Albany Screws Tenants Once More; Leaves Loopholes Intact

Tenants protesting in Albany June 3.Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature have once again voted to continue the destruction of the largest affordable-housing program in the state.

Late on June 25, the state Senate and Assembly renewed the state rent and co-op conversion laws for four years, preserving vacancy decontrol and all the other loopholes landlords use to convert rent-protected apartments to unregulated, market-rate status. The renewal contained only minor reforms, such as raising the threshold for deregulation from $2,500 a month to $2,700 and slightly lowering the rent increases permitted for major capital improvements. 

The 72-page bill was a classic Albany Big Ugly, lumping things that legislators hated and things they needed into one bill, forcing all but a few of them to vote for it. Westchester legislators, for example, were compelled to vote yes because the bill included $25 million for the Yonkers public school system, without which the city faced inevitable teacher layoffs.

This Big Ugly was a compendium of unrelated issues, including renewal of Cuomo’s upstate property-tax cap; $1.3 billion in new “property tax relief” checks to be mailed to upstate homeowners three weeks before the November 2016 election; renewal of post-9/11 tax breaks for lower Manhattan businesses; and—most crucially—allowing current and former governors to officiate at weddings, just in time for Cuomo to preside over a ceremony for two guys in front of the Stonewall Inn on Gay Pride Sunday. It passed the Senate by 47-12 and the Assembly by 124-13.

The changes to the rent laws were a huge disappointment to tenant advocates and pro-tenant legislators. As happened in 2011, the only improvements were tinkering around the edges of the system. And, once again, Andrew Cuomo tried to spin this as a huge victory for tenants, calling the bill “the best rent reform package in history.” (See page 7 for a description of the rent-law amendments.)

Tenants should have done better. Despite being vastly outspent by the landlords and divided into two competing coalitions, we mounted the most effective and energetic campaign since 1997, when then-Senate Republican leader Joe Bruno declared he would not allow a vote on renewing the rent laws.

In the end, we were defeated because one elected official betrayed us: Andrew M. Cuomo.

 

Targeting Cuomo

In his January 21 State of the State address, the governor rolled out dozens of new initiatives and proposals, but completely ignored that the rent and eviction protection laws were due to expire on June 15.

If he had cared about real rent reform, there was much Cuomo could have done, such as introducing a governor’s program bill to repeal vacancy decontrol and re-regulate the roughly 400,000 apartments lost over two decades of deregulation.

Faced with a Republican Senate owned by the real-estate lobby and a governor who claimed it was impossible to do anything other than renew the rent laws without any improvements—exactly what the landlords wanted—tenants looked to the Assembly Democrats for relief. New Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), who took over from the indicted Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) in February, declared that stronger rent laws were his top priority for 2015. 

On May 19, the Assembly passed a bill that would have repealed vacancy deregulation, reregulated most deregulated apartments, and made numerous other pro-tenant reforms, such as reducing the the 20 percent vacancy bonus and making rent increases for major capital improvements temporary surcharges. Cuomo remained silent, as did the Senate Republicans, now led by John Flanagan of Suffolk County, who replaced Dean Skelos (R-Nassau) after he was charged with corruption in early May.

Tenants repeatedly protested outside Cuomo’s offices, delivering a giant valentine to the governor’s mansion in Albany in the freezing cold on Feb. 14 and blocking rush-hour traffic outside his Manhattan office on May 29.

On June 3, 55 people, including several Met Council members and leaders, were arrested for civil disobedience, blocking the entrance to the executive chambers on the second floor of the state capitol to demand that Cuomo take a stand for stronger rent laws. Ten Democratic elected officials were among the arrested. Their involvement was embarrassing to the governor, and took courage: State legislators, in particular, have to work with his office on many issues. 

Remember these ten names: New York City Councilmembers Laurie Cumbo, Corey Johnson, and Jumaane Williams; Assemblymembers Rodneyse Bichotte, Maritza Davila, Dick Gottfried, and Walter Mosley; and Senators Adriano Espaillat, Brad Hoylman, and Bill Perkins. They were there for us when it counted.

Cuomo responded by announcing a rally for stronger rent laws in Harlem the next day, which he was forced to cancel when numerous legislators refused to attend. Then on June 6, the Daily News published a column by the governor in which he claimed to support repealing (or “significantly raising the threshold for”) vacancy decontrol, as well as other pro-tenant provisions from the bill the Assembly passed in May. But by then, neither anyone in the tenant movement nor any savvy legislator could believe anything Andrew Cuomo said.

