Housing Advocates Clash with Slighted Parents at Epstein’s Town Hall

Protesters refuse to let Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger off the hook for Bill S2994. Photo by William Engel
Protesters refuse to let Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger off the hook for Bill S2994. Photo by William Engel

All Assemblyman Harvey Epstein (D-Lower East Side, East Village) wanted to do was hold a town hall meeting about affordable housing protections. But his event quickly went off the rails, thanks to a crowd of angry parents who had a completely different law on their mind – namely, a recent New York law that eliminated religious exemptions for vaccinations. 

The event took place from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. at NYU Dental, 345 24th St. Epstein was accompanied by Assembly Member Deborah Glick (D-East Village, West Village); City Council Members Keith Powers (D-Upper East Side, Carnegie Hill), Ben Kallos (D-Yorkville, Lenox Hill) and Carlina Rivera (D-East Village, Gramercy Park); and State Senators Brad Hoylman (D-Chelsea, Midtown) and Liz Krueger (D-Upper East Side, Lenox Hill). The (intended) focus of the meeting was the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (HSTPA), a comprehensive bill that Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed into law on June 14.

Epstein touted the legislation as one of the strongest and most comprehensive New York tenant protection laws passed in decades. 

Epstein applauds the passage of HSPCA. Photo by William Engel

“The act represents a culmination of decades of work from the housing justice movement,” said Epstein. “We’re lowering peoples’ rents, keeping people in their homes, keeping our community stronger, and keeping rent in our city and state stabilized. That’s what we did [with this act], and that’s what we should be proud of.”

Ellen Davidson of the Legal Aid Society summarized the provisions of the act – or at least tried to, amid constant interruptions. The HSTPA introduces a number of changes designed to protect tenants of rent regulated apartments. Most prominently, it makes New York’s rent regulation laws permanent, meaning that tenants no longer have to worry about the laws being renewed. It also repeals statutory vacancy bonuses, which allowed landlords of rent regulated units to collect an automatic 20 percent increase in rent on vacancy.

“The thing that we hope from this law is that it will take the heat out of the Real Estate market and take the incentive of pushing people out of their homes out of the system, so we can go back to not fighting to the death to stay in our homes and communities,” said Davidson.

But while half the crowd applauded the electeds for their work to protect tenants, the other half attacked them with constant boos and jeers – not because of any grievances with the HSPCA, but because of an unrelated law that Liz Krueger and Brad Hoylman pushed through last month. 

Senate Bill S2994, which will go into effect this September, prevents children from getting religious exemptions for the vaccinations required to attend school. The Department of Health estimates that New York granted religious exemptions to 26,000 students during the 2017-18 school year.

The bill offers a “grace period” that lasts until June 2020, during which unvaccinated students can still attend school if they’ve received the first dose in each immunization series. However, this wasn’t enough to placate the protesting parents, who saw the law as a violation of their religious freedom. 

Brad Hoylman receives a mix of cheers and boos as he takes the stage. Photo by William Engel

This lead to a clash between the attendees who wanted to learn more about the HSPCA and those who wanted Liz Krueger and Brad Hoylman to answer for their perceived crimes. One irate audience member stood up and cried, “This meeting is about rent!” while the anti-vaccine crowd was trying to start a chant. At the conclusion of the evening, Harvey Epstein barely managed to get through his closing remarks before the crowd shouted him down and mobbed him and his colleagues.  

But in spite of the chaos that took place last night, Hoylman said that he stands by his decision to sponsor S2994.

“When anti-vaxxers hiss you at a public forum, you know you’re doing the right thing,” said Hoylman. “As a state senator, I’m proud to stand up for evidence-based public policy and against those who dispute overwhelming scientific evidence, such as anti-vaxxers, Donald Trump and climate change deniers. After New York suffered the worst measles outbreak in the entire country, I’m glad Albany took decisive action to protect the health and well-being of our children and families. I encourage any parents who are concerned about their child’s enrollment in school to listen to medical professionals and update their child’s vaccinations.”