Editorial: It ain’t over til it’s over

As members of the New York State Assembly made very clear last week at a packed hearing, landlords in this city don’t have as many friends as they used to have in Albany. Newly-elected members of the State Senate have also been promising that 2019 will be the year of the tenant.

But New York City renters have had local elected officials whispering sweet nothings about fighting the good fight for affordability for ages, only to see small returns in the past few years. Additionally, while the dymanics of power have unquestionably shifted recently, Albany is still Albany. This means tenants shouldn’t take anything for granted and assume every elected official who claims to care about affordable housing actually does.

If we want to see the end of a system designed to consistently chip away at the city’s remaining stock of affordable housing, than New Yorkers must make their voices heard before the rent regulations expire in June 15. The Assembly is on board but if tenants have a moment, it doesn’t hurt to call state senators and the governor’s office and make a point  of why stronger rent regulations, in particular the repeal of vacancy decontrol, which will decrease the incentive for a landlord to try and push a tenant out, are necessary and urgent.

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Landlords grilled at hearing on proposed rent regulations

Linda Rosenthal

Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal discusses the package of bills at a pre-hearing rally. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)

 

By Sabina Mollot

Politicians left no doubt that the balance of power in Albany has unquestionably shifted during a hearing of the New York State Assembly last week.

At the heart of the debate was the understanding that a package of tenant-friendly legislation stands a good chance of being passed in June, following last November’s elections that turned the previously industry-friendly State Senate blue.

At one point, Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side, turned her attention to a panel of real estate professionals who were there to give testimony. 

“How much money have you used to influence our laws?”, she asked.

When none answered, Rosenthal told them, “You’ve had a lot of friends in Albany over the years. Now you have fewer friends.”

Earlier in the hearing, Paimaan Lodhi, senior vice president of policy and planning for the Real Estate Board of New York, cautioned that the city’s housing stock would deteriorate as a result of the bills’ passage. 

However, he said the industry is in favor of passing rent regulations that “increase transparency that protects the public from a few bad actors.”

But Rosenthal told the room, “We have many good bills and we are going to pass them. There is no reason why tenants shouldn’t be protected. You guys get tax breaks. In return, you have obligations you have not met. How come so many landlords fail to register their rent-regulated units?”

In response, Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, said the RSA encourages its members to resister their units, warning there are consequences if they don’t. He then said there should be more enforcement mechanisms and countered there wasn’t “an upside” to trying to game the system.

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Opinion: Will this year be different?

By Assemblymember Steven Sanders

The Jewish festival of Passover is just around the corner. Families will gather at the Seder table where the ancient and traditional question will be asked “Why is this night different from all other nights?” But for tenants in New York City the most pressing question is: Will this year be different from all other years… and if so why?

Every spring around this time the Rent Guidelines Board meets to recommend rent increase adjustments for rent stabilized apartment lease renewals and vacancy allowances for new leases during the next 12 to 24 months beginning on October 1.

Moreover, some tenants also get notified of additional permanent rent increases from major capital improvement (MCI) work done in their buildings. Sometimes those MCIs amount to little more than necessary longterm maintenance which is required to keep buildings in good repair. Yet the owner can reap significant profits from tenants who continue to pay for those projects long after the owner has recouped the costs for their MCI project.

There is reason to believe that much of this may change this year.

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Rent Guidelines Board vote and rent regulation debate are both on the horizon

Mike McKee of TenantsPAC (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Spring has sprung and every four years in New York means one thing: that government decisions made at the city and state levels will be directly impacting the affordability of over a million stabilized apartments.

The city’s Rent Guidelines Board is beginning the process of debating what this year’s increase will be for renters with its first meeting of the year set for this Thursday. The final vote will be made in late June.

The rent regulations that affect the city, made in the state’s capital, are also set to expire on June 15. Though they’re expected to be renewed, lobbying from both the real estate industry and tenants has already begun to hammer out the details.

Both parties will of course have their hands full in terms of advocacy. What this means for tenants, who don’t necessarily have the time to be in two places at once, is that they should prioritize Albany. So states Michael McKee, treasurer and spokesperson of Tenants Political Action Committee (PAC).

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New pols promise stronger rent regulations

Tenants carry signs at a rally in front of City Hall. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Since the flipping of the State Senate last month, local Democrat elected officials have been crowing that 2019 will be the year of the tenant.

That point was hammered home on Monday when about 70 tenant activists and about a dozen members of the State Senate and Assembly held a rally in front of City Hall on the laws that regulate rents for about 2.5 million New Yorkers. On June 15, the rent regulations will expire in Albany, but with many new members-elect of the State Senate having campaigned on the issue of affordable housing, there is a better chance than ever before that they’ll make good on those promises.

