Tenants Protest Senate Inaction on Rent Reform Bills

Thirteen tenant activists were arrested July 12 in a sit-in protesting state Senate Democrats’ failure to pass pro-tenant legislation this year.

As about 200 demonstrators chanted, “Fight, fight, fight! Housing is a right!,” the 13 blocked the entrance to 250 Broadway, where both the Senate and Assembly leadership have offices. The civil disobedience followed a rally across the street in City Hall Park. It was organized by the Real Rent Reform campaign, a coalition of labor unions, housing, community, and religious groups that includes Met Council.

“We’re not here to ask, we’re here to demand,” Leandra Reaquena of Make the Road New York told the rally before she sat down.

The others arrested included Michelle O’Brien of Housing Here and Now and Met Council staff members Mario Mazzoni and Rachel Rachlin. They were charged with disorderly conduct and released with desk appearance tickets a few hours later.

Democrats have pledged for years that when they regained a majority in the Senate, they would pass legislation to undo the damage done to rent controls and tenant protections over the last few decades. When they took control of the upper house in November 2008, tenant and housing activists had a package of bills ready. The Assembly has passed nearly all of these bills year after year, but they all languished and died in the Senate. 

The package includes bills that would stop the loss of rent-regulated apartments through vacancy decontrol, extend rent-stabilization protections to tenants whose landlords leave or have already left the Mitchell-Lama or project-based Section 8 subsidy programs, reduce the rent increases allowed for vacant or renovated apartments, and protect against abuses such as mass owner-occupancy evictions. 

The Senate Democratic leadership has promised that votes on these bills were imminent several times in the past year, most recently in the last week of June—but each time, they failed to do so, because two or three members of the Democratic conference threatened to withhold support. With Democrats holding only a two-seat majority, and Frank Padavan of Queens the only reliable tenant ally among the Republicans, two no votes among Democrats are enough to kill any of these bills.

“A few of the Democrats are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the real-estate lobby,” says veteran tenant activist Michael McKee, a Met Council board member who was among the group that was arrested. “They’re owned by the landlords, and everyone knows it. The question is, why is the Democratic leadership letting a small handful of its corrupt members call the shots and set the party’s agenda?”

The July 12 rally occurred more than two weeks after the official end of the 2010 legislative session, but the state government has yet to agree on a budget, which was due over three months ago. Members of Met Council and other housing groups have been calling the strongest allies of tenants in the Senate and asking them to withhold support for any budget deal until the Senate votes on significant pro-tenant legislation. Republicans have voted as a bloc on nearly every budget resolution, meaning that an abstention from even one Democrat could jeopardize any budget deal.
A few Democrats, including Craig Johnson of Long Island, Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, and Pedro Espada of the Bronx, are widely known to be beholden to landlord lobbyists. They have voted for pro-tenant bills when the leadership insisted on it, but have more often worked behind the scenes to prevent pro-tenant legislation from reaching the Senate floor.

Housing organizations have been calling on the Senate Democratic leadership to stop letting this small group set the agenda and to bring the priority tenant bills to a full vote. However, the leadership wants to hold off until after this fall’s elections, hoping they’ll emerge with a larger majority that gives less leverage to renegades like Espada.

Tenant groups reject this strategy. The protest on July 12 was meant as a signal that continued inaction may alienate a core Democratic base.
“Something drastic needed to be done—something strong, something powerful,” says Marcela Mitaynes, a tenant activist and organizer at the Sunset Park-based nonprofit Neighbors Helping Neighbors. The action was her first time participating in civil disobedience. The Senators, she says, “don’t realize the importance, or what’s at stake. We’ve already been waiting a long time—long enough. I come for a family of immigrants. I feel like my family was one of the last who could come to New York with no money. I don’t feel like you can do this anymore. The heart and the soul of our city is being driven out.”

Loft Law and Illegal Hotels Legislation Pass

Amid the general Albany gridlock, two important bills to preserve affordable housing did manage to pass.

The first was an expansion of the Loft Law, which extends rent-stabilization protections to tenants living in some buildings that were converted illegally by landlords from commercial or manufacturing uses. The bill makes the loft law permanent, so it doesn’t have to be renewed by the Legislature every few years, and expands its protections to loft tenants in neighborhoods such as Williamsburg and Greenpoint. However, Governor David Paterson agreed to exclude some industrial areas, such as Red Hook, Sunset Park, and Long Island City, in a compromise meant to appease Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was lobbying Paterson to veto the bill.

Then, the Assembly and Senate both passed a bill to curb the practice of renting out apartments as hotels. Operating hotels within apartment buildings zoned for residential use has long been illegal, but the practice became widespread when Internet travel bookings made marketing such units easy and enforcing the regulations against them hard. Operators of these hotels were further emboldened by a 2009 court ruling that stated that due to vaguely written statutes, such transient uses may be permissible if less than half of the units in a residential building are used for these purposes.

Housing Conservation Coordinators and other community organizations fought hard for legislation to clarify statutes and ban the operations outright. They argued that such hotels, which are usually far more lucrative for landlords than long-term rentals, deplete the city’s scarce supply of rental housing, and subject long-term tenants to the nuisance and possible danger of having strangers being given keys to their buildings every night.
At press time, Governor Paterson has not yet signed this bill, and he is being pressured to veto it by both landlord lobbyists and lobbyists working for the owners, operators, and brokers of these illegal hotels. Part of the efforts to defeat this bill has focused on spreading misinformation about its effects. It would not, as critics allege, infringe on the rights of individual tenants to sublet; in fact, it would not change the rules regarding subletting at all. It also would not harm small bed-and-breakfast owners, as it specifically exempts these businesses.

A Shifting Political Landscape?

As legislators get ready to head back to their districts to campaign for the fall elections, a number of tenant foes in the Democratic Party are looking increasingly vulnerable. Most prominently, Senate Housing Committee Chair Pedro Espada is being investigated by both federal and state agencies, and has been named in a civil suit that alleges he looted millions of dollars from the nonprofit health clinics he runs. Strong candidates have emerged to challenge him in the Democratic primary this September, and there is a separate effort underway among Democratic officials to boot him from the party entirely. Espada has demonstrated astounding resiliency, but most are betting that 2010 will be his last year in public office.

Court papers made public on June 24 revealed that Carl Kruger of Brooklyn is the subject of an FBI investigation for corruption. A probe that began two years ago alleges that he traded political favors for campaign contributions. Kruger has amassed the largest campaign coffers of any senator, at over $2 million, and he has been a major obstacle to efforts to reform the rent laws.

Equally important is the balance of power in Albany after the elections. Next year is when legislative districts will be redrawn to reflect the results of the 2010 U.S. Census. The main way the Republicans were able to hold the Senate for over 40 years, amid demographic and voting trends that would have long ago favored Democrats, was by carefully gerrymandering districts.

But after two years of Democratic control, tenants are asking the party’s leadership: Who put Democrats in the majority—us or the landlords? How much patience are tenants supposed to have? Are Democrats going to give tenants a reason to show up at the polls this November?