Corey Johnson Pledges to Push Albany on Rent Laws

New City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has vowed to join tenant advo- cates in a campaign to pressure the state to strengthen its rent-regulation laws.

“Working with my part- ners in state government, I pledge to help lead the fight to press Albany to not only renew our rent laws, but to finally—once and for all—close the loopholes that are allowing landlords to deregulate thousands of affordable apartments every year,” he declared in a speech at his swearing-in Jan. 28. (This elicited a standing ovation.)

Johnson is now in his second term representing Council District 3, which stretches from Greenwich Village to the Upper West Side. He was elected speak- er, the second most powerful political position in the city after the mayor, by his colleagues in January.

On March 6, he and Housing and Buildings Committee chair Robert Cornegy (D-Brooklyn) met with 30 tenant advocates from 24 tenant and community or- ganizations from all parts of the city to plan strategy to win stronger rent laws. As Tenant/Inquilino went to press, the City Council was scheduled to renew the city rent-control and rent- stabilization laws on March 21, which it must do every three years.

But Corey Johnson understands that the real fight is in Albany, because New York City lacks home-rule powers over rents and eviction protections. The state rent and co-op laws come up for renewal next year, and the state legislature and governor have the power to strengthen or weaken them—and if they weaken them, the city is prohibited from enacting its own stronger laws. The outcome depends on tenant organization and mobilization, and Johnson wants to help activate thousands of tenants.

Tenants are demanding action on three crucial bills. One would repeal vacancy deregulation and reregulate the apartments that have been lost since it went into effect in the 1990s, and the other two would repeal the preferential-rent loophole and the 20 percent statutory vacancy bonus. (See sidebar for descriptions.)

Tenant advocates and Johnson understand the need to pressure Albany this year, before the legislative session ends in June and before the statewide elections on November 6. When the rent laws were last renewed in 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders set their expiration for June 15, 2019—so their renewal would not come until seven months after the 2018 elections, a deliberate move to prevent tenant groups from making it an issue in the campaign. Tenants must force Albany to deal with this issue in the next three months, and Johnson is on board with that strategy.

Even if we do not win any legislative improvements this year, making rent regulations an election- year issue will give us more leverage for 2019. As Johnson told the March 6 meeting, this must be seen as a 15-month campaign to build the pres- sure on Albany. He pledged that he and his staff will meet with the citywide coalition once a month to develop strategy.

“Our schedules as elected officials are crazy,” he said. “We are bombarded daily with different issues, pulled in multiple directions. But I am going to make time for this.”

Johnson said he plans to reach out to elected officials in other parts of the state, including the three suburban counties of Nassau, Westchester, and Rockland, the only other jurisdictions with rent regulation, to involve them in the campaign. A lobby visit to Albany in May, with Johnson and other Councilmembers, is also in the works.

While previous Council speakers have supported pro-tenant legislation, none has ever engaged in a day-to-day campaign to restore our rent laws. By using his bully pulpit and taking such a forthright stand, Johnson can push other elected officials toward acting in our direction, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Cuomo.