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Tenants and landlords debate New York’s expiring rent laws at packed Assembly hearing

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The laws governing the state’s nearly 1 million rent regulated apartments expire June 15

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The laws regulating New York’s roughly 1 million rent-stabilized units expire on June 15. In advance of that deadline, politicos and advocates who have long sought to bolster those rent laws rallied on Thursday behind legislation to reform the state’s rent laws during the first in a series of hearings. Meanwhile, landlord groups attempted to pump the brakes on the more ambitious proposals, and Assembly Democrats expressed their intent to finally pass them.

“We’re here today because of the challenges that are too grave [for us] to continue with the status quo,” said state Assembly member Steven Cymbrowitz. “We must acknowledge that, for far too long, the housing market has favored developers.”

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who drew applause from those in attendance, endorsed all planks of the proposed rent law package. “We need to remove any mechanism that drives landlords to want to deregulate units and destabilize and displace communities,” he said.

Democrats in the state legislature have for years wanted to strengthen rent regulations, but have been blocked by the previously Republican-controlled Senate. Now, with Democrats firmly in control of both chambers and the governor’s partial blessing, they have a chance to enact what they see as tenant-friendly reforms.

Specifically, the assembly majority is considering nine bills that are part of a package that’s been branded as Universal Rent Control by its advocates, chief among them the Housing Justice for All coalition. The most central bill is the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, which allows counties with a housing emergency—defined as a residential vacancy rate of 5 percent or below—to opt into rent stabilization. As proposed, the bills, S5040 and A7046, would allow municipalities in counties other than those of downstate suburbs and New York City to opt into rent stabilization when in a housing emergency.

Assembly member Linda Rosenthal and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have proposed legislation to eliminate vacancy decontrol, a provision that allows landlords to permanently remove units from rent regulation once a tenant moves out and the nominal rent reaches roughly $2,700.

Additionally, State Senator Michael Gianaris and Assembly Member Brian Barnwell have proposed bills to completely eliminate major capital improvements (MCI), which allow landlord to raise rents by a fraction of the cost of building upgrades, such as installing a new boiler. Assembly Member Diana Richardson and Senator Brian Kavanagh have proposed similar legislation to do away with individual apartment increases (IAI), which compensates landlords for upgrades to apartments via rent hikes.

Tenant advocates say this pair of provisions allows landlords to jack up rents without conducting the repairs, or by simply inflating the cost of them. The state entity tasked with overseeing these rent hikes, the Department of Homes and Community renewal, mostly takes landlords’ word for it. (A recent investigation into President Donald Trump’s finances revealed how landlords take advantage of these provisions.)

The boldest of the reforms, spearheaded by freshman Senator Julia Salazar, would make illegal evictions without “good cause,” expanding rent regulations to include most unregulated rental units, and would not permit evictions if the rent on an apartment rises by more than 1.5 percent times the rate of inflation. The bill has been endorsed by 15 Democrats from the state Senate’s New York City delegation, though it was initially not included in the legislative package, as THE CITY reported.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is sympathetic to most of the rent proposals, including reforming major capital improvements and independent apartment increases to stop rent hikes from being permanent, but does not favor getting rid of them all together, nor has he publicly come out in favor of Salazar’s good-cause eviction bill. And many tenant advocates have a deep seated distrust of Cuomo’s commitment to pro-tenant legislation, viewing him as aligned with real estate interests.

At the hearing, tenant advocates and housing experts made the case for the legislative package, presenting the bills as a way to give leverage to renters with the aim of preserving the affordable housing stock and slowing down displacement.

“These reforms would restore the rent laws, allowing them to once again achieve their intended purpose of balancing power between tenant and landlord, insulating communities from rapid market changes, and ensuring that the market offered low- and moderate-income New Yorkers options for safe and decent housing,” testified J.T. Falcone, a policy analyst at United Neighborhood Houses.

Tom Waters, a housing policy analyst at Community Service Society, said rent regulations and tenant protections should be regarded as state-wide matters, not solely a New York City one, because “there’s a housing crisis all over New York state.”

Beverly Newsome, a tenant organizer at Ebbets Field Apartments and member of Brooklyn’s Community Board 9, said ending preferential rents—a situation in which the rent a tenant is paying is lower than the legally mandated amount, but can be jacked up by a landlord at any time—would be a way to prevent New Yorkers from being displaced from their apartments and neighborhoods. “Preferential leases make a community transient,” she said.

In addition, tenants spoke about their own experiences, telling landlord horror stories to make the case for enacting the proposed laws. “I want you to remember my face, I could be the next homeless person,” if rent laws are not strengthened, said Roberto Rodriguez, a tenant in Williamsburg.

”I did not realize being a rent-stabilized tenant would put me in mortal danger,” said Cathy Levan, who told her story of being harassed as the sole remaining tenant in a Manhattan building.

With more stringent rent laws looking more likely now than at any point in recent memory, landlord groups have, via advertisements and op-eds, argued that the legislature and governor should not swing the pendulum too far in favor of lowering rents for tenants, leaving small-time landlords without enough money to maintain their buildings. But the industry has also seemingly accepted that some pro-tenant reforms are on the way.

During the hearing, Joseph Strasburg, president of the pro-landlord group Rent Stabilization Association, said repealing vacancy decontrol is a “done deal.” Still, he pleaded with the Assembly to not eliminate MCIs and IAIs because, according to him, it would take away jobs from people of color who conduct repairs and leave landlords without enough money to keep buildings in good condition. “It’s time to let us be part of the solution,” he said.

Paimaan Lodhi, a senior vice President at the Real Estate Board of New York, said if MCIs are eliminated, “there will be some property owners who can’t afford” to perform necessary maintenance.

Yet despite calls for caution from landlord advocates, several signs point to the legislature being poised to take advantage of the political winds shifting against the prevailing regulatory system, following a 2018 election that saw insurgent progressive success and ousting of more real estate-friendly politicians.

“This is about these nine bills and making sure that we pass all nine bills,” said Assembly Member Walter Mosley. “That’s what people voted for in November, that’s why they put certain members in the Senate and that’s why they took certain members out.”