Home Rule Campaign Kicks Off

With mayor-elect Bill DeBlasio having pledged to lead the fight, Met Council kicked off a campaign to restore New York City’s home rule over housing laws with a meeting at Judson Memorial Church on Nov. 16. Dozens of tenants and activists from across the city, including delegations from Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan and Lefrak City in Queens, reform Democrats from the Upper West Side and anarchists from the Lower East Side, discussed a broad strategy to raise the visibility and volume of this demand in the coming year. The rent laws come up for renewal again in 2015.

The campaign seeks to repeal the 1971 “Urstadt law,” a state law that prohibits New York City from passing stronger rent regulations than the state’s, and left the city powerless to protect renters here when the state legislature drastically weakened regulations in 1993, 1997, and 2003. By preventing the city from stemming the loss of thousands of affordable apartments every year, it also negates any gains from creating new housing. As one mayoral candidate said earlier this year, “it’s like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it.”

The home-rule campaign will proceed on several fronts. One is to mobilize communities around the city to join the call through a series of town hall meetings, in partnership with local elected officials. Planning is underway in Manhattan and Queens. Another major focus will be the City Council, where many new progressive members will take seats on Jan. 1. The Council’s Progressive Caucus has made home rule part of its platform. 

A legal committee is also being established to look at challenging the Urstadt law’s constitutionality. Article IX of the state constitution prohibits the legislature from passing laws that affect the property or welfare of only one locality, unless that locality requests it—and New York City did not request the Urstadt law. State courts upheld the law in 1973, in a convoluted decision that said it did not affect the property or welfare of people in New York City. Forty years later, with the city’s housing crisis continuing to spiral out of control, it may be time to ask the courts to take another look.

Steve Max, cofounder of the Midwest Academy, which trains community organizers, attended the meeting and said it appears that the elements for a successful campaign are present. The fight to restore home rule must reach beyond the million families currently living in rent-regulated apartments, he added: It must also appeal to tenants living in apartments which have been deregulated; people who have lost Mitchell-Lama, Section 8, or other subsidies; renters in small buildings; people being foreclosed from their homes; and those living in public housing.

Unless the Urstadt law is struck down by the courts, however, restoration of home rule will have to be won in Albany. The Assembly has long supported home rule, passing numerous “one-house bills” over the years. These all died in the state Senate, where gerrymandered districts, weak campaign-finance laws, and a rene-gade group of four “independent” Democrats have enabled upstate and suburban Republicans hostile to rent regulations to retain control. New York’s mayors have not helped: Rudolph Giuliani did not support home rule for the city, and Michael Bloomberg opposed it. Bill de Blasio could change that dynamic if he keeps his promise to lead the fight.

 

To get involved in the fight to restore New York’s home rule over rent and eviction protections, contact Met Council at active@metcouncil.net or call (212) 979-6238.