Albany Stiffs Tenants Yet Again

Tenant issues were, as usual, given short shrift in the New York State Legislature’s 2017 session.

On June 14, the Assembly passed three important bills, but everyone in Albany knew that these were “one-house” measures, destined to die in the state Senate. One bill, carried by Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), would have repealed the 1997 vacancy-deregulation law and re-regulated 98 percent of the apartments that have been lost to rent stabilization in New York City and Westchester, Nassau, and Rockland counties in the last two decades. Some Democrats who represent districts with significant numbers of rent-regulated units voted no, including Mark Gjonaj (Bronx) and Michael Cusick (Staten Island). Gjonaj is currently running for a City Council seat. Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island, the likely Republican mayoral nominee, also voted no.

The other two measures would have repealed the 20 percent statutory vacancy bonus (sponsored by Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan) and the 2003 law that let landlords hit rent-stabilized tenants paying preferential rents with huge rent increases when they renew their leases (Assembly Housing Committee chair Steven Cymbrowitz, D-Brooklyn). 

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Suffolk) promptly assigned all three to the Rules Committee, where they remain bottled up.

Loft tenants left in limbo

The members of New York City Loft Tenants made a valiant and energetic effort to secure passage of a “cleanup” bill to fix flaws in the 2010 Loft Law, which provides for legalization of live/work units in buildings zoned for commercial and in some instances manufacturing use. Landlords have illegally rented those spaces to artists who both live and work there. The state’s 1982 loft law covers only lofts already occupied before it was enacted.

The city government looked the other way during the 1990s and 2000s as landlords rented live/work spaces in former warehouses and factories, many in northern Brooklyn. Facing eviction attempts by loftlords, tenants began petitioning their legislators for relief.

In 2010, when both houses were controlled by Democrats, a comprehensive new loft law passed to cover those units and give their tenants rent and eviction protections. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who vehemently opposed the bill on the false grounds that it would hurt manufacturing, found an ally in lame-duck Governor David Paterson. Paterson threatened to veto the bill unless the mayor’s concerns were addressed, so the legislature reluctantly passed hastily and poorly drafted amendments that curtailed its impact.

Those changes excluded units if they did not have a window onto the street, or were in a basement space, or if at some point in the past the building had been used for purposes “incompatible” with residential occupancy. Tenants were also required to apply for coverage by within seven years, by this past June. Many loft tenants are still unaware of the 2010 law, and the city has done nothing to educate them.

Many loftlords are using these exclusions in attempts to evict their tenants, and thus avoid having to spend money to eliminate fire and safety hazards. If they succeed, these properties will not return to manufacturing use. They will either remain illegal, unsafe residential units, or be converted to luxury housing, whether by legalization or demolition. (Many tenants are in fact small-scale manufacturers of products like clothing and jewelry, while others use their spaces for theatre and dance.)

The Assembly passed a comprehensive fix-it bill on June 21, the last day of the regular session. The Senate Republicans refused to act.

As the Legislature had not renewed the law granting the mayor of New York City control over public schools, and it was set to expire June 30, Gov. Andrew Cuomo used his constitutional power to call it back to Albany for an extraordinary session on June 28. Only bills he placed on the agenda could be considered, but his order contained tantalizing language that left the door open to other issues. The result was a hodge-podge omnibus bill reporters immediately dubbed a “mini-Big Ugly.” It included a two-year renewal of mayoral control, sales tax reauthorizations for upstate and suburban counties, a bailout for the Vernon Downs racino near Utica, and naming the new Tappan Zee Bridge after former governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father—but despite loft tenants’ visible and vocal presence, the cleanup bill did not make it in. 

Loft tenants’ task now becomes avoiding eviction until the measure can be reconsidered next year.