State Senate Stiffs Tenants

Tenant groups have lobbied the New York State Senate intensely since the Democrats took control in January 2009, urging it to enact a package of legislation to control housing costs and increase tenants’ rights. On Aug. 3, we got our result. The Senate rejected two of the least controversial bills in the package and took no action on the others.

On a day when more than 50 tenant supporters traveled to Albany—four vanloads from New York City and a carload from Westchester County—the Senate defeated both bills without debate. One, sponsored by Daniel Squadron (D-Manhattan/Brooklyn), would have reduced the amount that landlords can raise rents for individual apartment improvements, and tightened administrative oversight over such increases. The other, sponsored by Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), would have closed the “preferential rent” loophole that lets landlords raise rents by several hundred dollars when rent-stabilized tenants who pay less than the legal maximum renew their leases.

The Squadron bill lost by 33-27. Six Democrats voted against it: Darrel Aubertine of the North Country; Brian Foley of Suffolk County; Craig Johnson of Nassau County; Carl Kruger of Brooklyn; William Stachowski of Buffalo; and David Valesky of Syracuse. The same six voted against the Krueger bill, along with Pedro Espada of the Bronx.

All Republicans voted no except Frank Padavan of Queens. Marty Golden of Brooklyn, who has almost four times the number of rent-regulated units in his district as Padavan, was conveniently absent.

The two bills were “laid aside,” a technical procedure that lets them be voted on again later this year. The Senate Democratic leadership had told tenants that they were part of an eight-bill package that would pass that day. (The eight bills did not include such key items as the repeal of vacancy decontrol, making major-capital improvement rent increases temporary, and giving New York City the power to set its own rent laws.) But late in the afternoon, tenants were told that there were not enough votes to pass them. The leadership reluctantly allowed these two bills to be brought up for a vote because Krueger and Squadron insisted on it, even though it was clear that they would lose.

Tom Duane (D-Manhattan), at the end out on a limb by himself, disagreed with that decision, and thought that his colleagues should have held out until Democratic leader John Sampson found the 32 votes to pass the package.

The Best Legislature Landlords Can Buy

In words of one syllable, we got screwed.

There is no reason to assume that Sampson made any effort to line up votes for us. If he had, we might have lost a couple of Democratic votes—not the seven who voted against tenants.

Counting to 32

Without making excuses for anyone, we must recognize that it is hard to get 32 votes for anything when the Senate is made up of 31 Democrats, 29 Republicans, and party-switcher Pedro Espada. (One seat has been vacant since the death of Rockland County Republican Thomas Morahan in July.)

If the Democrats come back next year with a bigger majority, this will be less of a problem.

John Sampson

Fundamentally, Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson failed to deliver on his promises to tenants. While he had told us that he could not pass the bill to repeal vacancy decontrol, he repeatedly promised us to pass some of our significant bills this year, as a “down payment,” and to do more later, after the election.

It is no doubt true that Sampson could not assemble the 32 votes needed to repeal vacancy decontrol, the most controversial of our bills. But it has been clear for some time that he did not want to pass the repeal bill, for fear that it would inflame the real-estate lobby and cause them to go all out to help the Republicans reclaim the Senate majority. He also wants the landlords to continue giving money to the Senate Democrats.

In late June, Sampson called representatives of the Real Estate Board of New York and the Rent Stabilization Association to his office, where he told them that the Senate was going to pass some pro-tenant legislation and that they would simply have to live with it.

But because Sampson was aware that these two groups, REBNY in particular, have influence over how three Democratic senators vote, he and his “enforcer,” staff member Paul Rivera, negotiated with the landlords for weeks over the content of the tenant package.

Attempts by some senators to include the Major Capital Improvement reform bill, which would make MCI rent increases temporary surcharges, were shot down. Instead, the landlords supposedly signed off on the Squadron bill as less damaging to them. The preferential-rent reform bill was initially part of the package, then taken out, then was included at the last minute.

Some senators and some staff repeatedly assured us that this package was definitely going to happen, that Sampson had promised, and that he had the ability to get REBNY and RSA to sign off on it, even though they did not want to see any of our bills pass.

