There is a housing crisis in New York. For the poor and middle class alike, rents are outrageously high and getting higher. How are people supposed to live in a city where apartments rent for $1,000, $1,500 or $2,500 a month? Rent regulation, which expires next June, is the only thing stopping this crisis from getting even worse. And the new state legislature and governor will decide the fate of rent and eviction protections. Your vote on Nov. 5 matters, especially if you are a tenant.
New York’s last all-out battle over rent regulation occurred in 1971. Nelson Rockefeller was governor, and he engineered the enactment of vacancy decontrol for New York City’s one million rent controlled apartments, as well as the infamous Urstadt Law, named after his housing commissioner, Charles Urstadt. Urstadt, a prominent New York City landlord, later served on the transition team of George Pataki in 1995, promising to end rent regulation. The 1971 Urstadt Law deprives the city government of home rule over rent and eviction protections, by prohibiting the City Council from extending rent regulations to unregulated units or subjecting existing regulated units to more stringent regulations.
Landlord lobbyists and lawyers claim that the Urstadt Law prohibits any city action which reduces their profits. But if the Rent Guildelines Board were following the true intent of the rent stabilization law, it would also look at tenants’ ability to pay and landlords’ skyrocketing profits.
When the rent regulation law was most recently renewed in 1997, it gave owners enormous incentives to displace existing tenants, and also made it easier to do that by weakening tenants’ ability to defend themselves against eviction, complain about harassment, or resist unaffordable rent increases.
In one of the worst poison pills added, apartments renting for $2,000 a month or more were deregulated, regardless of what the previous rent was and even if the tenant was paying a lower actual rent. And it’s rare when tenants have the time and resources to challenge what has been estimated to be a greater than 50 percent fraud rate in the deregulation of apartments.
In 1971, as now, calls for deregulation were accompanied by glossy studies promising that the “free” market would work if regulations were phased out. Instead, according to legislative findings three years later, after more than 400,000 units were deregulated, displacement and harassment increased. Despite promises that higher rents would lead to better maintenance, maintenance actually declined sharply, and abandonment exploded. In 1974, the state legislature passed the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, bringing all decontrolled apartments under rent stabilization.
Until 1984, the rent stabilization law was administered by the Rent Stabilization Association, which then and now is the leading industry agent working for deregulation. In the early 1970s, the RSA went to court, financed by money it had collected in fees from owners in order to administer the rent stabilization system, and sought to overturn the law as unconstitutional because it improperly delegated governmental authority to a private entity – itself. They lost.
More recently, the RSA brought a federal lawsuit claiming that Housing Court was not evicting families fast enough. They won. One of their claims was that the court was not exercising its discretion often enough to evict poor families without a hearing if they did not have all of the money which the landlord claimed was due.
This concept of “rent deposit” was made mandatory in many situations by the state legislature and Governor Pataki in 1997, and now contributes to the total of more than 26,000 families evicted every year in New York City. Rent deposit means that when tenants go to court over a rent dispute, they generally must deposit their rent with the court, even though the amount of the rent is the very issue in front of the judge! The penalty for not doing so is eviction without trial.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office told fellow Democrats that rent deposit was so clearly unconstitutional that they could go ahead and vote for it, because it would certainly be thrown out by the courts. But the law was not struck down. Instead, it was held to require a constitutional determination on a case-by-case basis. That typically never occurs for the 90 percent of low-income families who cannot get legal representation when facing eviction.
Preserving and strengthening rent and eviction protections remains the cornerstone of any policy to reverse the worsening housing crisis. And unlike in 1997, the laws must be renewed without any more loopholes and crippling amendments. If rent regulations are not strengthened in 2003, New York’s housing crisis will soon reach the point of no return.
This is an excerpt of a longer article which appeared in the September issue of Tenant/Inquilino, the newspaper of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. For more information on Met Council, call (212) 979-6238. The full article appears at www.tenant.net, along with other on-line resources for tenants. Thanks to Met Council for permission to reprint this article.
Local 802 remains a strong advocate of tenant rights. The union – and Met Council – have both endorsed Carl McCall, who has strong pro-tenant positions, for governor. Election day is Nov. 5.