Tenants Renew Pressure on Albany: ‘Tax the Rich, House the Poor’

Tenants are back for more! In the aftermath of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, the greatest tenant legislative victory in 70 years, the New York State tenant movement has launched a new campaign to win both new legal protections for renters and serious new money to begin solving the state’s housing crisis.

On January 9, the second day of the 2020 legislative session, more than 500 people from Long Island to Buffalo stormed the state Capitol with a simple demand: Tax the rich, house the poor. Using the hashtag #NYHomesGuarantee, they delivered a message to Governor Andrew Cuomo, the state Senate, and the Assembly that the state must allocate funds to repair public housing across the state, provide rent assistance to help homeless and near-homeless New Yorkers pay rent, and beef up the lax enforcement of our reinvigorated state rent laws.

This is a tall order, especially in a year when the state faces a reported budget deficit of $6.1 billion. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has called for increasing taxes to avoid cuts to vital programs, but Gov. Cuomo opposes raising taxes even on the rich. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins represents a conference with conflicting agendas. Many Democratic senators favor taxing the rich, but more moderate senators from the suburbs, including some elected last year in districts that could revert to the Republicans, fear being labeled “tax-and-spend Democrats.”

To win new revenues for housing and avoid damaging cuts to social programs, tenants must overcome the “we can’t afford it” syndrome that has gripped Albany for many years. (This syndrome hasn’t applied to cutting taxes on rich people and big corporations, or wasting billions of dollars on “economic development” projects that produce virtually no benefits for working New Yorkers.) Through the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance and its Housing Justice for All platform, Met Council has been working for months with many other groups to identify sources of funding that could start to make a dent in our lack of affordable housing and other needed programs. On January 21, a coalition of 52 organizations, including Met Council, sent a letter to Cuomo and the legislative leaders calling for an end to the austerity that Cuomo has imposed on the state since he took office in 2011 (see sidebar).

Cuomo’s executive budget, released Jan. 21, contains no significant funding to address the statewide housing crisis. “The only thing ‘unprecedented’ about Governor Cuomo’s housing plan is the scale of the crisis that his failed policies have created: 92,000 New Yorkers are homeless and millions more cannot afford their rent,” Housing Justice For All said in a statement, also singling out the governor’s neglect of public-housing residents. “Despite press release after press release, Cuomo has failed to deliver an agenda that will put tens of thousands of New Yorkers back into homes. But despite a $20 billion commitment to affordable housing and homelessness [in 2016], we still do not know what, if any, resources have translated to housing for the homeless.”

On the legislative front, the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance is focusing on two issues: prohibiting evictions without a specific “good cause,” and ending rent increases for major capital improvements, which the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act curtailed but did not eliminate. The HSTPA did not include the “good cause” language, and also failed to reregulate the 300,000 and 450,000 downstate apartments that were deregulated during the 25 years vacancy decontrol was in effect. These omissions have left hundreds of thousands of tenants—those in small buildings, in parts of the state without rent regulation, or in formerly regulated apartments in the New York City and its inner suburbs—without basic rent and eviction protections.

Some groups, including Tenants PAC, are also working to win changes to the Rent Guidelines Board setup, which was designed by the real-estate industry in collaboration with then- New York Mayor John Lindsay in the late 1960s. This system gives landlords an unfair advantage in the way annual rent adjustments are set. This reform is especially important now, as upstate municipalities are in the process of opting into the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974. Not reforming the RGB model would extend a flawed, pro-landlord system that has punished tenants statewide.

As great as last year’s victory was, it is important to remember what we did not win. Not only were deregulated apartments not put back under regulation, there was not even a modest rent rollback to mitigate the effects of 25 years of vacancy decontrol, high vacancy increases, and weak law enforcement. Even regulated rents are now much less affordable than they were before the state Legislature and the New York City Council enacted permanent vacancy decontrol.

Last year’s victory has resulted in a re-energized tenant movement. In the past, tenants would mobilize intensely when the rent laws were about to expire, but life would “go back to normal” once the laws were renewed. (The HSTPA made rent regulations permanent, so they would not have to be renewed every four to eight years.) But the moment HSTPA became law, Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance members began planning for the 2020 campaign.

Upstate tenants organizing for rent control and tenant protections and allying with downstate renters set the stage for the legislative victory. They made rent a statewide issue; no longer could state legislators treat it as something that only mattered in New York City. Some 17 municipalities upstate are now in the process of opting into the state rent-regulation system. The statewide applicability of rent and eviction protections will fundamentally change politics in New York.

But the HSTPA has also stimulated upstate landlords to get organized. Under the curious name “Under One Roof,” they organized a lobby day on January 13, when 175 landlords and real-estate brokers showed up in Albany to push for repeal of aspects of HSTPA and to oppose the good-cause eviction bill.

Co-op boards are also up in arms, angry over HSTPA provisions that benefit individual shareholders and persons seeking to purchase co-ops. Under the banner of “The War on Co-ops,” the Council of New York City Cooperatives launched a petition campaign calling on Albany to exempt cooperative buildings from Part M of HSTPA. This part provides extensive consumer protections to renters and co-op shareholders. Exempting co-ops would allow their boards to discriminate against applicants because they had been sued by their landlords, charge more than $50 in late-payment fees, and sue shareholders for legal fees that abusive co-ops impose on them—and use that as a ground for eviction. There is no reason coops should be exempt f rom these important consumer protections.

Co-op boards say they should be exempt from these provisions, arguing that while shareholders are tenants of the co-ops in which they live, they are also the owners. Senator John Liu and Assemblymember Ed Braunstein, both Queens D emo c r a t s , have already introduced a bill that would accomplish most of what the boards want. Many protenant legislators are susceptible to pressure from co-ops, because their residents turn out in great numbers on Election Day.

We have our job cut out for us. We have to fight back against attempts to water down last year’s victory, and to pass additional measures that we did not win last year.