What Senate Dems’ unification proposal means for tenants

Mike McKee of TenantsPAC called the proposal a bad idea (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Last week, Democrat leaders in Albany laid out their hopes for a reunified Democrat body in the Senate, which is currently made up of Democrats, Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference, eight breakaway Democrats who are aligned with Republicans. The IDC members were warned that if they didn’t start playing nice with their own party that the mainline Democrats would actively support their opponents in upcoming primaries. The warning came by way of a letter from the party that was sent to mainline Democrats as well as IDC members.

Because the State Senate is the legislative body chamber where tenant-friendly legislation goes only to flatline, Town & Village turned to TenantsPAC spokesperson and treasurer Mike McKee to ask what this attempt at a deal means for New York City’s renters.

According to him, it does have some impact despite no deal being hammered out yet.

“It’s fallen apart as it should,” said McKee. The deal would have allowed the mainline Democrats and the IDC to keep their chairs (Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Jeff Klein, respectively) as co-chairs to more effectively pass a progressive agenda. In response, the IDC said it would want to make sure progressive issues important to its own members were passed.

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Opinion: Tenants should say no to the Con Con

Nov20 Mike McKee color

Mike McKee of TenantsPAC (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Michael McKee 

 

Every twenty years, the New York State Constitution mandates a statewide vote on whether to convene a convention to consider amending it. On November 7, New Yorkers will vote yes or no. This measure, on the back of the ballot, is more important than anything on the front.

Tenants Political Action Committee debated this question at length, and despite many arguments in favor, we voted unanimously to oppose con-con in 2017.

This was not a decision we took lightly. With a state government that is a model of dysfunction and gridlock, it is tempting to try an end run around the governor and state legislature to attempt necessary reforms they have refused to enact despite the stunning number of politicians who have been convicted of corruption and gone to prison.

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Council could become less progressive: TenantsPAC

Mike McKee of TenantsPAC (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

The City Council could become less progressive next year following the elections, TenantsPAC treasurer and spokesperson Mike McKee is warning.

According to McKee, while some leading City Council candidates, Democratic nominees Keith Powers of District 4 and Carlina Rivera of District 2, are known to be tenant-friendly, elsewhere in the city, the likely winners are more conservative.

In an article McKee recently penned for Tenant, the monthly newsletter put out by Met Council on Housing, he noted how Bronx Assembly Member Mark Gjonaj, a landlord who’s repeatedly voted against repealing vacancy deregulation in Albany, beat a pro-tenant opponent, Marjorie Velasquez in the primary. Gnonaj, who spent $700,000 in the race (more than $200 for each vote he got) probably would have lost, McKee said, if a third candidate, John Doyle, hadn’t run and gotten 1,600 votes.

“Doyle based his campaign around (attacking) Mark Gjonaj, so if (voters) didn’t vote for him, they would have voted for Marjorie Velasquez,” McKee explained. “So there’s no question that she would have won.”

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Letters to the editor, Oct. 26

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

Enough from the squirrels’ PR people

It takes a lot for me to pen a letter on any topic since I have an opinion on almost every subject, but when things get personal, I feel the need to speak out. Of all the topics I now feel the need to speak out about, squirrels were not at the top of my list. When people write letters to the editor describing children attacking wildlife (Ms. Antini), or accuse tenants of spreading false statements of squirrel attacks and rummaging through garbage cans (Mr. Paslayan), or saying that squirrels are not aggressive (Ms. Turchin), I have to counter those arguments. Especially since my son is a friend of that little girl who was scratched (“Squirrel scratches kid in ST,” T&V, Sept. 14) so I can bear witness to this firsthand.

As a lifelong resident of over 50 years in Stuy Town and now raising two very young children here, I am constantly in the playgrounds and because of this I am witness to squirrels not only rummaging through garbage cans (picture included), but also going in and out of people’s strollers seeking and stealing food.

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Costs up for owners of rent stabilized buildings, RGB says

nov20-mike-mckee

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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Tenants lose bargaining power under new state budget

State Senator Brad Hoylman (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

On Sunday night, when the New York State budget was passed by the Senate, landlords won an extension of the 421 tax break for new developments while tenants lost some leverage in the ongoing effort to renew and strengthen the rent laws.

The combined budget bills had totaled nearly 2,000 pages, as noted by State Senator Brad Hoylman last week. He’d voted no as a protest to being expected to review a Bible-sized stack in a matter of hours.

However, with the voting now over in the Senate as well as the Assembly, Hoylman gave Town & Village a recap.

The 421a tax break for developers, which was included in the budget, will no longer sunset at the same time as the rent negotiations. The timeline had previously been seen by tenants as an opportunity to bargain for stronger rent laws.

