Tenant Lobby Day

On Tuesday, May 21, over 2,000 tenants descended on Albany in what is being hailed as the “largest Tenant Lobby Day” in history. Seventy busloads of tenant activists arrived in the early afternoon, and soon the area near the state capitol was awash in a sea of pink and white “I’m a Tenant and I Vote” caps. The group was made up of residents of every type of housing, including lofts, rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments, Mitchell-Lama and public housing, and shelters. However, no one was acting on individual issues, but instead came together as one voice intent on preserving the rights of all New Yorkers to affordable housing.The importance of this particular lobbying day lies in the fact that major housing regulations are at risk of being compromised or disappearing altogether. The loft laws are set to expire June 30, and the rent-control and rent-stabilization laws are set to expire June 30, 1997. The New Yorkers loading the buses realized this urgency and their spirit remained at a fever pitch throughout the day.

The day began with an indoor rally moderated by Bernice Siegal of the Queens League of United Tenants and Scott Sommer of Met Council. Speakers included representatives from tenants’ rights groups and coalitions, among them Angelita Anderson of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, Mary Dormuth of the Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants, Marisol Diaz of Brooklyn Unidos, Lucy Johnson of Kennedy Square in Syracuse, Doris Rosenblum of the Mitchell-Lama Residents Coalition, and Harvey Weisenberg of the Long Beach Tenants Association, who just beat back a decontrol campaign. Elected officials appearing included Assemblymembers Frank Barbaro (D-Brooklyn), Brian McLaughlin and Melinda Katz (both D-Queens), Deborah Glick, Keith Wright, Scott Stringer, Ed Sullivan, Richard Gottfried, and Steven Sanders (all D-Manhattan); State Senators Franz Leichter and David Paterson (both D-Manhattan), and Roy Goodman (R-Manhattan); and Assembly Housing Committee chair Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn).

The most immediate issue on the agenda was renewing the loft laws. The Loft Tenant Protection Act, enacted in 1982, requires landlords to bring their buildings into compliance with building codes and allows them to pass the cost of compliance onto the tenants in the form of temporary rent surcharges. Once legalized, the lofts go under rent stabilization. The alternatives that Mayor Rudy Giuliani has proposed would weaken this law and set the stage for yet another blow four years down the road. Tenants need to support A.9860, an Assembly bill that would extend the current law for six years and strengthen enforcement. The fate of the loft laws will indicate how the rent control/rent stabilization laws will be handled next year.

State Senator Goodman covered many of the specific aspects of the rent control/rent stabilization laws and their impending expiration. “We would all be evicted from the great city of New York,” he cautioned, “if we allow these laws to expire or to get passed with weakening amendments.”

“Without weakening amendments” should become tenants’ mantra for the next year. It has been through weakening the rent-regulation laws — such as with the 1993 luxury-decontrol measure — that the Republicans have been poising them for complete abolition.

One potentially fatal weakening amendment — which Governor Pataki is in favor of — is vacancy decontrol. Vacancy decontrol allows owners to charge whatever they want whenever an apartment becomes vacant. It was first enacted in 1971 under Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Instead of solving the housing crisis, it deprived tenants of bargaining power and set off an epidemic of unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive rents and rental agreements. This fiasco brought about the enactment of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974.

There is legislation that would work to extend and improve the laws we have now. S.922 in the State Senate and A.7971 in the Assembly would extend the rent and co-op laws on an ongoing basis; S.914 and A.5451 would make rent hikes for major capital improvements a temporary surcharge; and S.1919 and A.2519 would strengthen protections in cooperative and condominium conversions.

Tenant organizers also stepped up with some impressive success stories. Shirley Weber of the Long Beach Tenants Coalition came in with a resounding David vs. Goliath tale. Landlords in the Long Island city had been warehousing apartments in an effort to artificially raise the vacancy rate over 5 percent and thus abolish local rent regulations; they were willing to accept vacancy decontrol as a “compromise.” Long Beach tenants quickly rallied into a huge mass of 1,500 and descended on City Hall. Their fervent organizing and final-hour efforts overturned what was essentially a done deal.

We left the meeting hall with Mitchell-Lama Residents Coalition representative Doris Rosenblum’s words ringing in our ears: “Once affordable housing goes, all housing goes — and make sure you register to vote!” We spent the rest of the afternoon attending prearranged meetings with legislators, who were both helpful and responsive.

As the buses pulled away, spirits were still high, even after an exhausting day. It was our first Tenant Lobby Day, so we hadn’t known what to expect. Most of us were fired up and more enthusiastic than we thought we would be.

As we learned in Long Beach, “it’s not over till it’s over.” The march towards Albany has begun for Showdown 1997.