2011 Housing Act Shows Need for Home Rule

2011 Housing Act Shows Need for Home Rule 

July 2011

The 2011 “Affordable Housing Act,” which leaves most of the amendments that weakened rent regulations in 1997 and 2003 in effect, shows once and for all that New York City’s worsening housing and homelessness crisis can only be addressed by restoring the city’s home rule over our rent and eviction laws.

The problem is that New York City’s rent laws are at the mercy of the state legislature, as the result of a 1971 law enacted under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and named after his housing commissioner, Charles Urstadt.  As a result, the previous two times the rent laws came up for renewal, they were weakened drastically, allowing owners to destabilize hundreds of thousands of apartments. Those provisions largely remain.

The new law contains only a few improvements, despite an impressive six-month mobilizing effort by dozens of groups working together in the Real Rent Reform (R3) coalition. The end result will do little to slow the loss of affordable housing and the rise of homelessness to record levels, nor will it relieve the affordability crisis affecting both poor and middle-class tenants.

That the laws were strengthened at all (albeit only slightly) and not weakened again is a tribute to the tremendous amount of work done by thousands of tenants from neighborhoods across the city, community organizations, and allies, including the Black, Puerto Rican, Latino and Asian Caucus, Local 1199-SEIU, and the Working Families Party, all of whom provided substantial support to the campaign.

Despite these resources, tenants hoping to repeal vacancy destabilization and achieve the other major changes needed in the law faced an impossible task.  In 2010, real-estate interests “opened up their piggy banks,” as lobbyist Joseph Strasburg boasted in an unguarded moment, to ensure the return of Republican control of the state Senate.  But even when the Democrats briefly had control of the Senate in 2009, pro-tenant legislation was blocked by Democrats who had accepted large real-estate campaign contributions, including Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx, Carl Kruger of Brooklyn (who has since been indicted for money laundering and corruption), and Pedro Espada of the Bronx (also indicted). Campaign-finance reform, which is a top priority for groups like Citizen Action, will never be possible as long as the real-estate industry has so much control in the state Senate.

Step Up or Step Down

With New York’s housing crisis getting worse, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire Republican, has not joined the dozens of elected officials who have called for restoring home rule over rent laws.  Asked at the WFP mayor al endorsement meeting in 2009 whether he believes New York’s rent laws should be strengthened, Bloomberg replied that this was Albany’s problem, not his, referring to the Urstadt law.  

Surely New York City’s housing and homeless crisis is the mayor’s problem, or should be.  Most New York City renters—poor and middle-class alike—pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, the federal hardship standard, and hundreds of thousands of families pay more than half. It is time for the mayor to step up, to end his silence and lead the call for restoring home rule, or step down and let us have a mayor who will.

Restoring home rule is not an easy goal.  The real-estate industry knows that it owes its exorbitant profits to the current system.  But it is a fight that must be fought and won, because a solution to the housing crisis is impossible without it.  Repeal of the “Urstadt Law” is both a practical necessity and a human-rights issue. It is profoundly offensive to the principles of democracy and self-determination that we are deprived of the right to make laws that directly affect our ability to find and keep homes—solely so landlords can fill their piggy banks, with the aid of legislators from outside the city.