New Yorkers have benefited from the protections of rent and eviction protection laws, in various forms, for 61 years. But because of legislative changes during the past decade, rent control and rent stabilization will soon be a distant memory.
That is, unless tenants and others concerned about affordable housing get active and turn the situation around.
A HISTORY OF EROSION
The State Legislature enacted new “luxury” decontrol mechanisms in 1993, when they renewed the state rent laws for four years, until 1997. Because the state has the power to impose its will on New York City, the new decontrol amendments applied to both state and city rent laws. This was the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, a first chink in the armor.
The next year, city rent control and rent stabilization laws were up for renewal in City Council. Peter Vallone, then the speaker, made the 1993 decontrol amendments a permanent feature of the city rent laws. He assured his nervous members from the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens that these “luxury” decontrol amendments would affect only “rich tenants in Manhattan.” The amendment passed 28-18, only two votes more than the 26 needed.
Then in 1997, the State Legislature and Governor Pataki negotiated a sweeping package of additional decontrol amendments to state and city laws, included in the bill renewing the state laws for six years, until 2003. The 1997 state law codified the 1994 Vallone amendments, and added additional measures that have made it possible for landlords to achieve wholesale decontrol of regulated apartment buildings. These destructive amendments were retained last year when the Legislature and Governor Pataki renewed the state rent laws for eight years, until 2011.
IT’S EASY TO DEREGULATE
The most damaging of the recent amendments is “high rent” vacancy decontrol, under which an apartment can be permanently deregulated if the landlord can get the legal rent up to $2,000 per month after the tenant moves, dies or gets evicted.
Through a combination of the statutory vacancy bonus added in 1997 — a minimum 20 percent rent increase every time an apartment turns over — and individual apartment improvements that allow the landlord to increase the legal rent by a percentage of the cost — it is easy to deregulate when a unit turns over. Only stupid landlords don’t, and most of them are not stupid. They don’t even have to charge the new tenant $2,000 or more; they can charge less if local market conditions do not support higher rents.
We have seen buildings all over the city and suburban counties where more than half the apartments are now renting at market rents to tenants who have no protections from arbitrary rent hikes or arbitrary eviction. Two or three times a year I receive a call from a Tenants & Neighbors member living in a 12-unit building in western Queens. His is the last stabilized apartment, and he is worried that he’s next.
The pace of decontrol is much faster than most people realize. A year ago, Tenants & Neighbors published a report, “The End of Rent Regulation,” an analysis of Housing and Vacancy Survey data that estimated that 148,000 rent-regulated apartments in the city had been deregulated in the decade since “luxury” decontrol was enacted.
A FOOL’S PARADISE
How many regulated apartments will be left in 2011, the next time the state rent laws come up for renewal in Albany? Not enough for tenants to have the political strength to win another renewal law for another period of time, certainly. That’s why rent-regulated tenants who think they are protected by last year’s eight-year extender are living in a fool’s paradise.
So tenants — and others — who want to maintain an economically and racially diverse city had better join the fight now. Tenants & Neighbors has developed a strategy to reopen the issue of rent regulation in Albany in the next 30 months, leading up to the 2006 gubernatorial election. To win will take a level of organization, focus and discipline that is foreign to most people’s movements, certainly to the tenant movement.
IT’S UP TO US
We need more people to get involved. The alternative is to watch New York City and suburban counties convert to a market-rate system, where only the affluent have choices and where most people will not be able to afford to live.
We hope that readers of Allegro will respond and get involved. Of course, you can close your eyes and wish it away. Sweet dreams.
To find out more about the campaign call Tenants & Neighbors at (212) 608-4320, ext. 401, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael McKee is associate director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition.