Council Member Keith Powers has introduced a package of campaign finance legislation that would ease paperwork burdens on smaller campaigns. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
On Wednesday, freshman Council Member Keith Powers turned some of the more frustrating experiences of being a candidate into a package of campaign finance bills aimed at making it easier for candidates to run for office.
The council member said he expects that tweaking the current regulations will lead to less burdensome paperwork, specifically for first-time candidates who don’t expect to rake in big bucks.
“I discovered while running that you had to jump over a number of hurdles to run for office,” said Powers. “(The legislation) can make it easier without undermining any safeguarding around public dollars. So they don’t have to commit all their rime to fundraising, but actually talking about issues.”
The first bill, which lists Diana Ayala as a co-sponsor, would allow candidates to get matching funds for smaller contributions. Currently, a candidate needs a minimum of 75 donations from donors within the district that are at least $10 each. The bill would change the minimum donation needed to qualify for matching funds to $5.
With multiple well-publicized probes into the de Blasio administration currently underway, investigating, among other things, the mayor’s attempt to help Democrats control the State Senate in 2014, it’s still too soon to say if Senate Democrats will be harmed in the upcoming elections.
This was the view of Mike McKee, the treasurer and spokesperson for TenantsPAC, despite some admittedly “stupid” behavior on the part of the mayor, who actually got TenantsPAC’s endorsement in 2013. Flipping the Republican-controlled Senate is a major goal of TenantsPAC.
But McKee agreed with the argument that’s been made by Mayor Bill de Blasio, which is that the sudden interest in his fundraising activity was politically motivated — no doubt orchestrated by the mayor’s longtime adversary in Albany, Governor Cuomo.
“Everyone knows this is how he operates — he’s vindictive,” said McKee of Cuomo. As for the mayor, McKee said he deserves some blame for not realizing he was bound to come under some scrutiny for his personal nonprofit aimed at pushing his progressive agenda, The Campaign for One New York.
I was recently asked to speak at the inauguration of a local judge. When it was my turn to give remarks, I told the packed crowd that the judge had asked me to speak about Albany. Without much prompting, the crowd broke into giggles. It’s telling that our state legislature is a punch line.
I think some of us can’t help but laugh because the corruption in Albany has taken on comic proportions. Consider the fact that the criminal acts perpetrated by former Republican Leader Dean Skelos were so brazen as to have been committed after the governor created a special commission under the Moreland Act to investigate public corruption in the state legislature and after the U.S. attorney announced that he had personally taken up the cause. It’s pathetic, sad – and yes, even funny – that Skelos was so arrogant and inept as to pursue his transgressions while federal prosecutors were busy listening to his every word.
The Skelos conviction is just one example why the public has lost confidence in state government. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other reasons, too. Since 2000, 41 state elected officials have been accused, indicted or convicted of official misconduct, including five legislators this year alone, among their ranks, of course, Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver. In the Senate, it’s breathtaking that since 2008, five consecutive leaders of this body have been arrested.
As T&V recently reported, I had the honor of giving the keynote address at the Eighth Annual West Side Tenants’ Conference. The event may have had “West Side” in its name, but my remarks were just as applicable to tenants from the East Side, or anywhere else in the city for that matter.
I spoke broadly about the challenges tenants and their advocates face in Albany, where Republican State Senators from far flung parts of the state, with weak housing markets and no need for emergency tenant protections, have control over housing legislation. I noted that most members of the Senate Majority Coalition do not have any rent-regulated tenants in their districts, and yet their campaign committees cash big checks from the real estate industry. That’s why the only way to put tenants on a level playing field and get our priority bills – from vacancy control to MCI reform to restoring home rule over our city’s housing laws – through the Senate is to make Campaign Finance Reform the first bill on the tenants’ agenda.
Taking the money out of politics is absolutely critical, but so is changing the prevailing narrative around rent regulations. We need to fight back against landlords’ domination of the conversation and go on the offensive with the facts.
There are many misperceptions out there about rent regulations – many of which have been purposely fostered by the real estate industry. If you read the New York Post, you can be forgiven for thinking that rent regulated tenants are all wealthy individuals freeloading while putting their landlords in the poor house and stifling new development, but that’s simply not true. The statistics show that the median income of rent-controlled households was only $29,000 in 2010, and the median income of households in rent-stabilized units as a whole was only $37,000. Moreover, one third of renter households in the City (33.6 percent) pay 50 percent or more of their household income for rent. Meanwhile, as our economy recovers from the great recession, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of development in our city. Unfortunately, it is unprecedented levels of luxury housing that is being developed.
Recently even the New York Times has gotten in on the act, running a Sunday Magazine essay claiming that rent regulations force landlords to raise prices for unregulated units to make up for lost income. But if we look at the facts, from 2010-2011 the most recent year data is available, landlords’ income after all operating and maintenance expenses are paid – known as the Net Operating Income (NOI) or “profit” – increased by 5.6 percent. That’s the seventh consecutive year they saw increased profit. So not only are landlords making money, they are making more money year after year.
It is these kinds of distortions – as well as deep pockets when it comes to campaign contributions – that help landlords when they go to Albany. The landlord and real estate lobby have sold many legislators on the notion that the free market can solve our housing shortage. Just suspend rent regulations, the free market argument goes, and the market forces will fix everything. The housing stock will increase. Rents will decline. Well, this was already tried once. And it failed. Miserably. In 1994, rent regulation was ended in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Within a just a few years of deregulation, rents were way up. Middle and lower income residents were forced out of the city centers and into the suburbs. Neighborhoods around Boston and Cambridge quickly gentrified. Yes, landlord investment increased in about 20 percent of the buildings, but at what social cost?
As we make our voices heard, we need to remember the Massachusetts example, and also remember the reasoning behind our rent laws. All too often I hear people speak about rent regulations as if they were a subsidy, gift, or charity taken from the hands of landlords and given to a select lucky few. And I also hear the argument that rent regulation should not be tied to individual apartments and should instead only be granted to means-tested tenants. If you know the history of rent regulations, you know these arguments are misguided.
Just to give you some context, the first rent regulations were established during World War II by the Federal government to prevent price gouging during the war. The price controls at that time covered everything from milk to coffee to nylon for stockings. The problem was – and is – not simply high rents, but the profiteering that comes with a shortage of a critical good. We should no more condone price gouging on rents in the midst of our city’s extreme housing shortage than we should condone price gouging on groceries or gasoline in the wake of a hurricane.
In this squeezed real estate market, where everyone is desperately competing for every inch of space, tenants in unregulated units are forced to pay significantly more than that apartment would otherwise be worth. Left unchecked, as high-income families are forced to take homes that would otherwise have gone to middle income families, who take homes that would otherwise have gone to low-income families, we all end up accepting less than we should. This is the race to the bottom that rent regulations stand against, and why rent regulations cover not just price, but housing quality.
We all know unregulated tenants who have had to find a new home after they asked their landlord to repair a ceiling leak, to remove mold or fix a failing boiler – all of which violate the warranty of habitability, which guarantees tenants’ right to a safe and decent home. Unfortunately, it’s a risky proposition to complain about the lack of services or repairs in your building if you don’t have a legal right to a renewal lease or statutory tenancy, which are afforded by rent stabilization and rent control respectively unless the landlord can show cause for eviction.
Next time you hear someone – a neighbor, an elected official, anyone – repeating the lie that rent regulations go to the undeserving, or that those in regulated apartments are raising rents for everybody else, confront them with the facts. Along with campaign finance reform, changing the narrative on rent regulation is key to advancing the tenant agenda.