Will Albany Screw Renters Again? How We Can Prevent It

Will Albany Screw Renters Again?

How We Can Prevent It

Published: 
February 2014

The “Cuomoville” in Queens, May 2011.The “Cuomoville” in Queens, May 2011. 2014 is a crucial year for the tenant movement in New York State.

In less than 17 months, on June 15, 2015, the state rent and eviction-protection laws expire unless they are renewed by the legislature in Albany. That might seem a long way off, but tenants need to start planning and organizing now if we are to have any chance of winning next year.

The laws will almost certainly be renewed in some form, but the real-estate lobby and its allies will work to weaken them. But simply renewing them with only minor improvements, as happened in 2011, would be a defeat. Rent-regulated housing is disappearing every month as apartments turn over. We must close the loopholes that enable landlords to deregulate vacant units, along with the ones that allow large, permanent rent increases for building-wide improvements—driving even stabilized rents up to the point where tenants are priced out. All these loopholes were left intact in 2011.

Truly preserving affordable rental housing requires a total reversal of deregulation. Our friends in Albany must understand that anything short of this is unacceptable. Albany will label any renewal bill a victory, but for the last 20 years, we have heard those claims while losing some 300,000 regulated apartments to vacancy destabilization. Spin simply will not do. 

In 2011, the tenant movement basically fought the landlord lobby to a draw. That was no small accomplishment, considering how much money landlords throw at Albany. But another renewal without the repeal of vacancy destabilization would leave the downward spiral in place. We need real rent reform. 

So, what will it take to win?

We’ll need a stronger, more engaged, and united tenant movement. We’ll need Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to deliver results, and his members to pressure him to do so. We’ll also need a push from Governor Andrew Cuomo to help his fellow Democrats recapture control of the state Senate in the November 4 election—though most observers believe our center-right Democratic governor wants to keep the Republicans in charge.

A review of the players, and the factors that will influence the outcome:

 

Governor Cuomo

The state rent laws came up for renewal in Cuomo’s first six months as governor in 2011.  While he was certainly better than George Pataki, who wanted to end all rent protections, he was a big disappointment.  He made vague statements in favor of rent regulation, but never publicly articulated any specific changes he would support, and refused to spend any of his political capital for improved rent protections, as he did for marriage equality.

That March, Cuomo said he was thinking of including strengthening amendments to the rent laws in the state budget, a novel tactic that would have forced the Senate Republicans to vote against the entire budget if they wanted to block them. Then, about a week before the April 1 budget deadline, he announced that he would not do that. At a largely ceremonial meeting with tenant advocates and elected officials in April, Cuomo was asked point-blank if he would support repeal of vacancy destabilization. He made no answer.

As the June 15 sunset drew near, the governor and Speaker Silver (D-Manhattan) negotiated privately with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau), winning small pro-tenant changes—including raising the threshold for deregulation from $2,000 to $2,500 a month—but nothing meaningful. It seems that Cuomo gave away his leverage when he decided not to incorporate rent reforms into the budget.

The Republican-controlled Senate has been the biggest obstacle to rent-law reform for the last 40 years, but in the 2012 redistricting, Cuomo gave Skelos power to gerrymander districts to favor GOP candidates—after repeatedly insisting that he would not let the legislature draw its own lines. In the general election, he endorsed only one Democrat, Joe Addabbo of Queens, and did not help the Senate Democrats raise money.

Then, when the Democrats won a slight majority, Cuomo allowed the “Independent Democratic Conference,” five renegade members led by Jeffrey Klein (Bronx-Westchester) to ally themselves with the Republicans to form a new “Senate Majority Coalition” with Skelos and Klein as co-leaders. Klein gave Skelos veto power over progressive legislation, so pro-tenant bills never come to the floor.

The popular wisdom is that Cuomo prefers a Republican-controlled Senate. This enables him to promote his image as a social liberal and fiscal conservative, and as a no-nonsense executive who has overcome Albany’s dysfunction and achieved bipartisan cooperation. Everything he does is calculated to position him to run for president in 2016, after his anticipated landslide re-election this fall.

Lately Cuomo has complained about the IDC, and reportedly has even talked about facilitating a primary challenge to Klein. Whether this is his typical saber-rattling or means he’s serious about acting like a Democrat for a change remains to be seen. Don’t hold your breath.

 

Jeff Klein & the “Independent Democratic Conference”

Questions for Jeff Klein: How does it help the progressive cause for the four of you to ally yourself with the Republicans? Or are you just angry that your fellow Democrats will not make you the leader? And where is the progressive legislation, including pro-tenant bills, that you promised would materialize when you threw your lot in with the GOP?

The other IDC members are Diane Savino (Staten Island-Brooklyn), David Carlucci (Rockland-Westchester) and David Valesky (Syra-cuse). The fifth, Malcolm Smith of Queens, was kicked out last April after he was indicted on bribery charges.

Klein might face a Democratic challenger in this year’s primary, so he’s desperately attempting to burnish his progressive credentials, sucking up to Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, declaring support for initiatives that he knows Skelos will not willingly accept. But if he expects Democrats to believe that his “coalition” is anything more than a craven power grab, he will bring meaningful pro-tenant legislation to the floor—this year.

 

Senate Republicans

Are owned by the New York City real-estate lobby.

