By Assemblymember Harvey Epstein
Before I became a state legislator, I was one of two tenant representatives on New York City’s Rent Guidelines Board, the entity responsible for setting the rents for the city’s million-plus units of regulated housing stock. During my tenure, I worked closely with advocates to push through two consecutive rent freezes––the first and second in the Board’s 50-year history.
Freezing rents for two years in a row provided much-needed relief for over a million rent-stabilized tenants––relief these working class New Yorkers still need today. Unfortunately, since 2016, the Board has voted twice to raise rents; they look poised to do so again this year. I don’t believe the data support increasing rents.
New York City is in the midst of a homelessness crisis of historic proportions not seen since the Great Depression. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, our city is home to the largest homeless population of any city in America: tonight, some 60,000 New Yorkers will sleep in shelters.
Those lucky enough to have a home face challenges: in an annual report produced by the RGB, a majority of rent-stabilized tenants were shown to be rent-burdened and a third are severely rent-burdened, meaning they pay 50 percent or more of their incomes towards rent. Rent-burdened tenants face serious difficulties meeting their everyday needs for nutritious food, healthcare and education and the health outcomes of children that live in rent-burdened households are worse than their non-rent-burdened counterparts, according to Pew researchers.
By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
To understand what is going on between President Trump, his attorney general, other high-ranking administration officials and the Democrats in the House of Representatives, it is useful to understand basketball strategy. When the game clock is winding down in a close basketball game, the team that is barely ahead and has the ball tries to make sure that the opposing team does not get another shot at scoring a bucket. So they protect the ball or just pass it back and forth to themselves.
With 535 days left before the next presidential election the Trump team is doing just that. Democrats in Congress have issued a subpoena to obtain the full unredacted report by Robert Mueller after newly appointed Attorney General William Barr refused to release parts of it. Barr said NO. Tick, tick, tick. Democrats have also subpoenaed President Trump’s concealed tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service. Thus far Trump and his Treasury secretary have said NO. Tick, tick, tick.
Democrats in Congress have requested bank records from a financial institution, which loaned Trump billions of dollars for questionable business dealings, that is now under scrutiny. Trump is suing to block that disclosure. They also want key Trump officials to testify at Congressional hearings regarding a variety of matters now under investigation. Trump is asserting “Executive Privilege” to try to block their testimony which might prove either embarrassing or unveil information about obstruction of justice during the Mueller investigation. Tick, tick, tick.
And to add to the president’s woes, The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee just subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. to return and clarify information that he provided about contacts with Russian operatives during the 2016 election…Uh-oh.
Last week, the City Council passed a slew of bills aimed at tenant protection, and while not yet law, the mayor has indicated he’ll support them.
This is a tremendous relief. We believe these bills would go a long way in protecting tenants from landlords who flout the law, from making aggressive buyout offers to using construction as a form of harassment to blatantly lying on applications.
Additionally, the fact that so many housing bills were introduced shows how badly this intervention was needed in the first place. A perfect example is Council Member Keith Powers’ bill to crack down on landlords who lie in construction documents about whether or not their buildings have rent regulated tenants. This legislation was inspired by behavior by the Kushner Companies, who failed to disclose the presence of such tenants in 17 buildings a total of 42 times when filing applications to the Department of Buildings.
Another helpful bill will improve communication between city agencies with oversight of housing, making it easier to catch these inaccuracies.
By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
Several weeks ago, I wrote a column describing the utter futility of Bill de Blasio’s flirtation with a race for president and his frequent trips out of town in pursuit of that office. An avid Town & Village reader emailed us this week to ask why persons would contribute to such a campaign with little or no hope of victory. The answers are varied.
Yes, there are some political donors who truly believe in a particular candidate come hell or high water or ones who are close friends or relatives. Some candidates run for higher office thinking like those who play the lottery. Even though the probability of success is near zero, as the Power Ball slogan exclaims, “Hey, you never know” or “You can’t win it if you are not in it.” The chances of winning the jackpot and the odds of a nondescript candidate winning the presidency is about the same.
In the case of Donald Trump, he at least had a celebrity following from his business ventures, tabloid exposure, and his television show “The Apprentice.” None of those experiences qualified him to be president, but it did give him universal name recognition and political momentum as a candidate.
But back to Bill de Blasio and other office seekers who are not counted amongst the rich and the famous.
As members of the New York State Assembly made very clear last week at a packed hearing, landlords in this city don’t have as many friends as they used to have in Albany. Newly-elected members of the State Senate have also been promising that 2019 will be the year of the tenant.
But New York City renters have had local elected officials whispering sweet nothings about fighting the good fight for affordability for ages, only to see small returns in the past few years. Additionally, while the dymanics of power have unquestionably shifted recently, Albany is still Albany. This means tenants shouldn’t take anything for granted and assume every elected official who claims to care about affordable housing actually does.
If we want to see the end of a system designed to consistently chip away at the city’s remaining stock of affordable housing, than New Yorkers must make their voices heard before the rent regulations expire in June 15. The Assembly is on board but if tenants have a moment, it doesn’t hurt to call state senators and the governor’s office and make a point of why stronger rent regulations, in particular the repeal of vacancy decontrol, which will decrease the incentive for a landlord to try and push a tenant out, are necessary and urgent.
