Teachout: More tenant protection needed against predatory equity

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Zephyr Teachout discusses her platform in front of a Jared-Kushner-owned building. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Attorney General candidate Zephyr Teachout has announced specific tenant-friendly objectives she would implement in the office if elected in response to reports that 19 tenants are suing Jared Kushner’s real estate company for pushing them out of their rent stabilized apartments.

Teachout’s agenda, which she announced on Monday in front of the Kushner-owned building in Williamsburg whose tenants have filed the lawsuit, includes creating an ombudsman position that would be responsible for engagement with tenant groups and organizers to respond to complaints and increasing criminal prosecutions in the Real Estate Enforcement Unit, a division of the AG’s office that investigates and prosecutes cases involving bank fraud, deceptive lending practices, tenant harassment and other real estate-related crimes.

“These crimes are committed every day by real estate companies in New York,” she said. “If we really want to change their behavior, we have to go after them criminally and not just civilly.”

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Meet the Rent Guidelines Board’s new tenant member

Rent Guidelines Board’s two tenant members Sheila Garcia and the newly-appointed Leah Goodridge (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

New Rent Guidelines Board tenant representative Leah Goodridge is, first and foremost, a native New Yorker.

“Because I’ve seen the changes in the city over a number of decades, (joining the board) was definitely something I was interested in,” she said. “Being a native New Yorker has allowed me to really see the city and be connected to it where I care deeply about its future and its past.”

Goodridge, a supervising attorney at Mobilization for Justice, told Town & Village that tenant advocacy in her career impacted her decision to join the board as well but seeing so many changes for tenants throughout her life emphasized for her the importance of the work that the board does.

“(The RGB) plays a huge role in affordability, which is one of the main issues in New York,” she said. “I’m from Brownsville, I live in Bed-Stuy now and I’ve seen the neighborhoods change dramatically. People are being priced out.”

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Opinion: Why we’re pushing for stronger rent laws early

(Pictured after returning from Albany, left to right) Tom Kuhn, Peter Sullivan, Judy Miller (back row), Mary Garvey, Sherryl Kirschenbaum, Michael Madonia (back row), Susan Steinberg, Patrice Michaels, Anne Greenberg, Alex Lee, Regina Shane and Chandra Patel. (Photo by Harvey Epstein)

By Susan Steinberg
President, Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association

Here we go again.  New York State’s rent laws expire in June 2019 and tenant groups are already taking action to renew and strengthen them.

The 2019 date was deliberately set at the time of the 2015 rent law renewal so it would occur in a non-election year, saving incumbents from the danger of losing their seats as a result of a strong, forceful tenant lobby. 2018 is, of course, an election year which means that now is the time to start putting the pressure on state legislators who want tenant support for their election or re-election runs. Since bills to strengthen rent laws can be passed any time prior to the June 2019 expiration, the challenge is to get them to the floor of the Senate for a vote. They are now languishing in the Senate’s Housing Committee. (The State Assembly has already passed two bills and will easily pass a third but the Senate has yet to act.)

What is the tenants’ game plan? We are pushing for passage of three bills to strengthen regulations by repealing two laws most responsible for the loss of rent-regulated units — vacancy deregulation and vacancy bonus — and for closing the preferential rent loophole.  Vacancy decontrol is responsible for the loss of 250,000 rent-regulated units over the past decade; the vacancy bonus gives landlords a 20 percent rent increase each time an apartment turns over; preferential rents are a discount from the legal rent that can be taken away at lease renewal leading to a sudden increase of hundreds of dollars.

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No rent freeze this year, RGB decides in preliminary vote

Tenants react to the board voting down a rent freeze (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The possibility of a rent freeze was quashed last Thursday at the Rent Guidelines Board’s preliminary vote, held at Cooper Union’s Great Hall. As is the case in most previous years, the proposal that ultimately passed was from the board’s chair, Kathleen Roberts, with ranges from 0.75 to 2.75 percent increases for one-year leases and 1.75 to 3.75 percent increases for two-year leases for rent-stabilized tenants.

Tenant representatives Sheila Garcia and newly-appointed Leah Goodridge offered a proposal that would have included a rent freeze for one-year and two-year lease renewals but the chair, the board’s four public members and the two owner members voted against the measure.

