Met Council to Lead Expanded Real Rent Reform Campaign

In the spring of 2015, New York City’s rent-regulation laws will come up for renewal again. To prepare for that, this June, the Real Rent Reform Campaign—a coalition of approximately 75 tenant associations, labor unions, community groups, and the faith-based community—will launch an ambitious initiative to recruit and train 100,000 new members and support member organizations. 

Their intent is to win a substantial victory for tenants by strengthening the laws that protect apartment renters in New York City and three suburban counties. These laws both limit rent increases and prevent landlords from evicting tenants or refusing to renew their lease without a specific cause. Metropolitan Council on Housing, New York’s oldest tenant union, will coordinate the effort.

The Real Rent Reform Campaign, commonly known as R3, was founded in late 2010 to try to get the rent-regulation laws strengthened when they last came up for renewal in the state Legislature, in June 2011. The campaign did admirable work and fought valiantly to overcome the powerful landlord lobby, organizing a rally of 750 tenants outside of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York City office, numerous demonstrations in both New York City and Albany, and civil-disobedience actions that involved community legislative leaders. 

Leaders in Albany renewed the rent-regulation laws and made two changes worthy of note: They did not immediately renew the 421a or J-51 tax-break programs (which are giveaways to landlords and developers), and they raised the destabilization threshold—the rent at which a vacant rent-stabilized apartment loses its regulated status—from $2,000 to $2,500 a month. 

By raising the destabilization threshold by a small amount instead of repealing vacancy decontrol, however, Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature did little to stop the slow death of New York City’s most significant affordable-housing program. Over the last 15 years, nearly 300,000 once-affordable housing units in the downstate region have been lost to deregulation when they became vacant. So in the end, tenants won a draw with the real-estate lobby, but were left with no real victory.

“There was nothing wrong with our tactics,” Michelle O’Brien, one of R3’s leaders, said afterward. “We simply weren’t big enough.” 

However, the late start—R3 was not organized until less than a year before the rent laws expired—hampered the tenant movement, considering the size and strength of its opponent. The new campaign is an effort to prevent that from happening again. 

R3 is currently planning its strategy for the campaign, planning how to build a much stronger tenant movement by expanding the number of participating organizations, training members of those organizations to raise funds and recruit, and strengthening community organizations in New York City. Member organizations will conduct outreach sessions throughout their neighborhoods in the city and suburban counties—at shops, town-hall meetings, rallies, and farmers’ markets—targeting both rent-regulated and market-rate tenants, as well as sympathetic homeowners.

This grass-roots effort will provide funds for a media, research, and polling campaign to educate the general public about the merits of the rent-regulation system and exposing the myths propagated by the landlord lobby. It will conduct and publicize housing studies and research to demonstrate the fact that the average rent-stabilized tenant is not a wealthy Manhattanite, as the landlord lobby has misrepresented.

This initiative could not come at a more critical time. Under the Bloomberg administration, the number of homeless people in New York City has skyrocketed to a record 50,000, as has the average cost of renting an apartment. Between now and 2015 New York City will get a new mayor, a new City Council speaker, and a significant crop of new Councilmembers. 

The last 20 years of housing policy in New York have been dictated by free-market ideology, relying on wealthy developers and landlords to “create affordable housing” by offering tax giveaways as incentives. For example, Governor Cuomo’s plan to create and preserve 14,000 affordable housing units will cost $1 billion—not nearly as cost-effective as the rent-regulation system.

If the tenant movement becomes bigger and stronger, we can effect real change at City Hall and the state capital in Albany. We can ensure that the largest stock of affordable housing—rent-regulated apartments—is protected. We can expand protections to market-rate tenants. We are at a crossroads. In the near future, New York City could become a place only inhabitable by the wealthy. With a lot of hard work, we can ensure that the city is for us all.