No serious negotiations on rent—or virtually anything else—occurred until the June 15 deadline arrived. On that day, the Assembly extended the rent laws to June 17, the official last day of the session. In the Senate, Flanagan that evening pushed through a pro-landlord bill that would have renewed the rent and co-op laws with no improvements for eight years. It also contained a bizarre component that would have required the state to compile a registry of all residents of the more than 1 million rent-regulated apartments in the state, and match them to state tax records to determine if they were above the $200,000 household income threshold for “high income” deregulation and verify that the apartment was their primary residence. 

The only Democrat to vote for the bill was Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who caucuses with the GOP—and represents a district with 41,552 rent-regulated apartments. 

 

Spin, spin, spin

Over the next ten days everyone postured. Flanagan insisted that the Senate would leave town, giving the Assembly a take-it-or-leave-it choice on their eight-year extender (as happened in 2003). Cuomo threatened that if the legislature adjourned without renewing the rent laws, he would bring it back into session every day until they were renewed. Heastie repeated his insistence on stronger rent laws.

On June 23, the three men in a room announced a “framework” for an end-of-session deal that included only token improvements to the rent laws.

Over the next two days, intense negotiations took place behind closed doors. The Big Ugly was finally printed the evening of June 25 and brought to the floor, giving little time for legislators to read such a long bill. Cuomo issued a “message of necessity” that waived the three-day waiting period mandated by the state constitution, thus allowing an immediate vote.

Twelve senators, all Democrats from New York City, voted no: Leroy Comrie, Mike Gianaris, and James Sanders, Jr. of Queens; Martin Dilan, Jesse Hamilton, Velmanette Montgomery, and Daniel Squadron of Brooklyn; Adriano Espaillat, Brad Hoylman, and Liz Krueger of Manhattan; and Gustavo Rivera and José Serrano of the Bronx. Two other Democrats, José Peralta of Queens and Bill Perkins of Manhattan, were excused, and John Sampson of Brooklyn was on trial for corruption.

In the Assembly, although many Democrats grumbled privately that Heastie had been rolled by Cuomo and Flanagan, there was a strong push for them to support the new Speaker in his first serious negotiation. Only five voted no: Brian Kavanagh of Manhattan and Charles Barron, Joe Lentol, Diana Richardson, and Jo Anne Simon of Brooklyn.

According to legislators and staff, Andrew Cuomo actively sided with Flanagan against Heastie in opposing significant pro-tenant changes. At the same time the governor was selling us out behind closed doors, he and his minions embarked upon a public-relations effort to try to persuade everyone that he was actually fighting for stronger tenant protections. Cuomo did promise Heastie stronger rent laws if the Assembly passed a $150 million “education tax credit” that would have given the governor’s billionaire hedge-fund supporters millions of dollars in tax breaks for contributions to charter schools. Heastie refused that trade.

Perhaps Heastie should have held out longer, but it is not clear that the results would have been different. As Senator Krueger put it, “It was three men in a room, and apparently two were Republicans.” 

 

Blame Cuomo for continued phaseout of rent regulation

Governor Cuomo pooh-poohed complaints about his weak rent deal by claiming that tenant advocates will never be happy, and that the package was the best he could get from the Republican-controlled Senate.

But who is responsible for helping the Republicans keep their narrow majority in the Senate? After pledging to veto any “partisan” redistricting plan in 2012, Cuomo allowed the Senate GOP to draw blatantly gerrymandered district lines. Upstate districts were drawn with the legal minimum population, and all New York City districts were drawn with the legal maximum, costing the city at least two seats.

Despite this, the 2012 election produced a Senate with 33 Democrats and 30 Republicans. Cuomo then engineered the alliance between the Senate Republicans and the breakaway Democrats led by Jeff Klein of the Bronx that gave the GOP a working majority.

Last year, to secure the endorsement of the Working Families Party, Cuomo pledged to work to help the Democrats recapture the Senate, a promise he clearly had no intention of honoring. The Republicans won a 32-31 majority, with the Democrats including the Klein faction and Felder.

Andrew Cuomo’s late father, Mario, played the same game when he was governor from 1983 to 1994, blaming the Republicans for his inability to pass progressive legislation, while doing nothing to help his fellow Democrats win Senate seats.

But if the Democrats can recapture the Senate next year—a presidential election, in which turnout is higher among younger and poorer voters—we can seek repeal of vacancy decontrol and other reforms in January 2017, rather than waiting until 2019 when the rent laws next expire. 

Tenants who are interested in helping can get in touch with Tenants Political Action Committee at action@tenantspac.org.