The owner representatives attempted to offer their own proposal but were shouted down by tenants who started chanting and yelling once the proposal for a rent freeze failed. Roberts read her proposal and held a vote amidst the yelling and the board walked off the stage with most tenants in the crowd unaware that anything had been decided. The chair’s proposal passed in a vote of five to four, with the owner and tenant representatives voting against the measure and the public members and chair voting for it.

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Hoylman, Powers ask HCR why it approves all MCIs

ST-PCV Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg, pictured at the podium, discusses MCIs at a Tenants Association meeting held in November, alongside local elected officials. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Fed up with the consistent approvals of major capital improvement (MCI) rent increases by the state’s housing agency, Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg called on local elected officials last November to get the agency to stop what seemed to be a rubber stamping process. Or at least, Steinberg said, while hosting a meeting for neighbors, to explain the reasons for the approvals of every MCI ever applied for by the landlord, when the Tenants Association has challenged each and every one of them. She noted at the time that the agency, by its own regulations, was supposed to provide explanations for its decisions.

The two state elected officials sitting on the stage of the auditorium of MS 104, State Senator Brad Hoylman and then-Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, said they’d follow up.

Five months later, Hoylman, as well as new City Council Member Keith Powers, have penned a lengthy, legalese-filled letter to RuthAnne Visnauskas, the commissioner of the state housing agency, Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) that reiterates the TA’s arguments against the permanent rent increases.

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What does the Democrats’ ‘unity’ deal mean for tenants?

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Senate Democrat Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Governor Andrew Cuomo and former Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeff Klein (Photo courtesy of governor’s office)

Following what is being touted as Senate Democratic chamber reunification, Town & Village reached out to Michael McKee of TenantsPAC. He outlined the scenario as it is likely to play out in an op-ed while also sharing his thoughts on the reason for the governor’s sudden insistence on reunification.

“Everything comes down to two words. Cynthia Nixon,” said McKee. “Andrew’s scared to death and trying to hide it and he’s not fooling anyone.”

As for the Independent Democratic Conference’s sudden demise, read on, but, warned McKee, “We’ve been down this road before.”

 

By Michael McKee, treasurer, Tenants Political Action Committee

In a stunning development, Governor Andrew Cuomo has persuaded Jeff Klein and his fellow turncoat members of the Independent Democratic Conference not only to rejoin the mainstream Democratic conference but also to dissolve the IDC.

This is a huge political defeat for Jeff Klein, who up to now has insisted that while he was open to a reunification deal, the IDC would continue as a separate conference and he would be co-leader with Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

Now he has agreed to disband the IDC, and accept a lower position as Andrea’s deputy.

Why? Because Andrew Cuomo, Jeff Klein, and the other turncoat senators are scared of losing their jobs this year. This is a perfect illustration of how grassroots political pressure can produce results. While Klein and Cuomo are desperate to lessen the pressure on them, we need to keep the pressure on – and increase it.

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Hoylman: J-51 tenants need info from HCR

State Senator Brad Hoylman (Photo courtesy of Brad Hoylman)

By Sabina Mollot

With the exception of residents of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, for most New Yorkers, the letter J followed by number 51 has no meaning whatsoever. And consequently, this could mean they are living in an illegally deregulated apartment without even knowing it.

However, State Senator Brad Hoylman said he wants to make sure New York’s renters know what their rights are if they’re living in buildings where the landlords have benefitted from the J-51 tax break.

In a letter, he called on the state housing agency, Homes and Community Renewal, to inform tenants living in deregulated buildings if their landlords have been enrolled in the tax benefit program. The letter, which was sent to the agency’s commissioner, RuthAnne Visnauskas on August 7, Hoylman noted that the HCR routinely reaches out to the owners of more than 4,000 buildings with information about reregulation. But renters, meanwhile, are left in the dark as to their buildings’ history and may not know if they’re being overcharged.

He called the practice of keeping landlords but not tenants in the loop “baffling.”

Hoylman added, “It’s tenants who don’t know what their rights are and should be informed that their building may have been illegally deregulated because the owners had received J-51. It’s fine to notify landlords so that they will be compliant but they should let the tenants know.”

