Rent in the 21st Century

Tenants organize for next millennium battle

Never mind that emergency medical equipment is bound to fail, that air traffic control will falter, and that communication systems will crash on January 1, 2000: The real Y2K problem for New York City tenants comes on March 31 of that year, when the City Council will vote on whether it will renew rent regulations. While it might seem a long while off, tenants are gearing up now to ensure that they don't lose ground, as they have recently in both city and state legislatures.

"The rent laws will be renewed; that's not in question," says Michael McKee, associate director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition, which has already begun a Rent 2000 campaign. "The fight is whether they'll be weakened as a price of their renewal." Possible give-backs, McKee says, include ever-stricter succession rights, lower thresholds for vacancy decontrol, and more stringent standards for high-rent decontrol.

"The state legislature in 1997 took out aunts, uncles, nephews, and nieces from succession rights, which was a disgraceful attack on communities of color," says McKee. As for decontrol, McKee anticipates landlords will push to lower current thresholds that allow owners to deregulate apartments that become vacant after having rented for $2000 or more, and to lower the limit on laws that allow deregulation of $2000 apartments if tenants' annual income exceeds $175,000.

But Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, the city's largest landlord lobby, says the council vote is "too far down the road" to be on the RSA's front burner. "The question will be: how far can we take whatever successes that occurred in Albany?" where the last bruising rent war was fought in spring of 1997.

At that time, the state senate threatened to end rent laws entirely— a power that only the state legislature has. The City Council's powers are much more limited— it can renew the laws and amend them in ways that make them harder on tenants. And that is exactly what it has done in the most recent votes on the rent laws, which come before the council every three years.

In 1993, Council Speaker Peter Vallone introduced a luxury decontrol bill that deregulated apartments renting for $2000 or more if tenants earned $250,000 or more for two consecutive years. Albany lowered the threshold in 1997, and Strasburg says that in 2000, further luxury decontrol is more likely to be on landlords' wish lists than succession rights. "I don't think there will be much stomach for anyone to do that," he says. "One can always go to war, but at the end of the day, we'll still have a mayor who will say, 'I don't want to do that,' knowing what his ambition is, and so I don't think you'll even see that fight."

Mayoral dictates will not be the only influence on next year's council vote, which will have a decidedly different twist: it will be the first time councilmembers face imminent departure because of term limits. In fact, 38 of the 51 members will not be returning, which mightily diminishes the value of tenant wrath at the polls. But many outgoing councilmembers are expected to run for other offices, and an anti-tenant vote in the council would not be forgotten.

Now, McKee believes tenants can count on at least 16 pro-tenant votes, including all 10 Manhattan representatives. "But obviously we don't think that the position of any City Council member should be taken for granted," says McKee. "We should be able to put together a winning coalition in the City Council, but it will only happen if tenants are organized. We are targeting two dozen districts outside Manhattan, we're talking about phone banks, organizers. . . . There are 1.1 million rent-regulated apartments in New York City. That's a lot of doors to knock on."

In fact, at least 18,000 of them will be knocked on, for a separate but related purpose: the Housing and Vacancy Survey (HVS). Every three years, the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development hires the U.S. Census Bureau to survey the city's rental market and determine just how tight it is; enumerators began that work for the 1999 HVS late last month. The HVS findings are key because the state rent laws are triggered by a housing emergency, defined as a vacancy rate below 5 percent. In the 37 years since the census bureau began doing the survey, it has never found a rate above 5 percent; in fact, the highest was the most recent, 4.01 percent in 1996.

The HVS's goal of infusing some empirical data into a fundamentally political argument about rent laws makes it inherently controversial. Even the 5 percent standard is arbitrary, and the question always arises: What if the vacancy rate were, say, 5.02 percent, with a margin of error that could mean the rate is actually below 5 percent. Would rent laws be thrown out the window?

This year, both Strasburg and McKee, usually loath to agree on anything, concur that the HVS will not exceed 5 percent. "I think there's a softness in the market in the Bronx," which had a vacancy rate of 5.4 in 1996, "but Manhattan is extremely tight," says Strasburg. "Queens is even tighter, and I think the numbers will show a vacancy rate of less than 5 percent." Says McKee: "I think it will be lower than in 1996, based on all the anecdotal evidence."

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