“The fact that the 421a real estate tax exemption was negotiated behind closed doors is scandalous,” said Hoylman, “but what is also extremely scandalous is that it was not linked to renewal of the rent laws. Albany made a colossal mistake in de-coupling the renewal of 421a with rent laws. That was a major leverage point.”

Additionally, ethics reforms, including the closure of the LLC Loophole (which allows donors to give nearly limitless campaign cash to politicians through LLCs), were not included.

“There was no mention of ethics reform in any part of the budget,” said Hoylman, “which is extremely disappointing. Not an iota. They blocked the LLC Loophole (closure), they blocked measures to limit outside income. Once again the Senate majority refused to take action. The budget process itself was dysfunctional.”

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RGB gets new chair, owner rep

Mar31 Bill de Blasio

Mayor Bill de Blasio

By Sabina Mollot

Mayor de Blasio has appointed two new members to the nine-member Rent Guidelines Board, a new chair and a new owner’s representative.

The two appointments – new chair Kathleen Roberts, a former United States Magistrate Judge, and owner rep Mary Serafy – “have years of experience in both the public and private sectors,” the mayor said in a press release on Tuesday.

The Rent Guidelines Board is responsible for determining rent increases for around one million apartments in the city each year, last year issuing its first ever rent freeze for tenants signing one-year leases.

In an official statement, the mayor said, “Judge Kathleen Roberts has years of experience serving New Yorkers as a United States Magistrate Judge and Assistant United States Attorney in the Criminal and Civil Divisions. Likewise, Ms. Serafy is well-versed in the field of housing, planning and development in both the public and private sectors.

“I’m confident that their addition to the Rent Guidelines Board will serve New Yorkers well – tenants and landlords alike – in establishing rent adjustments that are fair and grounded in real-life conditions in our neighborhoods.”

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TenantsPAC: Don’t expect Albany to change

 

Sheldon Silver

Sheldon Silver

By Sabina Mollot
On Monday, one of Albany’s former famed three men in a room, Sheldon Silver, was convicted on corruption charges, for a bribery and kickback scheme that netted him $4 million. Part of the scheme involved the Lower East Side pol using his influence to benefit two real estate developers, in particular Glenwood Management, while at the same time positioning himself as being tenant-friendly. He also directed taxpayer money to a cancer researcher while a doctor there steered patients suffering from asbestos exposure to a law firm that paid Silver referral fees.

However, his failure to sway a jury of his innocence won’t be enough to prompt Albany’s remaining power players to renounce their ways by pushing for campaign finance reform or the closure of the “LLC Loophole.”

Mike McKee, the outspoken treasurer of TenantsPAC, told Town & Village on Tuesday of this gloomy forecast, predicting things will be as they were before, with the onus on tenants to put pressure of their local elected leaders to make meaningful changes. Otherwise, forget it.

“I would hope,” McKee said, “that this would be a wakeup call to the public that something is fundamentally wrong with our system of government, and unless people start holding legislators accountable, the pay-to-play culture is not going to change ever. Why would it change?”

Following the conviction, Governor Cuomo promised some ethics reforms, according to news reports. (His office did not respond to a request for comment.) But when T&V asked McKee if he thought the embarrassment of an Albany ex-kingpin facing jail time might make the governor regret his decision to shut down his commission aimed at rooting out corruption, McKee laughed.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Andrew Cuomo’s agenda is Andrew Cuomo. He has benefitted more than anyone from the system we have. He got more money from Glenwood than anyone else. When the Moreland Commission started investigating his fundraising, that’s when he shut it down. I really wish it’s going to change but it won’t unless constituents put on the pressure. Every time you see an elected official you have to ask, ‘What are you doing about campaign finance reform and the LLC Loophole and the election system so people can actually run against incumbents?’”

State Senator Brad Hoylman, however, disagreed with McKee, saying the Silver bombshell might be what it takes to get even his own house, where tenant-friendly legislation goes to die, to pass meaningful reforms.

“This is Albany’s Watergate moment,” said Hoylman. “I think this is a seismic event that has the potential to disrupt business as usual in Albany. The issue of outside income is key. The fact that Silver was able to take in $4 million in referral fees is on its face outrageous and is something we should consider ending.”

Hoylman said he’s been pushing for an end to this practice since his first year in office.

“It’s not a coincidence Congress came to this conclusion after Watergate,” he added. “The other key fact in the Silver case is the exploitation by real estate companies of limited liability corporations. The LLC Loophole is the primary vehicle of the real estate industry to hold sway over the legislature.”

The so-called LLC Loophole is a regulation that allows companies to make political donations for every limited liability corporation they run and real estate developers often have LLCs for each property they own.