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Rent will go up 1.25, 2 percent

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Tenants play limbo at the vote. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The city’s rent-stabilized renters will be seeing increases of 1.25 percent for one-year leases and 2 percent for two-year leases.

The increases were voted on by the Rent Guidelines Board on Tuesday evening, after two years of rent freezes for one-year leases, frustrating tenants as well as landlords.

Tenant advocates and community groups were pushing for at least another freeze and in many cases a rollback, but owner representatives felt that the increases didn’t go far enough.

Tenant member Harvey Epstein said in his remarks prior to introducing the proposal that ultimately passed that he and Sheila Garcia, the second tenant member on the board, knew tenants needed a rollback or at least a freeze, but he said that neither were possible at this year’s vote.

“It’s our job to do the best we can and live with the political realities,” Epstein said. “We take this job seriously and today is the first day to move to a better system.”

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Tenants and homeless protest side by side at ‘Cuomoville’

A protest for stronger rent laws spanned three days outside the governor’s midtown office. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Tenant activists, including some who are homeless, gathered in front of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s midtown office for three days last week from Wednesday evening to Saturday to demand rent reform in Albany.

A coalition of tenant groups organized the efforts, including New York Communities for Change, Tenant Power NY, Community Voices Heard and others. The groups dubbed the temporary encampment on the sidewalk “Cuomoville,” and linked the governor’s failure to enact stronger rent laws with the increase in homelessness throughout the city.

Gigi Morgan, an activist from Brooklyn who currently lives in a women’s shelter in Harlem, was at the protest on Friday morning after having slept there Thursday night and participating on Wednesday and Thursday.

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Steinberg shoots down RSA’s argument that MCIs are ‘laughable’

ST-PCV Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

At a Manhattan hearing of the Rent Guidelines Board, where both landlords and tenants were invited each year to give testimony on their respective suffering, Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg took umbrage at one owner representative’s argument that MCIs are not sufficient rent increases.

She spoke up after Rent Stabilization Association president Jack Freund, whose organization represents landlords throughout the city, said at the hearing that Major Capital Improvements (MCIs) and preferential rent increases don’t offer enough income to sustain landlords.

“You cannot substitute MCI increases for maintenance and operating rent increases,” he said. “MCIs have nothing to do with this issue and the suggestion that preferential rents somehow should play into this, that you can eliminate the need for rent increases because owners can increase rent (with MCIs and preferential rent increases), is a ludicrous notion. Both of those suggestions, that MCIs and preferential rent increases, can somehow substitute for a necessary, across-the-board rent increase, are just laughable.”

Later, Steinberg, who said she’d originally planned to read pre-written testimony, changed her mind in order to respond to Freund.

“Perhaps he forgot that MCIs get onto a tenant’s rent in perpetuity,” she said during her testimony. “It goes way beyond recouping the landlord’s costs and if you’re a tenant living in a building and have received several MCIs that get added permanently on top of the RGB increases, that adds up really fast. Maybe it’s laughable for the landlord but it sure isn’t for tenants.”

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Tenants, landlords both plead their case

Tim Collins, counsel for ST-PCV Tenants Association

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Each year, prior to the final vote of the Rent Guidelines Board that determines the increases the city’s stabilized renters will have to pay, tenant advocates as well as real estate industry professionals both make impassioned pleas at public hearings.

At one such hearing last Thursday, tenant advocates called for a rent freeze while landlords pushed for increases.

Tim Collins, head counsel for the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association and a former executive director of the board, noted that while last year he had urged the board to roll back rents, this year he was advocating for a rent freeze.

“The price index is significant but when weighted against other economic factors, a rent freeze would be appropriate,” he said.

Collins explained that he wasn’t basing his decision on tenant welfare.

“Although I respect and am concerned about people left out by poverty and one of the barriers to a decent life is housing, but the board shouldn’t focus on making every apartment affordable,” he said. “But the board also shouldn’t focus on making every owner profitable. If you look at what you’ve done, what prior boards have done, all told since 1990 (increases have been) higher than what is needed to keep owners whole.”

