Assembly Passes Strong Rent Law; Would End Vacancy Decontrol

On May 19, the state Assembly voted 99-40 to pass the Rent Act of 2015, which, if ratified by the state Senate and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would go a long way toward repairing the broken rent-stabilization system. Most important, the bill would repeal the 1997 vacancy-decontrol amendment that has enabled the catastrophic loss of affordable apartments in New York City and Nassau, Westchester, and Rockland counties.

Its chances of being passed by the Senate, however, depend upon the Assembly using leverage based on the priorities of the upper house’s Republican majority and the governor.

Cosponsored by Speaker Carl Heastie, the bill would also close many of the loopholes in the rent-regulation laws that have been a major cause of the city’s raging homeless and affordability crises. It contains most of the items that the Real Rent Reform coalition (of which Met Council is a member) and the Alliance for Tenant Power have identified as needing to be fixed this year to stanch the rapid loss of affordable housing. 

“This bill includes 90% of what is needed to repair a broken system,” said Met Council director Ava Farkas. “Ending vacancy decontrol and closing the loopholes which force rents to increasingly unaffordable levels is crucial if we are to begin reversing the ever-worsening housing crisis.” 

The bill would double the penalties for harassment and make it a felony in some cases. It would reduce the bonus owners can charge on vacant apartments from 20 to 7½ percent. And it would protect long-term tenants and end one of the most dramatically abused loopholes by limiting owners’ personal-use evictions to a single apartment; current law lets them claim an entire building. 

It would also make rent increases for individual or building-wide improvements a temporary surcharge that is not added on to a tenant’s legal rent and ends when the landlord has recouped his expense. It also requires additional documentation when increases are claimed. Another provision would address the abuse of “preferential” rents, in which landlords charge tenants less than the legal maximum rent but then raise it drastically when leases are renewed. 

It would give New York City the ability to regulate apartments that lose Section 8 or Mitchell-Lama protections, although tenants in buildings that have already lost those protections would not be covered. Finally, the bill would reduce the annual increases for rent-controlled tenants from the current 7½ percent.

At a press conference before the vote, Heastie reiterated that strengthening rent laws remains his top priority, as he has said since he became speaker in February. “It’s in my heart and soul,” he declared—a sentiment echoed by the bill’s prime sponsor, Housing Committee chair Keith Wright, who lives in the same rent regulated Harlem apartment he grew up in, and fellow sponsor Marcos Crespo (D-Bronx), who spoke forcefully in Spanish. Also at the press conference was the Assembly’s newest member, Diana Richardson, who won a May 6 special election in Brooklyn’s 43rd district (Crown Heights-East Flatbush). Richardson, who made strengthening rent laws the centerpiece of her campaign, won twice as many votes as her nearest rival, who was backed by real-estate interests including Glenwood Management.

The bill has been referred to the Senate housing committee, which is chaired by Cathy Young (R-Jamestown), a strong opponent of rent regulation even though she lives about 350 miles from the nearest rent-stabilized tenant. With the Republican majority in the Senate bought and paid for by the real-estate industry, the Assembly can only win approval of its housing bill if it sticks to its guns in end-of-session negotiations, which will likely include the expiring 421-a development subsidy, property-tax caps set to expire next year, and other issues important to the Republicans. “We have our list, and they will have theirs, “ Heastie said. 

Another obstacle is Gov. Cuomo, who recently suggested that there was “not enough time” to address housing issues. 

“There isn’t enough time NOT to address these issues,” declared Farkas, “If the laws are renewed as is, we will continue to lose tens of thousands of affordable units every year, and the homelessness and affordability crises gripping New Yorkers, already unbearable and inexcusable, will get even worse. We can’t allow that to happen.”