A Gift From the Guv?

Advocates Predict Rent Law Amendments Will Shortchange Tenants

George Pataki wants tenants to think he has done them a favor. Last week, his housing agency issued a three-page press release announcing that it had adopted amendments to the rent code, which "continues to provide strong protection" for the state's 1.2 million regulated apartments.

Don't believe everything you read. The changes hold more treachery than protection for tenants, say advocates who have followed the rewrite, which began last spring. Proof, says Michael McKee of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition, lies in one telling fact: The press release was issued with zero fanfare.

"If they were really doing something good for tenants, don't you think they'd have a news conference with Pataki himself?" asks McKee. A good point, considering that Pataki's push to ditch rent laws has earned him the enmity of tenants. Instead, he put the word out in a press release from state housing commissioner Joe Lynch.

While Lynch's office, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), issued the release on December 8, it will give no details until December 20, when it will publish the amendments in the state register and post them on its Web site. On December 18, a group of tenant attorneys who organized last spring to study and battle the change, will meet to review the amendments and consider strategy, including litigation. At press time, none of them had seen the final proposal, although they expected the imminent arrival of copies from the secretary of state's office.

Advocates base their conclusion that the amendments are grim news for tenants on the fact that early drafts, first circulated in April, only boosted the booty landlords had won when the state legislature rewrote the rent law in 1997. Owners' bonanzas that year included an automatic 20 percent vacancy increase, tightened succession rights, and looser luxury decontrol. Now, DHCR's generous amendments would replace surprise inspections with scheduled visits, make dozens of conditions too minor to merit a rent reduction, and reject tenants' complaints unless renters had already stated them in writing to their landlords.

"If this is all that's different from the original version, it's just as bad as we thought it would be," says Legal Services attorney Dave Robinson. "It's all tilted toward landlords."

DHCR did not return calls from the Voice, nor did it send the paper its press release. Issuing a release without details is typical of DHCR's cryptic manner during the code revision. The agency's original proposal was all but indecipherable to many housing attorneys, much less tenants. Public hearings were held with scant notice in May, and throughout the process, tenant advocates say, the agency lent its ear freely to landlords.

While the rewrite affects hundreds of aspects of the rent code, the press release lists only seven changes, including news that the agency will clarify how much a tenant can charge a roommate, the withdrawal of a provision regarding electrical charges, and the repeal of a 1997 provision that forbade new tenants in deregulated units to challenge their rents unless they complained within 90 days of the lease's start—a rule McKee calls "patently illegal to begin with. If this is all they can think of to say, there isn't much good in it for tenants."

Troublesome for tenants will be a new time frame for lease renewals. Previously, landlords had to offer renewals no sooner than 150 days before a lease expired, and no later than 120 days. Now, DHCR will allow them to wait until 90 days before expiration to offer a renewal, giving tenants less time to defend themselves should their landlord decide to not offer renewal.

Unmentioned in the press release is the fate of one of the most problematic proposals, scrapping the rent registration system. Now, annual rent registration is required in part to protect tenants against overcharges. Drafts of the amendments proposed replacing registration with a system that would rely on the amount the landlord actually charged four years before the complaint was filed—regardless of what the registered rent was. If a tenant had mistakenly agreed to illegally high rents, that would then be designated the legal rent. And in apartments that had been vacant four years before a complaint was filed, landlords could essentially make up rents.

Advocates presume the registration system has in fact been ditched. "For tenants," says Legal Services lawyer Sandy Russo, "it doesn't look good."

 
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