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RGB’s preliminary vote: 1-3 percent for one-year-leases, 2-4 percent for two-year leases

ST-PCV Tenants Association members Wendy Byrne, Anne Greenberg, Al Doyle and Jimmy Walker at a pre-vote rally (Photos by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

At a typically raucous meeting attended by around 125 tenants, the Rent Guidelines Board made a preliminary vote for a rent increase that ranged from 1-3 percent for tenants signing a one-year lease and 2-4 percent for those signing a two-year lease. The motion for those amounts was made by the board chair Kathleen Roberts who got a 5:4 majority. Both the board’s tenant and owner members opposed it.

Landlord member Mary Serafy had called for a 4 percent increase for one-year leases and 6 percent for two-year leases. Tenant member Sheila Garcia had requested rollbacks for tenants in buildings where owners had raised rent through other means like major capital improvements or individual apartment improvements over the last three years while suggesting ranges of zero to two percent for tenants in other buildings. Like the landlords’ proposal, however, the motion was shot down 7:2.

Serafy had made the argument that market rate tenants, along with landlords, would suffer if there was a third rent freeze, with landlords trying to make up the lost income. She also pointed out that operating costs were up 6.2 percent.

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Costs up for owners of rent stabilized buildings, RGB says

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Mike McKee of TenantsPAC

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Prices have increased 6.2 percent for owners of rent stabilized buildings in the last year, a study released by the Rent Guidelines Board last Thursday found.

RGB executive director Andrew McLaughlin said that one of the main factors for this increase was a 24.6 percent increase in fuel costs due to the year’s winter weather, which was reportedly colder than average.

However, RGB tenant member Harvey Epstein expressed concern and confusion about the reported increase in fuel costs, noting that 2016 was one of the hottest years on record. McLaughlin explained that the winter was 18 percent colder than the previous year, based on comparing each month to those in the previous year, and there were more days in which the average temperature was lower than 65 degrees.

The increase in fuel costs from 2016 to 2017 contrasted sharply with prices from the previous year, when fuel cost decreased 41.2 percent and by 21 percent the year before that. The decrease in last year’s fuel costs contributed to the negative price index in 2016, at -1.2.

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Baruch professor appointed as a public member of RGB

Hilary Botein said she was surprised to be asked to serve on the board. (Photo courtesy of Hilary Botein)

By Sabina Mollot

Last Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced two new appointments to the Rent Guidelines Board — the same day the board held its first meeting to help determine this year’s rent increase (or freeze) for over a million households.

One was real estate professor and lawyer David Reiss. The other was Hilary Botein, an attorney and associate professor at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, who teaches courses on housing and community development policy. Both she and Reiss are now public members, replacing K. Sabeel Rahman and Steven Flax.

Reached on the phone after Botein attended her first RGB meeting as an active participant, she told Town & Village the call from the mayor’s office came as a surprise. However, saying yes to the unpaid position wasn’t difficult for Botein, who’s been to many RGB hearings and meetings as an observer and has also sent her students to the often raucous forum for assignments.

“It is a lot of work and a big responsibility,” she said, “but I also felt it was an opportunity to bring my experience and knowledge of housing in New York to (impact) millions of people.”

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Stabilized buildings in ST, Gramercy saw highest rent hikes in city from 2014-2015

Harvey Epstein, a tenant member of the Rent Guidelines Board, pictured at last year’s preliminary vote (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Rent-stabilized buildings in the Stuyvesant Town and Gramercy area had the greatest increases in rent in Manhattan from 2014 to 2015, a study released by the Rent Guidelines Board found.

According to the data, announced in the 2017 Income and Expense Study discussed at the RGB’s first public meeting of the year last Thursday, rent went up by 7.6 percent in Community District 6, which includes Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, Gramercy Park and Murray Hill.

Rent increased in every community district in the city in that time frame, with only three Brooklyn neighborhoods with higher increases than district 6.

Although rent increases are governed by the guidelines set out by the RGB, variations occur because of vacancy allowances, the termination of preferential rents, individual apartment improvements and building-wide improvements (major capital improvements).

The study, which examines Real Property Income and Expense (RPIE) statements from rent stabilized buildings filed with the Department of Finance, also found that net operating income (NOI) for owners grew by 10.8 percent, marking the 11th consecutive year that the NOI has increased. The study does not break down the NOI increases by community district, but the increase in core Manhattan, which is defined as south of West 110th Street and south of East 96th Street, was 7.8 percent.

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