Home-Rule Demand Grows (See Met Council on Housing's Tenant/Inquilino)
“Want to clean up Albany? Get the landlords out!”
by Kenny Schaeffer 10/8/14
When Bill deBlasio accepted the endorsement of the Tenants Political Action Committee in front of Stuyvesant Town during last year’s mayoral campaign, he pledged he would fight to regain New York City control over our rent and eviction laws in the same way outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg had fought for mayoral control over schools.
With the state’s rent-stabilization law set to expire , and the campaign to renew and strengthen them well under way, the issue of restoring the city’s home rule has been drawing increasing attention. That means repealing the 1971 Rockefeller “Urstadt law” (L.1971 ch.372), enacted as part of a vacancy-decontrol package that prevents the city from enacting rent regulations stricter than the state’s. The state legislature has repeatedly weakened tenant protections, contributing to the ever-worsening housing crisis, while the city government was been powerless to respond.
“Repeal of Urstadt,” City Councilmember Jumaane Williams (D-WFP Brooklyn) declared at a Sept. 30 City Hall rally protesting another round of rent hikes ordered by the Rent Gudelines Board, “would fix a broken system that has allowed upstate districts who have no rent-regulated tenants to decide the fate of our city’s renters. Once this law is repealed, we will be able to make a serious impact on the affordable-housing crisis that has plagued our city for far too long.”
When the legislature renewed the rent laws in 2003, it expanded the scope of the Urstadt law specifically to forestall a local law reforming the RGB. As Met Council executive director Jaron Benjamin pointed out, “The Urstadt law prevents the city from making changes to the way the Rent Guidelines Board operates. Tenants are suffering and their representatives’ hands are tied. ”
Public Advocate Letitia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer have also been strong advocates of restoring home rule. It was part of the Council’s Progressive Caucus platform in last year’s election, and some Councilmembers are looking at ways to test the Urstadt law’s limits and possibly challenge its constitutionality. The Working Families Party reaffirmed its support for home rule at its state convention in May.
“There have been efforts to repeal the Urstadt Law from the day it was passed,” said Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, who has been in the Legislature since 1970. “I think there is more momentum this year than ever before.”
The question of local control has come up under the deBlasio administration in a number of areas in addition to rent and eviction protections- from traffic to minimum wage to public school funding. “New York City should be given the right to make decisions for itself,” Mayor deBlasio declared on home rule, the people of New York City have spoken.”. “It’s the case of self-determination or
The mayor’s leadership on this issue is critical. In 2009, Bloomberg told the WFP endorsement meeting that enacting stronger rent and eviction laws to address skyrocketing homelessness was “Albany’s problem,” not his.
Home Rule a “Distraction”?
Not everyone is on board with the call for home rule, however. The Gotham Gazette reported on Sept. 16 that real-estate and construction interests gave more than $7.5 million to legislators in the last state campaign cycle (2011-2012). As the owners' Rent Stabilization Association president Joseph Strasburg put it in an unguarded moment, landlords “opened up our piggy banks” to throw money at state legislators when the laws last came up for renewal in 2011. This largesse was not wasted, as despite an unprecedented mobilization by community groups across the city, the rent laws were renewed with only a few minor changes, and remain mortally compromised. According to reports, a number of Albany politicians remain noncommittal on the issue of Urstadt repeal, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Jeff Klein, leader of the breakaway-Democrat faction, and even state Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (who sponsored a bill to repeal Urstadt in 2007). The Gotham Gazette also reported that even some tenant advocates consider the call for home rule “a distraction.”
But the home rule issue is not a distraction, it is both the explanation of how New York City’s housing crisis got so bad, and the simplest solution. It is the lack of home rule which has enabled the state to carve so many holes out of tenant protections, and restoring it would be the most effective—and most democratic—way to fix them. The Mayor and City Council could repeal vacancy destabilization and re-regulate hundreds of thousands of unaffordable market-rate apartments; address illegal overcharges, “preferential rents,” and the large rent increases allowed under current law for “improvements”; ban the excessive fees often charged on top of rents; protect tenants in units which have lost Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 coverage; redefine the Rent Guidelines Board’s makeup and mission to prevent unwarranted and burdensome rent increases, rather than impose them; and expand eviction protections.
"Want to clean up Albany? Get the landlords out!"
Taking NYC rent laws out of Albany would also take out most of the real estate money which currently skews the legislature -- and screws the public-- on many other issues besides rent laws. This is why even people who don't care about rent stabilization should want to repeal Urstadt, which causes the NYC real estate industry to prop up Republican control of the state senate, which impacts everyone else too, no matter what issue.
Once home rule is restored, real estate will of course shift its financial affections to NYC candidates and electeds, but this will not be as effective because (i) there is more accountability at the local level and (ii) NYC’s public financing of elections works reasonably well. REBNY [the Real Estate Board of NY] spent millions in 2013 trying to defeat progressive city council candidates, with almost no success.
There are at least three ways New York City might regain home rule. The first is if Democrats win a majority in the state Senate in November and then join the Assembly in repealing the Urstadt law. (A democratic state Senate is crucial to the prospects of strengthening the rent laws next year, regardless the home rule issue.) The second was suggested in 2011 by Gov. Cuomo, who announced that he would consider using his executive power to suspend the Urstadt law if the Senate did not act to renew rent stabilization with minor improvements. Third, if the city enacted a local law to strengthen rent regulations, it would almost certainly provoke a court challenge, and the city might then claim that the Urstadt law violates the state constitution, an issue that has not been addressed since 1973, when the state Court of Appeals rejected an argument that the Urstadt law violates Article IX of the state constitution, which forbids laws that only apply to one city or county, unless either that locality asks for the law, or its “property, affairs or government” aren’t affected by it. The court held in 1973 that as vacancy decontrol (L.1971, ch.371) was then state law, rent regulations could not be said to affect the city’s property or affairs. The question has not been revisited since the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974 (ETPA) restored rent regulations to some 400,000 decontrolled apartments, making note of the damage vacancy decontrol had caused. It is hard to imagine anyone seriously maintaining in 2014 that the Urstadt law does not affectNew York City’s “property, affairs or government”.
Restoring NYC’s power to address our intolerable housing crisis is long overdue.