NYC’s rent laws poised for major reform after midterm elections

New York’s state Senate went blue in the midterm election,
which could lead to rent reforms

By the time
election results
began airing on the mounted television at
Patsy’s Pizzeria in Morris Park, where Democratic state Senate
candidate Alessandra Biaggi held her election night viewing party,
the candidate’s triumph was a foregone conclusion. The district
that Biaggi will represent—the 34th, covering neighborhoods like
Morris Park, Riverdale, and Throgg’s Neck—leans heavily
Democrat, and her unexpected primary win against Senator Jeff Klein
on September 13 was the real heavy lift. But that didn’t stop
supporters, family members, and friends from erupting in applause
every time her name appeared on screen, showing she had secured
70.66 percent of the vote.

One attendee, clad in a blue t-shirt that read “VOTE
BIAGGI,” was Barry Soltz, a former tenant association president
at the nearby Janel Towers. Tenants at his building, once a
Mitchell Lama housing complex, have
been protesting Klein since 2010
, when he first formed the
Independent Democratic Conference, the breakaway group of senators
that entered into a power-sharing agreement with Republicans who
controlled the state Senate. The complex is currently facing a
major
capital improvement
, part of a program that allows permanent
rent increases to subsidize fixes within units. Legislation to make
those increases temporary thanks to the IDC.

Soltz invited Biaggi to an October
26 town hall
where she met with tenants about housing concerns.
“Everybody that met her loved her,” he said. But he said her
success rested on whether New York state’s Senate could turn for
Democrats, and at that point in the evening, the outcome was still
unclear. “I still don’t know what the state senate’s looking
like,” Soltz said, nervously eyeing the screen.

Hours later, the results were in: New York’s state Senate is
now securely under Democratic control, with at least 36 candidates
from the party winning on election night.

The new Democratic majority is a big win for tenants’ rights
advocates, who are now poised to deliver on long sought-after
reforms that hinged on the Senate—which has been under Republican
control for a decade—going blue. New York’s rent stabilization
laws are up for renewal in June 2019, and loopholes that have
dogged advocates for years are in sight of finally being closed or
amended. Among them are vacancy decontrol and bonuses, preferential
rent, and major capital improvements, all of which contribute to
the loss of rent-stabilized apartments in New York City.

And newcomers who unseated former members of the IDC—including
Biaggi, Jessica Ramos in Queens, and Zellnor Myrie in
Brooklyn—say they are particularly attuned to the anguish of
renters, something that has lead to excitement among tenant’s
rights advocates.

Biaggi, a former Deputy National Operations Director for the
2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, has lived with her parents to save
money—she told
The Cut
she has over $180,000 in student loan debt—but at her
election watch party, Biaggi told Curbed she was going to start
looking for a place to rent. “I have to find a place that’s
affordable, that’s the challenge,” she explained.

Ramos, who will represent District 13 in Queens, is a renter who
lives with her husband and two sons in Jackson Heights. A former
Director of Latino Media under Mayor Bill de Blasio, she was among
the constituents who confronted
Senator Jose Peralta at a heated February 2017 town hall
about
his joining the breakaway IDC. Her anger over Peralta’s defection
led her to run against him and ultimately win the district, which
covers Astoria, Woodside, Jackson Heights and Corona.

In addition to being a renter, Myrie is the president of his
building’s tenant association in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, as
well as a lawyer and activist who has logged pro bono work for
indigent clients. Myrie grew up in affordable housing in Flatbush,
and helped author the
Tenants Bill of Rights
while legislative director at New York
City Council. He too says he was driven to run when he learned his
state senator, Jesse Hamilton, had joined the IDC, and defeated him
months later.

Each of these insurgent candidates hammered their IDC
competitors for taking large sums of real estate money and for
failing to close rent loopholes,
despite assurances to advocates that they would do so
. State
Sens. and IDC members Marisol Alcantra and Jose Peralta even penned
an op-ed in Spanish-language newspaper El Diario, pledging to fight
on behalf of tenants against the loopholes. Along with Hamilton,
they co-sponsored
Senate legislation to end preferential rent loopholes
—an
empty gesture, since the Republican-controlled Senate, which relied
on the IDC to tip the scales, refused to put it to vote.
Subsequently, each of the IDC challengers drew substantial support
from tenant unions who mobilized their frustrated membership.

“Alessandra, Jessica, Zellnor—they understand these issues
that a lot of legislators only understand because somebody
explained it to them,” says Michael McKee, the treasurer of
TenantsPAC, a group that funds candidates who support pro-tenant
positions.


Scott Heins Tenants’ rights groups made strengthening NYC’s
rent laws—and ousting candidates who would not agree to do so—a
priority in the midterm elections.

The loopholes they may now seek to change have all existed as
bills of some kind in the Senate, but have mostly never received
votes. Take vacancy decontrol: Created by a 1994 law passed by the
City Council, the practice allows landlords of rent-stabilized
apartments asking at least $2,000 to hike that number by a certain
percentage each year. If the renter makes $250,000 a year or more,
the rent hike can happen upon lease renewal. An additional loophole
in the law allows landlords to hike rents further by making small
improvements and claiming large repair costs, retroactively pushing
rent past the $2,000 minimum. Once the unit meets a threshold of
$2,733 it is permanently deregulated.

Of the units that were permanently deregulated in 2017,
53 percent were due to high-rent vacancy decontrol
, according
to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board, and the practice is a
prime reason for the net loss of 147,512 rent-regulated units since
1994. (Hand in hand with this loophole is the so-called eviction
bonus, which gives landlords an automatic 20 percent rent increase
once an apartment has been vacated; a bill to overturn this
also
exists in the Senate
.) A bill to
end vacancy decontrol
, introduced by Andrea Stewart-Cousins,
the incoming majority leader, has been in committee since 2017.