State Senator Liz Krueger, who got to witness an embarrassing coup in her chamber a previous time the Democrats won the majority, said this time it will be different.

“This is a statewide cry that’s been building louder and louder,” she said about the demands for more affordable housing. “It was this issue that every single senator downstate ran on and now it’s a statewide issue. Now housing is unaffordable in many areas in the state, not just the city.”

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T&V Editorials, Oct. 4

Amazon can’t rescue your parakeet

This week, Town & Village would like to acknowledge one of the many ways that independent, owner-run businesses, as opposed to employee-run chains, can benefit the community.

Along with helping to keep any money spent by neighborhood residents in the same neighborhood and having knowledgeable people around to answer questions instead of clueless kids telling customers to call corporate, they are also generally fiercely loyal to the communities they serve.

A perfect example of this Carole Husiak. Husiak and her husband Johnny own Ibiza Kidz, the children’s store that only reopened last Friday after the electrical fire over three weeks ago in Stuyvesant Town.

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L train, noise and MCIs will be addressed at Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village TA meeting

L train construction and other train related issues will be discussed on Saturday. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

As was announced earlier this month, the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association will be holding a meeting a number of issues on Saturday, September 29 at 2 p.m.

Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg says those who attend can expect to learn more about the following topics:

One will be the L train, specifically residents’ concerns surrounding construction, and, once the shutdown begins, transportation.

“The MTA and the DOT are being awfully vague about what their plans are,” Steinberg said. “As you reported about the L train, they talk about mitigation steps but they don’t say what they are. And I love how they said they’re not really going to be 24/7, but if they need to be, they will.”

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Teachout: More tenant protection needed against predatory equity

July19 teachout cropped

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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Letters to the editor, Apr. 5

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

Fight for rent regs important this year

The City Council renewed our NYC Rent Control and NYC Rent Stabilization laws on March 22. “Ho Hum,” you may say, “the City does that every three years.” True as the Council’s triennial renewal of these rent laws is, I put to you that this year is markedly different. How so?

This year the NYC laws’ renewal was led by our new Council Speaker, Corey Johnson. I attended Johnson’s inauguration on Jan. 28 and on the topic of tenant rent justice I found him electrifying.  He saw clearly that the fight is in Albany and he has committed to lead the vanguard from NYC to strengthen protections.

At his inauguration he pointedly said  “Furthermore, working with my partners in state government, I pledge to help lead the fight to press Albany to not only renew our rent laws, but to finally – once and for all – close the loopholes that are allowing landlords to deregulate thousands of affordable apartments every year.”

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Tenant lobbying event in Albany

Real Rent Reform (R3), a coalition of tenant advocacy groups, is organizing a lobbying day in Albany on Thursday, March 22 to tell the State Senate to close the loopholes that are making housing in this city unaffordable. Even in rent-regulated apartments, the rent is too high and stability is at risk. Nearly 266,000 tenants live with a preferential rent which means their rent can jump hundreds of dollars when their lease is up.

Transportation will be provided free of cost by R3 as well as a light breakfast and lunch.

The Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association will have representatives there and is asking neighbors to attend.

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Lawsuit to close election loophole

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh (pictured at a rally in May) is one of the plaintiffs. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

On Tuesday, three Democratic state legislators filed a lawsuit against the Board of Elections aimed at closing the “LLC Loophole.”

The so-called loophole, created by the board in 1996, came under scrutiny this year due to all the campaign cash that had been legally funneled to legislators through limited liability companies. Many of the LLCs were controlled by real estate interests, most infamously Leonard Litwin of Glenwood Management. The loophole has allowed them to give nearly limitless contributions — up to $60,800 in a single election year by allowing them to be considered individuals.

“It’s not just (Litwin),” said Brent Ferguson, an attorney with New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which helped prepare the lawsuit. “In the real estate industry, they can operate a separate LLC for every building they own.”

He added, “We think it’s an incorrect reading of the law.”

The Brennan Center got involved with a suit on the loophole, said Ferguson, because it’s “become very popular” in recent years. “The amount has skyrocketed.”

Since 2011, $54 million has been donated by LLCs through the loophole, and while those doing the giving are usually traceable, they aren’t always.

“We think it’s one of the biggest problems in New York’s campaign finance system and democracy in general,” said Ferguson.

The legislators who are plaintiffs in the suit include Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh and Senators Liz Krueger and Daniel Squadron who are all Democrats as well as

Republicans John R. Dunne, a former senator and former U.S. attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, and Maureen Koetz, who ran a campaign against Assembly Member Sheldon Silver last year.

Another plaintiff is SUNY New Paltz Professor Gerald Benjamin, an upstate Republican Party leader. The suit was filed with the Albany County Supreme Court with the help of the Brennan Center and the firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP.

