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New Yorkers argue rent law reforms at Assembly hearing

Lawmakers heard hours of testimony at a hearing on nine bills designed to bolster rent regulations.

Tenant association leaders Sue Susman, left, and Beverly

Tenant association leaders Sue Susman, left, and Beverly Newsome urge the Assembly to pass measures strengthening rent regulations. Photo Credit: Jeff Reed

Scores of New Yorkers, landlords and tenant advocates packed an Assembly hearing room in Manhattan and weighed in on the future of the state’s rent regulation laws.

For hours on Thursday, state lawmakers heard tenants detail how landlords have used maintenance projects to artificially inflate rent and owners counter that passing off the costs of such improvements is crucial. 

The hearing, one of several planned on nine measures aiming to bolster the rent regulations, came as those protocols are slated to expire June 15. Although the government has regularly renewed the regulations, tenant advocates are angling to include several reforms, now that the State Senate has a Democratic majority.

Two of the bills sparked the most debate. One would no longer allow landlords to recoup the cost of building-wide renovations — called a major capital improvement (MCI) — by raising rent; and a second would forbid a similar practice for work in any given unit — called an individual apartment improvement (IAI).

Owners sometimes perform unneeded work to bolster rent and move rates closer to the threshold at which a unit can move into the private market, currently $2,774.76 a month, tenants argued. Since 1993, the city has lost more than 150,000 rent-stabilized units because their monthly bills surpassed the deregulation threshold, according to the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

In Central Park Gardens, an apartment renovation included the installation of a $1,200 doorknob, which was then passed onto the tenant, according to Sue Susman, president of the development's tenant association. 

“IAIs are really too tempting of a scam for most owners to pass up,” Susman said. “They reward landlords for higher costs.”

Her landlord, Stellar Management, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Tenants also argue the ability to permanently charge more following an MCI or IAI benefits owners long after they have recovered the cost of their investment.

Roberto Rodriguez, of South Williamsburg, said he has watched many of his neighbors leave, only to see their former homes renovated and rented out at far-higher market rates.

“I want you all to look at my face. I can be the next homeless person in New York City, if you don’t act in the next couple of months,” Rodriguez said. 

Still landlords rely on MCIs and IAIs to fund crucial upkeep, according to Paimaan Lodhi, from the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents property owners. Lodhi noted that landlords are also dealing with rising property tax bills, and many struggle to find funding for new roofs and fire escapes.

“It is undoubted that there will be some property owners who can’t afford to do those repairs without those MCIs,” Lodhi testified.

Several lawmakers discussed the need to improve rent regulations, including Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), who said the rental market has few vacancies and market rates that burden many New Yorkers.

"The city is becoming, with every day that passes … more and more unaffordable to live here," Heastie said.

Assemb. Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), who said she was once the victim of harassment by a landlord, asked landlords why they were banking on rent rolls to finance upkeep, since she said it was their responsibility to maintain up-to-code properties.

“The notion that you would not maintain your building absent your tenant’s money is astounding to me,” Rosenthal said.

The legislators' proposals would only serve to ratchet up conflict between landlords and tenants, according to Joseph Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents owners of regulated buildings. He highlighted one measure that would limit when landlords could evict tenants, including for failure to pay rent following a rent increase of more than 1.5 times the local inflation rate. 

“It is appalling to me that people want to continue that fight between tenants and owners,” Strasburg said. 

But Sateesh Nori, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, defended the legislation in question.

“These protections will help even the playing field in court, reducing the number of eviction proceedings brought against low-income tenants,” Nori testified.

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