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Rent Law Renewal: What Happened and What's Next?

By Marc Greenberg - Posted on 26 July 2011

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On June 24, 2011 after nearly two years of organizing and advocacy by the Real Rent Reform (R3) Campaign -            (a coalition which includes 75 groups including the Interfaith Assembly),  Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a 4 year extension of the rent regulations covering the housing of over 2.5 million New Yorkers.  


In answer to the question "After losing hundreds of thousands of affordable apartments over the past decade due to weakened rent laws, how did New York's over 1 million renter households do?" Different members of R3 and our allies have different answers. But considering the fact that tenant and affordable housing advocates were outspent at least 200 to 1 by the real estate lobby, and that this renewal was the first in nearly 2 decades without weakening amendments, our answer is "David fought Goliath to a draw after being beaten for 18 years." In addition to R3, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the State's Black, Latino and Asian caucus deserve great credit for this result. The Assembly is proud to have played a small but significant role in this effort as well, organizing many meetings between faith leaders and elected officials and most recently, with Habitat for Humanity and others, presenting a letter to Governor Cuomo with nearly 150 religious leaders calling for stronger rent laws.   


Provided below are some details of the new rent law (excerpted from Senator Liz Krueger's recent newsletter).  Also in the left column is a statement from another ally more critical of the renewal law. Despite the differing interpretations however, we all agree that if tenants and working class New Yorkers are to achieve any real strengthening of protections, efforts must increase substantially on a number of fronts.  


In the near term, R3 will be focusing on the New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) to ensure that current laws are being properly enforced. In the longer term progress will only come when a  majority of state representatives in the Senate are more responsive to the housing needs of middle income New Yorkers than the financial contributions coming from the real estate lobby. (Over the past two years Tenant PAC spent 50 thousand dollars to the real estate lobby's $10 million). Key to progress in this regard is the fair redistricting of New York States electoral districts (now under discussion) and the election in November, 2012 of more pro-tenant state senators in these newly drawn districts.   


The Assembly will continue to call on you and others who share our commitment to housing justice as we redouble our efforts to preserve affordable housing in New York City  and beyond.   


Here are the key elements of the new rent law:  

Higher Deregulation Thresholds:  Apartments will now be subject to deregulation only when the rent reaches $2,500 a month, as opposed to $2000 a month as was the case prior to passage of the extension. In addition, the household income threshold for high-income deregulation was increased from $175,000 to $200,000.  Tenants must earn more than this threshold for two consecutive years in order to be subject to deregulation.


Individual Apartment Improvement rent increases:  Landlords frequently use these increases to raise the rent of vacant apartments above the deregulation threshold.  The renewal legislation changed the formula for raising rents from 1/40th of the cost of renovations to 1/60th for buildings with over 35 units; in buildings with 35 or fewer units, the 1/40th rule remains.  There is still no cap on the amount that landlords can increase rents using this loophole.


Vacancy bonus:   Landlords can now claim the automatic 20% rent hike only once per year when apartments become vacant.  Under the previous law, there was no limit as to how many vacancy bonuses a landlord could get in one year.


Enforcement:   The new law requires New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR), the state agency in charge of administering the rent-regulation system, to "promulgate rules and regulations to implement and enforce all provisions of this act."  Given the limited nature of the legislative reforms, I will be working to ensure that HCR uses this language to be much more aggressive in exercising its regulatory authority than it has been in the past.


Senator Krueger's newsletter continues... "Despite these minor improvements, much needed reform was left undone.  Among the key provisions that I was fighting for that were not included were: repealing vacancy decontrol; making Major Capital Improvement increases temporary; extending rent regulation to buildings leaving the Section 8 and Mitchell-Lama programs; preventing owners from raising preferential rents to legal regulated rents upon lease renewal; restoring local control over New York City housing laws by repealing the Urstadt Law; giving the New York City Council oversight over the Mayor's appointments to the Rent Guidelines Board and changing the composition of the board; and eliminating the Maximum Base Rent and Maximum Collectible Rent system and instead having the Rent Guidelines Board determine increases for rent controlled tenants.


While I wish we had accomplished more I am pleased that the laws were extended without any weakening amendments for the first time in 18 years, and with minor changes favoring renters.  I consider this a down payment on future efforts to strengthen rent regulation and protect affordable housing in New York City".


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