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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On the rent laws’ limited improvements

By Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh

With the rent laws that protect more than 2 million tenants set to expire on June 15 this year, and the inadequacies and loopholes in the current laws all too apparent, the Assembly’s Democratic Majority, led by Speaker Heastie, fought resolutely to renew and strengthen these vital protections, in negotiations with Senate Republicans and Governor Cuomo.

In taking up this cause, we were joined by a diverse coalition, including thousands of my constituents and other New Yorkers who took the time to call and write their elected officials, attend rallies, and travel to Albany to make sure their voices were heard; advocacy organizations like the Alliance for Tenant Power, the Real Rent Reform Campaign, Tenants and Neighbors, the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association, Good Old Lower East Side, and the Cooper Square Committee; and many elected officials, including Senators Squadron, Hoylman, and Krueger whose districts overlap with my Assembly district.

While it was critical that the laws be extended, and there are minor improvements in the extension passed last night, I am profoundly disappointed that notwithstanding all of our efforts, the bill fails to provide anything close to the protections we need to maintain stable, affordable communities. I voted against it.

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Hoylman: Why I needed to get arrested

Photo courtesy of Brad Hoylman

Photo courtesy of Brad Hoylman

By Brad Hoylman, State Senator, 27th District

Bayard Rustin once wrote, “We need in every bay and community a group of angelic troublemakers.”

I can’t think of a more angelic cause than protecting people’s homes. So last Wednesday, I was one of 55 troublemakers, including eleven elected officials, arrested for civil disobedience outside of Governor Cuomo’s office in Albany protesting Albany’s inaction on strengthening the rent laws this session.

As 25,000 of our Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village neighbors know all too well, New York’s rent laws will expire next week – midnight on June 15. The issue isn’t if the rent laws will be renewed, however. It’s practically a given they will be. The real question is whether protections for rent-regulated tenants will continue to be eroded by the status quo that favors landlords at the expense of tenants.

Tenant activists have put it bluntly: a straightforward extension of the rent laws is an unmitigated disaster for tenants and New York’s affordable housing stock. I agree. The reason is because currently landlords can take advantage of a raft of anti-tenant provisions in the law to flip regulated apartments to market units, making the rent out of reach for most New Yorkers.

Vacancy bonuses allow landlords to hike rents by 20 percent when an apartment becomes available for a new tenant, creating an incentive to push old tenants out.

They use so-called preferential rents to bait prospective tenants into a deceptive sense of safety with a single year of rent below the legal maximum allowed, and then shock them with huge rent increases based on that legal maximum when their leases come up for renewal.

And they make tenants pay extra for major capital improvements (MCIs) — often after the cost of the improvement has been recouped. The result is that over the last two decades, New York has lost 400,000 rent-regulated apartments. Tenants quite literally cannot afford to lose any more.

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OP-ED: The rent laws need teeth, so tenants will need to show theirs

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

Sometimes in the life of our community, I feel like a barker at a carnival. Two of those times are upon us: a June 8 public hearing of the Rent Guidelines Board and a June 9 major tenant rally in Albany to demand stronger rent laws.

I’m not selling you a ticket to a freak show where your pocket may be picked once you’re inside. On the other hand, thinking about it, both Albany and the RGB are freak shows, and the real estate industry does pick your pocket.

The June 8 RGB public hearing is the one opportunity tenants have to tell their stories about why rents should be rolled back or frozen. We need tenants to counteract the piteous cries of the landlords about how they can’t cover their costs (while ignoring their ever-increasing profits). Tenants need to let the RGB know that they can’t continue to be burdened to the point of spending 50 percent of their income on rent.

Getting on a bus to Albany is critical because rent laws expire on June 15 – but we need them strengthened, not just renewed. Everyone living in Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village stands to benefit from stronger rent laws. Without the laws having more teeth, the number of regulated units will dwindle to the point where tenants have no political clout, and we can all look forward to rents that are totally beyond our pocketbooks.

Experience has shown us that masses of tenants being seen and making their voices heard does have a chilling effect on the forces of darkness. That’s why showing up in numbers is important.

So here I go “barking.”

Who’s coming to the June 8 RGB hearing? Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue (between 34th and 35th Streets). The hearing will be held 2-6 p.m. Pre-register to testify either by email (ask@nycrgb.org) or by phone (212-385-2934), or register in person at the start of the hearing. Keep your spoken remarks to three minutes. You may submit your views in writing by addressing them to the chair or any board member, c/o NYC Rent Guidelines Board, 51 Chambers St., Suite 202, New York, NY 10007 or by email: chair@nycrgb.org.

Who’s coming with me to Albany on June 9? The TA has hired three buses. Sign up now, while your seat is still available. Internet: http://stpcvta.org/albany2015. For neighbors without Internet access, call (917) 338-7860.

