Ossining Opts Into Rent Stabilization

On September 5, the trustees of the Westchester County village of Ossining voted to opt into the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974, in the first major expansion of rent stabilization in New York’s suburbs since 1981. 

The 3-2 vote by the village board came after more than ten years of campaigning by tenant advocates. Ossining corporation counsel Stuart Kahan said more than 1,800 apartments in the village of 25,000 people on the Hudson River would be eligible for coverage. 

Most municipalities in Nassau, Rockland, and Westchester counties enacted rent stabilization in the 1970s by opting into the ETPA. In the Village of Hempstead, on Long Island, it was delayed until 1981 because of Republican control of the local legislature. Since then, the only places in the three suburban counties to opt in have been two Westchester villages, Croton-on- Hudson in 2003 and Rye in 2006. But as their laws apply only to buildings with 50 or more units, they cover just one building in each village. 

Ossining’s ordinance covers buildings with six or more units, the lowest threshold allowed in state law. A survey commissioned by the trustees found the village’s vacancy rate to be 3.06 percent, well under the 5 percent threshold below which municipalities can declare the housing emergency needed to regulate rents. A 2016 survey had calculated a 3.09 percent rate. 

Rent stabilization was enacted after a three-hour public hearing, and over the strong opposition of Mayor Victoria Gearity. She claimed that rent stabilization would actually hurt tenants by making rental housing more unaffordable, and that it would cause homeowners to pay higher taxes. She criticized a study by Professor Elliot Sclar of Columbia University that found that that rent stabilization had had no impact on property-tax assessments in the 19 Westchester municipalities that have adopted it. 

Professor Sclar testified later on, explaining how his study had been constructed, to the mayor’s noticeable embarrassment. Board member Quantel Bazemore said after the hearing that the arguments raised by the two trustees who opposed rent stabilization sounded like they’d been ghostwritten by the real-estate lobby. 

An attempt to enact rent stabilization in 2016 fell short when tenant advocates were unable to win a third supporter on the board. This time, witnesses testifying for it included Sheila Vereen-Massengale, who said her landlord had evicted her because of her advocacy for ETPA; two local homeowners; the former head of a nonprofit affordable-housing developer; and a local minister. Unfortunately, many of the tenant leaders who testified in 2016 no longer live in Ossining because they have been displaced by large rent hikes. 

Most of the Ossining renters who testified were members of Community Voices Heard, which, spearheaded by Julia Solow, its lead Westchester organizer, has worked with tenants in the village for the last three years to help them win rent and eviction protections. CVH also brought in several outside experts to testify, including Tim Collins, former executive director of the New York City Rent Guidelines Board; Rob McCreanor, head attorney of the Worker Justice Center in Westchester; Mount Vernon tenant leader Tamara Stewart; and Genevieve Roche, former tenant member of the Westchester County Rent Guidelines Board. Jack Doyle, of New Settlement Apartments in the Bronx, and Marcela Mitaynes, of Neighbors Helping Neighbors/Fifth Avenue Committee, in Brooklyn, testified about how their nonprofit organizations successfully own and operate rent-stabilized housing. 

Gearity tried to delay the vote, but the three trustees who supported rent stabilization refused. “I am not willing to wait one more hour,” said John Codman. He, Bazemore, and Omar Herrera cast the deciding votes to pass it. 

To implement rent regulations, landlords will have to register their units with the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, offer leases to tenants, and in a few months, provide the DHCR with income and expense data to be used by the Westchester RGB. Kahan said the agency had offered to open a temporary office in Ossining to help with the transition. The village also needs to begin collecting annual fees of $10 per apartment from landlords to reimburse DHCR for the cost of administration. 

Afterwards, Ossining residents expressed their determination to keep organizing, push for full implementation, and make sure that the landlords do not persuade the trustees to reverse the vote next year. Codman is not running for re-election this fall, and the Democrat running for his seat is Manuel Quezada, a landlord.