Bill targets vacancy decontrol

By Aline Reynolds

Financial District resident Kathleen Moore nearly lost her Cedar St. apartment to tumbling debris on 9/11. Come June, she might lose it again unless the state reinstates rent-regulation laws.

Moore and thousands of other residents Downtown and citywide rely on stabilized rents to make ends meet. On June 15, the state’s rent-stabilization laws, which have been in place for decades to protect low- and middle-income families from homelessness, are set to expire. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, along with other elected officials and housing advocates, is fighting for the laws to be extended and strengthened.

The primary objective of a new bill, already introduced in the Assembly, is to keep tenants from being driven out of their homes.

“Rent hikes are quickly eroding our stock of affordable housing. The implications for the future of our middle-class families cannot be more dire,” Silver said at a press conference at City Hall on Sunday. The city, he continued, would become “the largest and most exclusive gated community on the planet” if any more affordable housing is lost.

Downtown thrives on its diverse population, thanks largely to affordable housing, the speaker said. The bill he is co-sponsoring would help protect residences like Tribeca’s Independence Plaza North from falling out of rent stabilization, which occurs when landlords deregulate vacant apartments that naturally inch toward market-rate levels.

The Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit group that assists vulnerable populations, just released “The New Housing Emergency,” a study that reveals the severe shortage in affordable housing across the city. According to the study, upward of 10,000 rent-regulated apartments are lost in the city each year from vacancy decontrol, capital-improvement rent increases and costly individual apartment improvements.

More than 48,000 apartments below 14th St. were rent regulated as of 2008, according to census data compiled by C.S.S. Yet, according to the data, the area lost 13,200 apartments affordable to middle-income households — or 16 percent of the number in 2000 — and 9,000 apartments affordable to low-income households, or 17 percent of the 2000 stock.

According to Tom Waters, a housing policy analyst at C.S.S. and the study’s lead researcher, the current system lends itself to deregulation, since any vacant apartments can easily become deregulated. Waters said Manhattan has been hit hardest by vacancy decontrol.

“As a result, we’re having some of the fastest losses, both at the low-income and the middle-income points,” he noted.

At this point, nearly all apartments in Manhattan below 96th St. become deregulated upon tenants’ vacancy, according to Waters.

“That’s why there are hardly any vacant apartments on the market that will be stabilized for a tenant moving in,” he explained.

David Jones, C.S.S.’s chief executive officer, referred to the “worst recession in living memory” as a large contributor to the hardships working-class families citywide are suffering today. One-third of all New Yorkers, he noted, are living in poverty.

“We’re starting to see the problems that low- and moderate-income families are having, just keeping their heads above water, being in the position so they don’t become homeless,” said Jones. “Anything we can do at this point to make sure those New Yorkers maintain their housing at a reasonable rate will be critical, not only for them and their families, but for the very fabric of this state.”

The pressures on the city’s existing affordable housing stock are dangerously high, according to Assemblymember Vito Lopez, chairperson of the Assembly’s Housing Committee. He noted the large discrepancy between the vacancy among market-rate apartments and affordable apartments.

“Unless we put this bill in and make adjustments that are critical to the survival of affordable housing, I think we missed the boat,” Lopez said.

The bill would purportedly protect these families by repealing vacancy decontrol, reducing allowable rent increases and capping major capital improvement charges. The law would also halve the amount by which a landlord could raise rents following a vacancy, and put deregulated units back into rent regulation. The legislation would also increase high-income and high-rent deregulation thresholds and allow New York City to bolster its rent protections beyond the state’s purview.

The law, however, would not only protect the poor from losing their homes, but also the middle class, according to Downtown residents who attended the press conference in support of the bill.

“Not everyone who lives in Battery Park City earns a million dollars a year,” said Linda Belfer, a B.P.C. resident and Community Board 1 member. She noted there are middle-class families in the neighborhood, plus others who wholly depend on stabilized housing.

Added Tom Goodkind, chairperson of the C.B. 1 Affordable Housing Task Force, “Many of our area’s founders dating back from the 1960’s are still renting in affordable artist loft spaces, and the establishment of our community may not have occurred at all without the New York State Mitchell-Lama housing of Southbridge Towers and I.P.N.”

Silver said he anticipates the bill will have success in the state Senate, and is confident “Governor Cuomo will join the Assembly in making a priority about enhancement of rent regulation as we go forward.”