By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On Monday March 20, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone kept his promise to tenants by renewing for three years the laws that provide rent regulations for more than 1 million apartments citywide. Vallone pledged in December to renew the laws without any erosion, and the bill on the usually heated issue passed easily.
Now, landlords and tenants are gearing up for another council battle over a housing package that is much more ambitious than Vallone's measure and, as such, is sure to provoke landlords. Indeed, tenant organizers have said that Vallone ensured relatively smooth sailing for his own rent law by keeping the package, sponsored by Brooklyn councilmember Stephen DiBrienza, off the council floor until his rent law extension passed. DiBrienza, who is running for public advocate, has drafted a 10-point housing plan that calls for hiring more housing code inspectors, creating affordable housing, and preserving existing low- and middle-income apartments.
Most controversial will be DiBrienza's proposed legislation, which is cosponsored by nine other council Democrats. One resolution asks the state to repeal its 1997 law giving landlords an automatic 20 percent hike upon vacancy of a regulated apartment and allowing vacant apartments to be deregulated once rent hits $2000. Those provisions, which have given owners an incentive to get tenants to move, were a sort of consolation prize after landlords failed in their attempt to have rent laws obliterated. Any effort to erode that victory is sure to be fought.
DiBrienza also has a bill to end a monthly surcharge on low-rent apartments and bring annual rates for rent-controlled apartments under the same formula as rent-stabilized apartments. Currently, rents in controlled units are generally cheaper than in stabilized ones and usually go up 7.5 percent a year; rates in stabilized apartments are set by the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) and have risen between 2 and 4 percent a year for the past three years.
"We all agree that there should be a merger between the two systems," says Joe Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, the city's largest landlord lobby. "But the devil is in the details." He says landlords would oppose a merger unless rents in controlled apartments could be "bumped up" before they enter the RGB systema move tenants would fight because it would hike rents among the city's most affordable apartments.
Michael McKee of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition says tenants will also push Vallone to move on a resolution written last year by Manhattan councilmember Stanley Michels. It urges Albany lawmakers to repeal the so-called Urstadt provision, a 1971 state measure that forbids the city from passing any bill that is more stringent on landlords than state laws. The Urstadt provision is a crucial legal underpinning to the rights of landlords, who are zealous in their effort to protect it.
"I think it's a very dangerous thing" to try to repeal Urstadt, says Strasburg, "especially when you have elected officials who are also attorneys and they see that a violation of Urstadt would be really irresponsible and unconstitutional."
Resolutions to repeal Urstadt are regularly written in the council, and in the state assembly bills to that effect are even passed. But they die in the GOP-controlled state senate, in part because the City Council fails to make a move of its own. "What we get thrown at us in Albany is that the Democrats in our own City Council haven't even asked for a repeal, so why should state lawmakers push for it?" says McKee. "And they're right. If Peter Vallone were really serious, he'd pass this resolution."
A Landlord's Trials
Sue Simmonds, the Brooklyn landlord convicted on January 7 of unlawfully evicting a tenant, was sentenced on March 7 to three years' probation and 20 days of community service during a contentious proceeding in which she told the prosecutor to "shut up" and complained to Brooklyn Civil Court judge Richard Allman that "you are putting my life in jeopardy."
Simmonds told Allman that she had rejected a jury in favor of a bench trial "because I just knew by the grace of God that you would do the right thing, your honor. I just can't understand for the life of me how you could find me guilty."
Allman convicted Simmonds on five counts of unlawfully evicting Elizabeth Parks by repeatedly locking the tenant out, threatening her, and busting up the bathroom fixtures at 96 Brooklyn Avenue, a landmark mansion that Simmonds bought in 1995. (See Voice, January 25.) Under Allman's sentence, Simmonds must look for a job, provide boiler access, and give Parks a lease, requirements she stubbornly opposes.
Simmonds, who was clearly agitated during the proceeding and whose presentencing report mentions that she exhibits "bizarre mental behavior," has been in trouble with the law before. In 1988, a judge ordered the shutdown of an unlicensed Brooklyn day-care facility that Simmonds and a partner ran; the pair was accused of child neglect and sex abuse of five children and permanently enjoined from operating day-care centers in the city.
Family court proceedings are sealed, so it is impossible to report who perpetrated the abuse. Simmonds has told the Voicethat neither she nor her partner did. There was no criminal prosecution. Ultimately, the court took the children in Simmonds's custody away, but it is not clear why. In a 1998 Brooklyn cable television show, Simmonds said she wanted to turn 96 Brooklyn Avenue into a home for seniors.