By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
Something really important happened last week at the United State Supreme Court. Arguments both pro and con were presented regarding a Trump Administration policy to change the way in which the decennial census is calculated by the federal Department of Commerce. The outcome could impact New York State in a big way.
Every ten years the government counts the total number of individuals residing in the country, broken down by each individual state and its cities, towns and villages. Currently the national population estimate updated in 2017 stands at 325,719,178 persons. In New York State, the number is 19,849,399. That includes both citizens and non-citizens alike.
So what’s going on at the Supreme Court and what’s the big deal? And should we be concerned?
The Department of Commerce wants to make a change to the census questionnaires that will be sent next year to every household, and other residential facilities. They want to inquire whether the respondents are citizens or not. The validity of including that question has been challenged and the Supreme Court will soon decide. On the surface this all might seem innocuous…but it is not. In fact it is insidious.
The John Colianni Quintet performing at Stuyvesant Cove Park
By Jo-Ann Polise, event organizer for the Stuyvesant Cove Park Association
After more than a dozen years the Stuyvesant Cove Park Association will not be sponsoring the free concert series at Stuyvesant Cove Park this summer. The cancellation, first announced in an e-mail sent out to Friends of Stuyvesant Cove Park on April 4, prompted many to respond with expressions of sadness and disappointment over the decision as well as praise and appreciation for seasons past.
The series cancellation was not due to funds being cut; Councilmember Keith Powers, like his predecessor, had made discretionary funds available to the organization for the program. However, the process of applying for the funds and the additional work required to receive payment of the funds has, over the years, become much too complicated and time consuming for an all-volunteer organization.
Additionally, the SCPA had been notified that its arrangement with Solar 1 was changing. In addition to paying a fee to Solar 1 for each event held at the Park, the SCPA would also have to purchase their own insurance to cover future events. This additional expense would undoubtedly result in a reduction in the number of concerts.
Unlike some organizations that have dedicated, paid staff to handle grant applications, the SCPA consists of members of the community who donate their time for the love of the Park.
By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
Two American mayors both with one ambition, to defeat President Trump and become the 46th president of the United States. That is where the similarity ends and the disparity begins.
If elected, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio would become the tallest president in history.
If elected, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg would become the shortest since Harry Truman. Mayor Buttigieg presides over a city of around 100,000 residents. Mayor de Blasio’s city has 80 times that number of residents. Buttigieg is something of a longshot, but de Blasio has no shot whatsoever.
It’s an interesting contrast.
Why has Buttigieg gained momentum and national attention in his presidential quest while de Blasio has about as much traction as a pair of bald tires going down a slippery steep hill to nowhere? Try as he has almost nobody is interested in what de Blasio has to say outside of the five boroughs. Buttigieg on the other hand has more interview requests than he knows what to do with.
So what’s up with this picture?
Natasha Amott, owner of Whisk
Earlier this month, Town & Village interviewed three local business owners to ask their thoughts on a package of legislation aimed at helping mom-and-pops.
One of those business owners was Natasha Amott, whose business, kitchen supply shop Whisk has three locations, one on Broadway in Flatiron, and two in Brooklyn, one in Williamsburg and the other in Brooklyn Heights. While the three shops have no shortage of loyal customers, Amott told Town & Village on Friday that the Williamsburg location on Bedford will be closing at the end of the month after 10 years due to an astronomical rise in rent. Currently $18,452, the landlord asked for a 44 percent increase that would have brought it up to $26,500. Such asking rents have become the norm in a neighborhood that, like so many others in the city, have been zeroed in on by chains.
Amott explained her decision to close in a “love letter” to customers, while also telling T&V via email, “This is NOT a story of a small business that could not survive the growth of online retailers. This is a story of a tremendously successful little business in a neighborhood that has become overrun with national and multinational chains, often supported by private equity, who choose to pay high rents as an advertising investment to grow their brand. The commercial banking system to underwrite mortgages on this land has often demanded these high rent rolls. And the small landlords – like Whisk’s – are now able to benefit too from these inflated market rents.”
In addition to the Brooklyn closure, there has also been a “For Rent” sign in the window of the Manhattan store.
By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
Anti-Vaxxers. That’s what they call themselves. They are mostly parents who for one reason or another refuse to have their children vaccinated for any number of childhood diseases or annual flu shots. Sometimes it is based on religious grounds and sometimes it is from fear that a vaccination can cause harm or that a child’s immune system may be compromised by avoiding these diseases and the antibodies that result.
This issue has been brought into sharp focus by the outbreak of the highly contagious measles infection in New York and other cities which had virtually been eradicated two decades ago due to the vaccination protocol.
Obviously all parents want what is best for their children. But to deny the availability and effectiveness of modern medicine does not seem a wise choice. And when children are not vaccinated, or adults opt not to get flu shots, it puts the public health at much greater risk.
Influenza kills thousands of Americans each year. Measles, chicken pox and mumps can also cause permanent damage to a young child in severe cases, and even death.
