Rent control derailed

August 22, 2011

New York–I have been actively involved in the tenant movement since 1997, when rent laws actually expired, albeit temporarily. Many tenants woke up then and a massive demonstration took place in front of then-Governor Pataki’s office. The stage was set for even bigger demonstrations, but tenant groups (closely allied with the Democrats) decided not to continue the protests. Instead, they sat down with the politicos and came up with renewing the rent laws with stronger vacancy decontrol and other anti-tenant provisions.

Since then vacancy decontrol and constant and unjustified rent increases have resulted in the loss of over 100,000 rent-regulated apartments. Under the rent laws, landlords are guaranteed hefty increases regardless of market conditions or landlord profits.

Recently, tenant organizations have been focusing on renewing the existing weak rent laws and eliminating vacancy decontrol. A simple rent increase based on the inflation rate or on landlord profits, or on the ability of tenants to pay, such as no more than 1/3 of their income, would have been real rent reform. The so-called progressive Democrats and their connected tenant groups never pushed for or even mentioned these reforms. Michael McKee of “Tenants and Neighbors” called the slight changes a “crumb.”

The same scenario has played out. The rent laws expired temporarily, the Rent Stabilization Association (the landlord lobby group) and the politicos told tenants that their leases would be honored, and the rent laws were renewed. So now we have the same old rent laws with a slight break for some upper-middle-class tenants who face decontrol. Of course tenant leaders are calling foul and a few “progressive” Democrats voted against this sellout. Gov. Cuomo said that the rent deal strengthened the rent laws, and Assembly Speaker Silver called it “a significant improvement.”

Fellow Democrat Assembly Housing Chair, Vito Lopez, said, “We pushed the buttons as much as we can.” He should have said, “We pushed the buttons as much as the real estate industry allowed.” Despite the slight change in vacancy decontrol, landlords will still be able to use loopholes to easily decontrol vacated apartments, rent increases will gallop on and working class tenants, both regulated and unregulated, will find it increasingly difficult to have affordable housing.

–Tom Siracuse, Chair of the Rent Controlled Tenants Committee

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