Hours before the state’s rent-stabilization law expired last night, about 75 people protested outside Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan office, demanding that the state enact stronger rent laws. The laws limit rent increases in about one million apartments in the city and protect roughly two million tenants from being evicted without a legal reason, but still allow for massive rent increases in vacant apartments.
“We don’t just want the rent laws extended. The current rent laws are broken,” Ava Farkas of the Metropolitan Council on Housing told the crowd, which answered back, mic-check style. “We need laws that protect us. We need to repeal vacancy decontrol. We need to repeal the 20-percent vacancy bonus.”
Whether that happens depends on what happens in Albany this week, where the Assembly is solidly Democratic, the state Senate is gerrymandered for a Republican majority, and real-estate money flows thicker than the liquor in the Lark Street bars. The decision on what shape it takes will likely be made by the “three men in a room”—Cuomo, Republican Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan, and Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
The real estate industry demanded bigger loopholes in the law in the '90s and early '00s, and in 1997, won the deregulation of vacant apartments that rented for more than $2,000 a month (though that threshold was increased to $2,500 in 2011). Given those victories, the most powerful lobby in Albany would be satisfied with simply extending the laws as is. Flanagan has backed that position: He has proposed an eight-year extension that would also require tenants to verify their incomes.
Tenant advocates want the laws strengthened, primarily by repealing vacancy deregulation. The city and Nassau, Westchester and Rockland counties, they say, have lost an estimated 400,000 apartments to deregulation since it was enacted—when it was hyped as a law that would only affect a handful of Manhattanites too rich to need or deserve rent controls, a $600 studio in Williamsburg wasn’t too hard to find, and a $2,500 apartment in Bushwick was inconceivable.
“If we don’t end vacancy decontrol, in another ten years, there’ll be virtually no rent-stabilized apartments left,” said demonstrator Arlene Geiger, 67, an adjunct professor at John Jay College who lives in a rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side. “Already, it’s impossible to move into a vacant rent-stabilized apartment.”
“It was hard as hell to move out of my mother’s house,” said Estevan Nembhard, 33, of Inwood. “I spend more than 50 percent of my income on rent, and I just got a raise.” He grew up in Washington Heights, serves on the neighborhood community board, and says, “it’s important for me to stay there.”
Coupled with weak enforcement of the laws against illegal rent overcharges, vacancy deregulation also gives landlords an incentive to drive out tenants. Two demonstrators said their buildings have been virtually emptied of rent-stabilized residents in the last few years.
An Upper East Side woman said her landlord tried to evict her from the one-bedroom apartment she’s lived in for 24 years by claiming it was not her primary residence, arguing that she actually lives with her boyfriend—“which I do not”—and sent a spy to question her brother, who stays with her on weekends.
Cher Carden said the landlord who bought her Chelsea building in February 2014, Slate Property Management, drove out all but two of the 23 rent-stabilized tenants, by giving them all eviction notices and harassing the ones who wouldn’t leave with tactics like stealing their mail and turning the gas off for four months. The building, where she has lived since 1986, has a convoluted legal history; the state apparently removed it from rent stabilization about 10 years ago without telling the tenants. The renovated apartments there now go for more than $7,000 a month.
The Assembly passed a bill last month that would abolish vacancy deregulation, along with reducing the automatic increase allowed for vacant apartments from 20% to 7.5%. It would also make rent increases for renovations temporary surcharges instead of permanent additions to the rent.
To achieve any of that in practice, however, the Assembly would need a bargaining chip—denying or giving the Senate Republicans something they want.
One obvious possibility is the 421-a program, the $1.1 billion-a-year tax break for apartment construction that also expired last night. The real-estate industry wants it renewed, as it’s a major subsidy for large developers. The tenant movement wants it ended, calling it an expensive giveaway that creates only a token amount of genuinely affordable housing.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is depending on the city’s large developers to create below-market housing through trickle-down from luxury development, has proposed extending the tax break to 35 years, while requiring developers to include more “affordable” apartments—although virtually none of them would be affordable for people who make less than $30,000 a year.
De Blasio also chose not to propose that developers receiving 421-a subsidies be required to pay construction workers prevailing union-scale wages. That infuriated the city’s building-trades unions, which are already battling a spate of non-union commercial construction.
“We’re not going to accept the false premise that there’s a choice between affordable housing and middle-class jobs,” Steve McInnis, president of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, said earlier this month. Cuomo gleefully took advantage of this dispute to slam the mayor as “unfair to workers.”
The governor has been characteristically slippery on both issues. He opted not to include stronger rent laws or changes to 421-a in the state budget—where the Senate could not block them—and then argued that both issues were too complicated to deal with this year, given the upheavals in the Legislature from the corruption indictments of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. On June 6, he changed course and endorsed the Assembly bill—but soon afterwards said there wasn’t enough time to negotiate changes to either law in the few days remaining in the session.
Cuomo, who has received an estimated $1 million from Glenwood Management—the luxury developer cited in both the Silver and Skelos indictments—might prefer a straight extension of both the rent laws and 421-a, possibly with a token change such as requiring a slightly higher rent for vacancy deregulation.
The governor may also demand that the legislature enact a tax credit for contributions to schools, an idea opponents have derided as a scam to enable hedge-fund billionaires to funnel tax money to charter schools. A possible compromise on the prevailing wage in 421-a might be requiring developers to pay it on buildings above a certain size.
If the rent laws are not renewed today, the Legislature will likely pass a temporary extension, as it has previously done in similar situations. While rent-regulated tenants’ leases would remain in effect, “there are landlords out there banking on the fact that some tenants don’t know their rights,” said Jonathan Furlong, a senior tenant organizer for the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development.
Both Public Advocate Letitia James and the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development have set up hotlines for tenants worried about their rights or who are being harassed.
Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician, and the editor of Tenant/Inquilino. He is also the author of "When the Drumming Stops," "Exit 25 Utopia," and "The Cannabis Companion." His previous work for Gothamist includes "Why The Push To Abolish Rent Control Is Stupid And Irresponsible"