albany

Far-Reaching Rent Reforms Resist Albany Consensus

Brooklyn-based State Sen. Julia Salazar speaks about rent regulation at the Rosa Luxemburg Siftung in Midtown Manhattan, April 11, 2019.
Brooklyn-based State Sen. Julia Salazar speaks about rent regulation at the Rosa Luxemburg Siftung in Midtown Manhattan, April 11, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Newcomers who helped Democrats seize control of the state Senate won over voters from The Bronx to Brooklyn with bold vows to supercharge tenant protections when rent laws expire in June.

But it’s the Assembly that’s come out of the gate with a leadership-backed package of bills to shore up New York’s loophole-laden system regulating rents in about 966,000 New York City apartments. That’s left the Senate to play catch-up with potentially more sweeping reforms — including universal rent regulation, state-wide.

“It’s common sense. It’s not unreasonable, but here it’s perceived as really radical,” freshman Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) said at a Manhattan housing panel Thursday.

With Democrats controlling both houses of the Legislature for the first time in years, hopes are high among tenants activists for strengthened rent regulations. But differing visions and a still-strong real estate lobby add to uncertainty over the fate of the highly charged issue.

The proposals announced last week by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) would eliminate key opportunities landlords currently have to increase rents at levels higher than otherwise allowed – and to remove vacated apartments from regulation once rents pass a certain threshold.

The Assembly measures — largely mirroring proposals from Gov. Andrew Cuomo — would reverse past actions by the Legislature to dilute the 1974 law that established the state’s rent regulation system. More than 150,000 apartments have dropped out of rent regulation since 1994, statistics compiled by the city Rent Guidelines Board show.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is confronting demands to go even further to protect tenants.

New Lawmaker’s ‘Radical Idea’

Salazar – a Democratic socialist who has said she believes in abolishing private property and attacked the senator she unseated as beholden to landlords – is pushing a bill that would pave the way for universal rent control in New York.

Her measure would extend controls to most rental apartments in the state, save for owner-occupied residences with three or fewer units. The proposal would require landlords to renew tenants’ leases with few exceptions, such as nonpayment of rent.

Any rent increases would be limited to 1.5 times the regional Consumer Price Index, or less than 2.5% based on the current New York City-region CPI.

“Even the term ‘universal rent control,’ when we use it, it’s sensational to people,” Salazar said, speaking alongside a German housing official from Berlin, which is weighing a proposed five-year rent freeze.

“No, what we’re suggesting is that tenants have basic protections from eviction, displacement and homelessness, and this in and of itself is a radical idea,” Salazar said.

Far from fringe, Salazar’s measure is co-sponsored by 15 other New York City Senate Democrats out of the city’s delegation of 23, notably Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris (D-Queens).

While there’s an equivalent bill in the Assembly sponsored by Pamela Hunter (D-Syracuse), it wasn’t included in that chamber’s rent regulation package – something Salazar called “perplexing” on Twitter.

“People right now in the Legislature — some who are skeptical or outright oppositional to the good-cause eviction bill and to substantial rent reforms — are trying to silence it before we can even have a public conversation about it or public discourse about it,” Salazar said Thursday.

A spokesperson for Salazar said she was “not trying to single anyone out publicly,” when asked to clarify whom she’s referring to, but that her remarks were aimed at the Assembly.

A Still-Mighty Industry

While the real estate industry no longer maintains the same grip it had when the Republican Party controlled the state Senate, its influence is still palpable.

Despite a Democratic Legislature and broad support in Albany, the real estate industry staved off a proposal in late March to tax second homes in New York City worth more than $5 million. Freshman Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx) — another supporter of the Salazar bill — called that “insane” at a forum in the Bronx Thursday night.

“Lobbying interests and efforts killed the pied-a-terre tax in our state budget. That is, in my opinion, negligence. It is unacceptable,” she said.

The Real Estate Board of New York, a powerful industry trade group, already is warning of catastrophic consequences of a proposal already endorsed by the Assembly’s Democratic leadership: eliminating the allowances for landlords to charge tenants for updates to dwellings.

Cuomo has proposed to limit – but not scrap – the landlords’ allowances, known as major capital improvements and individual apartment improvements.

“The proposals we have seen to date would not address the affordable housing crisis and in fact would put hundreds of thousands of rent regulated units at risk of severe financial distress within a short period of time,” REBNY’s president, John Banks, said in a statement.

“This would negatively impact housing quality for tenants and dramatically reduce the City’s property tax collections.”

Jay Martin, the executive director of the landlord lobby Community Housing Improvement Program, warned the measures would “force small property owners out of business and plunge our housing stock into NYCHA-like disarray.”

Biaggi suggested that landlords’s claims were overblown.

“We are already seeing myths and parade of horrible situations and fear tactics being used to scare certain legislators and give them false information,” she said.

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