Assembly Member Harvey Epstein during a recent tenant lobbying day in Albany (Photo by Sidney Goldberg)
By Sabina Mollot
With the rent regulations set to expire on June 15, the New York State Assembly has set public hearings on May 2 and 9 to discuss a package of proposals aimed at strengthening the current laws.
Among the legislation includes a bill that would end major capital improvement (MCI) rent increases and also require the state housing agency to create a program ensuring property owners maintain a certain level of repair. MCIs are charges tacked on to a tenant’s rent to pay for improvements to the property.
“The major capital improvement rent increase program is a flawed system which has been overly complex for property owners to navigate,” said the bill’s sponsor, Assembly Member Brian Barnwell, “and has been a great disservice in our efforts to preserve the affordable housing stock.”
Another bill would end individual apartment improvements (IAI). Under the current law, landlords are allowed to raise rent after making IAIs, which can range from cosmetic repairs to redoing various rooms.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has frustrated housing advocates in recent years for not pushing harder for strengthened rent regulations, has recently stated, in writing, that he would be coming up with a plan to bolster them, including by eliminating vacancy decontrol.
Earlier this month, the Met Council on Housing published a questionnaire for all the gubernatorial candidates along with answers provided by all the candidates who responded, on its website.
Answering a question about how he would strengthen the rent laws in 2019, Cuomo said he would “advance a comprehensive plan — eliminating vacancy decontrol, limiting or eliminating vacancy bonuses, combating artificial rent inflation, making preferential rent the rent for the life of the tenancy, and securing new TPU (Tenant Protection Unit) enforcement tools.”
In the ‘90s, New York’s legislature sold out tenants and tipped the scales in favor of big landlords by passing the Rent Regulation Reform Act. This piece of legislation passed in both houses, its sponsors claiming to be sticking up for the mythological “mom and pop” landlord, whose profits were supposedly being squeezed by rent regulation.
Among the most damaging provisions of the act was the invention of “vacancy decontrol” which, since its inception, has eroded New York’s stock of affordable housing by jacking up rents on units if tenants leave or are forced out by unscrupulous landlords seeking to cash in on another perversity of the act: the vacancy bonus.
The assault on tenants has not abated. In response, community groups have had to rise to the occasion and tirelessly defend tenants against the bad actor landlords playing with a stacked deck. I am proud to have been fighting to keep tenants in their homes for decades and as your new Assembly Member, I am eager to continue the fight having acquired a different set of tools to work with and new opportunities to win victories for tenants. The struggle is the same, but my election to the Assembly will afford new ways to achieve our goals.
Small business owners have even fewer protections than residential tenants –– they are at the mercy of their landlords, who have no constraints on how much rents can be raised.
Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg (at right) waits to give testimony about why rent regulations are needed. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The City Council Housing and Buildings committee held a hearing on legislation aimed at maintaining rent stabilization in the city this past Monday, with city elected officials also expressing strong support for the repeal of various policies at the state level that allow landlords to increase rents and move apartments out of the program, such as vacancy decontrol, preferential rent and vacancy bonuses.
Although the state controls rent regulation, the legislation heard in the Council this week proposed the extension of rent stabilization in the city and includes a resolution determining that a public emergency requiring rent control continues to exist and will continue to exist on and after April 1.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson pressed representatives from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development at the hearing about whether or not the de Blasio administration supports the repeal of vacancy decontrol.
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.
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.
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.
Tenants Assoc. to Cuomo: Loopholes in rent laws are eroding Stuy Town’s stability
Dear Governor Cuomo,
I’m writing on behalf of the 25,000 residents of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. Our residents, as well as tenants throughout New York City, are facing the worst housing affordability crisis in the city’s history. This crisis is damaging the economic and social fabric not only of our city but of our state as well.
As our residents devote an ever-increasing percentage of their income to rent, the drop in their discretionary income has impacted local businesses.
We see more and more empty storefronts. Local businesses have not only experienced precipitous drops in sales, their own rents are rising. The small, individually owned stores that provided a great diversity of needed services are disappearing, replaced by an oversupply of chain pharmacies and banks.