TA attends rally outside Cuomo’s office

Stuyvesant Town tenant leaders participated in a rally for stronger rent laws outside Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan office last Wednesday.  Photo by Rebecca Dumais)

Stuyvesant Town tenant leaders participated in a rally for stronger rent laws outside Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan office last Wednesday. (Photo by Rebecca Dumais)

By Sabina Mollot

Last Wednesday, a group of residents of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, including leaders from the ST-PCV Tenants Association, joined a rally for stronger rent laws in front of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s midtown Manhattan office.

The Tenants Association demonstrators carried signs that read “Strengthen the rent laws—Do not feed vultures,” complete with a graphic of a vulture hovering over Stuy Town. The graphic was designed by TA member John Sicoransa and another version of the sign read, “Landlords feed on middle class renters.”

TA Chair Susan Steinberg noted the turnout among neighbors was a high as was the response to a recent effort, highlighted in this newspaper, to get tenants to write letters to key Albany legislators. During a recent trip to the Post Office, Steinberg learned at around 500 letters had been addressed to Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and local Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh.

A package slip had been left in the TA’s mailbox and when Steinberg went out to collect said package, a postal worker brought out the letters in two large trays. Upon seeing the amount of mail, “I almost fainted,” said Steinberg.

“So,” she added, “we are very happy people are paying attention, and we’re going to send them off in large batches.”

The TA is also participating in a march for stronger rent laws to be held on Thursday, May 14 at 5 p.m. The event will begin with a rally at Foley Square (corner of Centre Street and Worth Street) followed by a march across Brooklyn Bridge to Cadman Plaza.

What does investigation of Silver mean for tenants?

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver

By Sabina Mollot

Following the news that last week that Sheldon Silver, the longtime speaker of the Assembly, is being investigated for mysterious payments received for his non-legislative work as an attorney, what effect this may have, if any, on tenants, remains to be seen. Silver and the Democrat-led Assembly have been supporters of the rent laws, which are up for renewal this year.

Last Monday, the New York Times reported how Silver is being investigated by federal authorities over substantial payments he received from a small law firm, Goldberg & Iryami that seeks tax reductions for different properties in the city. The investigation over the payments, made over a period of a decade, is to determine precisely what kind of work Silver, a personal injury attorney, did since he isn’t known to have experience in challenging real estate tax assessments, the Times said. The payments weren’t listed on his annual financial disclosure forms. The investigation began out of work done by the governor’s now defunct Moreland Commission.

A spokesperson for Silver did not respond to a request for comment from Town & Village on the investigation. There was also no response to our question of what, if anything, the speaker plans to do to strengthen the rent stabilization laws that are up for renewal this June.

Meanwhile, Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC (Political Action Committee), said he thinks it’s too soon to predict if an investigation of Silver could weaken the position of Assembly Democrats.

“It’s hard to say; Shelly’s been investigated before many times,” said McKee.

Silver, who made it through a coup attempt in 2000, was also more recently under scrutiny for authorizing hush money payments to staffers of former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who said he sexually harassed them.

“I have no reason to believe he won’t be elected speaker (again). At the moment, this is simply newspaper stories. If something major comes out of this investigation, if he’s indicted, that’s another matter.” (On Wednesday morning, Silver was re-elected as speaker.)

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Garodnick: Bondholders say they’re owed $4.7 B

Dec11 TA crowd

Tenants pack the auditorium of the Simon Baruch Middle School for the Tenants Association meeting on Saturday. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buchel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel
While the future of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village remains as uncertain as ever, at a meeting held on Saturday, tenants got walked through what some of the legalese concerning the foreclosure that had been planned for earlier this year and then canceled means for the community.

This was one of the topics covered at the meeting, which was held by the ST-PCV Tenants Association and attended by around 500 residents who packed the auditorium of the Simon Baruch Middle School.

Council Member Dan Garodnick discussed how when the foreclosure was canceled, the deed of property was transferred to the senior level of the trust. He said that this means the bondholders now own the property but CWCapital continues to represent their interests. He noted that the agreement put in place means that CWCapital could represent the bondholders for a term of three years, which is renewable for a second three-year term. He added that they originally acquired the property for $3 billion and are open to the possibility of conversion but only if they get back the $4.7 billion they are owed.

When a resident asked later in the meeting why the amount had increased so much, Garodnick noted that it was due to interest and fees.
“A whole list of junk,” he said. “‘Special servicing fees,’ that’s what they claim to be owed.”

Garodnick also addressed a question from a resident about CWCapital’s parent company, Fortress. While Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have pledged to not approve of any deal that reduced affordable housing, Garodnick noted that it was possible to cut Fannie and Freddie out of the process if CWCapital hands the property over to Fortress, although he noted that this scenario is unlikely.