Donated VHS tapes and other items decorate the sidewalk outside Angel Street thrift shop. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
We get it. Sometimes the most convenient time to run an errand, like finally bringing in that donate pile to the thrift store it’s intended for, is before work. When said store is still closed.
But sadly, most of the time what happens is the bags will get picked through by the homeless. Now, you might say, fine, if they need it. But as we witnessed in front of the Angel Street thrift store on a recent morning, this also means the donated items will end up everywhere, including in the gutter, where they become filthy and useless.
Prior to writing this rant, we spoke with the head cashier at Angel Street (at its new location on West 22nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) Tiffany Davenport.
Of course, said Davenport. she and her coworkers would appreciate if people brought their donations during business hours, but ultimately Davenport said, “You can’t help what people do. We could try to enforce what we want them to do but at the end of the day, it’s their decision.”
By Assemblymember Steven Sanders
The Jewish festival of Passover is just around the corner. Families will gather at the Seder table where the ancient and traditional question will be asked “Why is this night different from all other nights?” But for tenants in New York City the most pressing question is: Will this year be different from all other years… and if so why?
Every spring around this time the Rent Guidelines Board meets to recommend rent increase adjustments for rent stabilized apartment lease renewals and vacancy allowances for new leases during the next 12 to 24 months beginning on October 1.
Moreover, some tenants also get notified of additional permanent rent increases from major capital improvement (MCI) work done in their buildings. Sometimes those MCIs amount to little more than necessary longterm maintenance which is required to keep buildings in good repair. Yet the owner can reap significant profits from tenants who continue to pay for those projects long after the owner has recouped the costs for their MCI project.
There is reason to believe that much of this may change this year.
This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve devoted this column space to the ever-divisive debate on squirrel feeding, but since the rules have just been changed in a big way it seems like an appropriate time to weigh in again.
Firstly we would like to recognize the Parks Department and the management of Stuyvesant Town for waiting until the warmer months to implement a wildlife feeding ban when at least it is easier for squirrels and birds to tap into their natural food sources. After all, Squirrel Appreciation Day on January 21 came about because an advocate for the critters felt they had a tougher time finding food on their own in the dead of winter.
The conclusions are mixed even among experts on whether squirrel and bird feeding is helpful or harmful in the long run. And we understand the arguments for a ban as well as for human supplementing of urban animals’ sustenance, too.
Our view on the bans is that they should at least be given a chance to accomplish their goals. In the case of parks, to discourage the proliferation of rats and in the case of Stuy Town and Peter Cooper to truly to end the pattern of aggressive begging that has led to a few children getting bitten or scratched (though we doubt intentionally) by squirrels looking for a meal. As for whether these animals can be expected to break this habit after many decades of domestication we… well we truly don’t know. And we won’t know until we at least give them a chance to remember it’s their instinct to climb trees and collect nuts, not climb through strollers and garbage cans and collect leftover McDonald’s.
By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
This week the state legislature and the governor will try to beat the April 1 deadline and agree to a budget for the new fiscal year. That’s always the centerpiece of state government action.
It is easy to be nostalgic and imagine that previous times were the good old days. In truth, there were some really positive things happening in the state government back when I arrived in the Assembly in 1978.
For one thing, there was not such a partisan political divide. In those days, the Assembly was controlled by the Democrats and the Senate was controlled by the Republicans. But neither party had such a total numerical stranglehold on their respective houses. So it was necessary for Democrats and Republicans to try to work together to get things done between the houses and also within each house.
Of course there were profound differences of opinions on any number of issues. But Governor Hugh Carey and his successor Mario Cuomo always seemed to find a light touch to deal with the legislature and with the opposing party. The incumbent governor just can’t seem to find that same easy manner.
By Kirsten Theodos of Take Back NYC
After the big news that Amazon was canceling its plan to build its new headquarters “HQ2” in Long Island City, activists and local elected officials celebrated it as a victory while others viewed it as a tragic collapse. The biggest complaint has been the loss of 25,000 promised jobs over the next decade.
Meanwhile, on every Main Street in every neighborhood across the city, there are empty storefronts where once-thriving businesses existed. Are supporters of the Amazon deal aware that New York City courts evict 500 businesses every month and over 1,000 are estimated to close every month, mostly due to high rents? Eighty-nine percent of all small businesses in NYC are considered “very small,” meaning they employ less than 20 people. Conservatively using eight as the average, that means New York City loses at least 8,000 jobs every month.
There are people lamenting over potentially having lost 200 new Amazon jobs per month when our city already sheds over 8,000 per month, which the Amazon deal would have exacerbated. And while it is true that online shopping has altered the retail landscape (namely by Amazon itself), it is the unfair lease renewal process that is shuttering our long established small businesses. Just on my block a ramen restaurant, a bike repair shop and pizza place were all forced to close due to an exorbitant rent hike upon their lease renewal, and none of them competed with Amazon.
Small businesses employ more than half of NYC’s private sector workforce. They provide jobs that offer a path to social mobility and in New York City are predominantly immigrant owned. Unlike Amazon’s imported tech bros, small businesses employ actual New Yorkers who live in our communities.