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The Ossining offices of Community Voices Heard, a New York nonprofit focused on organizing tenants. 

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The fight for universal rent control in New York

Tenants across New York state are mobilizing to preserve and protect affordable housing

On a Monday night in early June, David Lofton sat in the basement of the Hempstead Public Library holding a stack of rent-freeze application forms. Lofton has lived in the Long Island town for more than 50 years, and has spent the last few of those fighting “greedy-ass landlords” (his words) as a rent-stabilized tenant and member of the statewide nonprofit New York Communities for Change.

“People are tired,” he said. “Rent is all you’re working for. You ain’t got no savings: a couple of dollars for food and that’s it.”

Lofton was able to win a rent freeze in 2015 for himself and more than 90 of his neighbors after proving to the state that his landlord had demolished a community room in his building and split it into two apartments. Now, his newfound housing security has inspired him to help other low-income tenants—in Hempstead, in New York City, and as far upstate as Rochester.

“You don’t realize how good we got it until you realize how bad some other people got it,” Lofton said, as neighbors trickled into the room to air grievances about rats, roaches, broken locks, and leaking pipes. “People up in Rochester, they don’t have rent [regulation] laws. They can charge people whatever. And up in the Hudson Valley… I never realized people up there even lived in apartments. I thought all they had up in there was little houses.”

NYCC is one of 13 tenant and homeless advocacy groups organizing through a new coalition, the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance. In April, the alliance released a report casting affordable housing as a statewide issue. Close to half of New York state’s residents rent across three million households, the report found. And of those three million households, nearly half are rent-burdened, or spending more than a third of their income on rent.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of stabilized apartments—where tenants have the right to an annual lease renewal at an incremental increase—have lost their regulated status. New York City, where the vast majority of the state’s 1 million stabilized apartments are located, lost more than 284,000 stabilized units between 1994 and 2016, according to the Rent Guidelines Board.

To preserve and expand the state’s remaining affordable-housing stock, the alliance is calling for universal rent control, a tenants’ rights platform that includes the right to a lease renewal for all renters, and protections against untenable rent hikes and harassment.

The expansion of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act would be a big step forward, they say. Signed in 1974, it expanded on New York City’s Rent Stabilization Law and applies to large apartment buildings built before that year in three counties outside New York City’s five boroughs: Westchester, Rockland, and Nassau, where Lofton lives. Only eligible municipalities can opt in; the alliance has identified more than 378,000 units that could qualify for stabilization in the state’s 54 unprotected counties (assuming the law is also expanded to cover buildings built after 1974).

To supplement, the alliance is also calling for just-cause eviction protections for tenants in apartment buildings with fewer than six units, modeled after states like Seattle, where tenants can only be evicted for specified reasons, including nonpayment of rent and destruction of property.

Another priority is statewide housing court. More resources must also go toward housing for the homeless, they say, and New York should finally pass three existing bills to disincentivize tenant harassment. (Under one sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, most apartments deregulated in the past 25 years would revert to stabilized status, with potential rent decreases for tenants who moved into their apartments after December 2014.)

The fight for universal rent control is playing out in many New York towns, including Ossining, in the Hudson Valley.

The coalition is even organizing mobile-home residents with member group Manufactured Housing Action. “You may own the trailer, but you don’t own the land,” explains NYCC policy director Cea Weaver. “Think of it as an apartment building that’s horizontal.”

The need for stronger tenant protections outside of New York City is clear in Hempstead, where tenants say landlords are looking to capitalize on a major downtown revitalization effort. “You can come to my neighborhood on any given Tuesday or Thursday, and you will see the streets lined with moving trucks to displace more people,” says Thern Shivers, a 53-year-old single mother and tenant association president.

An NYCC member herself, Shivers is helping her neighbors connect their micro problems (like the thriving rat’s nest she found behind her kitchen sink) to the macro actors. And in New York state, her favorite target is Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat with deep financial ties to real estate developers and investors. In 2015, amid rampant apartment deregulation, he extended loopholes in the state’s rent-stabilization laws for the second time.

“We know he’s up for reelection. We know he’s going to make promises. Don’t you fall for it!” she told the Hempstead crowd that night in June. In a few weeks, she noted, her neighbors could take a free bus to Manhattan to march for stronger rent laws with tenants from across the state. “If you want change, you will go out to them polls this election season and you will vote differently!”

