the court system had issued a one-week moratorium. 

Various housing groups, including Right to Counsel NYC Coalition and Housing Justice for All, pushed a joint city and state strategy, calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to implement an eviction moratorium and to close the courts. More than 15,000 tenants across the state also signed a petition to the governor calling for an eviction moratorium and immediate rent freeze. 

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Tenants Association files lawsuit against Blackstone

Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg with local elected officials last Thursday (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association filed a lawsuit against property owner Blackstone last week in response to an attempt to deregulate more than 6,000 apartments.

Blackstone is attempting to deregulate units that are currently under the J-51 tax exemption, which expires at the end of June, and increase rents on those apartments for leases renewed or starting in July or later. The private equity firm is arguing that the regulatory agreement Blackstone signed with the city in 2015 supersedes the rent laws the state legislature passed last June, but tenant advocates and local elected officials argued at a press conference in Stuy Town last Thursday that the rent laws abolished deregulation all apartments, regardless of previous agreements.

“The new law is clear and unambiguous,” Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg said. “Blackstone Group is of the opinion that these pro-tenant reforms do not apply to them. We disagree. They cannot disregard state rent law and raise rents and deregulate units as if the law had never been changed.”

State elected officials at the press conference said that they were very specific when writing the rent laws that passed and that Blackstone was not interpreting the law as it was intended.

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Tenants rally for rent rollback at Gracie Mansion

Members of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association joined other residents and tenant organizations to call for a rent rollback outside Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side last Wednesday night. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Met Council on Housing and other tenant advocacy groups rallied for a rent rollback outside Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side last Wednesday evening. Members of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association marched with residents from the 86th Street/Second Avenue Q station and joined the protest in front of the mayor’s residence, with tenant organizers leading chants while Mayor Bill de Blasio was reportedly enjoying a showing of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway that evening.

Some protesters at the rally performed educational skits outlining the importance of attending the hearings for the Rent Guidelines Board where increases for rent-stabilized apartments are voted on and encouraged tenants to push for a rent rollback this year. Since de Blasio was elected in 2013, the RGB has approved a rent freeze on one-year leases for rent-stabilized tenants but last year approved increases of 1.5% for one-year leases and 2.5% for two-year leases. The last time that a rent freeze was approved in 2016.

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Residential evictions decreasing, mayor says

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday that residential evictions by marshals have decreased by more than 40% since 2013 and just in 2019, declined by 15%. The decrease in 2019 was the largest single-year decrease since the mayor signed the Right to Counsel law in 2017 and launched the city’s Universal Access to Counsel program.

More than 100,000 tenants who might have otherwise faced eviction have been able to stay in their homes since 2013 and residential evictions have been steadily decreasing in every borough.

“If we’re going to save our city, we must do everything we can to help people stay in the homes they love,” de Blasio said. “With evictions down over 40% citywide, the unprecedented investments we’ve made in tenant legal services have helped 100,000 people stay in their homes and off the street.”

More than 350,000 tenants have received assistance in evictions or other housing-related matters during the de Blasio Administration through legal services programs, including Right to Counsel, which provides tenants facing eviction in Housing Court with access to free legal services. More than 84% of tenants that received counsel in cases where they faced eviction were able to keep their apartments.

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Councilmembers propose expansion of Right to Counsel

Councilmember Carlina Rivera spoke in support of bills that will expand Right to Counsel at a rally outside City Hall on Monday. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson lead a rally on Monday to support their new legislation that would strengthen and expand the Right to Counsel law that passed in 2017.

The Committee on the Justice System and the Committee on Housing and Buildings held a joint hearing on the two new bills following the rally outside City Hall.

New York was the first jurisdiction in the country to guarantee legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction when the current law passed in 2017. The law mandated the Office of Civil Justice to provide tenants with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line, or $50,200 annually for a family of four, with free legal representation when facing eviction. A report from the Community Service Society of New York releases this week found that the law helped reduce evictions but showed that there were still gaps.

Councilmember Carlina Rivera, a co-sponsor of both pieces of legislation, said that the current Right to Counsel law has already helped her district.

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Tenants Association hosts housing forum

Tim Collins, an attorney for the Tenants Association, at the housing forum last month (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association held a forum on Saturday, October 19 for residents to have their specific housing-related questions addressed by experts, local elected officials and representatives from the Division of Housing and Community Renewal.

Attorney Tim Collins, who represents the ST-PCV Tenants Association, said that tenants should be moderately concerned about the lawsuit landlords have filed to challenge the rent laws that passed over the summer.

As the New York Times reported in July, the lawsuit filed by landlords intended to completely dismantle the rent regulation system, claiming that the new laws would cripple the industry and that they violate the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, as well as the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment, which says that private property can’t be taken for public use without proper compensation.

“I am actually less concerned about the legal challenge than I am about the public relations challenge,” Collins said of the lawsuit. “I want you to understand the stakes are a very high and go way to the top, not only for New York City or the State of New York but potentially to the US Supreme Court. The real estate industry’s lawsuit says, [State Senator] Brad [Hoylman], [Councilmember] Keith [Powers], [Assemblymember] Harvey [Epstein]: You don’t matter. You don’t matter because baked within the Constitution is a trump card, which is actually two words: due process.”

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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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