Other senators and staff agreed with us that any attempt to get the real-estate lobby to agree to a package of tenant bills was a waste of time. Instead of negotiating with the landlords, Sampson could have better employed his energy lining up the votes.

The three senators whose votes are most controlled by the real-estate lobby all have districts that include rent-regulated apartments. There are 72,000 in Pedro Espada’s, the second highest number of any Senate district, and 38,000 in Carl Kruger’s. Craig Johnson’s Nassau County district probably has only a couple of thousand rent-regulated units left, after 13 years of vacancy decontrol.

Sampson might not have been able to influence Johnson’s vote, but many believe that if he really wanted Espada and Kruger to vote for these bills, he could have forced them to do it.

As for the four Democratic Senators from areas of the state that do not have rent regulation, these are precisely votes that a leader should have been able to deliver. If Sampson had made it clear that he needed their votes, they almost certainly would have voted yes. Instead, once it was known that the bills were going down, Aubertine, Foley, Valesky and Stachowski felt free to vote no.

Why couldn’t Sampson get a couple of additional Republicans to vote for the package? For example, he appointed George Maziarz of Rochester as a committee chair.

Jeff Klein

Deputy Majority Leader Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) voted yes. But Johnson, Foley, Aubertine, Stachowski, and Valesky, five of the Democrats who voted no, are “Kleiniacs”—a bloc of moderate to conservative senators who look to Klein for leadership, and who would no doubt prefer that he replace Sampson as leader.

Did Jeff Klein try to influence any of them to get them to vote yes? It seems not.

Marty Dilan

During the roll call, Marty Dilan (D-Brooklyn) was not in his seat. A senator later said that he was going to vote no, on instructions from Assembly Housing Committee chair Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn), but that he was persuaded to “take a walk” (leave the Senate chamber) so he would be recorded in the affirmative. Two other senators have confirmed this account.

While it is well known that Lopez controls Dilan’s vote, the question is why would Vito Lopez want Dilan to vote no?

Our Friends

This was also a failure of pro-tenant Senators. Some tried, but there never was any coherent group effort to push our agenda forcefully.

With a few exceptions (Liz Krueger, Kevin Parker, Tom Duane, Bill Perkins, and Daniel Squadron), our friends are not really paying attention to our issues. They will vote the right way, of course, but they are distracted by a lot else and not pushing our agenda. We have not applied enough heat to make them into active tenant advocates.

Sampson’s failure to schedule a conference discussion on tenant bills made it harder to move them. If there had been such a discussion, it would have been a chance for the pro-tenant Senators to influence their colleagues. It would also have been a signal that the leadership took the tenant package seriously.

In the end, we were just one of many unfinished issues, as the exhausted Senators passed the final piece of the budget and prepared to head home—with the paychecks that they and the Assembly could not legally collect until the budget was approved.

The tenant movement— now and the future

We have to accept some of the responsibility for this defeat. We worked hard, with inadequate resources. But we did not assemble the kind of political power that could have overcome the opposition. We need to have some honest discussion about this, and what it means for the future.

We should also remember that some good things were accomplished this year:

  • The new, expanded Loft Law achieved by Vito Lopez and Marty Dilan (yes, Dilan actually deserves credit for this one);
  • The bill to crack down on illegal hotels, thanks to Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Dick Gottfried;
  • A bill to outlaw discrimination in renting based on tenants’ sources of income, sponsored by Squadron and Assemblymember Jonathan Bing (but vetoed by Governor Paterson); and
  • Most amazingly, the bill to stop the administration of Mayor Mike Bloombucks from charging low-income people with AIDS or HIV more than 30 percent of their income for rent, a bill carried by Tom Duane and Assemblymember Deborah Glick. (At press time, Paterson had not yet signed it.)

It is almost certain that none of this could have happened if the Republicans were still the majority in the Senate.

Another way to look at this is that we made some advances around the periphery of the rent laws. Cracking that nut—reversing the phaseout of rent and eviction protections—will be much more difficult.