What Will It Take to Force Andrew Cuomo to Strengthen Rent Protections?

Governor Andrew Cuomo gave his eighth annual State of the State speech on January 3, and once again, he said not a word about the need to strengthen rent andeviction protections. Even in years when the rent laws are set to expire and must be renewed, Cuomo avoids the subject, as he did in 2015.

Cuomo spoke for 92 minutes. He launched numerous new proposals, spent a good deal of time rehashing his “progressive” accomplishments, and laid out national themes clearly designed to appeal to Democratic voters in a presidential primary two years from now. First, of course, he has to get through 2018, when he hopes to be elected to a third term.

A couple of hours before politicians and lobbyists assembled in the state convention center to listen to the governor pat himself on the back, a couple of hundred protesters braved the frigid Albany air to call attention to his failure to support stronger tenant protections, or to offer a meaningful program to end the homelessness crisis. After marching and chanting down State Street from a nearby church, they rallied at the state capitol, where 30 of them were arrested for blocking the doors in a civil-disobedience action.

Organized under the banner of Housing Justice for All, the action drew tenants and homeless New Yorkers from across the state, including New York City, Westchester, Long Island, Albany, Rochester, and Binghamton. HJFA is the first grass-roots campaign to bring upstate and downstate advocates together during the seven years Cuomo has been governor. This is a positive development, as only a statewide alliance can assemble enough political muscle to win legislation. New York City activists often fail to understand this; even if every single legislator from the five boroughs supported us, we would have only 40 percent of the votes needed to pass a bill in either the state Senate or Assembly.

Cuomo’s staff was taking no chances on disruptions. They erected a wall of blue curtains ten feet high in the concourse between the capitol and the convention center, so that people walking to his show were shielded from view. This prompted many people to ask, “What is he afraid of?”

How Cuomo has shafted tenants

Andrew Cuomo has never expressed support for any of the changes needed to repair and restore our rent laws after the weakening amendments enacted by the state in 1993, the City Council in 1994, and the state in 1997 and 2003.

Does he support repeal of vacancy deregulation? No. Instead, he has increased the monthly rent threshold for deregulation, raising it from $2,000 to $2,500 in 2011, and to $2,700 in 2015. This is a meaningless change, because there is so little enforcement that landlords can easily deregulate apartments illegally.

Does he support the re-regulation of the apartments that have been deregulated since 1994, when the City Council enacted vacancy deregulation, and 1997, when the state legislature extended it to Westchester, Nassau and Rockland counties and made it impossible for the city to repeal? No.

Does he support repeal of the 20 percent “statutory vacancy bonus,” which landlords can add to the legal rent when an apartment turns over, and which has been a major factor in driving up rents? Does he support ending the preferential-rent loophole, which allows landlords to hit tenants with rent hikes of hundreds of dollars when their leases come up for renewal? Does he support restoring the rent registration system to its pre-1993 state, when there were serious penalties for landlords who failed to register their apartments annually, or filed fraudulent registrations?

No. No. No. And the list goes on.

When challenged, Cuomo insists that he is pro-tenant, claiming that the piddling amendments he won in 2011 and 2015 were great victories for renters. But there is no one in the tenant movement who believes him.

When challenged, Cuomo blames the Senate, controlled by Republicans who are beholden to the New York City real-estate lobby, for his inability to enact stronger rent laws. But he has never lifted a finger to help the Democrats capture the majority.

Worse, he has allowed the Senate Republicans to gerrymander district lines to favor their incumbents. He engineered the alliance between them and the Independent Democratic Conference, the group of renegade Dems who have enabled the GOP to remain in control even in years when a majority of senators were elected as Democrats. This has allowed him to resist progressive policies that might tarnish his reputation as a centrist Democrat.

Now that he plans to run for president—which of course he denies—Cuomo wants to mend fences with voters on the left. Apparently, this does not include tenants. He certainly wants his real-estate donors to stick with him.

What it will take

Tenants chanted and blocked the entrance to the state capitol in a civil-disobedience action before Cuomo’s State of the State speech Jan. 3. Waiting to be arrested, left to right, are Cea Weaver of NYCC, Marcela Mitaynes of Tenants PAC, Andrea Shapiro of Met Council, and Derrick Owens of NYCC

 Tenants must keep the pressure on Cuomo, and not let up. We must be militant, in-your-face, angry.

If Cuomo has a progressive opponent in the Democratic primary set for September, tenants should join their campaign. With the governor always sensitive to shifts in the political ground under him, a strong Democratic primary opponent could work miracles in getting him to support pro-tenant legislation.

Tenants must also keep the pressure on members of the IDC, many of whom represent districts with large numbers of rent-regulated and other tenants. At least four of them seem guaranteed to have primary challenges: Jose Peralta of Queens, Jesse Hamilton of Brooklyn, Marisol Alcantara of upper Manhattan, and IDC leader Jeff Klein, whose district stretches from the Bronx into Westchester County. All of them are guilty of helping their real-estate donors kill tenant legislation. If even one IDC member goes down in September, their scam will begin to unravel.

The rent laws next come up for renewal in June 2019—a date deliberately chosen because it will come after the next election. We cannot afford to wait until then. We must force Albany to pass pro-tenant legislation this year, an election year. If tenants simply sit on their hands and wait for 2019, we will be in serious trouble then.