“I think this is something we learned in the Silver case and I believe this issue is going to pick up steam — even in my house,” said Hoylman. “I think the public is rightfully outraged by what they’ve been hearing from the courthouse in Lower Manhattan.”
Earlier this year, Hoylman authored legislation that would make it a class C felony or a public servant to steer grants towards organizations that benefit their families or people they have business relationships with.

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, who’s been pushing to close the LLC Loophole, did not respond to a request for comment on the Silver conviction.

As a result of the conviction, Silver must give up the Assembly seat he’s held onto for four decades. By Tuesday morning, Silver’s official Assembly web page was down. A spokesperson for the Assembly said she’d pass on a request for comment, but admitted she didn’t know who’d be handling Silver-related queries. One of Silver’s trial attorneys, Steven Molo, didn’t respond to a request for comment although he did tell Real Estate Weekly he’d be appealing.

“Weʼre obviously very disappointed and we had hoped the jury would see it our way,ˮ Molo said. “We are sorry that they didn’t but we believe that we’re on strong legal ground.ˮ

After ‘Big Ugly’ tenants focused on 2016 NY elections

Assembly Member Carl Heastie, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (Photo via Governor Cuomo Flickr)

Assembly Member Carl Heastie, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (Photo via Governor Cuomo Flickr)

By Sabina Mollot

Last week’s deal on the rent laws and other major issues, promptly dubbed the “Big Ugly,” was blasted by tenants even before it was finalized last Thursday, for including only minor changes in the rent laws, like raising the vacancy deregulation rent threshold from $2,500 to $2,700.

And while the newly slightly strengthened rent laws will remain in place until 2019, tenant activists are now more interested in 2016. The reason is that because it’s a presidential election year, on Election Day, that will mean more bodies at the polls than the amount that would normally show up for local races. At that time the goal will be to turn the Republican-controlled Senate into a Democratic one.

Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC, believes if this happens, tenant-friendly legislation could start getting passed as early as January, 2017.

“The legislators can amend the law at any time,” he said. “Even with a Republican governor like Andrew Cuomo, we can revisit this issue and repeal vacancy decontrol and other issues.”

There are 63 State Senate seats, and McKee said at this point, TenantsPAC is not sure which districts to focus its efforts on for supporting candidates. However, this will be a goal over the coming months.

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Tenants finally get that rent freeze

Tenants packed the Cooper Union auditorium on Monday for a brief vote that resulted in a historic rent freeze. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Tenants packed the Cooper Union auditorium on Monday for a brief vote that resulted in a historic rent freeze. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The Rent Guidelines Board voted for a rent freeze for the first time since the board was established in 1969 on Monday night. However, the historic freeze is only a partial victory for tenants since it applies only to one-year leases. Two-year leases will see a two percent increase.

This was the first year that all nine members of the board were appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who last year echoed tenant calls for a rent freeze. This year he refrained from making any comments on the rollback advocated for by tenants, although he praised the board’s decision following the vote.

“This was the right call,” de Blasio said. “We know tenants have been forced to make painful choices that pitted ever-rising rent against necessities like groceries, childcare and medical bills. Today’s decision means relief.”

Despite the jubilant atmosphere in the auditorium of the Cooper Union directly following the vote, some tenant advocates felt that a freeze only on one-year leases was not far enough.

“I knew they wouldn’t vote for zero and zero but in my mind, a rent freeze isn’t zero and two,” TenantsPAC treasurer Mike McKee said. “Anyone who just signed a two-year lease (before the vote) won’t get a chance to take advantage of the zero percent increase. The fix was in as usual. The tenant members realized they couldn’t get anything better so they just settled for what passed.”

ST-PCV Tenants Association members attended the vote, including new president Susan Steinberg.

ST-PCV Tenants Association members attended the vote, including new president Susan Steinberg.

Susan Steinberg, who was elected as the new president for the STPCV Tenants Association last week, was also cautiously optimistic.

“It’s a partial victory,” she said. “It was certainly historic. Tenants will breathe easier tonight, but I just wish the increase for the two-year leases was a little less.”

Marietta Hawkes, a 38-year resident of Stuyvesant Town, was more disappointed by Albany’s failure to strengthen the rent laws than she was excited about the rent freeze.

“It’s the MCIs that really kill us,” she said. “I’ll never vote for Cuomo again. He and (Assembly Speaker Carl) Heastie are not sticking up for tenants.”

Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh was enthusiastic about the vote, noting that the increase for two-year leases shouldn’t belittle the achievement of a zero percent increase on one-year leases.

