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Rent Regulations: Affordable Housing Advocates Respond

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As lawmakers in Albany wrangle over the final details of new legislation to replace the rent regulations that expired June 15, politicians and community leaders are weighing in on the pros and cons.

Yesterday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver called the agreement “a huge relief for tenants.”

“Working with Gov. Cuomo, we have saved the rent laws and expanded their protections for the first time in nearly two decades,” Silver said in prepared statement. “This is an important victory in our ongoing effort to support working families and ease the affordable housing crisis.”

We also asked local affordable housing advocates for their take on the situation, and compiled their responses.

Steve Herrick, executive director of Cooper Square Committee: “The legislation falls short of what is needed to reverse the loss of thousands of rent stabilized housing every year.  The fact that Mitchell Lama and project based Section 8 housing is not included in the deal means that thousands of affordable units will also likely be lost as contracts expire over the next 4 years.
Loopholes in the law regarding personal use evictions and abuses such as permanent MCI rent increases also were left as is.  Still, tenants demonstrated that they have some political clout, but they could achieve a lot more if the more than 2 million rent people living in rent stabilized housing developed a political identity as tenants, and voted accordingly, or ran their own candidates.”

Esther Wang, Director of the Chinatown Tenants Union, CAAAV: The proposed rent laws framework announced by Governor Cuomo and other state legislators is a slap in the face to tenants who will, even with the cosmetic changes to the rent laws, continue to lose their rent
regulated homes at increasingly more rapid rates.

Raising the threshold for taking an apartment out of stabilization to merely $2,500 barely makes a difference to a landlord who can still easily kick out tenants, make some renovations (or simply claim that they did), and increase the rent out of the reach of working-class tenants. It
will not make a difference to tenants whose landlord takes them to Housing Court to evict them, because the law makes it easy to do so. It will not make a difference to tenants whose rent becomes increasingly unaffordable because of the annual rent increases imposed by the Rent Guidelines Board. It won’t make a difference to tenants whose landlord allows them to live in slum conditions, because they know that they won’t get more than a slap on the wrist in response.

The proposed changes to the rent laws will not protect Chinatown, or slow down the pace of displacement of immigrant tenants who make up a large percentage of the residents in rent regulated housing. Governor Cuomo has sold us out, despite repeatedly saying in public that he would fight to strengthen our rent laws in real, significant ways. We are deeply disappointed, but will continue to fight to strengthen our housing laws and continue to assert our basic human right to decent, affordable, and safe housing for all.

Maggie Russell-Ciari, executive director of New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition: Our understanding is that a framework for a bill that would renew and strengthen New York’s rent laws has been agreed to and that the language that will be included in the bill is currently being finalized.

We have heard that the proposed bill would not weaken tenant protections in any way. If this is accurate, it would be the first time that the rent laws have come up for renewal since 1993 that the laws have not been weakened when they were renewed; in 1993, 1997, and 2003, when the rent laws were renewed, the legislature made it easier to deregulate rent stabilized units and eroded tenant rights.

The fact that it appears that the laws will not be weakened in 2011 is extremely significant, especially because we had been concerned that the legislature would give in to pressure from the landlord lobby and include language that would weaken tenant protections in the bill. One concern was that the bill might include language that would undermine one or more of the victories tenants have had in the courts in recent years, such as the historic Roberts v Tishman Speyer ruling which said that any deregulation of rent stabilized units that occurred while the owner was receiving J-51 tax benefits was unlawful. That this did not happen, despite significant lobbying by the landlord lobby on this issue, is a testament to the strength of the tenant movement’s organizing efforts and the strong leadership shown by our allied elected officials.

We have also been told that the bill will actually strengthen tenant protections in several ways. What we are hearing is that the bill will: 1) renew the rent laws for either four or five years; 2) raise the threshold for vacancy decontrol to $2500; 3) raise the rent threshold for high rent high income decontrol to $2500 and the income threshold to $200,000; 4) limit the number of times a landlord can collect the 20% vacancy bonus to one time per year; 5) change the rent increase calculation for Individual Apartment Improvement Increases from 1/40 to 1/60 of the cost of the improvements in buildings over a certain size; and 6) if the rent increase from the Individual Apartment Improvement increase adds 10% or more to the legal regulated rent, add a landlord certification requirement to the approval process to ensure that the improvements were actually made and that the reported cost is accurate.

These reforms are a step in the right direction. Raising the threshold may slow the rate at which units are decontrolled, especially in higher rent areas where the average legal regulated rent is over $1600. However, as long as there is a rent threshold at which apartments can be taken out of rent stabilization upon vacancy, there will be an incentive for landlords to get rents to that threshold using whatever mechanism there is available to them, including fraudulent increases, which are rampant. That is why the provision in the bill that limits the amount that landlords can increase rents though Individual Apartment Improvement increases is so significant. The fact that it appears that that change will be coupled with an increased burden of proof on the landlord to demonstrate that the improvements were actually made and that the reported cost is accurate is  tremendously significant. Limiting the number of times that a vacancy bonus can be collected in a year also is helpful, because it will help stop the worst and most unscrupulous landlords from pushing out tenants and turning over apartments as quickly as they can, and also from fraudulently collecting multiple vacancy bonuses in a year in an apartment that was actually not vacated multiple times.

If this is the final deal, it will certainly be a much better bill than what tenants have gotten in previous renewal years, and this is no doubt due to the extraordinary amount of time and energy that tenants have put into our campaign and the strong leadership shown by our allies in the legislature, including Assembly Speaker Silver, Assembly Housing Chair Lopez, and the many Assembly Members and Senators who have been working tirelessly alongside us in our efforts to renew and strengthen the rent laws throughout the legislative session.

However, these improvements to the rent laws are, in our view, inadequate, and do not begin to approach the kind of meaningful reforms that are necessary to prevent future speculative investing in rent stabilized housing or to protect low and moderate income tenants who are facing displacement pressure and are struggling to remain in their homes and communities. This bill represents, at best, a short term, partial solution to the hemorrhaging of rent stabilized units from the system that we are seeing. And we do, quite honestly, have our doubts about whether this is truly the best bill that the Governor could have gotten for tenants this legislative session.

At the moment, nothing is finalized and we are still waiting to see the language of the bill. Assuming it includes the provisions we believe it will, it will be a partial victory. So, we will need to take a moment to celebrate the tremendous efforts we have put into our campaign for real rent reform this session and the positive outcome of those efforts- and then immediately get back to work.

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