Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What's next in the rent fight?

By: Michael McKee, April 2015
Excerpt:  Tenants’ only hope for not getting screwed this year rests with our friends, the Assembly Democrats.  We know the Senate Republicans will look to do the landlords’ bidding, but if the Assembly Democrats do not stand strong, we will lose.

The state rent laws will certainly be renewed in some fashion, but the key question is how they might be changed. Current rent laws have led to the deregulation of roughly 400,000 units of affordable housing, through loopholes that allow landlords to deregulate units and to jack up still-regulated rents to force tenants out. A “straight extender” that simply renews the current laws would be a defeat, because these loopholes would continue to eliminate thousands of units of rent-regulated housing every year.

The Senate Republicans, who have a narrow but firm majority, are owned by the New York City real-estate industry, lock, stock, and barrel. Majority Leader Dean Skelos will oppose any changes in the rent laws to better protect tenants or reverse the phaseout of the rent-regulation system. If tenants fail to reverse that this year, the continued loss of regulated apartments will erode our political power and thus our ability to win renewal of the laws in the future.
The Senate Democrats tend to be pro-tenant, but the Republicans’ tight control means that while they can be allies in the media, they cannot do anything legislatively to help us.

The majority Assembly Democrats have traditionally supported rent regulations, with some exceptions. But they have failed to stop the Senate and the governor from damaging the rent laws. In 1993, 1997, and 2003, the Assembly accepted extender bills that accelerated the loss of rent-protected units. In 2011, amid a vigorous tenant organizing campaign, the rent laws were renewed without further weakening amendments and with minor improvements, primarily raising the threshold for deregulating vacant apartments from $2,000 a month rent to $2,500, a cosmetic change that had no real impact. In effect, the tenant movement fought the real-estate industry to a draw. But the renewal bill left all the deregulation loopholes intact, so the phaseout continued unabated.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Governor Andrew Cuomo tried to spin these minimal 2011 improvements as a great tenant victory. The reality is that Skelos vetoed more significant changes, Cuomo caved, and Silver, according to his recent indictment, was in a corrupt relationship with real-estate developers who were trying to phase out the rent laws.

What will Speaker Heastie do?

New Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) has made encouraging statements that he wants to win stronger rent protections, but he will need to expend real political capital to win the reforms tenants need. If he does NOT play hardball—making it clear that the Assembly will not pass things that the senate and governor want—we can anticipate another replay of 2011. But with so many things the other side wants in Albany, we need to know that we can count on the Speaker to draw a line in the sand to restore our rent-protection laws.

From all indications, the new Speaker is much more responsive to his members than Silver was. Therefore, the real question is, will our local Assemblymembers make it clear to Heastie that a real tenant victory this year requires full repeal of vacancy deregulation? As a new Speaker, Heastie must prove himself to the colleagues who elected him to replace the disgraced Silver. Politically, he needs to win rent-law changes that are better than what Silver negotiated in 2011.
The most important thing that tenants in New York City and the suburban counties of Nassau, Rockland, and Westchester can do in the next few weeks is to make it clear to our Assemblymembers that they must band together and demand that the Speaker stand strong in negotiations. If the members simply sit back and wait for Heastie to negotiate a deal, we should be prepared to hear lots of “we’re unhappy with it, but it was the best we could get” excuses. Unless tenants make our friends feel some heat, they are likely to wimp out again.
Already some Assemblymembers are telling their constituents, “The Senate won’t pass these bills. What do you expect us to do?” Bluntly, it is their job to make laws. They need to stand up for tenants. The Assembly Democrats have power—if they choose to use it. Will they cave on tenants’ rights once again? The answer lies with you, dear reader, and your neighbors and friends. Time is short. 

What about Governor Cuomo?

Andrew Cuomo needs to be embarrassed into siding with tenants between now and June 15. The governor has never stated a public position about what kind of changes to the rent laws he supports. Does he want to repeal vacancy deregulation? Does he want to re-regulate the apartments that have been converted to market rate? What about making rent increases for building-wide major capital improvements temporary? Is he in favor of ending the “preferential rent” scam, which lets landlords increase stabilized rents by several hundred dollars a month when tenants renew their leases? Does he favor eliminating the 20 percent vacancy bonus landlords can tack onto the legal rent every time an apartment turns over?

Andrew Cuomo, who has raised millions of dollars in campaign contributions from real-estate barons, has never said one word about any of those issues. It is past time for him to speak out.

It is also important not to forget that Cuomo is responsible for helping the Republicans keep their majority in the Senate. First, he sold out in 2012 on reapportionment: After pledging that he would veto any partisan redistricting plan, he signed off on a deal that allowed Skelos to redraw district lines blatantly gerrymandered to favor Republican candidates. Then, when despite this gerrymandering, the Democrats won a 33–30 majority that November, Cuomo acted behind the scenes to engineer the alliance between Skelos and the “Independent Democratic Conference” led by the pro-landlord Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) that gave the GOP effective control.

Last year, Cuomo grudgingly promised to help the Democrats recapture control of the Senate, but did very little to help them achieve that. He did not share his massive campaign war chest with them, and did only token campaigning for Democratic Senate candidates.

Why tenants want a short extender of the rent laws

Despite the Republican control of the Senate, our chances of winning significant reforms this year are nevertheless good—if tenants work hard and focus over the next two months, and if our friends in the Assembly stand firm. Realistically, however, we are not going to win everything we need this year. Therefore tenants are pushing for the shortest possible extender of the rent laws, two years, to 2017. The state legislature has proven incapable of addressing this issue except when the laws are about to expire, so a two-year extender will allow the tenant movement to keep up the fight to close more loopholes.
It is important to remember that four years ago, the landlord lobby proposed an unprecedented 14-year extender, to 2025. They knew that by then, there would be so few regulated apartments left that they could persuade the legislature to allow the rent laws to sunset once and for all.

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