State Senator Brad Hoylman speaks to the crowd, while Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh and Council Member Dan Garodnick listen. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

State Senator Brad Hoylman speaks to the crowd, while Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh and Council Member Dan Garodnick listen. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Along with Garodnick, other local elected officials were in attendance to address the TA’s conversion effort, the state of affordable housing and other topics.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh were also at the meeting and were joined later in the afternoon by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, State Senator Brad Hoylman and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

Stringer assured the crowd his office is committed to preserving affordable housing, especially given the recent Democratic losses in Albany.

“Our office is ready to partner with whatever plan this Tenants Association puts forward,” he said. “Even the most important and ambitious housing plan can’t make up the loss if Stuyvesant Towns and Peter Cooper Villages of the world are lost.”
Stringer added that it was his son’s third birthday, eliciting cheers from the crowd. But when State Senator Brad Hoylman, who spoke next, made sure everyone was aware that it was also Governor Cuomo’s birthday, the room was silent.

“It’s just a fact. We’re gonna need him,” Hoylman said apologetically among laughs from the crowd after the negative reaction.

Holyman then discussed the Democrats’ current fate in Albany.
“Unfortunately it’s not very different from what you see out the window: cold, dreary and windy,” he remarked.

Hoylman blamed poor voter turnout in the recent midterm elections for Democratic losses in the state. With the rent laws up for renewal next year, he said that the Republicans’ new operational majority will make protecting tenants more difficult.

“Some Republicans live closer to Cleveland than to Manhattan,” he said. “But physically making yourself known makes a difference. We have numbers on our side and a lot of smart people on our side.”

He added that legislation protecting tenants did get passed in 2011 when Republicans also had a majority so he encouraged residents to remain optimistic.

TA attorney Tim Collins also spoke to address specific questions and concerns about rent and MCIs.

Collins discussed rent and MCI concerns at the beginning of the meeting. Residents of 431 East 20th Street in Peter Cooper Village said that they had received MCIs for façade work at the end of November and residents from 601 East 20th Street and 2 Peter Cooper Road also received docket letters from DHCR about MCIs for façade work.

“How is it restoration and improvement?” one tenant asked, prompting laughter from neighbors. Collins agreed with the assessment, noting, “It’s not an improvement, it’s a repair.”

A notice from the TA that was released on Monday said that more buildings will likely be hit with the MCI for façade work. The statement encouraged residents to keep the docket letters they receive about MCIs from DHCR and send copies to the TA so it can keep track of which buildings have received them and help tenants fight the rent increases.

Another issue discussed was apartment inspections with tenants skeptical that management only needs to give a day’s notice to come in for inspections. However, Collins confirmed that this is correct. If management needs to get into an apartment to do any work or make repairs, the tenants need to be informed a week in advance but if they need to get in just for inspections, they only need to inform tenants 24 hours before.

Collins also addressed late fees that some tenants have been charged with, including tenants who have been charged but said they don’t have a provision for late fees in their lease.

“If you have been charged a late fee, talk to management because there is no legal recourse for the fee,” he said, adding that tenants with such a provision who have been charged more than five percent should be getting a refund. He noted that there is also some leniency for tenants who are late on their rent the first time and he recommended talking to management about the fee.

TA chair Susan Steinberg noted that the TA will be meeting with management on December 16 and would be able to address questions from residents raised at the meeting, including the lack of action from public safety concerning speeding electronic bikes, disruptive NYU students and residents who are in non-compliance with the floor covering rules.