In April the Brennan Center and Emery Celli asked the BOE to close the loophole, but the board, after a 2-2 vote, didn’t reverse its decision.

Prior to the rent laws being renewed last month, Kavanagh had introduced legislation that would cap contributions from corporations at $5,000 per calendar year. The bill made it through the Assembly but not the Senate.

In an official statement, Kavanagh said, “The individuals and businesses who give large contributions through LLCs have much more power than those who have not contributed or have contributed under the lower limits that apply to other entities and individuals. The result is that government does not adequately represent those New Yorkers who do not have the ability or desire to exploit the LLC Loophole.”

Krueger said that she’s encountered would-be candidates for public office who got turned off from running because they didn’t think they’d be able to compete with candidates raising more money.

“The prominence of LLC contributions has a significant effect on the willingness and ability of people to run for office,” she said.

Ferguson said the plaintiffs are hoping the litigation will be resolved before the 2016 elections. The fight is not a new one though, he said, noting that in 2007, some good government groups raised some of the points to the BOE raised in the suit.

The lawsuit argues that an LLC is not individual because: “An LLC cannot vote. It holds no political view separate of its members.” It also noted how LLCs had been looked at by the governor’s now disbanded anti-corruption panel, who believed they contributed to Albany’s “pay-to-play culture.”

A spokesperson for the Board of Elections did not respond to a request for comment.

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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Albany extends Rent Stabilization Laws for five days

Susan Steinberg, Al Doyle, Anne Greenberg, Kirstin Aadahl and Margaret Salacan of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association protest outside a fundraiser for Governor Cuomo. (Photo courtesy of the ST-PCV Tenants Association)

Susan Steinberg, Al Doyle, Margaret Salacan, Anne Greenberg and Kirstin Aadahl, Margaret Salacan and a resident of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association protest outside a fundraiser for Governor Cuomo. (Photo courtesy of the ST-PCV Tenants Association)

By Sabina Mollot

Days after the deadline to renew the Rent Stabilization Laws, with no resolution in sight, the state legislature worked to extend the laws for another five days.

In a joint statement, Albany’s three men in a room, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, confirmed the governor’s signing of the bill, and claimed to be “moving in a positive direction toward a resolution.”

But rather than offer any detail, the statement then went on to tout the legislature’s passage of unrelated bills such as protections against sexual assault on college campuses and investments in infrastructure.

Heastie, however, issued a statement of his own, stressing that the Assembly wouldn’t bend on its efforts to win stronger protections for tenants.

“We have agreed on a short term extender bill with the Governor and the Senate which will allow for more time to come to a final agreement,” said Heastie. “But one thing is clear – the Assembly Majority will not compromise its principles and agree to a package that does not provide critical rent protections for the millions of New Yorkers who depend on these laws.”

The rent law legislation the Democrat-controlled Assembly hopes to pass is wildly different from the package put forth more recently by the Republican-controlled Senate. The Senate hopes to create a database in which tenants would have to verify their incomes. Tenant friendly measures are codifying the Tenant Protection Unit and imposing stiffer penalties on landlords who harass tenants. The Assembly hopes to repeal vacancy decontrol, reform preferential rents, MCIs (major capital improvements) and IAIs (individual apartment improvements) and lower vacancy bonuses.

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Rent regs expire with no hint of progress in Albany

ST-PCV Tenants Association Chair Susan Steinberg and other tenants at a vigil on Sunday outside the midtown Manhattan office of Governor Cuomo. (Photo by Anne Greenberg)

ST-PCV Tenants Association Chair Susan Steinberg and other tenants at a vigil on Sunday outside the midtown Manhattan office of Governor Cuomo. (Photo by Anne Greenberg)

By Sabina Mollot

It wasn’t quite the climactic end to another four years tenants were hoping for when at midnight on June 15, the laws regulating rents in New York expired without being renewed or strengthened.

The following morning, the talks continued in Albany, though there was no sign that that they’d be concluded any time soon.

Part of the reason was that Governor Andrew Cuomo has been hoping to include the passage of an education tax credit in the negotiations, while Senate Republicans also last week passed a set of rent regulation legislation that’s wildly different from the package the Assembly passed in May. The much hyped 421-a tax abatement for developers who include some affordable housing in their projects has also been a factor, but hasn’t been given as much attention as it was expected to get, according to State Senator Brad Hoylman.

Hoylman described the tax program, which also expired on Monday, as being “radioactive” to many of his colleagues because of its being “at the heart of the investigations” into corruption in Albany by U.S. attorney Preet Bharara.

“It’s understandable that it wouldn’t be a front burner issue,” said Hoylman, adding he wouldn’t be mourning the program’s loss if it isn’t ultimately renewed and that he thinks it ought to be negotiated separately.

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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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