Breaking the Chains: New York Needs Home Rule

Breaking the Chains: New York Needs Home Rule

December 2012

Self-determination is recognized by the United Nations as a universal human right, but that isn’t the case regarding New York City’s ability to deal with its housing crisis. Now is the time to step up the fight to get back home rule.

In 1971, when New York City lost home rule, the median rent for an apartment here was $215 a month, and the shelter allowance for a single adult on public assistance was also $215 a month. Today, the basic shelter allowance is still $215—but rents have skyrocketed out of control since 1971, beginning with a one-two punch from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and the state legislature.

Chapter 371 of the Laws of 1971 created vacancy decontrol, meaning that every time one of New York’s million rent-controlled tenants moved or was evicted, there was no limit on what the landlord could charge, and the next tenant would have no rent or eviction protections.

Chapter 372, called the “Urstadt Law” after Rockefeller’s housing commissioner, Charles Urstadt—like Rockefeller a major real-estate player—took away New York City’s power to enact “more stringent” rent and eviction laws than those approved by the state, although the city still has “police power” to enact legislation over issues such as window guards and pets.

Vacancy decontrol was relatively short-lived. Within three years, more than 400,000 apartments were deregulated, and maintenance plummeted as tenants lacked legal protections to enforce their rights. The Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974 ended vacancy decontrol, but the sharp escalation of rents that decontrol triggered continues to this day. As rents have exploded far beyond what working people can afford and homelessness has hit record levels, the city government has been prevented from responding except by periodically renewing the inadequate existing rent and eviction protections.

Tenants have had to take their fight to the state legislature in Albany every time the rent laws come up for renewal, and have little to show for it. In 1997 and 2003, the Legislature seriously weakened the rent laws, creating a new form of vacancy decontrol. When the laws came up for renewal again in 2011, thousands of tenants and dozens of community organizations joined together in a campaign for “real rent reform,” but the result was only a very slight improvement. The state rent laws come up for renewal again in 2015.

Everyone recognizes that without home rule, effective legislative action to address the housing crisis is impossible, but some people feel that demanding it is not practical. We disagree.

Next November, New York City voters will elect a new mayor and City Council. It is time that the people in this “city of renters” and their elected leadership stand up and demand the restoration of home rule over rent laws so we can finally respond to our housing crisis.


Pushing the Envelope

Even before home rule is restored, there are measures the City Council can pass which may not be held to violate Urstadt.

Seth Miller, a lawyer with the tenant firm Collins, Dobkin & Miller and a former Met Council board member, suggests a number of laws which he feels would address specific problems and survive a legal challenge as legitimate exercises of the city’s police power. Among his suggestions:

1. Prohibit an owner of a building with six or more apartments from diminishing the number of units.

2. Implement licensing for managing agents of multiple dwellings, in which their licenses would be revoked for a pattern of overcharges, baseless litigation, failure to make repairs, and the like. “We license barbers, tour guides, and newspaper stands in New York,” Miller points out, “but not the infinitely more complex and important task of complying with housing laws and regulations. This is nuts. Lives are at stake when a property manager doesn’t know what he is doing, and the city should be able to make sure that every building is run by someone qualified—and put those who aren’t out of business.”

3. Limit real-estate brokers’ fees to one month’s rent for rent-stabilized apartments, and require them to refund any part of the fee that is in excess of the legal regulated rent, if the tenant wins an overcharge case.

4. Require the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development or Corporation Counsel to sue for a declaration that every unregistered apartment in a building receiving J-51 tax benefits is rent-stabilized, and the city must declare the lawful rent and notify every tenant if the landlord doesn’t.

“The Urstadt law only says the city can’t enact more stringent regulations or create new categories of rent-regulated housing,” Miller notes. “It does not deprive the city of the power to make safety, zoning, and licensing laws that apply to regulated and unregulated housing. It does not narrow the city’s independent ability to impose and enforce conditions on the receipt of J-51 tax benefits.”

If these proposals are enacted, the real-estate industry would likely challenge them in the courts. If that happens, either the laws will stand, or the courts will in effect be saying to New York City, “Sorry, you are not allowed to enact measures you think are a necessary and proper response to your housing crisis, because your hands are tied.”

This would add a powerful argument to the case for restoring home rule.