Affordable Housing Part I: Rent Laws Renewed, but the Struggle Continues
Rent Stabilization and Rent Control were due to expire in June. My Assembly colleagues and I fought not just to extend them but also to strengthen the laws to protect New Yorkers living in the city's approximately one million rent-regulated apartments. We fought especially to eliminate vacancy decontrol, which is the "hole in the bucket" reducing the city's stock of rent-regulated housing. We also sought to end tax breaks for developers, like the 421-a program that partially exempts new buildings from real estate taxes.
Unfortunately, the New York State Senate majority resisted these efforts to protect affordable housing, and we had little support from the Governor. As a result, the Legislature renewed rent regulations for four years without making any major improvements.
Vacancy decontrol was not eliminated, but there will be a small increase in the rent threshold at which a vacant apartment can be deregulated, to $2,700 from $2,500. Future increases in the threshold will be based on the 1-year lease rent adjustment specified by the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) beginning in 2016.
Also included were increased civil penalties for landlords determined to be harassing tenants. Unfortunately, it remains extremely challenging for tenants to prove harassment under existing laws.
The Governor and the Legislature also established a longer amortization period for any Major Capital Improvements (MCI), resulting in lower monthly rent in-creases for tenants whose apartments undergo an MCI. Unfortunately, MCI rent increases will still be permanent, to be compounded with the base rent.
The end-of-session legislation also extended provisions of the Loft Law (which protects tenants who live in buildings formerly used for commercial or manufacturing use) that were due to expire.
Unfortunately, the 421-a tax abatement program was renewed, although only if there is a prevailing wage agreement between developers and labor within six months from now. "Affordable" units will be required in all new 421-a rental buildings, and no abatements for new coops or condos in Manhattan.
Affordable Housing Part II: Rent Freeze for One-Year Rent-Stabilized Leases
On June 29, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) voted for a rent freeze on rent stabilized apartments for the first time in its history. The RGB approved a zero per-cent increase on one-year leases and a two percent in-crease on two-year leases being renewed between October 1, 2015 and September 30, 2016.
In voting for these historically low rent adjustments, RGB members - all of whom have been appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio - cited research showing that rent-regulated tenants' incomes are failing to keep up with rent increases and that building owners' income continues to rise, amid the declining cost of fuel and other expenses.
I had called upon the RGB to freeze or lower rents on rent-regulated units.
Co-op/Condo Tax Law Abatement Program Extended
Because of the way our property tax law is written, co-op and condo owners have historically paid higher property taxes than owners of houses of the same value. The tax abatement program helps redress that unfairness.
The abatement program was extended for four years as part of the bill dealing with housing and numerous other issues that passed the Legislature at the end of the legislative session.
Victory for Marriage Equality!
On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a historic decision recognizing marriage equality for same-sex couples throughout America. The landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges established that married same-sex couples are entitled to the full legal and social protections, responsibilities, and benefits of civil marriage throughout the United States.
Stable families help build a stronger society. The Supreme Court decision reaffirms that the love, commitment, and families of same-sex couples are entitled to the same recognition the law gives to any couple, and that granting equal recognition to same-sex marriages contributes to general welfare of our communities and provides fairness to all Americans.
When I introduced the first marriage equality legislation in the New York State Assembly in 2003, few people dared to dream that within just a dozen years same-sex marriages would be legally recognized throughout the United States.
Fraudulent Landlord Construction Permits Endanger Tenants
Working with other elected officials and local tenants, including members of the Chelsea Residents Protection Working Group, my office organized a joint letter to the Commissioner of the City Department of Buildings (DOB) urging the City to crack down on owners of residential buildings who file false construction permit applications.
A landlord of a residential building doing construction work must certify to DOB whether the building is occupied or houses rent- regulated tenants. If there are residential tenants, the owner is obligated to file a tenant protection plan to ensure residents' safety and well-being. Landlords frequently lie on these forms and don't file tenant protection plans - and certainly don't protect the tenants.
There is almost never any enforcement, even though this criminal conduct is a felony and endangers people's homes and lives.
Many tenants have reported horror stories of being forced to live in construction sites with unsafe and deplorable living conditions, in which owners often turn off gas, heat, hot water, and other services; elevators are shut down; dust fills the hallways and public areas; and illegal, unprotected asbestos removal is performed without protection for tenants or workers. In some cases, shoddy construction by inexperienced contractors causes ceilings to collapse; cracks and holes in walls and floors; and vermin to spread throughout the building.
A growing number of tenants report that landlords are filing false permit applications stating their buildings have no occupants. The Chelsea Residents Protection Working Group has identified 81 cases in Manhattan in which owners falsely stated on their DOB permit applications that their buildings were un-occupied or that there are no rent-regulated tenants living there. These cases likely represent just a fraction of this fraudulent activity taking place around the five boroughs.
In our letter, I and other elected officials called on DOB to penalize the landlords and develop and implement a system to verify building owners' permit applications. Specifically, we proposed that DOB implement a system in which it can access the computerized rent registration records maintained by the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal when the owner of a rent-regulated building files a construction permit application without a tenant protection plan.
