Rent laws: Death by vacancy destabilization?


(West Side Neighborhood Alliance)

Rent regulation is set to expire in New York on June 15 — unless tenants pressure Governor Cuomo to renew and strengthen the rent laws as part of his budget. If Gov. Cuomo allows rent regulation to expire, two million people will likely see their rents skyrocket, and will no longer have basic rights (such as a right to a lease renewal and protection against arbitrary eviction).

In the 1990s, Boston landlords poured money into political campaigns to destroy rental protections. On election night 1994, politicians made good on their promises to wealthy real estate investors — they abolished rent regulation. Gentrification spiked, homelessness soared, and many displaced working class families had to move out of the city. By 2003, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment had doubled.

Polls taken in the heat of 1997’s rent wars revealed that a full 78% of all New Yorkers considered themselves true believers in rent stabilization. In spite of that, the landlord lobby pumped hefty contributions into upstate politicians’ coffers to dismantle NYC’s tenant protections. The neo-con Manhattan Institute’s Peter Salins argued that, “A half century of rent regulation is more than enough. The transition might be managed most painlessly through a policy of vacancy decontrol plus.” Although he was honest about wanting to see all rents soar to market rates by 2000, Salins argued that his gradual approach would be “more acceptable politically” than Boston’s “shock therapy.” The 1997 rent bill created vacancy destabilization (decontrol) — the process by which an apartment becomes decontrolled when the rent hits $2,000 a month and there’s a vacancy. Landlords now have an economic incentive to evict tenants by hook or crook — a perverse byproduct of destabilization. Now over two million tenants have targets on their backs.

Since 1997, we have lost around 300,000 units of affordable regulate housing. Tenant advocates want Gov. Cuomo to re-regulate those affordable units that were lost as part of his budget. A recent study by the Community Service Society (CSS) estimates that, in 2002, someone looking to rent an apartment in Manhattan south of Harlem could have expected over half (52%) of the vacant units to have been rent stabilized. Just six years later, they would be facing a market where less than a third (31%) of these units would be regulated. North of 125th Street, the percentage of regulated units would have dropped from 81% to 67% during these same six years. Things don’t look that much better in the outer boroughs’ more popular neighborhoods. With 10,000 units of affordable housing estimated to hemorrhage from the system every year, renewing the rent laws even as they now exist will soon make New York as bleak and as hostile to renters as Boston.

Ironically, the costs of deregulated rents are being borne disproportionately by those who can least afford them. According to the CSS study, the most common form of housing for low- and middle-income New Yorkers is the rent-regulated apartment (and the median household income of rent-stabilized tenants is $38,000 — a full $12,000 lower than those living in market-rate housing).

Exploding rents may have mattered less during boom years like 1997, but during these hard times we should expect our elected officials to help out those who are most vulnerable. Repeal of vacancy decontrol is one of the few policy options available to help those struggling to make ends meet that doesn’t actually involve any additional government spending.

In Albany, Speaker Sheldon Silver and Housing Committee Chair Vito Lopez are still leading the Assembly in a tenant-friendly direction. West Side Assembly Members Deborah Glick, Dick Gottfried and Linda Rosenthal recently signed a letter to Gov. Cuomo urging him to renew the rent laws and repeal vacancy destabilization. Joe Bruno may be gone, but Majority Leader Dean Skelos continues the tradition of keeping the Senate a hotbed of anti-tenant legislation. This leaves Gov. Cuomo in the role of dealmaker, and his best chance to end vacancy destabilization is through the budget.

The one thing that has remained most constant since 1997 is the influence of landlord money on the policy making process. The Rent Stabilization Association and the Real Estate Board of New York remain cash cows for ambitious politicians. Although much less well-endowed, Real Rent Reform (R3) and the West Side Neighborhood Alliance have people power. These groups mobilize tenants to Albany (in their red shirts) — and bombard swing legislators with letters, phone calls and protests to their district offices. Rent-regulated tenants who want to remain rent regulated will do well to get on the bus or to phone them at 212-956-2585 before it’s too late.

Without a massive outcry from New Yorkers, this may be the year when rent regulation is left to die. The mean rent in Manhattan for a one-bedroom apartment with a doorman is $3,737 a month, according to The Real Estate Group. If the landlord lobby gets its way, two million tenants’ wallets will be thinner. For those who cannot afford to stay in New York, Boston is not an option either.