The ST-PCV Community is at the center of the loss of affordable housing. Our apartments are currently rent regulated. However, in the wake of the NY State Court of Appeals decision Roberts v. Tishman-Speyer, which reregulated destabilized units, many of our apartments are renting at or above market rate.
We want new families – not just the transient renters who currently make up a large percentage of new residents – to be able to afford to come to ST-PCV, put down roots and return this community to what it was originally designed to be during the administration of Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.
However, excessive rent increases due to loopholes in the existing regulations are destroying the laws that keep New York affordable for more than one million people. One of these loopholes, known as preferential rent, slams preferential renters with hundreds-of-dollar increases at lease renewal time. Many of our neighbors, young families with preferential rents, are one lease renewal away from having to move.
Major capital improvements have also unfairly burdened tenants. Tacked on to the rent in perpetuity, this windfall for owners simply is not justified beyond the recovery of actual costs. It is unconscionable.
But the overarching issue which we hope you will support is repeal of Vacancy Deregulation, which has been responsible for the loss of thousands of rent-regulated apartments over recent years. This continued bleeding of affordability will ultimately destroy the city.
Thirty-one years ago, your father addressed our nation about a “shining city on a hill.” It was a vivid presentation about what people could accomplish with hard work and a little help from their government in times of need. We are doing the hard work. Now we need that help from our government so that people who work in this shining city can afford to live in it.
For the sake of our community’s future and for all other rent-stabilized middle- and lower-income New Yorkers, I urge you to give your full support for renewing and strengthening rent laws.
John Marsh, President, Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association
Garodnick: How rent laws in current state have been used to raise rents in ST/PCV
The following is an open letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo from Council Member Dan Garodnick.
Dear Governor Cuomo:
Many New Yorker City residents are looking to you to help us strengthen the rent laws in the coming weeks. While there are many ways in which these laws need revision, I wanted to point out two areas of the law that have been particularly destructive within Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village (ST/PCV) – a community of 25,000 renters, all rent-stabilized, which make up a portion of my Council District.
The areas of particular concern have been: vacancy decontrol, preferential rents, and Major Capital Improvements (MCIs).
Vacancy Decontrol: Vacancy decontrol creates some of the most perverse incentives that lay within our rent laws, and it has already done a great deal of damage in ST/PCV. When the law allows a landlord to jack up rents upon vacancy, there is a very strong push for them to achieve a vacancy – almost at any cost. In the case of ST/PCV, the property was sold in 2006 to an owner whose entire business plan only penciled out if they pushed rent-stabilized tenants out of their homes, quickly. The result was that tenants were pursued ruthlessly on a variety of bases to get them to leave.
Senate bill S1167 and Assembly bill A1585 would end vacancy decontrol, and would re-regulate many of the units that were deregulated over the last 15 years. I hope you will support it.
Preferential rents: Because of the “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer” case, many tenants in ST/PCV have legal rent-stabilized rents that are thousands of dollars more than the market rate rents for their apartments. These tenants are paying market rates, but well below what the law allows. The result is that on lease renewal, the landlord is hitting tenants with increases of $250, $500 or even up to $700 per month. Many tenants find themselves suddenly, and without any ability to plan, unable to afford these increases.
There are smart proposals that would give much more certainty to tenants in this position, such as S1775/A5473, which would only allow Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) increases on preferential rents, and keep them from rising to the legal rent until the end of the current occupant’s tenancy.
MCI Reform: I also hope you will support efforts to reform MCIs. MCIs were created so that landlords would have an incentive to improve the property, and to have the ability to recoup their investment. The law today allows them to add the cost of the MCI onto tenants’ rents, and leave it there forever – and long after the investment has been paid for in full by the tenants. S1493/A5373 would make these MCI’s temporary, ensuring that owners are compensated for investing in their properties, but in a way that fair to tenants.
These are only three ways in which our rent laws are broken. I have, however, seen how vacancy decontrol, preferential rents without protections, and MCI loopholes have burdened my own district, and I am certain that your efforts to reform those laws would make a difference. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Tenants carry signs at a rally for stronger rent laws. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
On Thursday night, hundreds of tenants and housing activists and numerous politicians gathered to rally for stronger rent laws, with the laws expected to be renewed in Albany on June 15.
