Pols call for Albany to end vacancy decontrol

Corey Johnson, right, encouraged tenants to “get on the bus” and lobby in Albany to close loopholes in the rent laws.   Photo by Gerard Flynn
Corey Johnson, right, encouraged tenants to “get on the bus” and lobby in Albany to close loopholes in the rent laws. Photo by Gerard Flynn

BY GERARD FLYNN  |  Though Mayor de Blasio was notably absent, his progressive voice was resoundingly clear Monday on the frigid steps of City Hall, where Democratic pols and tenant groups repeated their demands that Albany strengthen existing rent laws, which sunset in June.

Sounding a bit like Jimmy McMillan, Public Advocate Letitia James called on Governor Cuomo to “step up to the plate and recognize the rent is too damn high” and that the city is in an “affordable housing crisis.”

Councilmember Jumaane Williams, chairperson of the Committee on Housing, which is proposing nine new bills to address the situation, told the crowd that a vote in June can only be considered a victory if the rent laws are strengthened. A mere extension — with its many loopholes — won’t be enough, he said.

Extending the status quo, they said, would merely extend these loopholes, especially vacancy decontrol, which, if not repealed, will continue the trend of illegal evictions, and the oft-told “Tale of Two Cities” —  a city for the very rich and the very poor.

Under state law, rent-regulated apartments can become market rate once a tenant moves out or dies, if the rent is above $2,500. However, advocates accuse the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal of being lax in enforcement, allowing landlords to illegally deregulate apartments.

Vacancy decontrol, they say, has been a windfall for many landlords and is responsible for deregulating more than 150,000 apartments during the last 10 years.

“First thing he can to do is repeal vacancy decontrol,” James said of Cuomo. “Too  many landlords are exploiting it.”

The rally also called for an end of charges for major capital improvements or “M.C.I. increases,” which allow a landlord to make improvements to a building, then tack the cost onto tenants’ rent in perpetuity.

James further called on Cuomo to end the 1971 Urstadt Law, which ended the city’s ability to govern its own rent laws.

“The City Council knows best,” she said, “and are in a position to regulate the rent laws in the city.”

The net effect of these loopholes, the politicians charged, has been to create a city more geared toward the wealthy, who can afford ever-increasing rents.

Speaking to that point, City Comptroller Scott Stringer told the gathering that, according to city data, between the years 2000 to 2012, there was a loss of roughly 400,000 apartments renting for $1,000 or less and a corresponding gain in the number of units renting for more than $1,000 per month. Today, less than 1 percent of the city’s available rental housing stock rents for under $700 a month, he added.

Talking of building hundreds of thousands of new affordable housing units is fine, Stringer said, but he added, “If we are losing the same number of housing units on the other side, we are playing a zero-sum game. We are continuing to plunge people into homelessness.”

Similarly, Councilmember Corey Johnson said, “Merely renewal is not a victory. That would not be a victory for tenants. It would lock in the existing slow-motion disaster that is vacancy decontrol — a loophole so big you can drive  a truck through it.

“We must end vacancy decontrol. We need better enforcement about harassment. And we need a revolution in Housing Court,” Johnson said. Otherwise, tenants will only continue to be victimized by predatory landlords, he warned.

“The next three months are game time for tenants,” he declared. “Tenants have got to get on the bus, go to Albany and tell Republican and Democrats there can be no compromise.”