Albany Eyes Taking Tenant Protections Statewide

With the defeat of the Republican majority in the state Senate last November eliminating the biggest politi-cal obstacle, five bills to strengthen New York State’s rent laws have already been introduced in the Legislature this year, and several more are in the works.

“We have a new class of senators elected explicitly on progressive housing policies,” says Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn), who unseated an Independent Democratic Conference incumbent in the primary last year, and they have allied with the bloc of veteran pro-tenant legislators.

Four of the measures introduced would accomplish longtime goals of the tenant movement. One would repeal vacancy decontrol and re-regulate formerly rent-stabilized apartments that rent for less than $5,000 a month in New York City or $3,500 in its suburbs. Three others would repeal the 20 percent bonus increase on vacant apart-ments; make “preferential rent” discounts last as long as the tenant stays in the apartment; and limit rent increases for rent-controlled apartments to the levels allowed for rent-stabilized apartments, ending the larger increases allowed by the Maximum Base Rent system.

The fifth would prohibit evictions without a just cause throughout the state, in all rental units except for owner-occupied buildings of four units or less. Cea Weaver, cam-paign coordinator of the Housing Justice for All coalition, estimates that the bill would extend protections to 900,000 tenants in New York City alone. The tenant movement’s agenda this year, she says, is not just to fix rent stabiliza-tion, but to expand it.

“We’re pushing bills that have never been pushed before,” says Met Council director Ava Farkas. “’Just cause’ is really big. It’s not part of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act. It would protect almost all market-rate tenants.”

Other possible bills include abolishing increases for building-wide major capital improvements and renovating individual apartments. Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany) and Assemblymember Kevin Ca-hill (D-Kingston) are prepar-ing a measure to extend the Emergency Tenant Protec-tion Act of 1974 statewide, so localities beyond New York City and Westchester, Nassau, and Rockland coun-ties would be able to enact rent-stabilization laws.

In the Democratic major-ity, says Myrie, “I think we have a statewide consensus that housing is not just a New York City problem.”

These measures reflect tenants’ newfound political strength, both in the defeat of Democratic senators who collaborated with Republi-cans to block stronger rent laws over the last several years, and in the recently forged links between hous-ing activists in the city, up-state, and on Long Island. Yet their passage will be far from automatic. Gov. An-drew Cuomo has a long his-tory of resisting or watering down pro-tenant legislation.

“On rent, Andrew Cuomo is guilty until proven innocent,” says TenantsPAC trea-surer Michael McKee.

Cuomo staffers indicated to tenant activists in Janu-ary that the governor want-ed to be a partner in the negotiations shaping the legislation. They would not commit to any changes in the law beyond repealing vacancy decontrol, mak-ing preferential rents last the duration of the tenan-cy, and modifying the laws governing MCI and individu-al-apartment-improvement rent increases in some un-specified way.

Cuomo has also indicated that he might include his rent-law reforms in the state budget, which is due by April 1. His budget proposal for the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which administers the rent-regulation laws, mandates that the state renew them before they expire on June 15, and “include rent regulation reforms to end vacancy decontrol, amend the application of preferential rent, and limit capital improvement charges.”

Those changes would be based on a report to be produced by DHCR with data related to those issues, such as the number of applications for MCIs the division processes, the number of apartments with preferential rents and the average amount of the discount, and the number of rent-overcharge complaints the division receives and finds valid. If the legislature does not approve the bill, DHCR’s budget would be cut by $8 million in each of the next two fiscal years — which, ironically, could sabotage hiring more staff to enforce the rent laws.

The governor did not include renewing the rent laws in his budget the last two times they came up for renewal, in 2011 and 2015. Tenant advocates would have welcomed it then, as it would have forced the Senate to reject the entire budget if they wanted to block stronger rent laws. This year, tenants are against it for the same reason: Cuomo could put a weakened version of the changes they want in the budget, and the legislature could only vote yes or no, without amendments.

If rent legislation is not included in the budget, the legislature would consider it in April or May. If it is, the legislature could still pass a stronger bill.

The bill to ban evictions without “good cause” is sponsored by Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Pamela Hunter (D-Syracuse). Valid causes would include the tenant not paying rent or creating a nuisance, or in smaller buildings in some circumstances, if the landlord wants the apartment for themselves or a family member. However, tenants could be exempt from being evicted for nonpayment if there had been an “unconscionable rent increase” in any year — defined as more than 1½ times the increase in the Consumer Price Index. In the New York metropolitan area, that would disqualify rent increases of more than about 3.3 percent in the last year.

Myrie says legislators are still working out whether the MCI bill should abolish that type of rent increases or limit them to temporary surcharges until the owner recoups their investment, instead of being permanent. Reasonable people can disagree, he adds, but “we have to change the system.”

Opposition from the Republican minority, he says, is “inconsequential.” The most powerful force opposing stronger rent laws is the real-estate industry, which “has realized that reform is inevitable.”

It’s not obvious how the real-estate lobby will use its power, says Cea Weaver, but between it, Gov. Cuomo, and more centrist Democrats, “I don’t think anyone can take anything for granted.”

One way the tenant agenda could be diluted, she says, is if the Legislature strengthens rent stabilization, but delays considering expanding tenant protections statewide — or, if it repeals vacancy decontrol, but doesn’t do anything about preferential rents or MCIs, which primarily affect outer-borough areas where rents aren’t high enough to be deregulated.

“It’s critical that we win this year,” Weaver says. While Long Island Sen. Todd Kaminsky will be crucial to putting together a majority for a statewide agenda, she continues, every legislator “is someone who needs to be lobbied” — and that includes tenant allies.

Myrie won’t speculate on Gov. Cuomo’s desires, but he believes that the rent laws should not be part of the budget negotiations.

“This is something we believe needs to be done by the legislature,” he says. “I think we’re going to see the Legislature asserting ourselves. We were elected to stand up for tenants’ rights. We shouldn’t be chip-trading.”

Rent-Law Bills Pending in Albany

Bills Introduced:

 – Rent Control Relief (S299/A167)
Sponsors: Brian Benjamin (D-Manhattan), Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan)
To bring rent-control increases in line with those allowed under rent stabilization.

 – Preferential Rent (S2845 /A4349)
Sponsors: Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn)
To require preferential rent discounts to last for the duration of the tenancy.

 – Vacancy Decontrol (S2591/A1198)
Sponsors: Andrea Stewart Cousins (D-Westchester), Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan)
To repeal vacancy decontrol and re-regulate most deregulated apartments.

 – Vacancy Bonus (S185/A2351)
Sponsors: Jose Serrano (D-Bronx), Victor Pichardo (D-Bronx)
To repeal the 20 percent vacancy bonus.

 – Good Cause Eviction (S2892/A5030)
Sponsors: Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), Pamela Hunter (D-Syracuse)
To prohibit evictions without ‘good cause’ in non-owner-occupied buildings

 – Major Capital Improvements (S3693/A4401)
Sponsors: Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), Brian Barnwell (Queens)
To abolish MCIs and roll back increases non-fully amortized.

 – Individual Apartment Increases (S3770)
Sponsors will be Brian Kavanaugh
To abolish rent increases for individual-apartment improvements

Not Yet Introduced:

 – ETPA Statewide Expansion
Sponsors: Neil Breslin (D-Albany), Kevin Cahill (D-Kingston)
To remove geographic restrictions on rent stabilization.

Rochester Housing Court Act
To bring Housing Court to Rochester.

Right of First Refusal
To give residents of mobile-home parks the first chance to purchase them if they are put up for sale.