“It’s a great victory for tenants,” Kavanagh said. “We had a tough setback last week. We fight these battles on many fronts and we’ll continue to fight for affordable housing in Stuyvesant Town and all over the city. It’s a big thing that tenants can renew their leases with no increases. I think it’s fair to say that we got a rent freeze.”

Tenant representatives Harvey Epstein and Sheila Garcia had originally proposed a rollback of up to -4 and -2 percent for one and two-year leases at the preliminary vote in April. RGB Chair Rachel Godsil had rejected that proposal, saying that there were landlords also struggling, but she also rejected the owner’s suggested increases of up to 4.2 and 6.7 percent.

Epstein and Garcia, who offered their proposal first on Monday night, seemed resigned that their final proposal of zero percent for one-year leases and two percent for two-year leases was the best they were going to get for the moment.

Tenants at the rally call for a rollback.

Tenants at the rally call for a rollback.

“The data supports a rent rollback but we don’t have the votes to make that happen tonight so I am proposing what I think is the best option,” Garcia said. “Think about what kind of city we want to live in.”

Tenants initially jeered at the proposal, reacting to the two percent increases for two-year leases. Epstein himself had criticized Godsil’s proposal at the preliminary vote that called for up to 3.5 percent increases for two-year leases, but in response to the negative reaction of the crowd at the final vote, explained that while it wasn’t what they had been hoping for, it was a small step in the right direction.

“Tonight let’s realize this is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “Today we have the opportunity to have a historic rent freeze. There have been 46 years of landlords getting increases, of not following their responsibilities. We take a stand that a zero is a huge victory. If we don’t get a rollback, a freeze is a start so we’ll be back next year to get what we want.”

When asked to cast her vote, owner member Sara Williams Willard called the entire process “biased” and “myopic” before voting “absolutely resounding no.”

The mood in the auditorium was triumphant after six of the nine members cast “yes” votes, with tenants almost drowning out Godsil when it became clear that the vote was in favor of the tenant representatives’ proposal. Godsil called for a lull in the cheers long enough so she could provide an explanation for her affirmative vote.

“The majority of owners are faring well but half of rent stabilized tenants are considered to be rent burdened,” she said. “Rent stabilized housing remains unaffordable for majority of tenants living in these units. Increasing rent burdens lead to increasing numbers of people who can’t stay in their apartment while owners have several other sources of income. In light of this year’s current data, a zero percent increase is appropriate. The two percent increase is to protect owners for costs that may arise. We need a careful balance.”

The Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords, was less enthusiastic about the vote. RSA President Joseph Strasburg criticized the decision, saying that the board was pandering to the mayor’s political agenda at the expense of tenants.

“It is despicable that politics prevailed over common sense. There is no basis for a rent freeze. Previous mayors let this independent board do what was necessary to preserve the city’s largest source of affordable housing,” Strasburg said. “Ironically, de Blasio’s mantra has been the preservation of affordable housing, but his support of a rent freeze, coupled with last year’s one percent rent increase, will have the opposite effect, spurring the deterioration and eventual eradication of affordable housing.”

The vote itself was surprisingly short, lasting only half an hour and only requiring the board members to vote once because the first proposal presented was the one that passed. Despite the quick vote, the meeting didn’t start until 7 p.m., an hour after the scheduled time. McKee theorized that this was because the board members were negotiating on a deal, although a representative from the RGB said that the delay was to ensure that everyone who wanted to get in had a chance to see the vote.

The event, attended by about 900 tenants, took place at the Great Hall as it typically does but due to construction taking place at the entrance of the building, the usual place for pre-vote demonstrations was relocated to a too-small spot on Cooper Square next to Bahr Che wine bar, resulting in the group spilling over into the street and cops having to nudge tenants back towards the sidewalk to keep them out of oncoming traffic.

Tenants blast ‘framework’ deal for rent regulations

Assembly Member Carl Heastie, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (Photo via Governor Andrew Cuomo Flickr)

Assembly Member Carl Heastie, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (Photo via Governor Andrew Cuomo Flickr)

By Sabina Mollot
On Tuesday afternoon, the rent regulations, over a week after their expiration, were discussed in what was called “the framework of an agreement” that was immediately blasted by tenant advocates for not repealing vacancy decontrol or reforming preferential rents. The plan was announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in an Albany press conference.

The plan, which, as of Town & Village’s press time, was still being discussed by both legislative houses in conference, calls for a four-year extension of the rent laws, reforming major capital improvements (MCIs) so that tenants’ payments are lower though they will still have to be paid in perpetuity. Other changes include increasing penalties on landlords who harass tenants and raising the threshold at which an apartment can be subject to vacancy deregulation. Additionally, according to a press release put out by Cuomo, the state housing agency’s Tenants Protection Unit will be put into statute and vacancy bonuses and will be limited for tenants paying preferential rent, although how much or in what way it would be limited wasn’t explained. Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for clarification by Town & Village’s deadline.

