The latest battle of the Rent Wars has ended in Albany, and the kindest word that I could find to describe it from the advocates of stronger rent laws is “disappointing.” So, while New York State celebrates the passage of a marriage equality bill, maybe we need to ask this: Where are all the newly, happily married couples are going to live?
The Omnibus Rent Bill was, incidentally, also called the Big Ugly because it wrapped several items into one bill, but it’s also appropriate because it is potentially ugly for tenants protected by rent-regulation as this proposed legislation isn’t going to save units, contrary to what the Governor’s office has said.
Veteran tenant organizer Michael McKee, treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee and a member of the Real Rent Reform Campaign, called the rent law a “lousy deal; a disappointment.”
Maggie Russel-Chiardi, executive director of Tenants and Neighbors, published a statement that said if this is the final deal, it will certainly be a much better bill than what tenants have gotten in previous renewal years, that for the first time since 1994, the rent laws were not weakened. Yet, even she had her reservations:
“However, these improvements to the rent laws are, in our view, inadequate, and do not begin to approach the kind of meaningful reforms that are necessary to prevent future speculative investing in rent stabilized housing or to protect low and moderate income tenants who are facing displacement pressure and are struggling to remain in their homes and communities.”
Russell-Chiardi also noted that affordable housing continues to be lost every year “as long as there is a rent threshold at which apartments can be taken out of rent stabilization upon vacancy.”
But there is a bright side if success is measured in what we didn’t lose, and that we fended off Goliath, otherwise known as the real estate lobby. There were fears that not only would the laws be weakened, namely, that the landmark Roberts decision that returns thousands of units back to the rent-stabilization system, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars back to pockets of New York tenants, would be scaled back.
But beyond that, the piece that has gotten the most buzz in the tenant advocacy community was written by law professor Craig Gurian. In it, he lambasts Gov. Cuomo for giving tenants a raw deal, writing that “the Cuomo solve” is 12 percent better for landlords than Pataki’s original scheme.
So, yes, the vacancy decontrol threshold has been raised, the income limits have been raised, landlords get a smaller vacancy bonus, and there is a different certification process for landlords who make improvements to a vacant apartment, as well as a slight decrease for landlords who own buildings with 35 or more units.
Yet, we were reminded of what little had changed when the Rent Guidelines Board voted on substantial increases in rent for apartment tenants. Reforming the RGB was a major campaign plank for the tenant movement. Tenants know that this sham process has to be revamped before they can declare a victory in their lives.
For a refresher on the modern rent stabilization system and the battle in New York, I recommend Gurian’s wonderful piece, Let Them Rent Cake: George Pataki, Market Ideology, and the Attempt to Dismantle Rent Regulation in New York. In my opinion, there is no better analysis of the Rent Wars. I believe that after you read it, you will clearly see what the issue is.
Another great and informative article was published in Shelterforce shortly after the first Rent Wars battle in 1997 where Michael McKee talks about building an organization to defeat the support for full vacancy decontrol.
You can get up to speed on the 2003 Rent Wars battle, as well as learn about how the weakened tenant legislation has led to major scrums in Stuyvesant Town, Harlem, Spanish Harlem, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.
If you hear the term, “rent regulation,” you would be partly correct in thinking that this is a system that controls the rent on apartments in NYC: this is all how the New York media frames this debate, that is, along the lines of how much rent you can pay.
But like I said, though, you’d only be partly correct.
Rent regulation is not only about what a tenant pays, but a tenant’s rights. And when you have rights you can build community. And when you can build community, you can build power.
The rent regulation battle in New York State is an issue of power between extremely rich landlords and the 1.1 million households, home to 2.5 million tenants in NYC and the surrounding counties of Nassau, Westchester, and Rockland.
As the rapper Kanye West sings, “No one man should have all this power.”