City Rent Laws to be Renewed in March

As we reported in the last issue, the state rent laws aren’t the only ones coming up for renewal this spring. New York City’s rent-control and rent-stabilization laws need to be renewed every three years by the city government. They expire at the end of March.

Under state law, the laws can be renewed only if the citywide net vacancy rate for rental housing is 5 percent or less, as determined by a survey taken every three years. As Tenant/Inquilino went to press, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development was preparing to send the new vacancy rate and other findings from the 2014 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, to the City Council. No one expects the vacancy rate, which was 3.12 percent in 2011, to top 5 percent.

The Council vote on the renewals of both laws is set for Wednesday, March 11. The Housing and Buildings Committee will have a public hearing before then. The city’s rent-control law is renewed by resolution, which does not require action by the mayor. But the city Rent Stabilization Law of 1969 is renewed by legislation, which the mayor must sign by April 1. Mayor Bill de Blasio will hold a bill-signing hearing toward the end of March, and any New Yorker can testify.

Of course the real fight is in Albany, where the state rent laws expire June 15. Tenants are organizing to win repeal of deregulation amendments enacted during the last two decades that have allowed landlords to convert hundreds of thousands of affordable apartments to market-rate status, whose tenants are subject to arbitrary rent hikes and arbitrary eviction.

Because of the state Urstadt Law, the Council and mayor are forbidden to enact stronger rent protections. And the state always has the power to amend the city laws, which it has done repeatedly. In some years it’s weakened them, and in others—when tenants were organized and vigilant—it strengthened them.

The stakes are enormously high. According to the 1996 Housing and Vacancy Survey, 56 percent of rental units in the five boroughs were subject to rent control or rent stabilization. Fifteen years later, the 2011 survey reported that only 47 percent of rental units were subject to one of the two laws.

Renewal of the city rent laws is not expected to be controversial. But the next several weeks represent an opportunity to enlist the mayor, Councilmembers, and other local elected officials in the fight up the river. Several Councilmembers have pledged to pay for buses to Albany this year.

Mayor de Blasio in particular has a crucial role to play. In his February 3 “State of the City” speech, he forcefully called on Albany to enact stronger rent regulations. While he did not specify what he meant by “stronger”—he did not specifically mention repealing vacancy deregulation—this is an issue most mayors have soft-pedaled, so the speech was encouraging.

However, de Blasio framed the issue as “protecting the one million rent-regulated apartments” we now have. This ignores the loss of some 300,000 to 400,000 apartments to deregulation in the last two decades alone, and the need to reregulate them and protect their occupants. It also ignores the fact that if we do not win repeal of the 1997 deregulation amendments and close other loopholes in the state rent laws, the city will lose far more affordable apartments over the next ten years than the 200,000 the mayor intends to build or preserve.

It is to be hoped that Bill de Blasio understands this—and that he will continue to use his bully pulpit to talk about the need for stronger rent and eviction protections. That is more important than whether he gets on a bus and goes with us to Albany. After all, most tenants are not even aware that the rent laws sunset this year, and the real-estate lobby counts on renters to remain unaware and apathetic. The mayor can be our most effective organizer. He will find a responsive and grateful audience.