The rally took place downtown in Foley Square, followed by a march over the Brooklyn Bridge.
During the rally, politicians spoke on the theme of needing to end vacancy decontrol and end 20 percent vacancy bonuses and to reform MCI (major capital improvement) rent increases to make them temporary as well as reforming IAI (individual apartment improvement) increases.
City Council Housing Chair Jumaane Williams was one of the speakers, eliciting cheers when he told the crowd if the rent laws weren’t strengthened it would be the fault of one person — “Governor Andrew Cuomo.” He then led a chant of “We will remember!” that reverberated through the street.
Other speakers at the event included Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Assembly Housing Chair Keith Wright. Local attendees included State Senator Brad Hoylman, Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh and Council Member Dan Garodnick.
The real stars of the event, however, were the many creative signs brandished by tenants, including a bunch that depicted building windows with spaces for their holders’ faces to show through with the slogan “Not moving.” Some tenants carried signs or wore boxes designed to look like buildings. Even more signs included, “Blood sucking landlords call for stronger rent laws” with a graphic of a giant bedbug, a banner with landlords depicted as dragons shootings flames onto a building, and the ST-PCV Tenants Association’s graphic of a vulture overlooking Stuyvesant Town.
One of the Stuy Town residents marching, Nancy Arons, commented on statements recently made by Cuomo about how the rent laws could just be extended as they are or tweaked slightly. The reason for this, the governor had explained, was all the turmoil in Albany.
“Well,” commented Arons in response. “That’s not our fault, is it? He wants to run for president, but if you don’t support the people who vote for you, I’m not going to vote for you for president. He thinks he’s his dad, I guess.”
Another marcher was Kavanagh, who, while heading across the bridge, discussed the fact that the “LLC loophole” has been getting some attention in Albany. The loophole has allowed developers to funnel enormous amounts of campaign cash to elected officials through numerous limited liability companies.
Legislation authored by Kavanagh would cap contributions from corporations to a total of $5,000 per calendar year to candidates and/or committees. The legislation passed the Assembly on Tuesday. “Now it’s up to the Senate,” said Kavanagh, although he added that new Senate leader John Flanagan has been dragging his feet on bringing it up.
As for whether or not the legislation will be voted on in the Senate before session ends in five weeks Kavanagh said he doesn’t know. But, he added, “I want to say this is about doing the right thing because people are watching and people are realizing the corruption both in legal and illegal forms.”
One of the rally’s organizers was the healthcare workers’ union, with an 1199SEIU speaker explaining that 70,000 healthcare worker members live in rent regulated housing.
City Council Housing Chair Jumaane Williams
Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh
Politicians including State Senator Brad Hoylman, Council Member Dan Garodnick, Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, Council Member Corey Levine, Assembly Member Richard Gottfried and Manhattan Borough Gale Brewer
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.
Mayor’s office pledges support but is short on details at Council hearing
Council Member Dan Garodnick and other city politicians called on Albany to repeal vacancy decontrol and further strengthen the laws governing rent stabilization. (Photo by William Alatriste)
By Sabina Mollot
With the Rent Stabilization Laws up for renewal in June, several city politicians and dozens of tenants gathered at City Hall on Monday to call on state lawmakers to strengthen the laws, most importantly by repealing vacancy decontrol.
Most of the comments were directed at Governor Cuomo, with speakers like Comptroller Scott Stringer putting the blame on Albany for “rewarding greedy speculators.”
He added that the city’s plan to build more affordable housing meant nothing if it kept hemorrhaging units at the same pace. “We’re losing affordable housing bastions like Stuyvesant Town,” he said.
The comptroller, who recently released a report saying that 400,000 apartments renting for $1,000 have disappeared from the radar, said at the podium that vacancy decontrol alone has cost the city 153,000 units of affordable housing. Currently, around 2.3 million New Yorkers live in 1.1 million rent stabilized units.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer voiced a suggestion that rent laws include a provision that every new development must include affordable housing, and, she added, “We need to get rid of MCIs (major capital improvements) that go on for 100 years.”
