Assembly Holds Key To Rent-Law Renewal

New York’s rent-stabilization and rent-control laws are set to expire on June 15th. With the affordability of housing for over two million New Yorkers at stake, what can we count on the New York State Assembly to do?

The Assembly is expected to pass a crucial pro-tenant bill that would not only renew our rent-regulation laws, but also strengthen them—ending vacancy decontrol entirely and reregulating hundreds of thousands of apartments that have been turned into market-rate units in the past 13 years. The Omnibus Rent Regulation Bill, A-2674, also includes most of the other legislative demands of tenant groups in recent years.

If the Assembly passes this bill but does no more, it will be a disaster of epic proportions for tenants. It could pave the way for the eventual total phaseout of rent regulations. This is because the Republican majority in the state Senate has every intention of stonewalling this and all other pro-tenant legislation. If the Senate majority simply sits on its hands and refuses to bring any bill renewing rent regulations up for a vote, the laws will simply end, with no legislative action at all.

In contrast with many legislative campaigns, there is almost no point in tenants trying to educate our legislators about this issue. Most New York politicians have already staked out a firm position on rent regulations. Those whose allegiance lies with the landlords won’t be persuaded by any argument about the horrors that would befall millions of New Yorkers who would suddenly find themselves unable to afford to live in their own city. Such legislators have chosen to side with landlords because the landlord lobby is willing to fund their re-election campaigns over and over so long as they work to prevent pro-tenant bills from coming to a vote, and vote against such bills when they do.

New York landlords stand to profit to the tune of trillions of dollars by ending rent regulations, and they are willing to spend millions to see that happen. Where are displaced low-income, working-class, and middle-class New Yorkers supposed to go? All too many landlords and elected officials care little about the answer.

The only legislators who stand in the middle—the ‘swing voters,’ we could call them—are undecided because the politics affecting them tend to shift. A few of them represent significant numbers of rent-regulated tenants, but collect sizable landlord-lobby contributions. The lure of landlord money often wins out if there isn’t a wide-scale organizing campaign in their districts.

More often, the swing voters are waiting for cues from their party leaders. Individually, they may not be tied to either the tenant class or the landlord class. They have some ties to landlords and may vote against tenants if the stakes are low, but they could vote for tenants if their party leaders laid out ultimatums: Vote for tenants’ rights if you want help in fundraising for the next election; or vote for tenants if you ever want X, Y, or Z legislation that you care more about to come to a vote.

Ugly politics are the reality of the fight this year. A well-organized landlord class has worked for decades to rig the political system. Make no mistake: Tenants should never attempt to develop a long-term strategy that resembles that of the landlords. We will never match their ability to buy political support, and should never want to do so. Tenant power rests in people power. Millions of dollars look insignificant when compared with millions of organized tenants. The power of the tenant movement is the reason why New York City continues to have rent regulations when they have been eliminated altogether in much of the rest of the nation.

In the current political climate, the most important base of power that New York tenants have is in the Assembly. The Senate leadership—a cadre of Republicans who have staked their future with the landlords for decades—will be happy to delay any vote on rent regulations until the hours before the laws expire. They’ve been strategizing for years about the concessions that they’ll demand at the last minute—the provisions they’ll demand in exchange for renewing our rent laws at all in 2011. They’re plotting a multiyear strategy to end rent regulations in New York.

What can the Assembly do for tenants? Anything and everything. Or, more precisely: nothing. The best thing that Assemblymembers can do to support rent regulation is to refuse to vote on anything else until the Senate passes their law to renew and strengthen rent regulations.

There are legislative priorities that matter more to most Republican Senators than rent regulation. The Republican base is in upstate New York, where rent regulations do not exist—a reality that city landlords have exploited, but can only take so far. The worst scenario for tenants would be if both houses of the Legislature have both passed all major legislation by mid-June, and the last thing on the agenda for the Senate is the renewal of rent regulations. The best scenario would be if the Assembly prioritizes the renewal and strengthening of rent regulation and refuses to pass any other bills until the Senate does the same.

The easiest thing for the Assembly and Speaker Sheldon Silver to do would be to pass our pro-tenant legislation, move on with the rest of the legislative agenda, and cast blame on the Senate Republicans as June 15 nears and the Senate has failed to act on rent-regulation legislation. The predictability of this script, and the consequences that would result, means that following it would be shameful.

Amid talk of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed property-tax cap legislation, Speaker Silver commented in early January that for New York City tenants, housing affordability comes through rent regulation, not property-tax caps. Silver took a thrashing in the media for “linking” these issues, with the Daily News accusing him of “playing deceptive word games, trying to negotiate in secret and turning the state’s economic survival into one more chit in back-room bargaining.” Silver quickly retracted, saying he didn’t plan to link the measures.

On January 31, Silver sent a mass e-mail to his constituents suggesting a different strategy: withholding support for renewal of the 421-a tax break that developers get for building mostly luxury housing. “I made it clear to the real estate lobby,” he wrote, “that until we have stronger rent laws, we will not take any action to extend their development tax breaks.” The notion of holding up legislation is the right one, but drawing the line only on 421-a won’t be enough. There has been hardly a murmur in the media about this linkage, nor about the fact that the 421-a program actually already expired in December and cannot currently be used for new construction—and that is one indication that landlords aren’t exactly trembling. 421-a benefits will continue for those developers who already participate in the program. Only those who are planning new developments stand to lose out on the government giveaway—and this does not matter to the owners of the million rent-regulated apartments who aren’t also developers. Those landlords are only eyeing the trillions they stand to gain from gutting rent regulation.

At a town hall meeting on February 3, some Manhattan Assemblymembers pledged not to vote at all on any key legislation—and not even to read or weigh in on the bills—until stronger rent protections are passed into law. Such a tactic need not involve trading one piece of legislation for another, or compromising any constituency on the path towards passing our bills. An Assembly boycott of Albany politics in 2011 is exactly what we need. But will they stay true to these promises?

Holding up the rest of business in Albany will undoubtedly draw scorn from the media, but anything less will simply not be enough. Is the Assembly going to do what it will take?