The rough draft of the plan also includes an extension of the 421-a tax credit for developers for six months, though that could be increased to four years if developers and labor can come to an agreement on wages, funding for nonpublic schools to compensate them for mandated services and extending property tax caps along with a one-year extension of mayoral control of schools.

Cuomo, with Flanagan and Heastie at his side, said it was a “great deal” that had been accomplished despite all the “tumult” in Albany. This was in reference to the two former house leaders stepping down amidst scandal.

Cuomo said that they wouldn’t be getting into details until both houses were able to discuss the deal in conference. On the rent regulations, Cuomo called it “an unprecedented package that protects tenants.” He then noted that property taxes are the top reason people leave New York State.

On Flanagan and Heastie, Cuomo said, “These new leaders were brought it in at the seventh inning and handed the ball and told to pitch.” He added, “Both leaders stepped up and performed.”

Flanagan and Heastie then spoke on the topic of compromise, with Heastie saying, “We stake out our position early on and you try to work from there. We did the best we could in trying to get that done. It gives homeowners some relief, it gives renters some relief.”

Shortly after the announcement, Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC, blasted the plan. “This is a disastrous deal,” he said, adding that he immediately emailed Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh to ask him to oppose it in conference.

“It really preserves the status quo for four years, which is exactly what we were hoping to avoid,” McKee added. “We’re going to lose 80,000 to 100,000 apartments over the next four years through various forms of deregulation.”

With Kavanagh and local State Senator Brad Hoyman both in conference as of Town & Village’s Wednesday afternoon press time, neither could be reached for comment.

McKee continued, “They raised the threshold of which an apartment can be deregulated from $2,500 to $2,700, which means nothing. There’s been some tinkering around with MCIs, but they’re going to leave MCIs as permanent increases compounded with the base rent. They’re going to make the increases somewhat less but it leaves the rent laws in tact with all of their weakness. It’s just unacceptable. It only renews mayoral control of schools for one year, so they city’s getting screwed and renters are getting screwed.”

The deal that was announced was different from a second Assembly bill that was introduced on Friday. The original bill had called for stronger tenant protections including repeal of vacancy decontrol, reform of preferential rents and MCIs so that MCIs would become temporary surcharges and for the reduction of vacancy bonuses from 20 percent to 7.5 percent.

But on Friday, the Assembly made a rather surprising move, pushing an amended version of the rent law bill that simply called for a straight extender for two years.

According to McKee, this was done with the purpose of throwing the governor and the Senate off guard — and it succeeded, at least for a while.

This revised, albeit unpassed Assembly bill, McKee explained, didn’t call for a continuation of 421-a. Meanwhile, he stressed that he has never been in favor of a straight extender, but didn’t expect that the bill would be passed without the continuation of 421-a.

This was after the Senate pushed its own rent regulations bill which would have called for the creation of a database in which tenants would have to verify their incomes. Tenant friendly measures were the codification of the Tenant Protection Unit and stiffer penalties against landlords who harass tenants.

“I thought the Assembly bill on Friday was a brilliant tactical move, but now they’ve caved,” McKee said.

McKee, who’s quite possibly the most critical tenant activist when it comes to Cuomo, even got a call from the governor after the bill was introduced, with the governor insisting he was doing everything he could to strengthen the rent regulations.

In the phone call, which was first reported in Capital New York, Cuomo spoke to McKee “like we were old friends reconnecting,” McKee said.
The call, which he added, seemed “surreal,” opened with a cheery Cuomo asking him how he’d been. “I said, I’m fine and how about you?” It was the men’s first conversation with one another in four years when the rent laws last expired.

But, McKee, reflected, “He did not persuade me and I told him no one in the tenant movement believes he’s working on our behalf. If he wants stronger rent laws, he can introduce a bill. Who does he think he’s fooling? You couldn’t convince me that he couldn’t do this if he set his mind to it.”

Until the rent laws are settled formally, though, following conference, McKee advised tenants to continue to call the governor’s office. “Tell him, ‘If you don’t deliver on rent laws, I’ll never vote for you again.’”

Following strong statements recently made by Heastie about how he wouldn’t compromise on getting stronger rent laws, McKee added, “I can’t believe Heastie agreed to this. I don’t have any delusions about what’s going to happen (in both houses.) Most of them are sheep.”

The Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association was also left fuming about the deal, which they alerted neighbors to in an email.

