Playing politics with affordable housing

February 23, 2015

New York City activist and WBAI radio co-host Sandy Boyer reports on the threat to rent stabilization legislation----and the consequences for New Yorkers if it expires.

ON JUNE 25, 2.3 million New Yorkers could lose their affordable apartments. That's when rent-stabilization legislation that limits rent increases will expire. If the state legislature doesn't renew rent stabilization, their apartments will suddenly become market-rent housing that very few working people can afford.

The outcome will shape New York's future for decades to come because it's a city of tenants--just over two-thirds of the city's 3 million housing units are rentals. Almost half of these apartments, 960,000 in all, are rent stabilized.

Rent-stabilized tenants are overwhelmingly low- and middle-income working people. Their median income is only $38,000 a year. Sixty percent of them are people of color.

Traditionally, the legislature goes through the same routine every time rent stabilization expires. The Democrats in the Assembly pass a bill to preserve and even strengthen the controls. The Republicans in the state Senate try to abolish or weaken it. Then its fate is decided by the governor, the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the Assembly in closed-door negotiations.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

For more than two decades, Shelley Silver, the state Assembly Speaker, was the only member of the trio who even pretended to stand up for tenants. Recently, Silver was forced to resign after he was indicted for taking million-dollar payoffs.

He's been replaced by Carl Hestie, a Bronx machine politician who may well have his own corruption problems. Hestie lost no time in joining New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in swearing allegiance to rent stabilization. He declared that toughening up the rent stabilization would be the Assembly's number-one priority. "I don't know if there's a bigger issue for the Assembly to deal with and as a state to deal with," he said.

Even on the dubious assumption that Hestie means what he says, however, the deck will be stacked against him.

The Republican majority in the state Senate has traditionally been the faithful servants of the real estate lobby. Many Republican senators don't have a single rent-stabilized tenant in their district. Last year, members of the landlord lobby, the Real Estate Board of New York, created a special political action committee that gave $1.9 million to Republican state senators.

NEW YORK'S Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is also in bed with the landlords. His top four campaign contributors were all landlords or developers. His largest donor was real estate tycoon Leonard Letwin, whose companies gave Cuomo $1 million, three times as much as any other donor.

Cuomo is responsible for "vacancy decontrol," the deal that is steadily destroying rent stabilization. Under the law he pushed, landlords can immediately start charging the market rate any time they can get the rent for a vacant apartment above $2,500 a month. This vacancy decontrol means that any time a tenant leaves or dies, their apartment is bound to be deregulated. All the landlord has to do is file a form claiming they made some "improvements," like new windows or a new stove or refrigerator, and they can jack the rent up to $2,500.

Vacancy decontrol has already had a divesting effect on New York City. In 2011, 47 percent of New York's apartments were rent regulated, down from 59 percent in 1991. The city lost more than 150,000 rent-regulated apartments between 1994 and 2012, equivalent to all the housing in Cincinnati.

Now the shape of this year's "compromise" is already becoming clear. Rent stabilization will be renewed, but so will vacancy decontrol. Republicans and Democrats will stage a grand sham fight over the details of the vacancy decontrol package.

Even the landlords aren't really upset about this deal. Joseph Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which lobbies for landlords, told City & State that "we recognized that the policy consideration of keeping rent stabilization was going to happen."

The landlords know very well that vacancy decontrol will effectively kill rent stabilization in just a few more years. The next time it comes up for renewal, there may not be enough rent-stabilized tenants left to matter, even to the Democrats.

Delsenia Glover, campaign manager of Alliance for Tenant Power, which is fighting to save rent stabilization, told City & State, "As far as rent-regulated housing is concerned, this is a crisis situation. This year is pretty much do-or-die."

Hestie and the Assembly Democrats have between now and April 1 to save rent stabilization, assuming that's what they really want. By April 1, the legislature has to pass the state budget, which both Cuomo and Senate Republicans desperately want. If the Assembly Democrats refused to sign off on the budget, they would be in the driver's seat.

Cuomo has staked his presidential ambitions on delivering on-time budgets. Every state budget is stuffed with goodies for the business interests that support the Republicans so generously. They would find rent stabilization a small price to pay for passing the budget.

But once the budget is passed, all the Assembly Democrats' leverage will immediately disappear. The Senate can just pass whatever they want and then adjourn. Unless the Democrats go along, rent stabilization will be extinct. That's exactly what the Republicans did in 1977. There's no reason they can't do it again in 2015.

STILL THERE'S no sign that Hestie is even thinking about playing hardball with the budget. He's already told CBS News that rent stabilization will be voted on "post-budget".

No liberal Democratic politician has dared to publicly demand that Hestie to go beyond paying lip service and make a real fight for to save rent stabilization. New York Mayor de Blasio, who loudly and frequently proclaims his devotion to tenants, has been strangely silent. Apparently, loyalty to the Democratic Party establishment matters more than the future of affordable housing.

Tenant groups are battling desperately to save rent stabilization. Katie Goldstein, executive director of Tenants & Neighbors, told City & State that her group has been meeting with allies in the housing movement for months. "This is translating into more of a citywide movement," Goldstein said. "In neighborhoods in the West Bronx, in Elmhurst in Queens, in Crown Heights, in Bushwick--all of these neighborhoods that actually weren't getting anywhere close to the vacancy decontrol threshold are now hovering right around it."

The tenant groups aren't strong enough to win by themselves. They've never been able to overcome the landlords' money and the politicians' betrayals. But tenants shouldn't have to fight alone. They're far from the only ones locked in a battle with Cuomo and the legislature this year.

Cuomo has declared open war on teachers. Teachers are tenants, and tenants send their children to public schools. Low-wage workers are fighting for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Even $15 an hour won't go too far if "affordable" apartments start renting for $3,000 a month and more. There are people in the streets asserting that "Black Lives Matter." There won't be many Black people left in New York if the politicians let the landlords destroy our affordable housing.

So long as we stay divided, we're all sure to lose. If we fight together, we just might start winning for a change.

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