With the most recent budget fight behind them, legislators in Albany are getting ready to turn their attention to the state’s expiring rent regulation laws. It’s a fight that Brian Kavanagh knows well.
The Democratic state assemblyman from Manhattan has emerged as a leader on the side of strengthening the laws, a position rarely shared by Albany’s more landlord-friendly Republicans, who control the Senate. Kavanagh won an early victory during the budget fight, restoring funding for the Tenant Protection Unit, which senate Republicans had zeroed out in their version of the budget.
“That was one indication of how they really feel about the rent laws [in Albany],” Kavanagh tells the Voice. “When they say they want to defund the TPU, they’re saying they don’t want to enforce the laws.”
The son of a police officer and homemaker from Staten Island, Kavanagh seems, at first, an unlikely leader in the fight to protect the city’s largest stock of affordable housing — rent-stabilized apartments. Staten Island is not known for tenement buildings.
But Kavanagh’s entrance into politics did not come in the borough of his childhood. It came in Manhattan. In 2002, he became the chief of staff to Gale Brewer after she won her first campaign for City Council. Brewer, now the Manhattan borough president, has been one of the city’s strongest voices in favor of the rent laws for more than 30 years.
“Tenants couldn’t ask for a brighter, savvier, more dedicated advocate in Albany than Brian Kavanagh,” Brewer says.
In the early 1990s, the product of Princeton University and the New York University School of Law made a name for himself while working for then-mayor David Dinkins. Kavanagh tackled the problem of illegal nightclubs after an arson fire at an unlicensed Bronx nightclub called Happy Land killed 87 people. His initiatives led to the eventual shuttering of 600 illegal nightclubs. Later, he helped establish the Department of Homeless Services, becoming its first policy director.
After serving as a policy-wonky insider under three mayors, and Brewer, Kavanagh turned his sights to public office. He ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in 2006, coming in second in a field of eleven candidates for Manhattan’s District 2, which includes the east side of the borough below 34th Street, as well as the Lower East Side. But the following year he won a special election for the state assembly seat that he has held since.
Almost immediately after getting to Albany he began getting interested in the state’s rent regulation laws, which disproportionately affect residents in New York City, as compared to the rest of the state.
“There is no other set of laws more fundamentally important to residents of this city — the laws affect 2.5 million people,” Kavanagh tells the Voice. “It’s a core affordability issue and equity issue.”
According to Alicia Glen, New York City’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development, the city has seen nearly 250,000 rent-regulated apartments vanish over the last two decades — and 50,000 since 2011. At the heart of the city’s dwindling supply of affordable housing is the debate over whether the problem should be solved by building more affordable units or by preserving the existing rent-regulated units.
“There’s no way we’re going to build our way out of the affordability problem,” Kavanagh says over a recent breakfast at Remedy Diner on East Houston Street, around the corner from his Lower East Side apartment. “We have to preserve what we have.”
One of the reasons Kavanagh fought to renew the Tenant Protection Unit is that it was instrumental in restoring thousands of apartments to regulated status after they had been improperly deregulated by landlords. According to New York State Homes and Community Renewal, the state’s housing agency, more than 38,000 such apartments have been re-regulated.
Critics like Frank Ricci of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords, say Kavanagh’s efforts are misguided and of little benefit to the city’s poorer rent-stabilized tenants.
“I see him as any other Manhattan elected official — he’s playing to his audience,” Ricci says, adding that the RSA supported Kavanagh in his failed council run in 2006. “I think the things he’s advocating are things that will wind up protecting wealthier people who do not need protection.”
According to Ricci, because Kavanagh’s district includes wealthier middle- to upper-class neighborhoods like Stuyvesant Town, the East Village, and the Lower East Side, he is merely fighting to protect those people who live in rent-stabilized apartments who can afford to pay market rate.
But Kavanagh argues he’s interested in making things right for all New Yorkers — especially at a time when affordable housing is so scarce.
“When you have a tight market for a scarce commodity that is essential for people to live, it’s reasonable for the government to step in and prevent people from being gouged,” Kavanagh says. “It is illegal to sell batteries for $20 in a blackout.”
The last time the rent laws were renewed — as part of the Rent Act of 2011 — they were modestly strengthened, making it slightly more difficult for landlords to rent previously regulated units at the market rate, even if they made certain renovations after rent-controlled tenants had moved out. This time there is more uncertainty as the two sides begin their debate. Former assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who resigned in January after being indicted for corruption, was for years a predictable champion of the tenants’ cause. The new Speaker, Carl Heastie, has said that with the budget now finalized, the rent laws are the important issue for legislators.
“It’s really too early to tell how, tactically, this is going to play out,” Kavanagh says. “The core thing is that those of us who represent rent-stabilized tenants need to be united in our agenda and be willing to fight.
“I think we’re ready,” he adds. “It will come down to the mobilization of tenants themselves. People are suffering, and mobilizing these people is critical.”
Landlords are similarly ready. The RSA has started running ads in Albany and in the city that trumpet the importance of investment in the buildings, which they assert is discouraged because landlords cannot charge market rate for their regulated apartments.
“It’s obvious that 70 years of rent regulation have not worked,” says Ricci of the RSA. “It’s time to try something different.”