The timing of the campaign for universal rent control is strategic, ramping up during a gubernatorial race and ahead of 2019, when the state’s rent-stabilization laws are up for renewal. Demands for strong tenant protections are also welling up nationally, from Chicago to California. The New Republic’s Sarah Jones laid out the dire circumstances earlier this summer: As wages remain stagnant, mortgages are increasing, and more and more Americans are renting. “It’s our moment of leverage,” says NYCC’s Weaver.

This summer, the Hudson Valley Village of Ossining has become a proving ground. Even though its county, Westchester, is ETPA-eligible, the Ossining Village Board of Trustees and Mayor Victoria Gearity declined to bring rent stabilization to a vote as recently as 2016. Now, local tenants are organizing for the second time in as many years with Community Voices Heard, a nonprofit that is part of the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance. At stake are about 1,400 apartments, which would constitute the largest expansion of rent stabilization in New York since the 1970s.

In the last three years the real estate firm Eagle Rock has purchased four apartment complexes in the village, with 322 units between them. According to Eagle Rock, units there rent for no more than 30 percent of the Westchester median income, or $2,927 for a family of four. “One hundred percent of [Eagle Rock’s] Ossining profile is affordable as defined by HUD,” the company wrote in a statement to Curbed opposing rent stabilization. Yet the median household income in Ossining is roughly half that of Westchester County as a whole: $62,917 per year.

One Eagle Rock tenant and lifelong Ossining resident says the new landlord has turned his 73-unit apartment complex, Audubon Manor, into a “revolving door” of tenants. The rent on his own two-bedroom has increased $335 per month since 2014. “It’s either not afford to eat or work six days a week,” said the 42-year-old electrician, who asked that his name be withheld for fear of retribution. “I’ve had to completely adjust my lifestyle to work nights and weekends to make up the increases.”

No policy can reverse the gentrification that is already driving families out of Ossining, says Quantel Bazemore, the village’s youngest trustee, at 28 (four trustees and the mayor make up the legislative body). “We’re just saying that while the rents go up, we want to preserve something,” he says. “If it doesn’t happen soon, 10 years later you will come back and see a whiter Ossining.”

As new real estate development spreads in Ossining, New York, local activists are fighting to preserve existing affordable housing.
Flyers for tenants rights meetings fill a bulletin board at the Community Voices Heard office in Ossining, NY.

Nearly half of Ossining residents identify as Hispanic, according to the latest five-year American Community Survey, more than double the statewide average.

In 2016, during the last tenant push for rent protections, a local real estate trade association—the Building and Realty Institute of Westchester and the Mid-Hudson Region—paid for glossy mailers warning Ossining homeowners that “taxes will likely increase if the Board of Trustees adopts ETPA.” They succeeded in driving a wedge between homeowners and renters. Tenants marched on Gearity’s house to no avail (Gearity afterwards criticized Community Voices Heard as “blunt” and “bullying.”).

This year, Gearity told Curbed, “I do not believe it is wise for the village to enable ETPA,” pointing to a 2017 village report that suggests rent stabilization only after the implementation of seven other affordable housing priorities including proposed legislation to increase affordability set-asides for new construction.

Landlords also remain skeptical. Some said that they fear their buildings will fall into disrepair and lose value. “The tenants [will] become so obnoxious,” predicted 54-year-old Peter Johnson, who owns three rental buildings in Ossining. “It’s like being a manager and your employees have more control than you do.

“My taxes will go down,” Johnson added. “But the school tax, they’re still going to have to pay for those students. That’s going to make everyone [else’s] taxes go up.” (In May, Community Voices Heard commissioned a study from the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University, which compared tax rates and property value over 15 years in Westchester jurisdictions with and without ETPA and found that stabilizing rents had “no perceptible effect on local property values or property taxes.”)

David Ayala, Ossining’s former Homes and Community Renewal administrator and an ETPA opponent, told Curbed that he believes stabilization creates “artificial scarcity” because tenants with stabilization are incentivized to remain in their apartments. Rents then increase in unprotected apartments, the logic goes. It’s an argument that economists have echoed in their critiques of rent stabilization in New York City.

But Julia Solow, an organizer with Community Voices Heard, dismisses these arguments as a smokescreen. Ultimately, Solow argues, landlords are “only looking out for their bottom line, and avoiding the nuisance of going to court and losing to tenants.”

Community Voices Heard member Sheila Vereen-Massengale received threats from her landlord after giving flyers on local rent stabilization to her former neighbors in Ossining.
Supporters of rent stabilization joined Community Voices Heard at Ossining’s June meeting on housing policy.