Last week, Susan Steinberg, chair of the Tenants Association, attended numerous rent law rallies along with neighbors. At one, outside a fundraiser for Cuomo at the Plaza, tenants had shared a chuckle about the fact that while the legislature was incapable of passing the rent laws, other bills, like one naming the wood frog as the state’s official amphibian, got through.

“We were all talking about the important bill that passed about the state amphibian,” said Steinberg. “Clearly frogs have it over tenants.”

On Tuesday, though, she wasn’t laughing.
“This is no victory,” said Steinberg. “It’s very discouraging that with all the hard work we put in, that this is how it ends up. He’s not as interested in the people who vote for him as he is in his real estate development friends.”

In particular she was unimpressed by the MCI revisions. “We’re still going to have to pay for it the rest of our lives,” she said.

City Council Housing Committee Chair Jumaane Williams also issued a statement about the deal, expressing his concern about tenants paying preferential rent.

“Due to unresolved loopholes with preferential rent, estimates show that up to 250,000 tenants could see their rent go up by thousands of dollars, regardless of what the Rent Guidelines Board says and without advance notice,” he said.

Why it’s in Cuomo’s best interest politically to strengthen the rent laws

Note: the governor on Saturday made statements indicating he was interested in strengthening the rent laws further than his previous position of simply slightly raising the threshold at which apartments can be deregulated.

With Albany in a state of chaos brought on by allegations of bribery and corruption of two of the infamous three men in a room, the governor has stated that due to said chaos, the rent laws could just be renewed as is or maybe slightly tweaked. For instance, according to a Daily News article this week, he’s suggested raising the $2,500 rent threshold at which a unit can be destabilized by a whopping $200 to $2,700.

A minor change like this seems to be in sharp contrast to four years ago when the rent laws were somewhat strengthened for the first time in 18 years. This strengthening was due, at least in part, to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s influence. Clearly, the man has the power to make a difference if he wants to.

So the question is, does he want to now? It doesn’t really look that way. But hopefully, Cuomo, who is nobody’s fool, will see that with it being out in the open that legislators have essentially been for sale in Albany, it really is time for lawmakers to distance themselves from their deep-pocketed benefactors. After all, this isn’t just about bribery and kickback schemes. There is also the matter of the huge amounts of cash that have been steered to key players, including Cuomo, legally, from real estate interests.

Obviously all these elected officials want to get reelected and having the campaign cash helps, but with the state’s pay-for-play politics finally having been exposed due to ongoing federal investigations, this just isn’t a situation that’s going to be fixed with dollar bills. While we believe Cuomo damaged his credibility irreparably by shutting down his own anti-corruption watchdog panel, with the rent laws, he still has an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of voters. That is, if he can prove that it’s the citizens and not the powers that be he cares about protecting.

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Skelos arrest could help in rent regs fight: TenantsPAC

Dean Skelos

State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos

By Sabina Mollot

For tenants, who’d been facing an uphill battle in Albany with the June expiration of the rent laws, the second arrest of a major Albany power player this year — Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos — and strong statements made by Mayor Bill de Blasio this week in favor of strengthening the rent laws, may prove to be helpful when negotiations begin. While exactly how much it may help is still anyone’s guess, Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC, expressed optimism at both turns of events.

On Monday, after Skelos and his son Adam were arrested on federal charges of bribery and extortion, McKee said, “I think Skelos’ arrest helps us somewhat. It’s not a game changer. It helps that the Senate leadership is in a state of disarray.”

Skelos has insisted he is innocent and plans to fight the charges. But, said McKee, it also helps to have the support of the mayor.

On Tuesday, de Blasio announced in detailed statements that he wanted to end vacancy decontrol, end vacancy bonuses and make major capital improvement (MCI) and individual apartment improvement (IAI) rent increases temporary.

Specifically, he suggested that costs related to increased services or improvements to individual apartments be spread over 10 years, while building-wide or system improvements could be spread over seven years. Long-term rent would be unaffected, and would reset after the improvements have been paid.

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Pols tell tenants their stories are needed in rent law fight

 

Over 400 people listen as local state elected officials brief them on the uphill battle over the rent laws coming in June. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Over 400 people listen as local state elected officials brief them on the uphill battle over the rent laws coming in June. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot
On Saturday, over 400 residents of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village gathered for a meeting held by the Tenants Association that focused on the upcoming expiration of rent laws and the uphill battle tenants would have in trying to get them strengthened.

Speakers briefed the audience on the current power dynamic in Albany, while also telling those in attendance that without tenants writing to Albany lawmakers, especially the governor, the effort is a lot less likely to succeed.

“If I go to Albany and say (to Governor Cuomo) two and half million people are going to be very upset with you, if that’s not clear in the streets and not in the mail in his email inbox, it’s very hard to believe,” said Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh.

