Tenants Tit for Tat with Cuomo Over Rents, Millionaire’s Tax on Million-Dollar Staircase

The million-dollar staircase in the state capitol building leads to many back rooms where the real deals in Albany politics are done. One of those deals—a new tax code that cut taxes on the rich, though less than what Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed through in last spring’s state budget—got done in a special session on December 8 with the usual “three men in a room.” 

But that afternoon, after the legislators beat it home, 60 New York City tenants and Occupy Albany participants turned the million-dollar staircase into a model of transparent democracy.

Occupy Albany, part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, began on Oct. 21 across the street from the capitol building as a tent city. It has become a thorn in the side of “Governor One Percent” as Cuomo is derisively called. Tenants and Occupy activists conducted a general assembly on the million-dollar staircase focusing on three issues: repealing vacancy decontrol, continuing the “millionaires’ tax,” and fair redistricting.  

Tenants occupied the million-dollar staircase, underneath a banner decrying the backroom deal that let the “millionaires’ tax,” a surcharge on income over $200,000 a year, expire. The surcharge brought in an estimated $5 billion a year in revenue, more than enough to cover the state’s budget deficit and prevent further cuts in funding for education, health care, and public transportation. Tenants and Occupy Albany decried the new tax code, because although it increases taxes on the people who make more than $2 million a year, the biggest tax breaks go to people who are still affluent, who make between $300,000 and $2 million, and it still leaves a $2.5 billion budget gap. Tenants urged using tax breaks for developers that the Legislature will consider in its upcoming session as a means to gain leverage for stronger rent laws. 

Occupy Albany has led marches for keeping the millionaire’s tax and has characterized Cuomo as pandering to his wealthy political patrons. Tensions have run high between the Occupy encampment and the governor. Cuomo has tried repeatedly to get the protestors evicted from public parkland. He was successful in keeping Occupy out of Lafayette Park, a state-owned park, but the city of Albany would not remove them from an adjacent municipal park. 

Despite the shortcomings of the new tax code, Colin Donnaruma of Occupy Albany claimed it as a partial victory, given Cuomo’s previous opposition to any new taxes. “If you look at how adamant he was two-three weeks ago and now, it has a lot to do with Occupy’s framing of the 99 percent—that started to connect with people,” Donnaruma said. 

 

Bennett Baumer is an organizer for Housing Conservation Coordinators.