Tenant Activists Say Rent-Control Bill Will End Affordable Housing

Tenant activists protest in front of the office of real estate developer Glenwood Properties, which they say has been a benefactor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's campaign.
Tenant activists protest in front of the office of real estate developer Glenwood Properties, which they say has been a benefactor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's campaign.

Tenant-rights activists widely condemned a rent control deal that was approved by New York lawmakers late Wednesday night, saying the bill will hasten the loss of affordable housing and ultimately lead to the forced exodus of the city’s working-class population.

Announcing the deal during a press conference on Thursday, Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledged that the bill fell short of expectations but nevertheless touted it as the “best rent reform package in history.”

“We have the best extension of rent protections for the people in New York City that has ever been passed,” Cuomo said. But, he added, “It’s still not enough, say the advocates. Yes. We advocate for the ideal; we live in the real. It would be better if we lost no units. Of course. Of course. It would be better if no one got sick. It would be better if no one had to pay taxes. You know, a lot of things would be better.”

Cuomo went on to say that the bill “reduces greatly the number of units that come out of the system,” adding that the agreement “is not going to address the affordable-housing crisis alone.”

Tenant activists disputed the governor’s claims, denouncing the deal as outrageous and saying it amounted to a gift for Cuomo’s benefactors in the real estate industry.

Delsenia Glover, the campaign manager for the Alliance for Tenant Power, a coalition of organizations dedicated to protecting tenants’ rights, says the deal was a blow to affordable housing in New York City. Her organization projects the loss of about 87,000 rent-regulated units in the next four years.

“I’m pretty outraged about his attitude about the whole thing,” Glover tells the Voice. “He presented it as if the advocates are being unreasonable. We are not. We are trying to save a million regulated units that house over 2 million people and support the middle and working class of this city. That is not unreasonable. And this deal does nothing to stop what’s happening.”

The deal — originally announced on Tuesday before all the details had been agreed upon — will extend for the next four years rent control laws that affect at least 2 million people in New York City. The agreement raised by $200 the threshold at which an empty city apartment can be rented at market value, from $2,500 to $2,700. This process, known as “vacancy decontrol,” regulates when landlords can charge market value for a vacant apartment. Once a previously rent-stabilized apartment becomes vacant and the unit’s rent is $2,700, the apartment can be deregulated, meaning it no longer has to be protected by rent laws. Going forward, that limit will be raised according to amounts set by the rent guideline boards.

The bill includes other measures related to capital improvements and preferential rent that will limit how much a landlord can increase rents, and it raises civil penalties for landlords who harass tenants. It also extends for six months the 421-a housing program, a tax credit for developers to incentivize them to create more affordable housing.

The agreement differs little from what was enacted in 2011, says Harvey Epstein, the director of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. He says the end result will be continued deregulation of rent-stabilized units. Eventually, he estimates that New York City will lose between 80,000 and 100,000 rent-regulated units in the near future — about one-tenth of the total.

“It’s a huge blow to New York by losing 100,000 units,” Epstein tells the Voice. “This is a city that’s supposedly economically and culturally diverse. But what’s happened over the last twenty years is, because of the loss of rent-stabilized housing, we see record numbers of homeless people, which is a bad thing. You’ve seen people displaced from their communities, which I think is a bad thing. You’ve seen neighborhoods segregate economically and racially, which I think is a bad thing.”

Epstein believes the solution to the housing crisis lies in new development.

“I would argue the best thing to do will be to re-regulate stabilized housing,” Epstein says, “and create opportunities for new construction where new people moving into the city who want to live there can move into these new developments. It’s not to try to take the existing housing where people live, that’s been affordable for their family for generations, and try to exclude them or move them or harass them and take them out of the place where they’ve lived, the only place they’ve known their entire lives.”

The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog group that analyzes government finances, takes the opposite approach and favors complete housing deregulation. The group welcomed the bill.

“Rent regulation and 421-a remain imperfect and costly measures to address housing affordability,” the CBC said in a statement, “but the continuation of vacancy decontrol will allow for the gradual end to regulations that constrict supply and negatively impact the broader rental market.”

Tenant groups, however, were fighting hard for the repeal of vacancy decontrol. Kelly Glenn, a paralegal and housing coordinator with the Community Development Project at the UJC, argues that the deregulation process contains so many loopholes that it ultimately encourages landlords to harass and evict lower-paying tenants in order to reach the limit quicker.

“One of our biggest concerns is not just the fact that the housing is going to be lost, but that it incentivizes landlords to get tenants out quicker because they can get a vacancy increase of 20 percent every time a tenant moves out,” Glenn said. “That’s a pretty large increase, without having to do anything or improve the apartment at all.”

In the days leading up to a deal, tenant groups tried to get Cuomo's attention with sustained protest. They slept-in outside his office, protested outside the office of a luxury developer they said had donated to his campaign, held press conferences. In the end, however, none of these actions were enough to get the bill they wanted.

Kirsten Theodos, the lead advocate at TakeBack NYC, which works mainly to safeguard the rights of commercial tenants, says lawmakers ignored tenants’ rights.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that our elected officials bow down to the real estate interests instead of the millions of residential and commercial tenants in New York,” she tells the Voice.

The bill passed the assembly with a vote of 124-13.  


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