Attorney running for Council

Helene Jnane outside Peter Cooper Village Photo by Sabina Mollot

Helene Jnane outside Peter Cooper Village
Photo by Sabina Mollot

By Sabina Mollot
It’s not easy to be a Republican in New York City, in particular on Manhattan’s East Side, and even less simple is running against a popular Democratic incumbent. However, a political outsider on the Republican and Libertarian ballots said she’s determined to give it a shot.
Helene Jnane, an Upper East Sider who’s been a practicing attorney for 23 years, is currently the only candidate for City Council running against Dan Garodnick, also an attorney, who’s now seeking a third term representing the 4th district. Jnane has had some experience in the world of politics though, having been a campaign attorney for Ron Paul, whose ideals she says she admires in terms of factors like fiscal conservatism and keeping government small.
Jnane, who left the law firm Short & Billy last February, and is now doing freelance legal consulting work, hasn’t yet begun the process of fundraising for her campaign though she said she has plans to get her name out there once the primary is over. (Neither she or Garodnick have opponents in their parties and therefore neither will be on the ballot until November.)
Meanwhile, she’s been campaigning here and there at three-hour clips, trying to get the word out on the street while fending off the occasional barb aimed at her party. While most democrats have been polite even after hearing the dreaded R-word, that hasn’t always been the case. Recently, said Jnane, while she was petitioning in midtown, a woman gave the international vomit sign by sticking her finger in her throat when asked if she was a registered republican. This, said Jnane, was in contrast to Stuyvesant Town, where voters have all at least been willing to put aside their earbuds and give a candidate’s pitch about fiscal conservatism and socially liberal values a chance. Jnane admitted it’s sometimes been hard to stay motivated in less friendly environments, but said she has “faith in the voters,” who she believes will vote in November for the candidate that has “respect for the constitution.”
When discussing the values of the Republican Party, Jnane said she believes there’s a “misunderstanding about what it means to be Republican,” that the party wants to infringe on people’s personal rights. “It’s about not growing government at the expense of the people.” And when asked about social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, Jnane indicated (though she didn’t outright say) that she wasn’t opposed to either.
“The government should not be telling people they can’t have inter-personal relationships and the government shouldn’t be telling women what they should be doing in their personal lives,” she said.
During a recent interview at Second Avenue coffee bar Pushcart, Jnane also discussed her campaign and her platform, which is more than anything else about making sure government officials are responsible for keeping the promises they make and keeping government spending at a minimum. With almost all questions asked, she paused before answering, and often referred to legal points in either the state constitution or city charter to explain her reasoning. However, consistently, she appeared most confident when discussing her philosophy about a desire to see less government overreach and spending and a return to the idea of legislators as “humble public servants.”
She gave an example of government arrogance, as well as the government catering to special interests, when referring to a bill sponsored by a state senator in 2011 that would have legislatively undone the “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer” case. The bill, sponsored by upstate Senate Member Cathy Young, which was eventually shot down, would have made landlords who’d deregulated apartments while accepting J-51 tax breaks responsible for paying back the taxes but not the money overpaid by tenants.
“The government benefits, but not the people,” she said.
As for her own interest in running for office, Jnane said, “The government has to obey the law and a lot of politicians have forgotten that. I’m not talking about anyone in particular, but there is an important adjustment the government in general needs to make to be more humble public servants.”
On the City Council having to work with the mayor, Jnane wouldn’t say if she had a favored candidate for that role, but, when asked who she saw herself working with, responded, “Whoever becomes the mayor of New York City.”
She also discussed her dislike of what she called the “one-party system” in the City Council.
“Like a monopoly in the market, it causes prices to rise and services to be reduced,” she said. “Costs go up and innovation goes down and this is what we’re seeing in city government.”
However, on the issues faced by residents of the district, which winds from Stuyvesant Town to 96th Street along the East Side, as well as issues faced by the entire city, Jnane was less quick to suggest change.
One exception to this is with regards to education, with Jnane saying it’s important to “empower students and parents” by making class size smaller and allowing families more school choice. She’s also a supporter of charter schools.
On housing, however, or more specifically concerns from tenants about affordability, she said she isn’t about to interfere with the market. Doing so, she said, would infringe on personal liberty.
For example, while sympathetic to issues faced by tenants like rising rents, in particular in Stuy Town following the settlement of “Roberts,” she has no plans for drafting legislation that would add to tenant protections. She also has no plans for building affordable housing or protecting the existing stock of it.
However, she said, she would make sure the existing laws protecting tenants “are obeyed” to the letter. “Contract is promise.”
She gave an example by responding to a growing concern of residents in Stuyvesant Town, which is that as the rents continue to rise, the community has become more transient with more and more students and post-graduates taking up residence in groups as opposed to families.
“If it is legal for landlords to rent apartments to students, I cannot ask him to do otherwise,” she said. “What I can do is make sure that the laws that may apply to habitation, quality of life (are followed), like if the students next door are making all kinds of noise. But I will not make promises to people that I can’t keep.”
On another housing matter, the Rent Guidelines Board, Jnane said she is interested in making sure that those who sit on it are “not doing it for themselves or their own self-aggrandizement.”
Another issue, one of the few Jnane has been particularly vocal about, is stop-and-frisk. This past week, Jnane posted on her campaign website that she felt the recent decision by a judge declaring stop-and-frisk unconstitutional was an example of government overreach. She explained during the interview with Town & Village her belief that one of two pending stop-and-frisk bills, which would appoint an inspector general to oversee the NYPD, is just a waste of taxpayer money that adds another layer to government while not necessarily making New Yorkers any safer.
“The solution to the problem of the government is not more government or a bigger government,” she said.
Jnane, who’s lived at the same co-op building on 95th Street for the past 15 years, sits on the board there. A native of Morris County, New Jersey, Jnane has lived in New York for 20 years in different Manhattan neighborhoods, including Greenwich Village.
When not working, she enjoys walking and reading articles on the economy and government as well as more local issues. She got into law, first with firm Seeger Weiss, which handles a lot of class action lawsuits, and then later moved onto Short & Billy, which focuses on no fault insurance law.
“I love the law,” said Jnane. “It’s a focused way of thinking. We start from principles and we apply the principles to the facts of any situation that comes up and this is how you draw a conclusion.”