Advocates are also pushing to for an end to preferential rent
hikes, which allow landlords who are offering a rent below the
legal minimum to kick it up to market rate (and
sometimes above
) upon lease renewal, at a rate of increase
otherwise not permitted by law. Attempts to repeal the 2003 law
that created this loophole have passed the State Assembly on six
occasions and have only been put up for vote in the Senate once, in
2010, when the body was controlled by Democrats. The
latest version of this reform
, passed by the State Assembly in
May, would put a cap on such increases without ending the practice
outright.

The major capital improvements program is also a target of
tenant advocates; it allows landlords to permanently raise rents up
to six percent per year in order to fund building-wide upgrades,
which some tenants and advocates say are minor or unneeded. At a
town hall at PS/IS 30 in Bay Ridge, for instance, one woman
complained of a foul-smelling carpet being lined in her building as
well as repairs to an intercom system she says was not broken, both
of which justified a hike in rent.

Allowing all of this to happen is the Urstadt Law, a 40-year old
piece of legislation that prohibits the City Council from
meaningfully regulating rent laws in NYC, shifting power to the
state. Enacted in 1971 by Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s housing
commissioner Charles Urstadt, the law prohibits cities with a
population over 1 million (of which New York state has only one)
from enacting rent and eviction laws more stringent than those
passed by the state. Legislation
to repeal the law
, introduced by Senator Liz Krueger in 2017,
currently exists, but both incoming state Senators and tenant
groups are mixed on where it falls on the list of post-election
priorities after the elections. Groups like ANHD and the Met
Council support its repeal, but say it lies below closing rent
loopholes and expanding eviction protection. Biaggi, Ramos, and
Myrie also support repealing the law, while Robert Jackson, the
former City Council member who unseated Alcantara in the 31st
District, has prioritized its repeal.

Instituting these reforms could have tremendous impact on the
city’s housing stock and stem displacement, and the stakes have
never been higher: The city is in the midst of an affordable
housing crisis—from 2006 to 2016, the share of rental units
affordable to low-income people decreased 12.9 percentage
points—and the number of New Yorkers in homeless shelters
increased 77 percent between 2007 and 2017, according
a Furman Center study
.

Thomas Angotti, professor of Urban Planning at Hunter College,
says that the subverting of rent regulations by landlords and
developers has “undermined affordable housing while leading to a
boom in new market-rate, luxury housing, which
“disproportionately affects low-income communities of color.”
Closing the loopholes is a good first step, Angotti says, but
stronger eviction protections across the board need to be put in
place. He advocates for “community based agents” to enact rent
protections in collaboration with tenant advocates and neighborhood
organizations.

Tenant advocates see two main roadblocks to meaningful rent
reform: Governor Andrew Cuomo’s veto pen, and an influx of cash
from the real estate industry. Many believe Cuomo used the IDC,
which reportedly
convened with his blessing
, as a
foil to avoid progressive legislation
, including rent
reforms.

And the Real Estate Board of New York has kicked up its
donations to Democrats this election cycle.
A Wall Street Journal analysis
found that REBNY had increased
statewide donations to Democrats from $57,000 to $236,750 between
the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, a hedge that Democrats were
likely to take control of the Senate. In a statement to the WSJ,
REBNY president John Banks said, “We have what we think are solid
working relationships with both sides of the aisle,” adding,
“Obviously, if this blue wave is what it is, we’ll have to
build new relationships with new legislators.”

McKee says he’s not surprised by the increase in donations and
is aware that even the most progressive politicians are susceptible
to an influx of cash down the line. “We’ve been double-crossed
in the past where candidates we helped elect voted against us,”
he says. “Real estate money is a big issue.”

.@agounardes
signing a pledge to fight for Tenants and not Landlords in Albany.

#UniversalRentControl

#TenantPower
pic.twitter.com/cOu0BtdATj

— Housing Justice For All (@housing4allNY)
October 31, 2018

For this reason, Housing Justice For All, the coalition behind
recent town halls in Brooklyn, has been trying to get politicians
to sign
pledges
at public events. These affirm that candidates will
“stand on the side of tenants, not landlords,” and that they
will fight to close loopholes and expand good cause eviction
protections. The pledges are mostly symbolic but advocates hope the
candidates will feel more obligated to honor an oath signed in
public than an assurance made behind closed doors.

Andrew Gounardes, who is running to replace Republican Senator
Marty Golden, signed the pledge at the October 30 town hall.
Golden’s district, which encompasses the immigrant enclave of Bay
Ridge, was one of the most competitive races in the state.
Gounardes declared
victory late on November 6
with 49.8 percent of the vote. Once
in office, he’ll be expected to fight for reforms for tenants
statewide. At an earlier town hall in Flatbush hosted by the same
coalition, Myrie also signed
a pledge
presented by Housing Justice For All.

“It is very inspirational to stand in this room tonight and
see how many people are here,” Myrie said at the event. “And
let me tell you why: We have a fight on our hands in the next
legislative session.”

Jhodie Meade, a stay at home mother and member of the Crown
Heights Tenant Union, attended the Flatbush town hall. She lives in
a rapidly developing block just down the street from the Bedford
Union Armory, in a regulated apartment that has been in her family
for 27 years. She pays preferential rent but fears an increase will
drive her family out. Unlike more active tenant advocates, she
knows little about the IDC, the incoming candidates, or Myrie. She
felt reassured that he signed the pledge, but is hesitant in her
optimism.

“They pledged to fight on our behalf,” she said. “I would
like to believe that is what they’ll do.”

Source: FS – NYC Real Estate
NYC’s rent laws poised for major reform after midterm elections