Another Rent-Law Showdown Is in the Works

Volume C, No. 2February, 2000

Tom Waters

Landlord and tenant forces are battling once again over New York City’s rent control and rent stabilization laws. The outcome of this fight will directly affect everyone who lives in a rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartment, and it will also have very significant indirect effects on everyone who lives in New York City.

The rent laws protect tenants’ rights to stay in their homes, limit the amount of rent increases, and help preserve New York City’s dwindling supply of affordable housing. They also help neighborhoods retain their historic character by preventing landlords from evicting the old residents when new people move to a neighborhood.

The laws will expire on March 31, 2000, unless the City Council votes to renew them. The State of New York renewed its part of the rent laws in 1997 and won’t revisit them until 2003, but the city still has to renew its part every three years or the entire system expires.

Few observers expect the council to allow the rent laws to expire, and tenants received an encouraging sign in December when Council Speaker Peter Vallone introduced a bill to extend the laws. But Vallone has never been a friend of tenants in the past, and there will still be political grappling over whether to weaken the laws by decontrolling some apartments or otherwise reducing tenants’ rights.

The action that the City Council takes in March will set the stage for the next battle in Albany. If the council renews the laws with no weakening amendments, it will demonstrate to upstate legislators that New York City solidly backs the rent laws. But if the council weakens the laws, enemies of tenants in Albany will be able to argue that even New York City Democrats are wavering on the issue. This would give the anti-rent regulation forces a powerful weapon. Just look at the use that State Senator Joe Bruno and his allies made of the New York City Council’s 1994 decontrol vote in 1997, when Bruno was trying to eliminate rent regulation entirely.

Another reason for tenants to be concerned is that neighborhoods across the city are already feeling the harmful effects of the so-called luxury decontrol amendments enacted by the City Council in 1994 and the state legislature in 1997. These amendments allow landlords to take apartments out of the rent regulation system permanently, either based on the amount of the monthly rent and tenants’ household income (high-income decontrol) or based on the amount of the monthly rent alone, regardless of income (vacancy decontrol).

Vallone and other politicians who supported these amendments try to camouflage their impact by claiming that they only affect rich tenants. They refer to these changes as “luxury” decontrol and avoid the phrase “vacancy decontrol.” But in terms of the number of apartments decontrolled, the vacancy decontrol provisions have done the most damage.

As a result of these legislative changes, rents have skyrocketed throughout Manhattan, most of which is now – for all intents and purposes – vacancy decontrolled. Almost no apartment now comes on the market at a rent stabilized rent. Apartments that rented for $600 or $800 a month before the vacancy are being re-rented at $3,000, $5,000 or $8,000 a month.

Tenants who can no longer afford the older, affluent neighborhoods are moving to virtually every section of the city that has convenient commuter access to midtown and Wall Street offices. And through no fault of their own, these tenants are now helping to drive up rents in those neighborhoods. This phenomenon is now being seen in places like Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood in Manhattan; Bay Ridge, Park Slope and Williamsburg in Brooklyn; and Sunnyside, Woodside and Jackson Heights in Queens.

In the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, housing advocates say that rents have doubled for apartments that would never have caught the eye of anyone outside the neighborhood before. “Basically, what’s been happening here in the last two years, since luxury decontrol went into effect, is that we’re seeing railroad apartments in wood-frame tenements go for up to $1,200 a month,” says Alison Cordero of the St. Nicholas Development Corporation. “And they are renting to people from Manhattan who can no longer afford to live there.”

The entire city has a housing crisis, and the rent laws are one of the few things holding back its worst effects. Tenants in every neighborhood of the city must realize that “luxury decontrol” isn’t just about rich people on Park Avenue. The possible weakening of rent regulation is an issue that potentially affects every neighborhood in the city. The rent laws belong to all of us, and we must organize to defend them.

Tom Waters is an organizer at the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. For information about the Rent 2000 campaign to defend the rent laws, call him at (212) 695-8922, ext. 302.