By Sabina Mollot
On Wednesday, June 25, a group of breakaway Democrats in the State Senate, called the Independent Democrats Conference, formed an alliance more mainline Democrats. As a result of this cooperation, which would begin after the November elections, IDC Senator Jeff Klein, if re-elected, would become a “co-leader” along with Senate Minority Leader Andrea-Stewart Cousins, and the IDC’s alliance with Senate Republicans would end. The IDC was formed in 2012.
The move, while cheered by Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, is being seen as potentially disastrous by the real estate industry since it’s expected to put Democrats back in control of the Senate. Additionally, Stewart-Cousins is a tenant-friendly Democrat. At the same time, it’s also being eyed with caution by TenantsPAC, which views Klein as a tool for landlords.
TenantsPAC has been actively campaigning to get Klein’s opponent in the primary, former City Council Member Oliver Koppell, elected instead.
The political action committee has even begun phone banking to get close to 700 registered democrats in The Bronx to support him.
“Tenants anywhere should care about this election,” TenantsPAC treasurer Mike McKee said.
TenantsPAC has also given $4,000 to the campaign, and hopes to give the candidate $2,500 more, which would bring the donation to the maximum allowed.
Of the new Senate Democratic coalition, McKee said, “It makes sense for the real Democrats to do this, but we’re raising a note of caution about a major issue which is coming up in the legislature next year.”
This statement was in reference to the law governing rent regulated housing that will be up for renewal, and Klein, noted McKee, has a history of shooting down pro-tenant legislation.
TenantsPAC actually supported Klein a decade ago, because, “his opponent was worse.” The opponent, Steven Kaufman, had said he would caucus with Republicans. And as for Klein, McKee said, “we didn’t know he would be this bad.”
Over the years since then, McKee has had three meetings with the senator, two in his district office and one in Albany, with constituents present, in an effort to get Klein to support a repeal of vacancy decontrol.
“He told us flat out he would vote on it if it comes up, but ‘I will do everything in my power to make sure it doesn’t get to the floor,’” said McKee. “And it never got to the floor. You have to give him some credit for being so honest and not stringing us along.”
A spokesperson for Klein didn’t respond to T&V’s request for comment.
State Senator Brad Hoylman, meanwhile, said the new cooperation should still make a big difference because, as McKee noted, Democrat legislation doesn’t currently tend to make it to the floor for consideration. This would be legislation on issues such as tenant protections, LGBT rights, the DREAM Act and de-criminalizing small amounts of marijuana.
“Everything has been stymied by Republican control of the Senate,” Hoylman said. “It’s at-will legislation, whatever they want. The leaders of the Senate have tremendous strength.”
For this reason, Hoylman said he wants to see more power given to committees.
“I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a new term in the Senate with new leadership that defies the dysfunctional label some have wanted to paint Democrats with,” he added.
This dysfunction was the reason for the formation of the IDC.Following its creation, out of 63 Senate members in New York, 24 are currently Democrat, five are IDC, 30 are Republican, although, noted Hoylman, “One of the Republicans is a Democrat.” That would be Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who conferences with Republicans “even though he was elected as a Democrat.” Then there are two vacant seats formerly held by Republican Charles Fuschillo of Long Island, who resigned to work for a nonprofit, and Democrat Eric Adams, who’s now the Brooklyn borough president.
There are former Democrats John Sampson (who’s been charged with lying about a liquor store he’s a partner in) and Malcolm Smith (who’s been accused of being involved in a scheme to bribe Republicans) who were “kicked out and floating without a committee,” said Hoylman.
As for the shakeup in leadership, Hoylman called it “a good position for the Democrats to be in, but,” he warned, “it is not a done deal.”
There are after all primaries coming up and “tenants were bitterly disappointed the last time Democrats were in control,” said Hoylman.
This was in 2009, a year that was marred by a coup in which two Democrats, Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate, temporarily switched sides. (Both men have since been convicted of crimes, Monserrate of assaulting his girlfriend, and Espada of embezzling from a nonprofit he founded, and are no longer in office.)
As for this year, “Tenant advocates cannot sit on the sidelines,” said Hoylman. “They have to make sure their voices are heard. “This could hopefully do a lot for rent regulated apartments in my district, mainly Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. This could make a big difference but it could also be a lost opportunity.”