a primer on the looming rent debate news

| 05 May 2015 | 11:47

Approximately 2.5 million New York City residents are covered by the state’s rent laws, which are set to expire in June. These laws include legislation governing rent stabilization and rent control, as well as the controversial 421a tax break that is offered to developers in exchange for building affordable housing.

According to affordable housing advocates, the danger isn’t so much that the rent laws won’t be renewed, but rather that they will be weakened as the political price for their renewal.

Advocates are also focused on reversing amendments that govern the deregulation of affordable housing, which is known as vacancy decontrol. A landlord is able to remove a rent stabilized unit from regulation by legally and steadily increasing the rent over time through vacancy fees, major capital increases and individual apartment improvement increases. Once the rent passes a $2,500 per month threshold, that unit is removed from rent stabilization and can be brought into line with market rate housing.

As June approaches, we spoke to two affordable housing advocates who are active in the fight to strengthen rent laws and repeal vacancy decontrol: Sue Susman, an independent affordable housing advocate and tenant leader, and Ken Schaeffer, vice-chair with the Met Council on Housing.

How could the rent laws be weakened? How could they be strengthened?

Sue Susman: They can be weakened by keeping things the same. Since the last Housing Vacancy Survey, done every three years, New York City has lost some 54,000 rent regulated apartments. Given the age of many rent stabilized and rent controlled tenants, that pace may speed up.

They can also be weakened by cutting funds for enforcing the law. For example, the NYS Homes and Community Renewal agency’s Tenant Protection Unit can be funded even less than it is.

The laws can be strengthened by repealing vacancy decontrol. This will remove landlords’ incentive to get rent stabilized and rent controlled tenants out. That would cut harassment and preserve the city’s existing stock of affordable housing for the next generations.

The laws can also be strengthened by capping major capital improvement increases and capping and investigating individual apartment improvement increases.

The laws can also be strengthened by making “preferential rents” the actual legal rent. Sometimes landlords rent apartments for less than the legal regulated rent. In such cases, the tenant is not likely to complain about problems with the building or the apartment. Nor will the tenant complain as the landlord raises the legal regulated rent higher and higher. But depending on the lease, landlords cancel the preferential rent and force the tenant to pay the new legal regulated rent. Unable to pay, the tenant often leaves.

The laws cannot be strengthened by raising the rent at which at vacant apartment can be taken out of rent stabilization. That just leads to more fudging of what improvement costs are claimed to bring the legal rent to the new level.

Ken Schaeffer: Rent laws have repeatedly weakened by the state legislature, most notable in 1997 and 2003, to the point where simply renewing them as is will ensure the loss of hundreds of thousands of additional affordable apartments in the coming years. Landlord allies could weaken them further in a number of ways, including reversing several recent court decisions which have allowed tenants to challenge fraudulent rent increases.

The most important ways to strengthen the laws this year would be, number one, to end the deregulation of apartments when the owner displaces an existing tenant and can then raise the rent to $2,500. Number two, close the loopholes created by the legislature in previous years that allow rents to be raised sharply, including a 20 percent vacancy bonus, permanent rent increases for so-called improvements even after the owner has recouped his investment, abuse of so-called “preferential rents,” and the imposition of “fees” on top of the lawful rent for things like washing machines, air conditioners, roommates, or paying your rent a few days late.

What is the best way for New Yorkers to fight for the rent laws’ protection?

Ken Schaeffer: There are three things: (1) The NYS Assembly must be tenants’ champions, and hold out against any unacceptable compromise by refusing to pass things the Republicans in the State Senate want. (2) Governor Cuomo must be made to understand that his legacy, and any chances of a third term, depend on fixing the broken rent and eviction laws this year. (3) In union there is strength- New Yorkers who care about this issue and the future of their city should join the Metropolitan Council on Housing or one of the many other groups that are working together this year to strengthen the laws.

If you could get one thing in Albany on your housing wish list, what would it be?

Sue Susman: Repeal vacancy decontrol.

Ken Schaeffer: The top of my wish list has always been restoring New York City’s home rule power to enact stronger rent and eviction protections for our city, taken away under Gov. Rockefeller’s notorious “Urstadt Law” in 1971. But we are realistic and understand that this is very unlikely to happen this year, so tenants are united around a platform of repealing $2,500 vacancy decontrol and the loopholes that allow rents to be ratcheted up to that level, and re-regulating the thousands of decontrolled units, as was done in 1974 when the last disastrous experiment with vacancy decontrol ended.