After Governor’s Betrayal, What Next for Tenants?

Despite a massive mobilization by tenants in New York City and its inner suburbs to repair the state’s broken rent and eviction protections, and a continuing corruption investigation by federal prosecutor Attorney Preet Bharara tying real estate contributions to pro-landlord laws, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Republican allies in the state Senate orchestrated a four-year renewal of the rent laws that leaves the loopholes basically untouched. 

“Unfortunately this year, the money of landlords and developers won out over the interests of tenants, and we ended up with renewed rent laws that will lead to a loss of over 80,000 regulated units in the next four years,” declared Sen. Liz Krueger (D/WFP/G-Manhattan), a champion of tenants now serving her seventh term in Albany. “This means that it’s more important than ever for tenants to organize themselves, know their rights, and make sure that existing laws are enforced, so that no one is forced out of their homes by unscrupulous landlords trying to manipulate the system.”

 

Know Your Rights

So what are tenants to do now? The answer is, as the radical union activist Joe Hill said exactly 100 years ago, “Don’t mourn, organize!” We must continue to organize at the building level to ensure that tenants are equipped with the knowledge and tools to resist the inevitable efforts of landlords and predatory speculators to jack up the rents and force them out. Many, if not most, rent-stabilized tenants are almost completely unaware of their rights, and landlords take advantage of it every day.

Even with the loopholes in the rent laws left intact, many rent increases are still illegal. Tenants can successfully challenge them—if they know that they can, and it definitely helps to have access to a lawyer. 

In the as many as 250,000 apartments with “preferential” rents (less than the legal maximum), tenants can still challenge rent increases under some circumstances, such as when they had a reasonable expectation that the preferential rent would last as long as they rented the apartment. While the laws still allow permanent rent increases for building-wide major-capital and individual-apartment improvements (MCIs and IAIs), landlords often get increases they are not entitled to because the tenants didn’t know how to challenge their application.

Building the base of tenant knowledge, following up on the Tenants Bill of Rights enacted by the City Council last year, will put tenants in a better position to defend their homes. Weak laws can also mean weak code enforcement, as tenants are afraid to make complaints, not knowing that they are protected against retaliatory evictions. 

In addition to organizing at the building level, tenants need to continue building a network of community and local groups into a citywide alliance that cooperates effectively around common strategies. Tenants united may never be defeated, but tenants divided will continue to get our butts kicked.

 

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

The rights that protect tenants are laws that are created through the political process. While the concept of “politics” has been stigmatized, it is really another word for “democracy.” Tenants must use the power of our numbers to offset the power of landlords’ money, as much as possible. That has been more successful at the local level, where public matching funds (and a seeming shortage of available billionaires) and the organizing efforts of the Working Families Party have helped elect the most progressive New York City government since Fiorello La Guardia’s administration in the early 1940s. 

State elections are another story. In 2014, after real-estate interests spent millions of dollars in campaign contributions and “independent expenditures,” Republicans won a majority in the state Senate. Glenwood Management’s various LLCs gave $450,000 to the state Democratic Party, which Gov. Cuomo controls, but instead of using it to help Democratic Senate candidates—as he had promised the Working Families Party in exchange for its endorsement—Cuomo gave aid and comfort to the Republicans.

Many people believe that the traditionally higher Democratic turnout in presidential election years could make the difference in who wins the state Senate next November. The Legislature can legally make changes to the rent laws before they expire in 2019, so they could be revisited next year, or more likely in 2017 if the Democrats regain the Senate. Tenants must continue to build their political power if they want to protect their rights.

 

Local Option

The current political morass in Albany means that tenants can only look to local government for help. Mayor Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James, and the City Council are looking at other ways the city can act to protect tenants. Many are talking about the need to restore New York City’s home rule over rent laws, which was taken away in 1971 by the state “Urstadt Law.”

Gov. Cuomo tries to paint de Blasio as being too naïve and uncompromising to understand how to get things done in Albany. But the mayor is neither naïve or new to politics, having worked in the administration of former Mayor David Dinkins (1989-1993) and managing Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign in 2000. He knew he was taking a calculated risk when he publicly criticized Cuomo after the end of the legislative session, but as he explained to CBS News, passivity would only invite more abuse from the governor.

WFP state director Bill Lipton has said he thinks it pretty unlikely that the party will endorse Cuomo in the next gubernatorial election in 2018. Possible opponents to Cuomo might include Zephyr Teachout, who won 40 percent of the vote against Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary; state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and maybe even de Blasio.