Kavanagh was one of the speakers of the event, which was held at Simon Baruch Middle School, along with State Senator Brad Hoylman and TenantsPAC treasurer Mike McKee.

McKee told the crowd if the laws are renewed in their current state, “It would be a terrible defeat for tenants.” Referring to a recent Daily News article that quoted Cuomo as saying the laws and the controversial 421-a tax abatement for developers could possibly just be renewed and not changed, due to the federal investigations being conducted in Albany, McKee added, “I’m sorry, but that is crap.” McKee has said that 421-a is expected to be used as leverage during the rent law negotiations.

Both Hoylman and Kavanagh spoke about Albany’s power system and how with the Senate in the hands of Republicans whose campaigns are financed largely by real estate, the only hope for tenants is in swaying the Assembly, led by Carl Heastie, and the governor.

Meanwhile, Kavanagh has said he wants to close the “LLC loophole” that makes New York one of the few states where each LLC created counts as a separate campaign contributor, but, he admitted, “I’m not sure we’re going to do that this year.”

However, he added that recent media attention on the issue may prove helpful anyway.
“There may an opportunity to shame people into backing off,” he said.

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, ST-PCV Tenants Association Chair Susan Steinberg and State Senator Brad Hoylman (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, ST-PCV Tenants Association Chair Susan Steinberg and State Senator Brad Hoylman (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

McKee said that while in the past, major decisions in Albany have been made behind closed doors by the “three men in a room” (the governor, the Assembly speaker and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos) this year there might be four — if Jeff Klein is allowed to participate. Klein is the head of the State Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group that caucuses with Republicans. McKee, who’s often blasted Klein as being a tool of the real estate industry, commented that his participation would only be to tenants’ disadvantage.

As for Skelos, McKee added, “Dean Skelos will not do anything voluntarily to help tenants or to hurt landlords. The Assembly has to do what’s called taking hostages. There are dozens of things everybody wants at the last minute. Some of it is minor stuff, nothing to do with housing even.”

One advantage of tenants, he added, is that with Heastie being new as speaker, “he has to prove himself. He has to be accountable not only to us but the members that elected him speaker.” Heastie has said he considers strengthening the rent laws a priority. That said, McKee warned, there’s still always the possibility a tough talking pol will “wimp out” at the eleventh hour. “There is always a wimp factor in Albany,” he sighed.

As for what tenants could do, he urged people to write to the aforementioned three men (letters rather than postcards), and get three neighbors to do the same as well as turn out, if possible for any upcoming rallies. One rally, organized by the Real Rent Reform campaign and the union 1199SEIU, which is aimed at strengthening the rent laws, is scheduled for Thursday, May 14 at 5 p.m. at Foley Square (corner of Centre and Worth Streets). The group will then march over the Brooklyn Bridge.

“We need a very big turnout,” said McKee.

Another rally is on Wednesday, May 6 in front of Cuomo’s Manhattan office at 633 Third Avenue (between 40th and 41st Streets) from 10 a.m.-noon.

He then claimed to have a plan aimed at shaming Cuomo into helping tenants. McKee declined to discuss this further. “That’s all I’m prepared to say,” he said later.

When taking his turn at the podium, Tenants Association President John Marsh echoed the sentiment of the other speakers, calling on neighbors to get involved. “If everyone takes a small step, we can have a very loud voice,” said Marsh.

He also mentioned a door-knocking campaign that he and Council Member Dan Garodnick led through ST/PCV the following day, with Garodnick’s two young sons in tow. Garodnick later said the building walk-throughs resulted in many tenants being appreciative of the reminder of the looming rent negotiations in June.

Kavanagh, when addressing the audience, said that while he realizes many new residents at ST/PCV probably feel the rent laws have no teeth when they look at the numbers on their rent bills, being rent regulated still offers New Yorkers protections they wouldn’t have otherwise.

“It prevents landlords from arbitrarily evicting tenants and that doesn’t exist for most tenants in the city,” he said.
Because of the outcome of the “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer” lawsuit, all units in ST/PCV will be regulated until the property’s J-51 tax abatement expires in 2020.

Kavanagh reiterated the goals for strengthening the rent laws, which include repealing vacancy deregulation and other policies that give incentive to owners to vacate units such as vacancy bonuses and reforming the way individual apartment improvement (IAI) rent increases are issued. Reform of major capital increases (MCIs) is another goal.

Kavanagh also got a round of applause after saying he wanted to close the preferential rent loophole. Due to preferential rents, which are given to most new residents in renovated apartments in ST/PCV, rent increases can be far higher than those issued by the Rent Guidelines Board, if the tenants’ legal rents are higher than what they’ve been paying (the preferential rent).

