Thirteen thousand seniors and disabled New Yorkers whose rent the state froze last year could see it go up again as early as next summer.
The NYC Rent Freeze Program (really two programs known by their unwieldy acronyms SCRIE and DRIE) is available to disabled New Yorkers and those over 62 living in rent-controlled, rent-stabilized, and Mitchell-Lama apartments, which account for well more than half of New York's rental housing stock. The city pays the landlords the difference between what they could charge and the frozen rent through tax credits.
Until last year, the rent freeze was only available to households making less than $29,000, or disabled individuals making $21,000 or less. In 2014, state legislators opened it up to households bringing in as much as $50,000, making tens of thousands more people eligible.
The catch: the new requirements are set to expire next year, pushing out the 13,000 people who have just signed up, and keeping all but the poorest New Yorkers from qualifying.
East Village Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh and Coney Island state Senator Diane Savino are pushing a bill to make the expanded eligibility permanent before it goes onto the chopping block of next summer's budget negotiations. Kavanagh says there is plenty of support in Albany, but that it is far from a sure thing.
"It is a lift," he said at a press conference on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday. "There are people [in Albany] who are more conservative than I am who may oppose it. It's not an uncontroversial thing in our society to freeze people's rent."
The program requires tenants to spend more than a third of their income on rent, but disability-rights advocate Edith Prentiss said she has never seen people have difficulty living up to that. For instance, she said she is paying her entire Social Security check toward rent in a rent-stabilized building in Washington Heights. Two seniors at the press conference said they are paying 66 and 70 percent of their income in rent. And they are not alone. A 2013 study showed more than 60 percent of all rent-stabilized tenants spend more than half of their income on rent.
Prentiss's group Disabled In Action and the senior group LiveOn NY believe making the expanded eligibility permanent is all well and good, but they want the state to go further and mandate rent rollbacks, so that people who successfully apply for a rent freeze get the freeze at the rate they were paying when they became disabled or turned 62, not the current rate.
The City Hall press conference was called to spotlight Council members' support for making the expanded program permanent, and to draw attention to Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito's proposed handbook for landlords, which would show how to do senior- and disability-friendly renovations. A Council hearing on the handbook, which contains no changes to the building code, highlighted just how little it would accomplish.
"Without any teeth or any enticements, I don't see landlords doing this," said Melissa Muñoz Patterson, lawyer for the Bronx senior group Regional Aid for Interim Needs, testifying before the Council's Committee on Aging.
The handbook would include guidelines on how to, for instance, install grab bars, widen doorways, and put in lighting for people with vision problems. Listening to experts talk about such features, Staten Island Councilwoman Deborah Rose rhetorically asked:
"So why can't we, um, legislate that buildings should be built, you know, to meet these specifications?"
The proceedings also illustrated the gap in resources that the city devotes to seniors versus disabled people. Throughout the hearing, Council members, housing wonks, and nonprofit executives referred nearly always to seniors while omitting mention of the disabled.
The Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities has just nine employees, and though it received hundreds of calls last year from people who needed help applying for a rent freeze, its employees could not help them all, as architect Robert Piccolo from the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities testified. Those who couldn't get their materials together were referred to the Department of Finance, which handles the applications, and which directs people to call 311 for assistance filling them out.
The Department for the Aging, by contrast, has more than 800 employees (PDF) and actively canvasses at health fairs and community events to get seniors to apply for a rent freeze.
As Prentiss drove her scooter out of the hearing, she took advantage of the final opportunity to mention the lack of attention paid to disabled people.
"We're the stepchildren and we know it," she said.
Mayor de Blasio pushed for a rent freeze for all rent-stabilized tenants last year and somehow managed not to get it despite appointing six of the Rent Guideline Board's nine members.