One of the most vocal tenant advocates in Ossining, a single mother named Sheila Vereen-Massengale, learned how vulnerable she was to her landlord’s whims last year when her landlord, Franco Milio, denied her a lease renewal. For months he’d “kept targeting me, and I felt like I was walking on eggshells,” she recalled. Milio later admitted that he was frustrated with Massengale in part because she was flyering around the building “trying to get other tenants to support ETPA,” according to Village Hall meeting minutes obtained by Curbed. Milio reversed course after Gearity warned him that evicting Massengale would make make her a “poster child” for the village’s rent-stabilization campaign.

After the disappointment of 2016, Solow is feeling optimistic. Ossining recently elected another pro-ETPA trustee, Omar Herrera, giving the cause a tentative majority. The vote could happen as soon as mid-September, now that a village-commissioned study has found the housing vacancy rate to be 3.06 percent, below the 5 percent legal threshold.

“A lot of eyes are on what’s going to happen in Ossining, because if we’re successful, it could help embolden people in other areas,” Solow says. “Either the local governments are going to take responsibility or people are going to be pushed out.”

In January, Community Voices Heard rented out a white stucco storefront directly across the street from Ossining Village Hall. In the window, a bright blue banner reads in English and Spanish: “Campaign For Stable Homes.” Solow is working with a local chapter of Indivisible, the national anti-Trump nonprofit, to build solidarity with homeowners. Among them is 47-year-old Susan Vorsanger, who moved to Ossining from Brooklyn Heights 10 years ago to start a family.

“Before I became a homeowner, I lived in an apartment that was rent stabilized, and I knew that if I paid my rent, I didn’t have to worry about getting an unexpected letter in the mail that my rent was going to go up,” she told the Ossining Board of Trustees at a public hearing in June. “I believe that our neighbors in Ossining who are renting now deserve to have that peace of mind.”

In May, a few months after announcing her run for governor of New York, education activist and actress Cynthia Nixon set out an affordable housing plan that encompasses all of the Upstate Downstate alliance’s priorities. NYCC called it “the most progressive and expansive tenant protection program in the country.”

“Under Governor Cuomo, New York’s renters have been left behind,” Nixon’s campaign said in a statement to Curbed, adding that her housing plan will “cover tenants in areas where local governments aren’t allowed to opt in and have no protections whatsoever from their exploitative landlords.”

State Senate candidate Julia Salazar, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Martin Dilan in Brooklyn’s District 18, is also calling for universal rent control, which she’s described as “the center of my campaign because North Brooklyn should no longer be held hostage to the forces of gentrification.” Both candidates have publicly refused to seek or accept funds from big real estate donors.

At a rally in June, protesters and community groups placed the blame for housing insecurity squarely at Governor Cuomo’s feet.

In a statement to Curbed, Cuomo spokesman Tyrone Stevens touted the governor’s tenant-protection unit and said the administration is “fully committed to working with the new legislature and the tenant community to advance additional tenant protections.

“We are certainly open to a conversation with all stakeholders about the details of rent control statewide,” he added. But the pledge rings false to TenantsPAC, founded in the 1990s with tenants from all eight counties currently covered by rent stabilization. They’re steadfast in their support of Nixon, even after an August press conference in Brooklyn where she fumbled some questions about how universal rent control would be implemented. “Andrew Cuomo might have a better understanding of how the ins and outs of the rent laws work,” said Tenants PAC treasurer Michael McKee. “But he’s not going to help us.”

Albany veterans caution that the viability of universal rent control hinges on the upcoming September primary. “It is definitely critical that we address challenges facing tenants across the state, not just in New York City,” Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger told Curbed in a statement. However, “it’s clear that tenants will only get a fair shake in Albany with a Democratic majority in the State Senate that isn’t in hock to the real estate lobby.”

Ryan David Acuff, an organizer with the City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester, New York, is blunt about the stakes. Rochester is one of the poorest cities in the country, and Monroe County does not currently have the option to even consider rent stabilization. This spring the developer DHD Ventures bought a downtown building called the Hotel Cadillac that Acuff describes as a longtime “place of last resort” for low-income Rochester renters with mental health issues. The new owner distributed 30-day eviction notices to all residents. There was no recourse. “We don’t have any [rent law] loopholes,” Acuff says. “We just have a big hole.”

Yet he’s been hopeful since last October, when the Upstate Downstate alliance had its first meeting in Albany. Acuff remembers talking to tenants from New York City, Utica, and Binghamton. Before, he says, it was “hard to think about how to change an entire state law.”

Now, he predicts, “if we actually have a coordinated strategy, we actually have a chance.”

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