 

Senate Democrats

When they had a narrow majority in 2009-2010, the Senate Democrats failed to pass a single bill to strengthen tenant protections, even though the governor (David Paterson) and the Assembly were also Democratic. Since then, several of the Dems who sold their votes to the landlords have traded their pinstripe suits for the proverbial prison orange, most notably Pedro Espada and Carl Kruger.

The Senate Democratic conference is now much more pro-tenant, and their leader is the widely respected Andrea Stewart-Cousins (Westchester) who is lead sponsor of the bill to repeal vacancy destabilization. There is no question that if the Democrats are back in the majority in 2015, the chances for significant pro-tenant legislation increase exponentially.

 

Sheldon Silver

Every year, the Assembly passes a package of one-house pro-tenant bills, and every year, Shelly Silver puts out a press release touting its commitment to tenants’ rights. But somehow he never seems able to win anything at the negotiating table.

In 1997, he was the public face of opposition to then-Senate majority leader Joe Bruno, who threatened to allow the rent laws to expire. Silver stated that he would not pass the state budget until the rent laws were renewed, a gutsy move that gave him leverage. He amassed real resources for the campaign, enlisting the labor-union movement for the first time to fight for rent regulation. Then, on the last day, the very day the laws were due to expire, he gave away the store in negotiations, agreeing to a devastating array of deregulation amendments in return for a six-year extender.

In 2003, Silver made no effort, relying on a handshake deal with Bruno that the laws would be extended without any changes. When Bruno double-crossed him and passed additional pro-landlord amendments on the session’s last night, Silver was forced to accept it, as otherwise the rent laws would have disappeared.

Will Silver use any real leverage on behalf of tenants in 2015? The only way to strengthen Silver’s resolve is to make our strongest allies in the Assembly demand that he do the right thing. If his members are loud enough and determined enough, it makes it tougher for him to accept anything less than a real victory.

 

Assembly Democrats

It is time for tenants to ask our friends in the Assembly if they are serious about reversing the phaseout of rent and eviction protections in New York City and the suburban counties of Nassau, Rockland, and Westchester; about expanding rent regulation; about enacting protections for currently unprotected market-rate tenants and extending them to renters in upstate communities and smaller buildings.

Will they band together and make it clear to Speaker Silver that this is a must? Or will they continue to cede all their power to Silver and again end up making excuses to their tenant constituents for his failure?

If tenants get screwed once again in Albany, it is our friends who will be at fault for letting it happen, not our enemies. And it will be our fault for allowing them to cop out once again. It is not that Assembly Democrats are against tenants. Most of them support us. The problem is that their leader has not used any meaningful leverage on our behalf, and they let him get away with it.

 

Mayor de Blasio,
Public Advocate James,
Manhattan BP Brewer

The 2013 city election introduced a new, pro-tenant element into the fight for stronger rent laws in Albany. When the Tenants PAC board of directors interviewed candidates for mayor last summer, Bill de Blasio stood out for his understanding not only for the need to force developers to build permanent affordable housing, but also for the need to restore our rent laws, and to treat public-housing tenants and homeless people with respect. De Blasio has promised to fight for home rule and repeal of vacancy destabilization, and to go to Albany with tenants to press that agenda. We have never had a mayor who really fought for stronger rent protection laws, let alone one who was willing to travel to Albany with us. New Public Advocate Letitia “Tish” James will also be a strong ally, as will new Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

 

The New York City Council

The new City Council is much more pro-tenant and more progressive than the previous one. Many Councilmembers have pledged to recruit their constituents to go to Albany to lobby for stronger rent laws, and to pay for buses to take them there. With Melissa Mark-Viverito as Speaker, we can count on real support.

 

The tenant movement

The most important variable of all. Will tenants rise to the challenge? We cannot win without a tenant army—and a militant, determined army. Will tenants help elect pro-tenant state senators this year? Will tenant and community organizations unite through the Real Rent Reform Campaign, or will some groups continue their empire-building agendas at the expense of the larger tenant movement?

While the tenant movement will never match the real-estate lobby’s money, we can beat them with people power. But that will happen only if people get off their rear ends and organize, and if everyone pulls together. There are still more than one million rent-regulated apartments in the downstate region, home to some 2.5 million New Yorkers. It is time that we use the power of our numbers, before our numbers are irretrievably diminished. And we need to persuade market-rate tenants to fight with us to win protections for them.

The real-estate plan is to keep renewing the rent laws as long as they contain the seeds of their own destruction. In 1996, 56 percent of the city’s rental housing was subject to rent regulation; by 2011, only 47 percent was. At least 90 percent of this loss is due to vacancy deregulation, and the rate of loss in the suburbs is even greater. That is why landlord lobbyists pushed for a 14-year extender in 2011, knowing that by 2025 the number of rent-regulated apartments would have shrunk so dramatically that renewing the laws would help only a small minority of tenants.

“Whether rent-regulated tenants will see the consequences of the current system and seek to change it before their political clout disappears is a question that remains to be answered,” Craig Gurian wrote in “Let Them Rent Cake,” a long analysis of the debate over the 1997 rent law and its aftermath, published in 2004. (The complete report is available at www.antibiaslaw.com/cake.pdf.)

We cannot wait until 2015 to get organized. This might well be our last chance to reverse the deregulation tide—to stop the phaseout of rent and eviction protections. That is how high the stakes are.

 

To find out what you can do: call Met Council on Housing at (212) 979-6238, ext. 203, or e-mail info@metcouncilonhousing.org