“In our community it’s a particular problem due to the way ‘Roberts’ played out,” said Kavanagh. “(Tenants) are facing enormous increases.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who’d been sitting in the audience at the meeting, along with Garodnick, at one point, popped up to comment about preferential rents, which she said was happening all around the city.

“We go case by case and try to fight it but there is no great answer,” she admitted.

The meeting then concluded with a Q&A period, with most of the questions from the audience—which were limited to the topic of rent—being on the theme of MCIs. Tenants mainly asked why they were being forced to pay them. Hoylman and Kavanagh suggested that tenants’ use their frustration and personal experiences as inspiration to write to the governor.

When a woman asked where the mayor was in this fight, saying, “He seems to have had a low profile lately,” Kavanagh responded to say he thought the mayor would be more visible soon. “This is the time we roll out this fight and I think you’ll see the mayor rolling out this fight,” he said. Hoylman added that a lot is done “behind the scenes,” going on to note that this is part of Albany’s dysfunction.

When a man asked if strengthening of the rent laws would help a conversion effort, Kavanagh said he thought it would in that it would help thwart predatory bidders.

Another tenant then asked if it could work to tenants’ advantage if Skelos, who’s being investigated by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, were to be indicted. The answer, however, was that it wasn’t likely to have any impact during rent negotiations.

“If he’s indicted and forced to step down, it’s unlikely that he’d go to trial before June and you don’t have to leave office until you’re convicted,” said Hoylman. “It would have a greater impact next year than this year.”

Town & Village later contacted the office of the governor to ask his position on strengthening the rent laws. In response, a spokesperson emailed prepared statements made by Cuomo at the Association for a Better New York breakfast on rent laws and 421-a.
Included in the written statement was a comment that “At a maximum maybe we can make some fine modifications in both of them.”

“The 421-a, first I believe has to be extended and I believe that’s essential,” the statement read. On changes to it, which he said he believed were needed, he said, “If it was a different time in Albany, frankly, and Albany was a little bit more of a stable situation I would normally take those negotiations to Albany and try to work it out among the parties. Albany has a lot going on right now let’s say, so I’m hoping and I’m asking the parties to work out the disagreements among themselves or their desires for modifications. If they can great, in any event 421-a has to be extended.”

He went on to say, “Rent has to be extended. It is a New York City issue. If we don’t extend rent you would have chaos in the real estate market, these are rent regulations, rent stabilization etc. You would have chaos in the real estate market unlike anything we have seen because it regulates the private industry not another government. It lapses one day you will see real estate entities and landlords start rising rents and evicting tenants. I mean it would be immediate mass mayhem.

“So at a minimum we have to extend those protections but in truth, because everyone has been watching the situation, to have these final negotiations on these delicate points is going to be problematic this year. So, at a minimum rents extended 421-a, is extended. At a maximum maybe we can make some fine modifications in both of them. The democratic assembly is going to be more aggressive on extending rent than the senate Republicans. 421-a, both houses want.”

A spokesperson, Frank Sobrino, when asked if the governor could clarify what was meant by “fine modifications,” said this was a general statement in response to suggested changes. He also denied that the statements were an attempt to remain neutral.

“He said that ‘at a minimum,’ both rent regulations and 421-a must be extended,” said Sobrino. “That’s not neutral.”

RGB: Owner costs lowest they’ve been in 13 years

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

On Thursday, The Rent Guidelines Board released its annual report on landlord operating costs, which revealed that landlords only experienced a 0.5 percent increase last year, making it the smallest increase since 2002.

Mike McKee

Mike McKee

Mike McKee of TenantsPAC pointed out that in that year, operating costs were actually in the negatives but the chair at the time had been appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“He said that he didn’t care what the price index showed and that we couldn’t have rent increases below 2 and 4,” McKee said. “And that’s what the increases were that year.”

In contrast, the current board that will vote this year was appointed entirely by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made getting a rent freeze for rent stabilized tenants one of his campaign promises.

The study released last year reported that operating costs had increased by 5.7 percent in 2013, but the board had five new tenant-friendly members and set record-low increase of one percent for one-year leases and 2.75 percent for two-year leases.

The notably small increase in landlord costs in this year’s study is due primarily to a 21 percent decrease in fuel costs throughout last year. The study also noted that there was a 4.2 percent increase in taxes, 7.2 percent increase in insurance costs and 1.2 percent increase in utilities, but these were still outweighed by the drastic decrease in fuel costs.

While the report looks promising for tenants, advocates are still fighting to change the process because they say that the price index is deceptive and shouldn’t even be used as part of the RGB’s process.

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