We requested a meeting with DOB Commissioner Rick Chandler to discuss ways of improving a coordinated response between City and State agencies to address this serious and growing problem and expect it to be scheduled for after the summer.
Making the 23rd Street C/E Station More Accessible
I recently joined State Senator Brad Hoylman and Councilmember Corey Johnson in writing to the President of New York City Transit to urge that the subway station at 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue be added to the MTA's list of "100 Key Stations." The MTA plans to put elevators in these subway stations by 2020 as part of its ongoing effort to make New York's mass transit system more accessible to people with disabilities.
The 23rd Street IND station serves the Penn South housing cooperative complex, which is home to approximately 2,000 senior citizens, many of whom have limited mobility.
End-of-Session Update on Assembly Health Committee
The Assembly Committee on Health, which I chair, had a busy and productive legislative session, reporting 146 bills, of which 74 were passed by the Assembly and 41 passed by both the Assembly and the State Senate, with four having already been signed into law.
Legislation that passed both houses included bills to:
- expedite access to medical marijuana for patients whose life or health is at serious risk;
- ensure that Medicaid managed care patients have the same "prescriber prevails" protections for many drugs as they would under Medicaid fee-for-service; and
- improve the organ donation process by clarifying the language in the organ donation section on driver's license applications.
These bills will be sent to Governor Cuomo, who has the option either to sign them into law, or to veto them.
For more information on a particular bill, go to: http://public.leginfo.state.ny.us/menuf.cgi.
Affordable Housing Part III: Rent Laws Renewed - My View
Tenants have very few real allies in Albany. This was clear in the rent and housing parts of the large bill passed on the last day of the 2015 legislative session.
Rent Stabilization and Rent Control are critically important to New York City. These laws enable a family to be secure in their home and community without fear of the landlord arbitrarily raising the rent or refusing to renew their lease. Without these laws, there would a dramatic shift in wealth from the two and a half million tenants to a small number of building owners. More neighborhoods would become exclusive enclaves unaffordable to vast majority.
While New York is struggling to increase affordable housing, the rent laws that protect affordability are like a bucket with a big hole in it, called "vacancy deregulation." That says if an apartment rent gets above $2,500 a month, when the tenant moves out the apartment is no longer protected by any rent law. Every month, more apartments fall out of rent protection. Since this was enacted in 1997, we have lost over 400,000 rent-regulated apartments.
Rent Stabilization and Rent Control were due to "sunset" on June 15. Without state legislation to extend them, there would have been no more rent regulations.
I fought hard to continue and strengthen the rent laws. I even got arrested with several dozen tenant activists and several other Assembly members and City Council members (including State Senator Brad Hoylman and Councilmember Corey Johnson) for blocking the Governor's office in the State Capitol. The Assembly, led by Speaker Carl Heastie, passed a strong bill early on that repealed vacancy deregulation, restricted rent increases for landlord "improvements," and strengthened the rent laws in other ways.
But Governor Cuomo did not work to pass the Assembly bill, and the Republicans who control the State Senate fought against it.
The bill that got negotiated extended Rent Stabilization for four years. It raised the rent threshold for vacancy deregulation to $2,700, to be increased each year based on the allowable Rent Stabilization increases; reduced the annual increase allowed for "major capital improvements," reduced the allowable vacancy rent increase where the outgoing tenant had been paying "preferential" rent (i.e., a rent lower than the law allows); and increased fines for harassment of tenants.
These changes are valuable, but the bill did not close the "hole in the bucket" -vacancy deregulation. So we will lose tens of thousands of rent-regulated apartments.
We need to work to make sure that in the 2016 elections, we change the make-up of the State Senate, so in 2017 we can eliminate vacancy deregulation and make other important changes.
A handful of state legislators voted against the bill. I voted for it. Here's why.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie listened to us and worked with us. He negotiated the best deal he could, considering the two-against-one lineup against us. He has thousands of rent-regulated apartments in his own district. When he was negotiating, he was on our side. And so we backed him up.
Rejecting the package would have been a very high stakes gamble with the welfare of millions of tenants, with the very high likelihood of catastrophic failure. Nothing in the last several decades of tenant experience with Albany argued in favor of that gamble.
The State Senate Republicans would happily pass a bill like their eight-year extender (i.e., eight more years of vacancy deregulation) with weakening provisions (e.g., requiring tenants to dis-close their personal finances to their landlord). They would regard that as getting their two New York City senators off the hook politically. The Governor would give us no support. If he was willing to give us support, we wouldn't have been in this position in the first place.
Tenants would have been gambling that as the months went by and tenant leases were not renewed and people got sued for eviction, the Senate would have to give in and agree to repeal vacancy deregulation. But the Senate really wouldn't have to care; they would continue to say "we offered you an eight-year extender and it's your fault for not taking it." The Assembly would be pressured to seek peace on worse terms than were negotiated. The other possibility is the Assembly would continue to "stand its ground" until the rent laws became a fading memory and that would be the end of it.
The large number of upstate Assembly Democrats, for whom the rent laws are not a local issue, stood with us in our fight for stronger rent laws, even though it made it difficult for the Assembly to also exert leverage on some of their local issues. But we couldn't count on that indefinitely.
None of these outcomes is good, including the legislation that got enacted.
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